Digital SLR Photography

7 black & white abstract techniques to try today

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

Classifying abstract photography requires a broad brush, and there’s no definitive right or wrong when it comes to defining what is and not an ‘abstract’. One view is that abstract photography involves capturing images that are void of, or lack, context in relation to the subject or scene being photographed. What does this mean? Well, imagine zooming in and framing just one part of a large building, and capturing it in such a way that the subject as a whole isn’t immediately recognisable. Without obvious context, i.e. this is a part of a building, it becomes easier to appreciate shapes, lines, angles and textures that might be missed when viewing the building as a whole – that’s an abstract approach.

There are several popular techniques that fall into this category – for example, high-key and low-key images, patterns and textures, silhouettes and compositions focusing on shapes, geometry, lines and angles. In short, any image that offers an alternative or unusual view on a scene could broadly be classified as an abstract photograph. Why not give any of these 7 ideas a go for yourself...

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Zoom In

The phrase ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ springs to mind here. A great trick for helping you to see abstracts in the world around you is to use a telezoom lens to zoom right in on your subject or scene and scan around. As your eye is forced into seeing just a magnified part of the scene, it’s easier to find potential abstract compositions than when faced with the wider picture.

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Look up and down

We’re used to seeing the world straight-on, from head-height. Mix things up and try pointing your lens upward or downward to scan for abstract angles. Looking up works well in cities with steel and glass giants converging above you, whereas looking down reveals textures and patterns in the natural world, such as ripples in the sand or cracks in stone.

Play with exposure

Seek out high- and low-key scenes. Don’t fret about manual mode – use aperture-priority with exposure compensation to dial in positive (brighter) or negative (darker) exposure. High-key scenes contain lots of light tones, whereas low-key scenes display plenty of dark tones – translated into black & white, you can create highly graphic images.

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Go macro

Close-up photography reveals detail that might not have been apparent when viewed at scale. In taking a macro view, focusing on one detail and omitting the rest of the subject, you can create eye-catching abstracts. It’s tempting to leave these in colour, especially with vibrant subjects. But take a risk and try monochrome – it’s perfect for highlighting texture and pattern.

Light and shadow

Bright, sunny days aren’t the best for landscape or portrait photography, but they’re fantastic for black & white abstracts as they inject contrast. Look for scenes split by hard shadows, or shapes being cast on bright walls. Often you can anticipate an image appearing by thinking ahead as the sun moves across the sky. Meter for the highlights and let the rest fall to darkness.

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Repetition and pattern

Repetition and patterns are all around us, if you look carefully. Think ripples on a beach, a mesh fence, a zebra’s coat, windows in a tall building, the shadow of railings cast on the ground, tiles on walls and floors or a reptile’s scaly skin – there’s loads of choice out there! Void of colour, they’re often simplified and reduced down to repeating tones.

Silhouettes

Reducing a subject down to its basic shape with a silhouette is a fantastic way to flex your creativity, and they work well in black & white. Backlighting is essential – frame your subject against a bright background, such as the sky, and meter for the highlights, casting them into shadow. Converting to mono and adjusting contrast emphasises this further.
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