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Urban Abstract Photography Tips

Robin Whalley goes looking for abstract shots in the city.

| Creative
Words and images by Robin Whalley -

Before I get into dispensing advice on how to shoot such subjects it’s probably a good idea for me to explain what I consider an Urban Abstract to be. The first part of the name is easy to understand; Urban tells you that I find my subject matter in towns or cities. Not in the suburbs or in villages, no it’s got to be in the larger towns or cities where the environment is looking distinctly man made. The second word, Abstract often leads to some confusion.

Abstract in the sense I am using the word means to remove something from its surroundings, often focussing on part of something as the subject matter rather than the subject as a whole. It does not mean that the subject should be difficult to recognise although sometimes it is. By abstracting my subject from its surroundings I am trying to show you something that you might not otherwise have noticed. This is the key, to emphasise something about my subject that you might otherwise not have noticed.

Urban Abstract Photography Tips: Wooden Door

Take a look at this image of an old door. The door was in a tired old doorway of a rundown area of Liverpool. Over the years the harsh sun and the winds whipping across the Mersey had taken their toll. What once must have been a brightly coloured and beautifully glossy door was now dull with cracked and peeling paintwork. The colour of the door was however a beautiful muted blue with hints of red coming through. When I focussed in closely on the door itself, it took on an almost HDR appearance yet this is a straight shot. It was the colour of the door that first caught my eye but as I worked to refine my composition I could see more interesting aspects of the door such as the rusted old lock and a little bit of the doors history where things had been screwed to it and then removed. None of this would be appreciated if I had shown you the setting in which I found the door; it would have overpowered its beauty.

Tip 1:

Find something that catches your eye and then work to find a composition that allows you to abstract that subject from its surroundings so that the eye catching elements become the central point of the photograph.

Here is my next illustration. These are cubes of scrap metal that have been compressed together and then piled up into a literal mountain of scrap. The subject matter is unusual as it’s not something you would see in everyday life.

Urban Abstract Photography Tips: Scrap Metal

There were a few things that caught my eye about this subject:
  • The subject itself is unusual
  • The sheer size of the scrap metal mountain (which is di8fficult to appreciate from this image)
  • The regularity of the cubes even though they are arranges irregularly
  • The colour of the metal that has rusted set against the blue of the clean metal

Tip 2:

Look for subjects that have more than one point of interest. Your attention might be captured by something obvious but if you stop and look further at the subject you can find other, not so obvious areas of interest.

This next image shows a number of steel storage towers at a factory. The scale of the towers would be impossible to discern from the image if it were not for the stair case leading up the side of one of them. The stairs themselves make a nice curving shape as they wind around the tower and the sharp yellow handrail is in contrast to the blue of the towers steel. The shape of the towers has also caused a nice fall off in light giving a feeling of depth to the image despite the static and symmetrical composition used.

Urban Abstract Photography Tips: Building for abstract shot

Tip 3:

Seek ways to emphasise scale in your images. Abstract doesn’t mean zooming in close; it just means cropping out unwanted elements when you frame the photograph. This can allow you to make the viewer seek out references that help them judge scale. This is what the brain automatically does when presented with a picture; it looks for clues that allow it to understand the scale of the subject. This image is also interesting because it is very much a single colour with the exception of the hand rail. Bright colours such as yellow and red can provide an effective point of focus, drawing the eye. This is especially true when the area is limited and contrasts so greatly with the rest of the image.

Finally this image shows the side of a footbridge. The side is curved and full of holes with a handrail attached which caught the shadow cast by the side wall. Because of the angle of the sun the shadows are a different shape causing them to contrast with the holes. The pattern is retained by the regularity of the holes yet it is sufficiently different to holes to make it contrast.

Urban Abstract Photography Tips: Side of a footbridge

Tip 4:

Seek out regular patterns and watch out for shadows. People like to create things with symmetry and patters as it appeals to human nature. Shadows can also provide great subject matter when arranges properly. Often our eyes don’t see shadows because our brain filters them out yet take a picture of a shadow and it becomes obvious.

Finally, I would like to point out that the images in this article were all shot within a couple of miles of each other on the same day. Look hard and you will find a wealth of material. If you are struggling to make an image out of something move on. More opportunities will present themselves but you need to be looking for them. Even a pile of old rubbish can make an interesting composition.

Words and images by Robin Whalley -

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alistairfarrugia 10 164 88 Malta
18 Sep 2012 10:56AM
This is very interesting and inspired me of a particular location in Malta. Might pay it a vist to take some shots in the coming days, thank you!

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