Wildlife photographers often adhere to the rules of ‘normal’ photography, looking to showcase species as they look in a ‘natural’ way, but why? In the realm of photography there’s such huge scope for adventure and exploration, a chance to express our creativity, so abstract thinking should be something wholeheartedly encouraged.
Now, when talking about abstracts, what do we mean? The common definition would be removing the normalities of a subject to portray it in a new light, but of course it can simply mean the ideas of developing and stylising your photography in a less conventional way.
As abstraction is often about removing some of the more normalised elements, using blur can be a great way to develop a more abstract image. Through the use of slow shutter speeds we can remove some of the detail in order to concentrate on colour, form, shape and movement for an increasingly abstract style of shot. Birds in flight are fantastic for this, as they’re fast moving, colourful and have a form that can still give their impression, without the need for full detail. Shutter speeds are really all down to the subject in question, but I’ve found 1/8sec or 1/15sec can add a great amount of blur that retains some sense of the creature while developing the abstract look.
Layers are another common theme when it comes to great abstracts, and one creative and more abstract way to explore layers is through double-exposure photography. Created in-camera, two or more frames can be overlaid on top of each other, meaning you can layer different elements for an abstract style. Trees and leaves work very well for this type of image, as the various shapes, forms and textures layered on top of each other can lead to rather impressionistic images.
Of course, composition plays a key role when it comes to abstracts, although it’s often the apparent incompatibility of elements that creates the strongest results. Subjects seemingly too close to the edge of the frame, with a huge amount of space around them, or more detailed central sections that cut off areas of a creature, are just two such examples. These rule-breaking composition types offer boundless creative potential, but one thing to be sure of is to make the compositions strikingly off in order to make them work, rather than look like failed attempts at a normal frame.
One final area of abstract wildlife photography that can be explored is that of details and close ups. Identifying key features of an animal - an eye, feather pattern, flipper etc. - and then moving in for a tight close up that gives an impression of the creature through the single section can make for powerful photographs.
Abstract wildlife photography is a fantastic way to bring a little extra creativity into you work. The final images may not be something you’ve thought of before, but exploring these techniques and ideas will help to improve your process and creative thinking when you’re out in the field, whether looking for abstract images or not.
Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here.