Abstract thinking is the key to making artistic photographs. In this article, pro photographer Ian Plant explains how to train yourself to see potential photo subjects as abstract visual elements, illustrated by several photos taken while photographing in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. At the end of the article, Ian appears in a video showing his artistic process in the field while photographing fall color and waterfalls along the Presque Isle River, and for PRO subscribers only, another video showing how he brings his photos to life in the digital darkroom.
Abstract thinking allowed me to capture this photo. I knew I needed an interesting shape to bring the composition together, so I flew my drone until I found this dynamic s-curve in the stream below and made it the central feature of my design. DJI Mavic 3 drone, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/80 second.
We all know the familiar world which we see and experience in our daily lives, chocked full of cars and strip malls and fast food restaurants, a literal world where a tree is a tree and a rock is a rock. But there’s also a second world, one that you can only see if you learn to look with your “other eyes” as a photographer: a world where a tree is not a tree and a rock is not a rock. I’m not talking about some cryptic mystical philosophy; instead, I’m talking about the power of abstract thinking.
I made this intimate photo of cliffs stained by water seeping through mineral deposits along the Pictured Rocks shore of Lake Superior. I zoomed in tight to capture the abstract pattern formed by the shapes and the colors. Sony a7IV, Tamron 35-150mm lens, ISO 320, f/8, 1/200 second.
Minor White once famously said: “One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” This isn’t just mumbo jumbo. What White was getting at here is learning to think in the abstract—learning to see past the superficial outer appearance of an object by taking a deeper look.
This aerial photo is a study in shape (with the circle formed by the pond being the prominent shape of this composition) and color contrast (the warm hues of autumn juxtaposed with the blue sky reflected in the pond). DJI Mavic 3 drone, ISO 200, f/4, 1/30 second.
But what does it mean to “think in the abstract” about objects? On one level, it means thinking about your subjects not in terms of waterfalls, mountains, and trees, but rather in terms of shapes, color, and luminosity value (bright or dark). This is a vital first step towards improving one’s composition skills. So, for example, a tree becomes a vertical line, a mountain becomes a triangle, and so on.
This photo is an abstract study of the pattern of the pine trunks (forming repeating vertical lines), and the break of the pattern created by the bright red tree. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 35-150mm lens, ISO 1600, f/11, 1/8 second.
On another level, thinking in the abstract means seeing past the mere literal manifestation of your subject, in order to reveal that which is hidden from casual observation. A photographer’s job is to see the world as others do not, and to find a way to capture that vision to share with others. Part of this is finding a way to tell your subject’s story, and waiting for the moment when something revealing or poignant happens.
I made this photo along the Presque Isle River. You can learn more about my approach to making photos like this in the video below. Sony a7RIV, Tamron 35-150mm lens, ISO 50, f/16, 1/4 second.
Learning to think abstractly is one of the most important things you can do to improve your photography. Abstract thinking helps unlock the doors of creative artistic expression. All you have to do is to learn to see things not only for what they are, but for what else they are. The next time you are making photos, try to assess objects in terms of their shape and color, and the stories they might tell to viewers. Learning to put abstract elements together in a pleasing way is the key to successfully turning mere snapshots into art.
Presque Isle River photo shoot video
In this video, I take you along with me while on a photo shoot along the Presque Isle River, located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I discuss a few of my favorite techniques for making successful waterfall photographs.
In this next video, available to PRO subscribers only, I take my waterfall photos into the digital darkroom. In this video, I discuss how to replicate the "polarized" look for those occasions when you have left your polarizer behind. A PRO subscription takes a deeper look at how compelling photos are made, and unlocks access to this video as well as a number of my other courses and tutorials.