Shoot differently: abstract photography tips

Hit the streets to capture amazing abstract visuals, intangible details and surreal double exposures with your Canon camera.
A city street with multiple exposures, creating a blurred, repeating effect.

An abstract image is one that, at first glance, bears no relation to anything in the real world. By creating images that have a loose connection with reality, we can express an idea or emotion that is detached from everyday objects and scenes. We're often told that photos should be sharp, straight and in-focus, but with abstract photography, we can break these rules as we see fit. This gives photographers tremendous freedom to engage the viewer on a deeper level while exploring fascinating visuals and experimenting with camera technique.

The abstract theme goes hand in hand with street and documentary photography. Street environments are full of details, geometry and motion that, with a few camera skills, can be observed and captured in a conceptual way, uncovering hidden delights in even the most mundane and familiar scenes.

Not only can the abstract approach offer a fresh angle on iconic landmarks and much-snapped buildings, but it also lets us convey a vivid impression of the urban environment around us, whether that be one of vibrant activity or melancholic discord. So why not grab your camera and take a walk around town with an eye for the abstract? You never know what you'll come back with.

1. Capture camera blur

A man tilting his Canon camera up and down very quickly.

An up-down camera movement combined with a 1/15 sec exposure length will transform an everyday street scene into a beautiful blur.

Camera shake is usually something photographers want to avoid, but intentional motion during the exposure can lead to striking street abstracts, and it's a wonderful way to convey a sense of place.

The key is to set a shutter speed that is slow enough to create blur, but fast enough to leave the impression of people and shapes. Try setting your camera to Shutter Priority (Tv) mode with a shutter speed of 1/15 sec. Set your camera's light sensitivity to ISO100 as a starting point, adjusting it based on the level of ambient light in your surroundings until you have an exposure you're happy with. Then, as you press the shutter button, make a short, sharp movement with the camera. An up-down motion works well for scenes that include people, as it preserves the form of the figures, but you could also try a sideways movement, a sharp rotation, a quick zoom.

In Shutter Priority (Tv) mode you can also simply set your ISO to auto – available on most cameras – which allows you to concentrate solely on the shutter speed.

2. Expose for the highlights

A shot taken in an underpass showing the light peeking through onto a graffitied wall.

When creating abstract imagery, it can be helpful to shoot areas of bright or contrasting lighting and colour – this contrast makes it easier to see the world as a series of shapes. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 39mm, 1/160 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

An LCD screen where someone is lowering the exposure on their camera to produce a darker image.

Engage exposure compensation and lower the exposure by a stop or two, to expose for the highlights on bright sunny days. Be aware that in order to do this you must be using automated exposure settings such as Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Automatic ISO.

Photographers will often avoid shooting in direct sunlight during the day because it creates bold contrast with deep shadows. But when it comes to street photography, this contrast can allow you to simplify busy scenes, turning them into striking abstract shapes. When you expose for the highlights, the shadows in your images will become almost sheer black, forming shapes without detail.

The easiest way to do this is to use Exposure Compensation. Simply dial the exposure down by a stop or two to darken down the scene so that the shadows become deep and the parts of the scene in bright sunlight remain bold.

3. Shoot double exposures

A double exposure of one city skyline mapped onto another, which is upside down.

When in multiple exposure mode, the camera LCD screen gives a live preview of the blended image as you take the shot, which makes it easy to compose your second exposure so that it works in harmony with the first. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 55mm, 1/160 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100.

An upside-down LCD screen on a Canon camera showing a double exposure of buildings seemingly suspended in the sky.

By turning the camera upside down for the second frame of a double exposure, you can create surreal cityscapes.

Popular since the 1800s, a double exposure lets you overlay one image on top of another for striking results. The Canon EOS 90D and many of the other new cameras offer a dedicated multiple exposure mode that lets you create the effect as you shoot. Simply enable the mode, set your desired number of exposures, and start shooting. Helpfully, when Live View is engaged the screen gives you a preview of the effect as you take the second frame (or third, or fourth – the mode allows up to nine), so you can adjust your shot for the most interesting blend.

When seeking out subjects and scenes for your double exposures, keep in mind that lighter areas will only stay the same or get brighter, never darker. This means darker buildings and shapes against a light backdrop like the sky can result in bold images.

4. Overlay multiple frames

A black and white multiple exposure of a skyscraper.

When making multi-frame images you can choose either the Additive or Average mode. Additive overlays the brighter areas on top of one another, while Average helps to prevent areas becoming blown out. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 21mm, 1/640 sec, f/11 and ISO100.

An overlaid shot of a mirrored London skyline.

When overlaying multiple frames, try mirroring your shot like this image, creating an abstract skyline. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 47mm, 1/250 sec, f/9 and ISO100.

Why stop at a double exposure? The multiple exposure mode available on cameras such as the Canon EOS 90D and Canon EOS RP lets you shoot and blend a whole series of frames into one atmospheric image. For an eye-catching architectural image, try setting five frames and shooting a building, all the while making slight variations to your viewpoint or lens zoom. The frames will be overlaid as you shoot, resulting in a striking multiple exposure effect.

5. Pick out details

One of the great joys of street photography is the sheer variety of interesting details that are all around, from abstract architectural lines to colourful signs, textures, typography and reflections. Often the best abstract photos have simple compositions. By targeting one or two details and excluding everything else, you can create beautiful photos that hint at the wider environment around them. Images like this can make for wonderful wall art too, so why not print out your favourites?

6. Play with shadow

A stairwell in deep shadow, with only small portions of each step visible.

With a little creative thinking, the shadows cast by a stairwell can create a bold abstract image. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 21mm, 1/250 sec, f/10 and ISO250.

A black and white image of a concrete building, shot from below, creating geometric shapes with shadow.

Focusing on capturing shadows and silhouettes is a simple way of making your images appear more abstract. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 31mm, 1/250 sec, f/8 and ISO100.

When the sun is low in the sky, the shadows on the street will lengthen, and this can be a great time to shoot abstract shadow shapes. Seek out shadows that fall in interesting angular shapes across the street, and look to include those cast by people and buildings. Try exposing for the highlights, as described in tip 2, to simplify the image so that darker areas are reduced to black.

Abstract photography offers a freedom that few other genres can match, and it's a great way to explore your camera's creative controls and settings without feeling constrained by the usual rules of photography. There are no rights or wrongs, just endless opportunities for evocative abstract photographs.

Written by James Paterson

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