How to Photograph Abstract Impressions of Nature

Fall colours on a lake create abstract photography.

All photos © Robin and Arlene Karpan

Fall colours on a lake create abstract photography.
Fall colours reflected in a lake give the image an impressionistic rather than realistic look.

Photographing abstracts offers us an alternative way of seeing and appreciating the natural world. When we photograph most scenes of nature we usually want to portray them in clear ways so the viewer knows what the subject is about. A tree looks like a tree, a rock looks like a rock, and so on. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Sometimes an abstract interpretation can be an effective way of making a compelling image.

When a painter creates a piece of abstract art it may not have anything to do with reality. Abstract nature photography is a bit different in that we are still photographing the real world, but doing it in such a way that it may not at first be apparent what that reality is. A viewer might look it at and say, “That’s kinda cool, but what the heck is it?”

Slims River Delta in Yukon, Canada is a subject for abstract photography.
Aerial view of the Slims River Delta in Kluane National Park, Yukon

The main reason to do abstract photography is that it’s a lot of fun. It provides the freedom to interpret the scene in innovative ways. The conventional “rules” of photography are out the window. Indeed, abstract photography has no rule book. It’s less about showing a recognizable subject and more about the interplay of shapes, patterns, textures, colours, or light. Here are a few ways to begin.

Mountain slopes in Argentina can be used in abstract photography.
The Serrania de Hornocal in Argentina where the mountain slopes are wildly colourful due to minerals in the limestone and years of erosion. Isolating one part of the scene by using a telephoto lens helps to emphasize the shapes and colour rather than the fact that is a mountain slope.

Get close – but also get far away

In many cases, getting close to a subject is a great way to find interesting patterns, whether it be water spray, the intricate feathers on a bird, frost patterns, or even the details on a single leaf. But don’t overlook isolating a small section of a scene from far away with a telephoto lens. A telephoto lens compresses the perspective, providing a very different look than when you are close.

Using frost on a window pane for abstract photography.
Frost on a window pane, with background reflections at sunset.
Sand dunes in the Great Sand Hills Saskatchewan provide abstract photography possibilities.
Patterns in the dunes in Saskatchewan’s Great Sand Hills. A 300mm lens helped to compress the perspective, giving a view we wouldn’t get up close.

Disguise the scale and context

In most types of photography, we guide the viewer by making it clear what the photo is about. We might even include people in the landscape to give it a sense of scale. For an abstract impression, on the other hand, it might be more interesting to purposely disguise the context and scale.

In the following image, there is little to tell us at first glance what it is and how large a piece of the landscape we’re looking at. A hint is the spot of green in the upper centre which is a small island. This aerial shot shows a half-kilometre or so stretch of the William River in northern Saskatchewan where it flows through the Athabasca Sand Dunes and becomes inundated with sand. Except for the island, everything we’re looking at is below the surface of the water, with different shades showing different depths of sand on the river floor. By cropping out visual clues such as the riverbank, the image becomes more of an impression than a documentary photo.

Abstract patterns along the riverbed of the William River, Saskatchewan.
William River and abstract patterns in the riverbed.

Watch for reflections on water

Water holds a treasure-trove of abstract possibilities. When we take photos of reflections in water, we usually look for calm conditions. But for abstracts, a bit of movement in the water can add to the impressionistic look of the image. That was the case in the opening photo where a light breeze caused slight ripples.

Abstract photography showing waves on the Churchill River, Saskatchewan.
Sunset reflection on a moving river.
Abstract photography of canola reflected in a pond, Saskatchewan.
Canola reflected in a pond.

Emphasize minimalism in the abstract

Many abstracts tend to be minimalistic already in that they eliminate extraneous elements. But we can take things a step further by making the image even more basic and including only the simplest of elements.

The following image is about as minimal as it gets. It shows the top of a brilliant orange sand dune in Namibia against the blue sky. This is another case of not conforming to “rules” such as never placing the horizon line in the centre of the photo. In this case, two equal halves seemed to make sense since the two colours were equally strong and seemed to compete for attention.

Abstract photography with a sand dune against the sky, Namibia.
Dune and sky

Try photographing top-down

Looking straight down often gives us the best chance of concentrating on one part of the scene while eliminating what is around it. Here too, we can do this from close-up, such as looking down on pebbles on the beach or vegetation on the forest floor, or from farther away by using a drone.

Abstract patterns on a rock covered with lichen.
Looking straight down on a rock face covered in lichen.
Abstract patterns from a drone photo showing aspen trees in the fall.
Top-down drone photo of aspen trees in the fall.
Sandbars on a lakeshore are used for abstract photography.
Top-down view of sandbars near the shore of a shallow lake.

Look for shapes and forms

This is less about the subject but more about what it looks like. It could be snow drifts, ridges in sand dunes, shapes of rocks, repetitive patterns – you name it. The following shot is quite simple, essentially snow and water. It’s the interplay of shapes such as the snow-covered round rock and the curved edge of the snow against the water that gives it some interest.

Snow along open water on a lake creates abstract patterns.
Snow-covered lake.
Abstract patterns in layers of sand dunes, Namibia.
Sand dunes in Namibia. Shooting almost straight into the sun, combined with some atmospheric fog, gives the scene a more ethereal look.

Play with focus, shutter speed, and camera movement

One of the biggest differences between conventional nature photography and abstract and impressionistic photography is the attitude towards focus and sharpness. Here we don’t have to be obsessed with getting a tack-sharp image. Indeed, ICM, or Intentional Camera Movement, has a big following among some photographers. Again, there are no rules. Play around with slow shutter speeds or even intentionally moving the camera during a shot to see what happens.

Using motion of a running animal to create abstract photo.
Getting a sharp photo of a running animal usually requires quite a fast shutter speed. But for this image of a running elk, I did the opposite and used a slow shutter speed of 1/15 second, while panning the camera to follow the elk’s movement. Nothing is in focus, but it gives an impression of action.
Creating an abstract photography pattern using flying birds.
Fall migration of snow geese, photographed at 1/13 seconds to show a sense of movement rather than a realistic view of the birds.

Above all, abstract photography is the place to experiment, let your imagination go wild, and have fun with new ideas and approaches.

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