5 Tips on Photographing Abstract Subjects in Nature

Note: If you would like to learn more about taking the kinds of photos included in this post, you may be interested in our e-book, Beyond the Grand Landscape

 Caption: This photo is a good example of a very abstract rendition of a natural subject. The subject and scale are both difficult to discern. Is this photo of water, ice, sand, mud, or something else? What is the scale? Are these large sand dunes or tiny ripples? Answer is at the bottom of the post. 

Caption: This photo is a good example of a very abstract rendition of a natural subject. The subject and scale are both difficult to discern. Is this photo of water, ice, sand, mud, or something else? What is the scale? Are these large sand dunes or tiny ripples? Answer is at the bottom of the post. 

When thinking about nature photography, many people instantly think of postcard-style scenes: grand landscapes under colorful skies. From my perspective, however, nature photography can be a much more expansive pursuit when considering the opportunities available with smaller scenes, including abstract renditions of natural subjects. In this article, I share some tips on learning to create abstract photographs along a continuum, from photos with abstract concepts that amplify an obvious subject to fully abstract photographs in which the scale and subject are difficult to discern.

 Caption: This subject might be a little more obvious. Ice - right? Actually, these are evaporation patterns in a salt flat in Death Valley National Park. I took this photo at twilight, which added the blue cast. I like that the blue cast guides a viewer toward ice instead of salt, and thus this photo is a bit more of a surprise in a portfolio of Death Valley National Park. 

Caption: This subject might be a little more obvious. Ice - right? Actually, these are evaporation patterns in a salt flat in Death Valley National Park. I took this photo at twilight, which added the blue cast. I like that the blue cast guides a viewer toward ice instead of salt, and thus this photo is a bit more of a surprise in a portfolio of Death Valley National Park. 

#1: Let’s Start with a (Flexible) Definition

I have noticed a trend in online photography discussions recently. Any subject isolated with a telephoto lens is referred to as an “abstract” photograph. While some photographs taken with a telephoto lens are indeed abstract renditions of natural subjects, this definition doesn’t work for all such photographs. I am not a fan of “rules” being applied to creative pursuits and acknowledge that any definition related to art is by its very nature flexible. However, in this case, I do think it is important to carefully use certain words. “Abstract” is one of those words.

When creating a photograph in nature, there is always a literal subject (or multiple subjects in many cases) – trees, rocks, waves, leaves, mountains, sand dunes, mud, flowers, reflections, ripples, and many others. These subjects have other qualities that are less literal and more abstract – think of qualities like pattern, order, chaos, texture, shape, scale, color, spacing, repetition, balance, and dominance. Light and other elements, like seasonal changes and atmospheric conditions, can dramatically change both the literal and abstract qualities of many subjects.

The abstract qualities of a nature photograph can fall across a wide spectrum, from subtle abstract qualities where the literal subjects are still quite clear to the viewer to a fully abstract rendition of a natural subject in which the viewer has to deeply consider what they are seeing and in some cases may be unable to identify the subject at hand. When creating my own photographs, I seek opportunities across this spectrum. For example, cactus plants are clearly the subject of one photograph in this post. In this case, the abstract qualities come from the repeating patterns in the plants, the green lines throughout, and how light hits the scene. The scale is pretty clear since the subject is familiar. Some of the other examples in this post are more abstract. The subject matter is harder to discern. With no obvious sense of scale, it is hard to tell if the subject is very small or very large.

 Caption: While the subject of this photo is somewhat clear (a close-up of an organ pipe cactus), it has some abstract qualities and the scale is difficult to discern (this subject is quite small - maybe three inches across). Looking beyond the literal subject (the cactus) to qualities like radiating lines, shapes, and repetition is essential when learning to see abstract qualities in nature.

Caption: While the subject of this photo is somewhat clear (a close-up of an organ pipe cactus), it has some abstract qualities and the scale is difficult to discern (this subject is quite small - maybe three inches across). Looking beyond the literal subject (the cactus) to qualities like radiating lines, shapes, and repetition is essential when learning to see abstract qualities in nature.

#2: Learn to Look Beyond the Literal

One of the most important steps in being able to create abstract renditions of natural subjects is to begin seeing beyond the literal subjects you are photographing.

Each of the photos included with this article features quite literal subjects – natural subjects like a cactus. Beyond the literal subjects, each photo also presents other more abstract qualities like curves, lines, repetition, patterns, and textures. All of these abstract qualities provide elements that can be used to creatively craft a photographic composition. Instead of just seeing trees, a photographer can now see trees plus the more abstract concepts of patterns and lines. This lesson is the first step in learning how to see abstract concepts and infuse them into your photography.

Identifying-Abstract-Qualities-1000px-2.jpg

In the example above, the shallow depth of field helps add an abstract quality to this photograph by significantly softening the details. This photo relies on repetition and radiating lines for the composition. The orange parts of the plant repeat and radiate out from the center (emphasized in purple on the right). Additionally, the more circular structures, emphasized in blue, repeat around the edges of the frame. The background color, a soft green-blue hue, also repeats between the circular structures and the orange tentacle-like, flowing lines. 

When I am in the field, I informally go through this kind of exercise and work on seeing both the literal and more abstract qualities within the subjects that surround me. This thought-process can be very helpful in identifying abstract qualities that can either help with composition or create a subject for a photograph. 

 Caption: Example for Observing and Distilling, below. 

Caption: Example for Observing and Distilling, below. 

#3: Learn to Observe and Distill

One of the best ways to learn to see beyond the literal is to build your observational skills and learn to distill a scene. For example, when I arrive to at a place to take photos, I almost never immediately reach for my camera. Instead, I take time to study the place I am visiting. I look at the scene overall and then work on distilling it into smaller pieces and abstract qualities. All of the things I am observing help me come up with ideas for photographs and compositions. 

We can use the expansive grand landscape above as an example. Take some time to distill this photograph and look for smaller subjects and abstract qualities. Some examples:

  • The patterns and reflections in the ice on the pond
  • The reflections on the open water of the pond, which become more abstract with a breeze or strong wind
  • Patterns and textures in the snow-covered grasses
  • Repeating patterns and textures in the snowy trees
  • Repeating lines in the aspen trunks
  • The colorful mix between the snowy pines and the colorful aspens on the right hillside.

Going through this process of distilling a grand scene into many smaller scenes and abstract concepts can help open up opportunities for photography in general and creat abstract photographs of natural subjects specifically.

 Saguaro and Organ Pipe Cactus in Arizona. Here, the subject is obvious: cactus plants. This photo relies on abstract qualities for the composition, including repetition, lines, and light. Since completely abstract subjects can be harder to identify, starting by looking for abstract qualities and using them in your composition can be a good place to start. 

Saguaro and Organ Pipe Cactus in Arizona. Here, the subject is obvious: cactus plants. This photo relies on abstract qualities for the composition, including repetition, lines, and light. Since completely abstract subjects can be harder to identify, starting by looking for abstract qualities and using them in your composition can be a good place to start. 

#4: Start by Seeking Out Patterns, Textures, and Shapes

If you would like to start creating abstract renditions of natural subjects through photography, a good place to start is looking for patterns, textures, and shapes in nature. As I described before, I think about abstractions as being along a continuum. Some photos have abstract qualities that can serve as a basis for a composition. Other photos are much more abstract in nature, with the subject and scale difficult to discern for the viewer.

It can be easier to see photos on the earlier side of this continuum, like the example above in which the subject and scale are pretty obvious (repeating cacti). In this case, this photo has abstract qualities like repetition that creates a pattern. The cactus plants have distinct shapes, which the rim lighting accentuates. These abstract qualities help the composition come together. For the other more abstract photos in this post, the same qualities are often present. Take the photo below, which is much more abstract in nature than the cactus photo above. Here, the repeating circles and tube-shapes in the bubbles help create the composition but the subject matter and scale are more difficult to discern. 

 This photo of bubbles in an iceberg in Iceland show the importance of observing and looking for details in your surroundings. The scale of this photo is very small. Thus, it is easy to walk by a lot of potential subjects if you are not actively looking for them. 

This photo of bubbles in an iceberg in Iceland show the importance of observing and looking for details in your surroundings. The scale of this photo is very small. Thus, it is easy to walk by a lot of potential subjects if you are not actively looking for them. 

#5: Consider Subjects Large and Small Under All Different Kinds of Light

Subjects of all sizes can have abstract qualities that work in a photograph, as you will see in the examples below. Some of the best abstract photographs of natural subjects succeed in part because the scale is difficult to discern. When a viewer cannot tell if a subject is large or small, a sense of wonder is infused into the viewing experience. Thus, be sure to look for opportunities in all kinds of landscapes and of all kinds of subjects. In the examples below, the smallest subject is only a few inches across and the largest subject is more than a mile wide. 

Additionally, the photos in this post were taken under all different kinds of lighting scenarios. Just as a grand landscape will look different at different times of day, so will subjects for abstract photographs. A few examples: 

  • Soft light can help even out contrast. Most of the photos in the example below were taken under soft light at different times of the day. Soft, even light near sunrise or sunset will typically bring out warmer colors in your subject whereas soft light at twilight will bring out cooler colors. 
  • Backlighting, which occurs when a light source like the sun is behind your subject, can create a dramatic effect and add strong contrast to a scene. The first photo in this post is a good example of this effect. The light on the edges creates contrast and adds interest. 
  • Direct light can also work well, often emphasizing contrasts. Although I do not include any of my black and white photos in this post, strong direct light can work well for such scenes. You can see a gallery of examples here (the sand dune and badland photos were photographed under direct light, for example). 

Caption: Examples of abstract subjects found in nature - click to enlarge.

Examples

This exercise will help you in learning to identify abstract qualities and potential subjects in nature. The sixteen photos above range from obvious subjects with abstract qualities to abstract renditions in which the subject and scale are difficult to discern. Before looking at the key below, consider each photo and see if you can:

  • Identify the literal subject matter
  • Identify the abstract qualities in the photograph and think about where the photo falls along the abstract continuum (obvious subject with abstract qualities to a more fully abstract photograph)
  • Approximate the scale of the subjects.

From left to right, starting in the top left corner:

  • #1: Bare alder trees in winter 
  • #2: Flowing water in a large section of the Gulfoss waterfall in Iceland
  • #3: Layers of white sand at White Sands National Monument
  • #4: Warm light on mud tiles on a playa in Oregon
  • #5: A large section of a canyon wall in Death Valley National Park, glowing from reflected light
  • #6: A close-up view of a yucca plant using shallow depth of field
  • #7: Colorful patterns at the edge of a massive salt flat seen from a viewpoint high above
  • #8: Tiny salt sticks on a salt flat in California
  • #9: Patterns on a small lily pad at a botanical garden
  • #10: Patterns in a small section of ice in Rocky Mountain National Park
  • #11: Tiny bubbles in a sheet of ice in a tidal flat in Iceland
  • #12: A very small section of plant oils found along a river in Utah
  • #13: Repeating leaves on a colorful Japanese maple tree in autumn
  • #14: Sunset light on a mountain which is reflecting on a wet salt flat in California
  • #15: Colorful lichen on a dark rock
  • #16: Bare aspen trees reflecting in a scum-filled pond in Colorado

And, finally, the answer to the photographic riddle at the top of the post... The photo is of wet sand ripples with strong backlighting (adding light on only the edges of the ripples). The scale of the photo covers an area about 3 feet wide. Each individual ripple is about 3 to 6 inches wide. 

With this exercise, I hope you see the breadth of abstract subjects available to photograph in nature - from tiny subjects that you could easily miss to massive elements in a landscape. All it takes to find such subjects is time spent studying the places you visit, learning how to identify abstract qualities, and then using those qualities to create photographs. 

Wrap-Up

You can see some additional example photographs in color here and in black and white here. If you would like to learn more about taking the kinds of photos included in this post, you may be interested in our e-book, Beyond the Grand Landscape

If you have any questions or tips of your own on photographing abstract renditions of natural subjects, please share them in the comments below. Thanks!