Discover abstract photography part 1: minimalism

By Geoff Harris

There is a lot of interest in abstract photography at the moment, not through any upsurge of interest in more experimental art or the avant garde, but simply because many photographers are keen to try something different.

Think about landscape photography. For the last 10 years or so, there has been an almost ‘by the numbers’ approach, particularly in scenes involving the sea or water; use a long exposure to slow down the waves, include a few boulders in the front of the shot for foreground interest, and make the sky look very dramatic and biblical.

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There is nothing wrong with this rather busy and predictable approach per se, but we all end up with a lot of samey images – and they struggle to stand out in competitions.

So it’s not hard to see why reducing the number of elements in the frame and going for a more minimalist and abstract approach has become increasingly popular; it also ties in with the current interest in more meditative, mindful photography.

Landscape photographer Paul Sanders is an acknowledged master of this kind of minimalistically abstract landscape photography, which is very much about capturing how the photographer feels as much as what they see.

Credit: Paul Sanders

As well as using tried-and-tested techniques to add a more abstract feel to landscapes – setting a very slow shutter speed, for example – Paul will also ask clients on his workshop to photograph a common household object, such as a kettle, in 12 different ways. “Everything you are in contact with has a beauty all of its own,” he explains. “We often wish for more in life, but accepting and celebrating what we have stops you being dissatisfied.”

Credit: Paul Sanders

If you are still struggling to find inspiration, here is another quote from Michael Kenna, an early pioneer of stripped-back, minimalist photography using long-exposure techniques in particular.

"Nothing is ever the same twice because everything is always gone forever, and yet each moment has infinite photographic possibilities.”

In other words, don’t become sidetracked by always trying to photograph the ‘beautiful.’ Even the light falling on your toilet seat in a certain way on a summer’s morning could be worth capturing – it will never happen in quite that way again.

How to get take minimalist abstract photography If you are keen to try a more minimalist style of shooting, here are some ideas.

1) Try long exposures

Although there is a danger that long-exposure minimal seascapes will become another cliché, it’s still fun to try and can expand your creative horizons.

The first job is to find an uncluttered seascape scene – just the beach, the sea, the horizon and possibly a pier or a boat. You can then take the shutter speed right down, well below one second, to achieve a very calm or still look.

As a lot of the available light will be hitting the camera sensor at such slow shutter speeds, you may need a Neutral Density filter to avoid chronic overexposure – the Big or Little Stopper from Lee Filters is a good solution.

2) Look for macro detail

If you look at the latest winners in Close-up Photographer of the Year, you can see how many of the most successful images ‘zoom in’ to bark, insects, moss, plants… the kind of nature that is all around us but often we fail to notice.

Credit: Cathryn Baldock

The patterns of the natural world but can beautiful and fascinating in their own way, and there is a wide choice of keenly priced macro lenses around, particularly from Sigma and Tamron – or, buy used, from a reputable second-hand supplier such as MPB. Your phone may also have a macro/close up mode too.

3) Colours and patterns

If you are more interested in buildings and man-made objects, lots of buildings can provide interesting shapes. Try shooting in black and white in the middle of the day for strong, contrasty scenes, or shoot visually interesting elements such as staircases (particularly the spiral versions).

Pale, muted colours can also look wonderful too, but fundamentally, what makes successful minimalist architectural photography is a keen eye for interesting graphic shapes. Get out there and try it – you can use your phone, as well.

Credit: Glen Homann - Minimalist Photography Awards

The last word goes to the president of the Minimalist Photography Awards, Milad Safabakhsh: ‘As an approach in photography, minimalism or minimalistic photography could be taken by the photographer in all genres. No matter if you are a portrait, architecture, or landscape photographer, minimalist photos are always an option – as long as you have a minimal look toward your surroundings.”

Watch out for part two of our guide to abstract photography soon! Alternatively, if you're looking to take your photography skills to the next level, join Michael Freeman in his online Photography Foundation classroom today!

Michael Freeman, is one of the world's most respected and prolific photography writers and teachers. - Amateur Photographer Magazine

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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