Photography takes many forms and incorporates many different styles, most of which either fall into the categories of documentary or fine art. It is in the second category that we find abstract photography, a means of visual expression that's purpose is not to inform the viewer, but to engage and excite.
Step 1 - What is abstract photography?
Handily, there isn't really a defined meaning or explanation of what abstract photography entails, and in the same regard to abstract art, the content of the work is essentially unimportant and often entirely ambiguous. What does take precedence is the form, colour, line and texture within the composition, to create a piece that is visually stimulating. With regard to abstract photography, you don't need any sort of special equipment, just a camera, any camera you like, and your imagination.
Step 2 - It's all in the approach
So how does one go about taking abstract photographs? The first thing to remember is to keep your eyes open for interesting and engaging subject matter. Whenever I shoot abstract shots, I'm always attracted to the subject matter instinctively; something about it will catch my eye and draw me in. React emotionally to the subject, consider why you were attracted to it and how it makes you feel and this will inform how you photograph it. Spend time with the subject, think outside the box and approach it in a means that you would not really approach it, from different angles and regardless of its usual purpose.
There aren't any given camera settings to recommend as each subject and circumstance will vary greatly, but don't be afraid to stick your camera on manual and try out different shutter speeds and f-stops in order to reveal the true potential of your subject.
Step 3 - Break the rules!
It's important to consider what elements of your subject that you want to engage with in order to enhance your shot. Use your imagination, stop thinking about the subject in its literal form, forget all the photographic preconceptions and get creative. It can be quite a challenge to do away with established photographic concepts, the rules regarding composition and exposure, but instead use the subject as an artistic means, almost as if you had a blank canvas in which to express yourself artistically. It's now time to think about how you can maximise the features and detail within the subject, the line, texture, colour and form.
Step 4 - Pattern & Line
The first key element to look at is the pattern and lines within your subject. Look carefully at your subject and consider whether there are any reoccurring shapes or themes with the object and use these to your advantage. I always like to try shooting an object very straight and symmetrical; to get a clinical structured feel that I feel would enhance the affect of a pattern, but you can also try shooting at angles that counter the pattern. Also look at the lines and edges of the subject, are they straight or curvy, do they lead into the shot, through the shot or away from the shot. Line can be used very effectively in photography as the eye will tend to follow a line through a shot from its origin to its end, so consider how you might want to engage the viewer and where you'd like to lead them.
Step 5 - Form
The form or shape of a subject will play a crucial role in how you approach your subject. Assess the form carefully and think about which aspects of the subject you want to exploit, for example, is it very straight and formulaic, does it lots of curves and imply movement or is it a natural object whose form will change over time? Decide whether you want the form of the subject as a whole to be within the image or whether you want to focus in on one particular area of interest. Also think about whether there are any recognisable shapes that you can work with, be it circles, triangles or hexagons, use them to your advantage!
Step 6 - Colour
Colour is probably the strongest visual element to an abstract shot, it draws the viewer in and the colour of a subject will immediately inform the viewer as to what they are looking at and form assumptions and a mood setting in their mind. Try and use colour as an expression, it's the best and easiest means to make your shots attractive to the eye and just as in a painting, think carefully about how you use colour to bring certain aspects of the piece to the fore.
Step 7 - Working with architecture
Architecture makes for extremely interesting abstract subject matter, especially commercial buildings and modern structures designed for public use, as they often have distinctive shape, form and lines which are very easy to exploit. Older buildings tend to appear far more structured and are often symmetrical in nature, but this can be used to your advantage as you try to pick out patterns to use in your shot. Newer buildings are likely to be far more diverse, with odd angles, curves, large planes of solid colour and far more glass. Ensure you spend time with a building, explore it inside and out (you may have to ask permission to shoot inside) and take advantage of the architects design work!
Step 8 - Abstract & Macro
Another technique that works very well when trying to achieve abstract shots is working in macro. Many abstract shots are of subject matter that would be totally recognisable if it were shot from a distance, but the photographer has chosen to close in on a specific area of interest, maybe because of its texture or colour. In this case, ensure that you fill your viewfinder with the subject matter; you don't want any blank spaces in your shot. Again, think about the angle at which you approach the subject, for example, the most common way to shoot a flower is from above, to see the detail in the centre, but maybe you could try shooting from below up towards the light and see what results you get.
Step 9 - You're an artist!
As I mentioned previously, abstract photograph is quite different to most other types of photography in that it's centred on the artistic expression of the photographer, which is worth bearing in mind, especially with regard to the fact that it's not always going to be obvious what your shot is of. Don't expect people to see your abstract shots in the same way as you do. I love it when people have to ask me what the content of an image is or think it's of something totally different to what it is actually of, because they're seeing it in a totally different way to me, it's an intriguing insight into them and their approach to the work. I find my abstract work to be very personal, I've picked out that subject, the approach, the angle, the exposure and the beauty of it is that few people would approach it in the same way, it's a very personal expression.
Step 10 - Get out a give it a go!
So now it's time to get out there and give it a try for yourself. Plan a couple of photo trips out to places you've not been to before and keep your eyes open for subjects that catch your attention. In a new place you will be surrounded by new photographic opportunities, so take your time and really engage with the subjects you choose. I always like to use my 50mm prime lens for outings such as these, purely because it's quick and has a nice wide aperture that really helps when trying to achieve artistic results. Failing all this, just make sure you have a camera with you at all times so you're ready to snap away at anything of interest that you may find on your travels!