Abstract Photography

Part 4

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow


Abstract Photography Subject Matter -- Continued

This last article in this series takes a look at a subject matter that is rich with opportunities for abstract photography: water.

Flowing Water


Figure 1: Flowing Water

Flowing water provides a wonderful opportunity for abstract images. The first step is to find a proper source of flowing water. Rivers, streams, and creeks work well. One of the most important things to look for in the water is turbulence. It is the turbulence that disrupts the flow of the water and provides interesting patterns that can be turned into abstract images.

Before the actual shooting starts, the white balance of the camera should be set properly. One of the white balance presets or a custom white balance should be used. The Auto white balance is not a good choice, in this case, as it may be inaccurate and cause color shifts in your images. With the white balance presets or a custom white balance, your colors will be much more accurate.

Now comes the fun part – scouting out the water to find turbulence with an interesting pattern. When an interesting area has been found, the camera should be set up on a tripod. A tripod is necessary because a long shutter speed will be required to blur the water and get the abstract effect.

The best shutter speed will vary from one shot to another as the turbulence of the water differs. Consequently, it is best to experiment with various shutter speeds. The best shutter speed will probably be somewhere between about ½ second to 2 seconds. To experiment, just take a shot and review it on the camera’s monitor. Then, make adjustments based on the results.

Flowing water requires a trial and error approach. That means that a lot of shots will, likely, need to be taken in order to get one outstanding image.

Sunset on Water & Sand

Figure 2: Sunset, Wet Sand, & Bird

The light from a colorful sunset can create beautiful abstract opportunities when it reflects off the wet sand of a beach. Of course, the first step is to get to the beach before the sunset and scout out the area.

The ripples formed on the sand as the waves recede back into the ocean create very interesting patterns that provide great opportunities. Turbulence created in the water as it flows around rocks and other obstacles can create great shots. In addition, animals along the beach provide many abstract prospects (see Figure 2)

The proper white balance is critical for this type of shot. The auto white balance option should not be used as this will desaturate the warm tones of the sunset light. The best option is to use the daylight, white balance preset as this will create saturated, warm colors in the images.

To capture the best colors and reflections, it will be necessary to experiment with the angle of the camera to the sand. It may be necessary to get fairly low to capture the light at an angle that creates the deep saturated colors on the sand.

As with a lot of abstract subject matter, shooting the reflections on the wet sand is a trial and error approach. One of the best strategies is to try a lot of different shots and pick the best ones when you are done.

Water Surface

Figure 3: Water Surface

One of the best opportunities for abstract images is the surface of bodies of water (such as ponds, pools, or puddles). The surface reflects the surrounding environment, but it does so in a distorted way. Thus, the result is a kind of abstract reflection of the world around the body of water.

Not any body of water will do. The water can not be too disturbed. A certain degree of calmness is needed or there will be no recognizable reflection. Consequently, mornings are often preferable for this type of shot because the wind is usually calmer in the morning than at other times of the day.

After a suitable body of water has been found, the next step is to find an object around the water that will provide a reflection. Trees are one of the most common objects used to for this purpose. In fact, trees work especially well in autumn in those areas that have fall colors.

The selection of the shutter speed is very important as it controls how the reflection will appear in an image. A long shutter speed (e.g., 1/2 to several seconds) will smooth out any disturbances in the water and produce a more mirror-like reflection (see Figure 3). On the other hand, a fast shutter speed will freeze the disturbances and will create an irregular reflection. Thus, a fast shutter speed works very well for those times when a distorted, extremely abstract reflection is desired.


Figure 4: Reeds

For this opportunity, as in the previous case, a calm body of water is needed. The difference is that this opportunity requires some reeds in the water. Now, there are two things to look for with this opportunity. First, it is necessary to find a group of reeds with an interesting pattern (a group of reeds with a triangular pattern often works well).

Second, the water will probably reflect the sky. So, it is important to pick a time when the sky will provide a good reflection. There are a couple of options here. In some cases, it is desirable to have a pattern of clouds that will reflect in the water. In this case, the more dramatic the clouds, the better the resulting image. In other cases, it is desirable to have a plain reflection with no clouds. The best situation for this is a cloudless morning or afternoon.

When shooting cloudless mornings or afternoons, there are two choices. The first choice is to shoot right after any sunrise colors fade or shortly before the sunset colors start. This will generally create a deep blue reflection. This is great for creating a feeling of calm in an image. The other choice is to shoot when the sunrise or sunset colors are at their peak. This will create a reflection with saturated warm tones of red, yellow, and orange. The result is an image that is more dramatic.


Figure 5: Waves

Waves are a lot of fun to photograph. Not surprisingly, it is necessary to start with a day that has some good wave action. So, it is always a good idea to begin by checking the tide/surf reports before heading to the beach.

Also, it is important to pick the beach carefully. Some beaches have surf that is very clear. This is great for creating wave images. On the other hand, some beaches have surf that is very muddy. These types of beaches are not the best choices for wave photography.

Unless one intends to stand in the surf, a long lens is required. If a really long lens is used, a tripod may be required. In this case, a gimbal head that allows the camera to rotate to track the waves is a big plus. For more moderate telephotos, the camera can be hand held if the shutter speed is adequate to minimize the effects of camera motion.

It is best to set the camera to a continuous shooting mode. This way, a series of images can be captured as the wave moves. The best photo can be chosen after the images have been captured.

Shooting waves is another type of trial and error photography, so it is usually necessary to take many shots in order to get one great image.

Water Drops

Figure 6: Water Drops

Water drops offer a plethora of abstract opportunities. Of course, it is necessary to move in close to the water drops. So, a camera with macro capability is generally required.

When photographing outdoors, overcast days are best for water drop photography as it provides a gentle diffuse light source. In addition, it is best to perform a custom white balance to get the most accurate color.

Since the lens will be so close to the water drops, any movement of the camera will be a problem. Thus, a tripod and shutter release are highly recommended.

In most cases, it is a good idea to use a wide aperture. This will blur the background and remove any distracting elements in the background.

For most water drop photography, it is essential to have something to reflect in the water drop. After all, the reflection is what adds the charm to the water drop image. One option is to shoot in a flower field after a rainstorm. There will be plenty of raindrops as well as flowers that can be used for reflections

Unfortunately, not all reflections are a good thing. Consequently, it is important to check for undesirable reflections. For instance, it is not uncommon for the photographer and the camera equipment to show up as a reflection. When undesirable reflections occur, changing the angle of the camera may solve the problem.


Abstract opportunities are all around us. It is just a matter of developing our photographic vision in order to see them.


Abstract Photography Part 3