Definition: Abstract Photography

Definition: Abstract Photography | Glossary entry

Abstract Photography

Abstract photography, like all abstract art, focuses on the simplest elements of artistic expression. The viewer is often unable to see the whole subject within the photo. In an abstract, the subject is often only a small part of the idea of the image.

Viewers may only know the essence of the subject, or understand it, by what is implied. Instead the viewer is drawn into the image by the beauty, interest or uniqueness of the visual experience.


Often the image will not be a literal view of the subject itself. The subject tends to come second to seeing. The visual impact of the parts of the subject are used to express the point. The abstract tends to bring out only a few aspects of a subject. Often these aspects powerfully express one, two or possibly three, of the ‘Elements of Art’

  • Line;
  • Shape (2D);
  • Form (3D);
  • Space;
  • Colour (including hue and tone);
  • Value (the lightness and darkness or areas of the image);
  • Textures.

These simple elements are often expressed through the principles of design. The way the ‘elements’ (above) are portrayed, helps the viewer understand the subject. These aspects of photographic portrayal help the viewer see the essence of the subject in a new way. Abstract photography portrays the ‘elements’ by capturing them using just a few of the following principles…

  • Patterns.
  • Angles.
  • Scale and proportion.
  • Proximity (closeness or distance from the subject).
  • Perspective (especially depth).
  • Crop (especially of segments or parts of the whole).
  • Hard light rendering of the subject.
  • Soft light rendering of the subject.
  • Contrasts.
  • Highlights and darks.
  • Curves.
  • Symmetry.
  • Geometry.
  • Balance.
  • Dominance or emphasis
  • Layering and overlapping.
  • Reflection.
  • Focus and depth of field.
  • Blur (bokeh).
  • Movement, or expression of movement.

Abstracts are most successful when complexity is stripped away. This makes obvious the aesthetic properties of the few elements in the subject. Through simplicity the artist ignites in the viewer a primitive recognition of the aesthetics. The artist hopes to grab the viewers eye, drawing them in, by displaying raw, simple beauty.

The point of abstract images is to simply present a subject. The viewer can see the beauty because the simplicity reveals it to the eye. This simplicity helps the viewer to connect emotionally with the image.

For the viewer, tight focus on limited attributes of a subject is critical. It helps them to recognize beauty and form through the purity of the displayed elements.

Unity and Harmony

Abstract photography satisfies the eye if there is visual unity. When the whole image pulls together, the image is unified. No part of the image is more important than the overall portrayal. No part of the image deviates from the theme or clashes with it. The simple connection between the parts unify the image into a harmonious whole.

One the other hand, pure repetition or total abstraction destroys the interest. A balance between unity and variety shows the variation found in the real world. It introduces life into the image, providing interest for the eye. Abstracts, like all photography, must seek a balance between the purity of unity and the chaos of variety.

Other dimensions

In abstract photography there are dimensions rarely seen in other media. Focus can add to the conceptual feel of abstracts by isolating parts of the subject through the use of blur. Good quality blur is called bokeh. It is the frosted-focus effect created by control of the Depth of field.

The other dimension is movement blur. It is not unique to photography. It is a however, an important factor in photo composition. Blur tends not to be used to the same extent in other visual arts except maybe video.


‘Abstract photography’ introduces the viewer to the essence of a subject. It does this through a simple, pure portrayal of its visual constituents. The aim is to help the viewer gain an emotional, almost primeval link to the image. The viewer is supposed to enjoy the ‘feel’ of how it looks. For the viewer, abstract photography is not about knowing and recognising the subject. It is more about emotionally connecting with it.

The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography The Edge of Vision. A book about abstract photography. External link - opens new tab/page
There are few good books on abstract photography. So, this historical view is welcome. It brings together the concepts and the art in abstract photography. It reaches from the earliest images to modern processes. There are quality colour pictures too. The book includes up-to-date material from well known abstract photographers. The images, the history and methods give readers an all-round view.

What readers said:
5* :: Great buy!
5* :: A lovely book.
5* :: Be educated and stimulated.
5* :: …filled with deep and insightful articles and ideas to inspire.
The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography The Edge of Vision. A book about abstract photography. External link - opens new tab/page


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Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photographer and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photogs.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.
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23 responses to “Definition: Abstract Photography

  1. Interesting definition of abstract photography, I find it hard to describe or explain what it is. ‘The viewer is supposed to enjoy the ‘feel’ of how it looks. For the viewer, abstract photography is not about knowing and recognising the subject.’ I like that! Thank you for summing it up!