Details in the landscape can be just as rewarding to shoot as sweeping vistas. Lee Frost gives his top tips for stunning abstract landscape images.
Generally, when we think about landscape photography, the images we conjure up are of sweeping views; photographs on a grand scale that capture the immensity and beauty of the countryside.
But what of the landscape at your feet? What of the many patterns, textures and details in nature; the small-scale subjects that make up the very scenes we try so desperately hard to photograph? They too can be the source of fascinating images and, unlike the grand view, they provide much more scope for personal interpretation because no one else is likely to see them in quite the same way – if they see them at all.
Famous vistas around the world have been photographed many times before, so it’s hard to shoot them yourself without thinking of the images you’ve already seen, and often what you end up with is no different or better or more creative than anything else.
With details in the landscape, this is never the case because you wouldn’t travel to a location specifically to photograph an arrangement of rocks or a particular tree, and if you did, chances are you would never find it anyway.
The images you end up with are therefore unique because they can never be planned – you don’t know what you’ll find until you’re there, and the chance of another photographer producing an image just like yours is slim! Below I give you my top tips for abstract landscapes to inspire you to create your own.
Tip 1 Remove any sense of scale
Excluding a sense of scale from your images will force the viewer to imagine it, and this can lead to fascinating interpretations. A close-up of patterns in a small rock may appear like an aerial photograph; ripples on a sandy beach look like a vast desert; a trickle in a river could be a towering waterfall cascading over cliffs. Clearly, your intention isn’t to fool anyone, but by removing a sense of scale from compositions, that’s what can happen, and it makes those images more interesting as they force viewers to take a closer look to fathom what’s going on – they challenge our sense of familiarity.
Tip 2 Forget about the horizon
The first step in focusing your vision on smaller aspects of the landscape is by excluding horizons. Including the horizon in a photo immediately defines it as a vista, as it suggests open space, and all sense of intimacy is lost. Once the horizon is gone, so is that sense of space. Instead you’re concentrating on the view. That’s the great thing about shooting the landscape on a smaller scale. One minute you can be capturing an area of many square metres; the next on your hands and knees composing a detail a few centimetres in size.
Tip 3 Get the light right
All types of natural daylight suit abstract landscapes. I favour the softer light of bright overcast weather, as low contrast makes it easier to capture fine details and subtle colours. That said, bright sunlight can work well, too, and the stronger shadows it casts are ideal for revealing texture or simply adding to the abstract appeal of the image.
Tip 4 Keep it simple
When composing an image, think carefully about what you include and exclude. Adopt a ‘less is more’ approach and go for simplicity rather than filling the frame with clutter. The final image needs to be immediately eye-catching and arresting, otherwise it won’t hold the viewer’s attention.
Tip 5 Do a little gardening
If you’re not totally happy with the natural arrangement of elements in a shot, don’t be afraid to do a little tidying up to improve the composition. Remove items that don’t serve a purpose. Add items if there’s not enough going on. Splash water over dry rocks if they look better wet. Use a brush to remove debris such as sand on rocks (I always carry a small paintbrush for this purpose).
Tip 6 Make the most of mono
By converting your images to black & white, far more emphasis can be placed on the patterns and textures in a subject or scene. It’s often possible to reveal powerful patterns that weren’t obvious, because the colour provided too much of a distraction. Black & white reduces everything to a bare minimum and reveals the bones of a scene. Lines, shapes and the play of light and shade become far more important, and the viewer finds a photograph is appealing because of the visual strength created by the elements within it.
Tip 7 Beside the seaside
The coastline is especially rewarding for details. You could spend days exploring beaches, photographing pebbles, shells, sand ripples, the patterns and shapes in rocks, driftwood and seaweed. Intertidal zones are especially interesting because they’re in a constant state of flux and every time the tide recedes you never know what surprises it will reveal. One thing’s for certain though – there will be surprises!
Tip 8 Go graphic
Some landscapes just lend themselves to the abstract treatment. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to produce bold, graphic images. Deserts are a good example – vivid orange sand dunes against blue sky are irresistible. Rocky landscapes like the type you find in places such as Utah and Arizona are the same. Use a polariser to deepen the blue sky and saturate the colours in the landscape, and try to keep the composition nice and simple. Dark shadows can be a welcome addition, revealing texture in the landscape as well as enhancing the graphic feel of the scene.
Tip 9 Change your view
Shooting from different viewpoints and angles can make a big difference to the look of the final image. Get higher up and look straight down on your subject matter, or get lower down so you’re physically closer to it. Experiment with tilting the camera to unusual angles – the more you move away from convention, the more abstract the shots will be.
Tip 10 Move the camera
Try panning the camera during exposure. In woodland or gardens pan vertically and trip the shutter as you’re panning. Try shutter speeds from 1/30sec to 1/2sec – the slower the shutter speed and the faster the pan, the more blur you’ll get. By the sea, pan left to right, and the beach, sea and sky turn into horizontal streaks of colour.
Tip 12 Reflections in water
Lakes, lochs, tarns, pools – the British landscape is full of water, thanks to all the rain we get! When that water calms you get a perfect mirror image of the landscape, but ruffle the surface and abstract patterns in colour are created. Either way, use a telezoom lens to home in on interesting areas and focus on the reflection rather than the water’s surface. Ideally, shoot in sunny weather when the light is strong and colours are well saturated.
Tip 13 Ice and easy
Winter may be behind us for a few months now, but once the mercury starts to plummet later in the year, why not explore the landscape in search of icy details? Frozen lakes, ponds, river and waterfalls are all worth checking out, and if you move in close, you can capture amazing patterns, especially if there has been some freeze/thaw action going on.
Tip 14 Improve during editing
If needed, images can be improved in post-production. Cropping allows you to remove unwanted elements and simplify the composition. Square crops change the balance and feel of an image compared to the normal 3:2 ratio – they have a more ‘fine art’ look. Where the colours are naturally subdued, try boosting vibrance.