The grand landscapes are beautiful to view and probably the reason you got into landscape photography but the smaller details and intimate scenes can be just as picturesque. Capturing these scenes isn’t only a great way of creating impressive art, it’s also a creative challenge that forces you to think differently.
Abstract landscape photography is a great way to feature these smaller scenes that build up the beautiful vistas we love so much and, perhaps as important, it’s a way for us to slow down and learn to appreciate what we have. It forces us to become more aware and to pay attention to our surroundings.
These no-name landscapes look great on photographs and can be helpful in creating unique and creative work.
So how do you go ahead and create abstract landscape photography? Do you just point the camera at something small and fire away? No. There’s a little more to it. Let’s look at some of the steps or techniques you should be aware of before getting started with this type of photography.
How to Take Better Abstract Photographs
The tips below aren’t intended to be applied all at once but they are ideas and techniques that you should be aware of when going out into the field. Each situation benefits from a different approach but once you spend time outside implementing the various techniques, you’ll quickly learn when to use them.
There are certain elements that are as important for abstract photography as it is for other types of landscape photography too; there’s no getting around the fact that light and composition play an important role. Photographing smaller scenes is often less forgiving as you don’t have that many elements to work with and simply adding a dark atmosphere through post-processing won’t instantly make the image more interesting.
It’s often a little more difficult to photograph these smaller scenes but it’s incredibly rewarding when it works out. If the conditions and situation allows, I highly recommend slowing down and taking the time to properly set up the shot. Try making small adjustments to your perspective, settings, and composition to find the best result.
Now, let’s take a closer look at my top 12 tips for abstract landscape photography:
#1. Identify Details in the Landscape
The first step in capturing more interesting abstract landscape photographs is to teach yourself how to look beyond the grand landscape and single out the smaller details. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the process as it often feels unnatural to move our attention away from the bigger landscape surrounding us.
However, the landscape is built up of so many amazing details and it’s these smaller details that so often make for unique and interesting abstract photos.
Put the camera down and take a minute to observe your surroundings: What stands out? Perhaps there are cracks in the mud or a field of colorful flowers, or perhaps the river flows in a particular way.
In the example above, it was the patches of ice and snow in the mountainside that stood out. The mountain itself is impressive but at the moment I captured the shot, it was these details that caught my attention. I found them to be more interesting than the mountain itself and they resulted in a more different image.
#2. Use a Telezoom Lens
It’s a common misconception that using a macro lens is the only way to shoot abstract landscapes.
This is far from the truth. In reality, you can get stunning images with any focal length.
A telezoom is often my preferred lens when photographing abstract scenes as being able to zoom in (often as much as 500mm) reveals a whole new world that you normally wouldn’t have seen.
In fact, scouting the landscape through the viewfinder with a telezoom lens is extremely helpful when searching for interesting details in the landscape. I’d even go as far as saying it makes abstract photography a lot easier (it’s almost cheating!)
#3. Look for Light and Shadows
Light is important in any genre of photography but there are few other scenarios where light and shadow can have as big of an impact as it does for abstract photography.
Look for scenes that have an interaction between light and shadow; this could be the shadow of a mountain, a hill that’s lit up on one side and dark on the other, a pattern with spots of light or perhaps a shadow landscape with a lone tree that’s in the sun.
#4. Harsh Light is Good
You might already be familiar with the Golden Hour and how the best light for landscape photography is found around the hours when the sun is setting or rising.
This soft light is good for any type of photograph but you shouldn’t restrict yourself to only photograph during those specific hours of the day. In fact, harsh light can be quite good for abstract landscape photography as it often results in good shadows that, combined with some interesting textures, makes for good images.
#5. Use Leading or Repeating Lines
Using leading lines is a well-known compositional technique for landscape photography and it’s one that does well for abstract images too. These lines help guide a viewer through the image, for example by starting in one corner and leading up towards the center.
Finding these lines when creating abstract photography can be slightly more challenging but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still all around us. Look for lines leading through a hillside, a mountain or a river, or perhaps more abstract lines that repeat themselves throughout the image.
#6. Photograph Water
Water is one of the best elements to work with when shooting abstract landscape photography. The reason is that the quickly moving water creates lines and shapes that we aren’t able to see with our naked eyes.
There are several ways of photographing water but one of my favorites is to slow down the shutter speed just enough to capture this motion. Depending on the water’s speed, this can be anywhere between 1/20s to 1 second.
The key is to explore with different exposure times and see how they affect the image. Is it better to use a slower or quicker shutter speed? When do you get the most interesting patterns and shapes? The first image is rarely the best in a situation like this so make sure that you capture several images as the shapes change quickly.
#7. Create Blur by Shooting Through Elements
Scenes often become messy when isolating just a small part of the landscape. It may be obvious what our main subject of the image is but there are still plenty of distracting elements around it trying to steal our attention.
A good example of when you’re dealing with an abundance of distracting elements is when photographing forests and trees; you might single out a tree or branch but there are still more branches, trees and bushes stealing attention from the main subject.
Shooting through an element (either by getting low, taking a few steps back to a bush or holding something in front of the lens) is a good way to eliminate these distractions and emphasize the featured subject. Placing the element close to your lens will blur it enough to remove the distracting parts.
Just make sure that the blurred element doesn’t become too distracting itself. Some trial-and-error is to be expected when photographing through elements.
#8. Remove Distracting Elements
As mentioned, abstract landscape photography can quickly become overwhelming if you include too many elements, which is why the best photographs in this genre tend to be rather minimalistic.
A good practice is to always ask yourself: “Is this an important part of the image?” If the answer is no, then there’s no need for it to be included.
Remove all the elements that don’t add to the image or that can be considered distracting. I know that removing elements from nature isn’t always possible but sometimes it doesn’t take more than a slight change in your perspective.
#9. Use a Slower Shutter Speed
Using a slower shutter speed and implementing the ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) technique is one of my personal favorite techniques when creating abstract photography.
By intentionally tilting or rotating the camera while using a semi-slow shutter speed, you’re able to remove a sense of reality and create an image where the viewer can make their own story about what’s going on.
These types of images can be a lot of fun to work with but they do require a fair bit of trial and error so explore with different shutter speeds, various movements, or tilting the camera at another pace.
#10. Use In-Camera Double Exposures
The in-camera double exposure function is one that many of you might not know about or perhaps never gave a second thought. However, it’s a fun feature to work with if you’re looking to creating something different than regular landscape photography.
Essentially, this technique lets you capture two or more images and blend them together in-camera. You can adjust the settings in order to have more control over how the image is blended and you’re able to change camera settings such as shutter speed, ISO, and aperture between the images.
The example above consists of two images merged together in-camera. The first image was shot facing a wintery forest while the second faced the bushes behind me and was captured using a slightly slower exposure.
#11. Focus Stack for Sharper Results
There’s no getting around the fact that certain areas in your images quickly become soft when focusing on a small part of the landscape. This is especially the case if you’re placing the lens close to the subject or if there’s distance between the elements within your frame.
Take the image below as an example; the layers of ice were no more than a few centimeters apart but due to the compression from the focal length, both the front and rear ice became slightly blurred when focusing on the center. I quite liked that in this case but a three-shot focus stack would’ve been necessary in order to get them all sharp; one image focusing on the first, one on the second and one on the third.
Focus stacking is particularly important when you’re photographing straight down (for example mud cracks or patterns in the rocks). Make sure that you zoom in on the image preview and look at the different parts to see whether it’s sharp all the way through or not. If it’s not, look at where the soft areas are and capture as many images as you need until you’ve got one sharp image of each area.
These images then need to be blended in software such as Photoshop.
#12. Explore the World From a Higher Perspective
Exploring different perspectives is always a good practice for landscape photographers. Sometimes only a small change in perspective can make a huge difference.
This is also the case for abstract photography. Either you achieve a higher perspective by using a drone or by climbing a mountain, there are many possibilities when looking down.
The image below was captured with a long focal length looking back down on a beach from the top of the neighboring mountain. The result is completely different than what it would’ve been standing at the beach and photographing from there.
Another good way to reach a high perspective is by using a drone. In those cases, dropping the camera to shoot straight down will give you a whole new look at the world and can lead to finding many interesting patterns and sceneries. Keep in mind that to get a good drone image you’ll also need to explore the different perspectives; higher isn’t always better!
Abstract landscape photography is a lot of fun and a great way to create unique and creative images but it can also be quite frustrating as you’ve got fewer elements to work with and no grand vista to make the viewer stop and say wow.
Remember that each scenario is different and will benefit from different approaches. You shouldn’t implement all the techniques or tips above at the same time but rather learn to understand when they will be beneficial to use. With time you’ll learn how to read the landscape and, through some trial and error, you’ll be able to quickly set up a great shot.
At the end of the day, the most important factor in creating beautiful abstract images is your own creative vision. You’re the artist and you’re the one telling the story. Only you know if you’ve succeeded in representing the scene such as it was in your mind or not.
About the author: Christian Hoiberg is a full-time landscape photographer who helps aspiring photographers develop the skills needed to capture beautiful and impactful images. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Download Hoiberg’s free guide 30 Tips to Improve Your Landscape Photography and open the doors to your dream life. Hoiberg is also the founder of CaptureLandscapes. You can find more of his work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.