Artistic Abstracts with Long Exposures


A long exposure and a moving source of light can create unique lines and shapes that you can use within your frame. Exposure: 1sec at f/22 (ISO 200). Photograph/John Nyberg

A long exposure and a moving source of light can create unique lines and shapes that you can use within your frame. Exposure: 1sec at f/22 (ISO 200). Photograph/John Nyberg

Raj Lalwani tells you how you can keep the shutter open for extended periods of time to create magnificent abstract imagery.

Photography is all about vision. You look at a regular scene in front of you, but the manner in which you shoot it can make it completely unrecognisable. The beauty of abstract photography is that it can make anything look attractive, mysterious or even gloomy. A simple way you can create such images is by using long exposures.

Why Long Exposures Make Great Abstracts
Long exposures are fascinating primarily because they show the world differently from how our eyes see it. Unlike conventional photography, you are not merely ‘recording’ a scene, but creating one of your own. The choice of technique and the length of your exposure can interpret your scene in completely different ways—it is almost as if you are creating a new world in front of you. The possibilities are endless— you can capture streaks of light, blurred shapes or flowing water that looks like mist. The forms created by long exposures are surreal and look extremely artistic.

Looking for the Right Subject
Even an ordinary subject can work wonders, if you approach it in an extraordinary manner. The right amount of blur, the composition and the manner in which the subject is lit can transform mundane settings into beautiful abstract scenes. For example, a close-up of a dull concrete road can look extremely beautiful if you use a slow shutterspeed and hold your camera outside the car’s window.

Previsualise Your Abstract Image
The subject that is in front of you is only a starting point. Before you shoot, you must ask yourself what you want its final form to be. Do you want the colours to merge? Or would you wish to give a completely different form to your subject and create your own design? This decision is largely dependent on the subject itself. Its form, shape, colour and inherent nature are some of the things you must consider when creating an abstract image. For example, a tree can be photographed as an intricate, abstract pattern because of the sheer number of leaves and the manner in which they branch out.

Choosing the Right Technique
Either keep the camera steady and wait for the subject to move, or if your subject is stationary, move your camera. Motion blur always creates lines of some sort. Depending on the direction of motion, they may be horizontal, vertical, curved or random. These lines are what give your image an abstract quality, since they resemble a sketch or painting.
Always try and understand the kind of blur you will get. The part of the image you have focused on, will register as a thin line, while the out-of-focus elements will form thicker lines. It is almost like the difference between using a pen and sketch pen.

Let the Camera be your Paintbrush
The nature of motion gives the final shape to an abstract photograph. For instance, if you are moving the camera while shooting a still subject, you may pan the camera smoothly, wave it in a semi-circle or even shake it randomly. It is similar to painting, with the direction of blur similar to the direction of the brush strokes of a painter.

Accidents Are Good Too!
With the right amount of previsualisation, you should be able to predict your final image. However, there is nothing wrong with getting a brilliant image by fluke. A good photographer understands how the ‘accident’ happened, so that he can repeat the technique consciously the next time.
Make a note of the shutterspeed settings that work in different situations, and the manner in which DOF and focus affect the final look. Maintain a notebook in which you can record observations, so that you can repeat the technique, when required.
The key is to experiment, improvise and let your imagination run free. Abstract photography can be extremely fulfilling as it presents you a whole new range of visual experiences. Doing it with the help of long exposures only makes it a lot more fun.

What Makes a Great Abstract Photograph?

  • Simplicity: When we look at the world, there are so many things in front of us. When seen in isolation, anything becomes abstract. Not only will this make your composition simple, but also stark.
  • Colours and Light: Colour is often a key element while shooting abstract images. You could concentrate on one colour, or have a variety of colours within the same frame. Do remember that the lighting also determines how colours are captured within the frame.
  • Lines and Geometry: The structure of various elements within your frame and the lines being formed due to the direction of blur determine how the viewer sees the image. Does his eye go from left to right, or does it get drawn into the concentric circles that are a part of your frame? This is why it is important to understand what lines and shapes do to your abstract images, especially if you are using long exposures.
  • Mood: A beautiful pattern is not enough. Like every genre of photography, the difference between a good abstract and a great abstract is whether it brings out any emotion in the viewer. Your choice of subject, the colours in the frame and geometry must all come together, to create a particular mood.

The article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: Raj Lalwani, night, light, march 2010, light painting, abstract