Thinking Abstract(ly)

Let’s take a minute to see our world differently. 

It’s pretty easy for us photographers to get caught up in our chosen styles. We often identify as “landscapers,” or “wildlife photographers,” and some of us might say we do a “little of both.” Certainly, there is nothing wrong with focusing on what we love. This is how we hone our craft. This is how we make strides and get better and better. 

Meanwhile, trying other styles, like abstract photography, can offer us additional ways to further our artistic expression. Abstract photography is an exceptionally creative style of photography. What’s even better, is that this style can be practiced from nearly anywhere, making it perfect to get out and try right now as many of us have a bit more time on our hands, and aren’t venturing too far from home. Abstract photography is somewhat difficult to define because it is an art form that allows for a LOT of creativity while not holding steadfast to much in the way of “rules.” But, let’s do our best to apply some sort of definition so we know where to begin. 

Abstraction occurs when a photographer captures a portion of a specific scene, isolating it from its contextual environment utilizing things like color, shape, form, or texture to create a unique perception of an otherwise familiar object. 

Say you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood and you spot a rusty old car parked along the road. This car is a true beauty and thoughts race on how you might compose this car in an image. Maybe you could come back at ‘golden hour,’ or sunset, and you could plan to shoot it when some weather is moving in so as to add some glorious clouds into the colorful softly lit sky behind the cool car. There is certainly nothing wrong with this traditional approach to a nice subject. This is actually a great way to look at things as a photographer.

Perhaps this time, though, get a bit closer and find a different perspective by looking at the car differently. Look for visual interest in the form of lines, color, shapes and/or texture. Textures can be really key as they aid the viewer in moving their eyes across the image and make your overall composition more dynamic. 

Ok, now what? We’ll not refer to the following as “rules,” because we’ve already decided this style of photography has no rules and is too creative to worry about such a thing. Still, there do exist a handful of considerations you’ll likely want to pay attention to if you’d like to create an image with impact. 

Use light to emphasize and dramatize your subject. The same scene could have a very different impact under differing lighting conditions so it is important to shoot the scene intentionally with your intended outcome in mind. Sound familiar? 

Make a singular statement by subtracting all distractions. The outcome will be a more simple and clean image. Simplicity is especially important with an abstract because in separating your scene from what makes it recognizable, everything that is in the image needs to make an impact. 

Don’t forget, while reveling in all of this creative fun, that you’ll still need to consider your composition. Ok, so maybe there is one “rule.” Rule #1: Never ever neglect composition. Kidding aside, use elements of design to your advantage when possible. How are you framing patterns, shapes, and colors? How might you alter your angle to take advantage of lines? 

Have you ever moved your camera at the moment you take the shot? Here is your chance! By doing so, you create a mix of different colors, lines, and patterns. This is a really fun way to create abstracts of Aspen trees (see example above). Have fun with this, try it a bunch! See what is possible and what sorts of patterns and interest you can create. Use slower shutter speed to capture this motion blur. 

The distance from your subject that you choose to shoot is a variable to definitely play around with. Something that you can play around with. Distort reality by moving away. Details come alive when shot from up close, some that may not have been as apparent from a normal distance. Maybe start with 1/10th of a second and then adjust from there.

This brings us to a point that shouldn’t be overlooked. While on your quest to find abstract opportunities don’t be afraid to utilize your macro lens if you have one. With abstracts a lot of the time the desire is to move closer. You can do this with a telephoto lens, or with a macro. A macro lens will help magnify tiny objects and details that can enhance abstraction in your image without zooming or cropping, keeping the sharpness of your image without losing any resolution. 

Post-processing offers another chance to get more creative than normal. Work freely with colors, cropping, rotating, and distorting things to whatever makes the impact you’re seeking. Just play. Photography is fun!  

Looking for abstracts does not have to be limited to your front yard, neighborhood, or even to this time of our lives being stuck at home. Don’t be shy about keeping this newfound skill with you when shooting other styles. While landscape photographers are typically consumed with “the view,” they would be wise to also look for potential abstracts while out in the field. For example: while shooting at Bryce Canyon when on Backcountry Journeys’ Canyons of Utah: Zion & Bryce trip, the intended shot is of the vast amphitheater of rock hoodoos down below, set aglow by the soft light of golden hour. Yet, perhaps there is an abstract down in that collection of oddball and mysterious shapes, shadows and colors?  Maybe if you reach for that telephoto lens and zoom in on a particular portion of the rock hoodoos you’ll find some magic. A fantastic abstract can always be there, you just have to look for one.  

Abstract photography offers a chance to try something new and get inspired. There really aren’t many rules to follow except to be creative and have fun! So why not head out (or, just look around your living room) and find everyday objects to get started. Look with a creative and open mind while out on your next walk. Look at objects in your own home, yet try to do so in a different way. Heck, break some of those traditional “rules.” Shoot out of focus. Rotate your image. Try some crazy angles. Those of you who despise tripods and are sick of your BCJ (landscape) photo guides forcing you to use one, here’s an opportunity to kick it to the curb – or use it, your choice. Keep in mind the elements (listed above) that can help you create good images. Don’t be afraid to overly manipulate your images in post-processing and create some art.

If you’ve read this far, likely you are still interested in giving abstract photography a try. If you do, we’d LOVE to see the results posted on the Backcountry Journeys Tribe Facebook page. So, lets dust off those cameras, get inspired, get creative, and get out there! Abstract photography is often viewed as being more emotional than other forms of photography, providing the practitioner with a break from the world as he/she takes time to look at the world differently. Sound good right about now?

Kenton Krueger








Kenton Krueger grew up and spent the first 33 years of his life in the corn country of Omaha, Nebraska. After studying aviation at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Aviation Institute, he “conned” his way into the newsroom at the award-winning Omaha World-Herald where for 3+ years he wrote and photographed news articles on a variety of topics such as community events, travel and even mixed martial arts for the sports department. Yet something was missing. While on backpacking trips to Grand Teton and Grand Canyon National Parks in the mid-2000’s he was quick to realize that the wildlands of the western United States stoked a fire in his heart as nothing else could. This realization led to relocation to Flagstaff, Arizona, and he hasn’t looked back. He has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, newspaper photographer, and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.

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