What Is Abstract Photography?

The Ultimate Guide To Abstract Photography

Photography, like any form of art, is meant to tell a story. But it isn’t always obvious what that story is. This is what sets abstract photography apart from more conventional styles; you, the buyer, the owner, or the collector are free to decide what it means and how to enjoy it. This makes it a powerful tool for interior design, and abstract wall art can bring a much-needed degree of creativity, intellectualism, and flair to the spaces you inhabit.


The phosphorescent tendrils of a mineral-rich river spray across the mottled canvas of an alluvial plain in southern Iceland. The bright flow cuts through the ancient sands, leaving behind a chaotic impression, like the whorls in a burl of wood. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.

What is Abstract Photography?

Abstract photography, sometimes called non-objective, experimental, conceptual or concrete photography, is a means of depicting a visual image that does not have an immediate association with the object world and that has been created through the use of photographic equipment, processes or materials. An abstract photograph may isolate a fragment of a natural scene in order to remove its inherent context from the viewer, it may be purposely staged to create a seemingly unreal appearance from real objects, or it may involve the use of color, light, shadow, texture, shape and/or form to convey a feeling, sensation or impression. The image may be produced using traditional photographic equipment like a camera, darkroom or computer, or it may be created without using a camera by directly manipulating film, paper or other photographic media, including digital presentations.

There’s no limit to the fascinating and unusual techniques photographers can use to transform their work into something more ambiguous and vague. The photographer’s aim in creating an abstract piece can also vary. Perhaps they wanted to highlight an interesting texture, capture a specific combination of hues, or investigate the interplay of light and shadow. Oftentimes, there is no concrete answer; a photographer will simply be taken with the relation of shapes, elements, and light in a scene and be inspired to share this ineffable combination with others.

The end result, however, is always the same. Pieces are opaque, vague, and inscrutable, but striking, eye-catching, and unique. Their very mystery is what draws people to them.

DragonSkin | Abstract Photography | Aaron Reed

Of all the possible styles that nature photography offers, abstract imagery is my personal favorite to both create and to view. While many photographers today rely on dramatic light, color or subject to garner attention for their work, this type of knee-jerk reaction is typically short lived. Abstract photography relies instead on composition, on strong shapes and lines, subtle variation of tone, complementary colors and contrasts to create a story from what often times can seem simple or even mundane.

When presented with thought, intention and style, abstract photography can give a static two-dimensional image a sense of movement that is difficult to create with any other form of landscape or nature photography. Truly beautiful abstract photography shows a deep level of creativity on the part of the photographer requiring a strong eye for composition and in visual world of photography, nothing could be more important.

Dancing in the Darkness | Abstract Photography | Aaron Reed

Abstraction indicates a departure from reality in depiction of imagery in art. This departure from accurate representation can be slight, partial, or complete. Abstraction exists along a continuum. Even art that aims for verisimilitude of the highest degree can be said to be abstract, at least theoretically, since perfect representation is likely to be exceedingly elusive. Artwork which takes liberties, altering for instance color and form in ways that are conspicuous, can be said to be partially abstract. Total abstraction bears no trace of any reference to anything recognizable. In geometric abstraction, for instance, one is unlikely to find references to naturalistic entities. Figurative art and total abstraction are almost mutually exclusive. But figurative and representational (or realistic) art often contains partial abstraction.

Brushed | Abstract Photography | Aaron Reed

Abstract Nature Photography Prints

When it comes to large format art prints, often times the finished pieces are far larger than the actual scene itself was. The first image on this post, titled DragonSkin, shows a space that was no more than two square feet, however, I have created fine art prints of this image up to nine feet wide. This type of imagery is truly amazing in print, offering beauty, style and a great conversation piece all at the same time.

People and spaces engage differently with abstract art than they do with more classical styles. There are no landscapes, people, or household objects to create a narrative with, so viewers are driven to make up their own. Nebulous similarities and associations must be probed to elucidate any sort of meaning or sense of place or location. Maybe it looks like the ripples in a pond or the texture of a large stone; perhaps it resembles an endless forest seen from above.

Abstract photography
is more stimulating than many other forms and styles because one has to tap into their own creative faculties. Whether you’re trying to figure out what it is or just what it looks like, you’re putting a lot more effort into understanding it than you would with an ordinary piece. This can make a work of abstract wall art both the visual and intellectual focal point of a room.

What’s more, no explanation will ever be final. Abstract works are open to continuous reinterpretation by you and any friends, guests, or relatives who see it. Possessing an abstract work over time is like owning many different works or one which changes with the days, the seasons, and your own mood. One could even go so far as to say these pieces have a living quality of their own.


Waves of silken stone are frozen in motion in a deep crevasse in Antelope Canyon, Utah. The brilliance of the sun, refracted on the winding surfaces of the rock, evolves from fiery orange to shadowy blue as it travels down the cracks. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.

The History Of Abstract Photography

Some of the earliest images of what may be called abstract photography appeared within the first decade after the invention of the craft. In 1842 John William Draper created images with a spectroscope, which dispersed light rays into a then previously unrecorded visible pattern. The prints he made had no reference to the reality of the visible world that other photographers then recorded, and they demonstrated photography's unprecedented ability to transform what had previously been invisible into a tangible presence. Draper saw his images as science records rather than art, but their artistic quality is appreciated today for their groundbreaking status and their intrinsic individuality.

During the first decade of the 20th century there was a wave of artistic exploration that hastened the transition in painting and sculpture from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to Cubism and Futurism. Beginning in 1903 a series of annual art exhibitions in Paris called the Salon d'Automne introduced the public to then radical vision of artists like Cézanne, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, František Kupka, and Albert Gleizes. Jean Metzinger. A decade later the Armory Show in New York created a scandal by showing completely abstract works by Kandinsky, Braque, Duchamp, Robert Delaunay and others.

Once computers and photography software became widely available, the boundaries of abstract photography were expanded beyond the limits of film and chemistry into almost limitless dimensions. Any boundaries that remained between pure artists and pure photographers were eliminated by individuals who worked exclusively in photography but produced only computer-generated images. Among the most well-known of the early 21st century generation were Gaston Bertin, Penelope Umbrico, Ard Bodewes, Ellen Carey, Nicki Stager, Shirine Gill, Wolfgang Tillmans, Harvey Lloyd, and Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin.

The Empire

Iron columns of antique stone jut from the turquoise waters of Studlagil Canyon in Iceland. On their faces, the strange, geometric pillars bear the scars of millennia of erosion, chronicling the evolution of the very land itself. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.

Types of Abstract Photography

Though the techniques of making abstract art are practically limitless, works can be broadly categorized by their visual cues.

Minimalist pieces center around the scarcity of visual elements. Works may feature large empty areas with little or nothing going on. These negative spaces are usually accentuated by the presence of a singular form or various smaller elements dispersed throughout the area. These can be dashes of color, unknown shapes, or anything tangible and definable as some sort of “positive” object. These works are all about the graceful opposition between presence and absence and the interaction of space with volume.

Many abstract works can be called textural. These feature repeating patterns or shapes which fill the entire frame. Sometimes they can look like alluvial plains or the branches of a tree, other times more like fabric or brickwork. This repetition draws the eye and one finds themselves looking for deviations from the regular order or else trying to figure out where they’ve seen the pattern before.

Other photographers center their compositions around color or shape. Bright neons and subtle pastels collide with each other in a battle or harmony of shapes and fields. The resulting print is filled with extremely complex yet visually basic relations of hue and size. These pieces appeal to deep and unconscious connections we make between color, space, and feeling. They are a feast for the eyes that unlocks hidden areas of the mind.

There are practically infinite types of abstract art, and few will fit into any of these artificial categories nicely, but having a basic idea of the kinds of pieces out there is an important starting point on the way to choosing a piece of your own.


Soft flowing lines reminiscent of flowing water make up this beautiful abstract photograph of a polished slab of Willow Creek Jasper, mined by the Ridley Family in Idaho. Fine Art Limited Edition of 25.

Is Bigger Better?

The factor which has the greatest effect on how noticeable a piece is is its size. This will determine how well it’s seen, how it fits with the decor around it, and how open the surrounding space feels.

A single large piece instantly draws the eye and becomes the focal point of any space. It will spawn conversations, draw viewers closer, and leave a memorable impression. Singular works tend to have walls to themselves, leaving a great deal of the area around them untouched. This means the space feels larger and cleaner—a much more minimalist aesthetic. Large pieces can anchor a space together, but also distract people from its other aspects. Big art can also be expensive, so if you’re already decided on one monolithic work, you should be prepared to fund it.

A collection of smaller pieces offers more to look at. Viewers can shift their gaze from one piece to the next and contemplate how they fit together. Spreading more diminutive works around a room can also be a means of adding to the texture of a space without distracting from or drawing too much attention to any one part. These pieces are also cheaper and allow you to choose more than one. For those who are true lovers of abstract art, this is the best option, as one singular piece simply won’t be enough.


A weathered sandstone cliffside becomes a bolt of lavender silk beneath the evening light at Factory Butte, Utah. The folds and furrows of the rippled face chart the path of desert rains as they traverse the striated chronicle of the rock. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.

Coordination and Flow

The last, and perhaps most important consideration when it comes to abstract art is how well it communes with the space it’s in. Even the most stunning photograph can be at odds with its surroundings, and to truly bring out the beauty and uniqueness of a piece, it has to flow with what’s around it.

Consider the style of the space. What kinds of furniture and decor are there? If you like older pieces (Victorion, Mission, etc.), an abstract piece might make the room seem disjointed. Mod, Bauhaus, and even Ikea furniture would create a better setting—one with a less concretized narrative and fewer busy details. The same general rules apply for pottery, sculpture, knick-knacks, and other smaller items. While juxtaposing an abstract work on an opposed design scheme might be interesting and draw further attention to the artwork, the effect will be less pleasing and interesting than when everything is properly coordinated.

Color is an important thing to keep in mind as well, but here the rules are less stringent. Matching the core colors of an artwork with the walls or hues of other household items can create a seamless visual flow which ties the whole space together. Put an orange work on a blue wall, and it will stick out. But this can be interesting too, and having combinations of two or three colors might actually look better than having everything in the same shade.

You’ll know if a piece fits with what’s around it, so don’t be shy about experimenting, but remember: a piece of art should tie a room together, not put it into disarray.

Abstract photography combines all that is beautiful and captivating about the real world and the realm of painting. While there are no rules to abstract composition, there are guidelines to how these works should be presented and displayed. The right work in the right place can not only revolutionize your space, but fire the imagination as well.

The Vortex

The desert sun shines down through an iridescent portal in one of Antelope Canyon’s famous slot canyons. Over the eons, the solid rock has begun to take on the shape of the wild rivers which have carved their way through it. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50.

Abstract Art Photography Gallery

One of my personal goals is to one day have a gallery showing created entirely of abstract photography. A collection of this type would be unique in a gallery setting and when presented in large print, would be quite stunning to those who had the opportunity to view it. Until that day, I will continue to offer my limited edition nature photography in the form of large format prints for those who appreciate the simple beauty of complex patterns found in nature.

Fire & Ice

Feathery reds, yellows, blues and whites blend to form intricate beauty found in Graveyard Point Plume Agate mined in Eastern Oregon. Fine Art Limited Edition of 25.