Abstract Photography in Your Living Room


A sample of abstract photography. Silhouettes of trees against a purple night sky.
Silhouettes of trees in winter appearing as cracks against the night sky.

Abstract photography is defined as a means of depicting a subject as detached from reality or any objective form. The viewer is generally looking at something they cannot recognize or discern with concrete meaning. Despite having what can be described as a lack of context, this also motivates the sense of ambiguity that makes abstract photography uniquely fascinating.


Article Contents:

-Theory

-Macro Lenses

-Crop Factor

-Color Temperature

-Depth of Field

-Aperture

-Conclusion


Not to say that abstract photography is just anything or that it can be done anywhere, but even when left with a limited location and amount of resources, it can still produce an extremely captivating aesthetic. Unlike with landscapes or architecture, you can still draw up a pretty interesting canvas in your very own living room by just using your abstract eye.


To achieve something abstract, the subject matter has to be more suggested than defined. It is obscured in one or many ways. The intention is not to portray anything real, but rather amorphous and consisting of multiple layers. Substance is crucial, but not so much in quantity or volume as it is in quality. A simple work can still resonate more strongly than something complex. Hence, the enormity of what can be accomplished with the abstract.


The photographer must strongly consider structure and perspective when framing their composition. Particular manipulation of shapes and patterns at one angle or another can evoke a certain interpretation or its complete opposite, or even both. We discussed this similarly with evaluating architectural photography and its aesthetic.


While this concept carries over to many forms of photography, it is principal in creating abstract imagery. Colors, contrast, saturation, lines, corners, curves, textures, mixtures, and the infinite variations they can form are accessible anywhere. They are only dependent on the skill and imagination of the photographer.

A sample of abstract photography. An Orange Daylily changed into a turquoise and violet blend of textures and colors.
An Orange Daylily flower changed into a turquoise and violet blend of textures and colors.

Your living room comprises this very same palette. Your home can be an incubator on its own. Take a few objects and obscure their perspective through a camera. Splash some colored lights onto them and experiment with exposure levels. It might surprise you to know that the possibilities are endless.


Macro Lenses


A macro lens allows a photographer to focus very closely on a subject and render it onto the camera's image plane (sensor or film) at a 1:1 magnification ratio. Normal lenses do not have the capacity to capture such detail at such short distances.


Typical macro subjects include flowers, insects, jewelry, and other small objects. Even if the subject itself is not small, a macro lens can focus on the fine details of something larger.


The magnification ratio of a lens, also known as its reproduction ratio, is the difference between a subject's size when projected onto a camera sensor compared to its size in reality. When a camera is placed at its closest focusing distance, a magnification ratio of 1:1 means that the size of subject on the sensor is the same as it is in real life.

A sample of macro photography. An Orange Daylily with droplets of moisture on its pedals.

The minimum focus distance, also known as the working distance, of a macro lens is determined by its focal length. The longer the focal length, the further the distance necessary from the subject in order to focus on it.


Macro lenses are made in many different focal lengths, from wide-angle to telephoto, each with their own strengths and drawbacks. It is important to be aware of how each focal length will affect the field of view, working distance, and depth of field for the subject you are trying to photograph.


Longer focal lengths can have several advantages, such the ability to stand farther away from your subject, or not casting any unwanted shadows, and lastly having a shallow depth of field. Even so, longer focal lengths tend to be more expensive and heavier to transport.


Shorter focal lengths are generally less expensive and smaller in form, making them easier to carry on mobile shoots. However, because of their shorter working distance, shadows cast by gear can obstruct the shot. Also, for subjects such as insects, close proximity can scare them away.


With these factors in mind, it can be suggested to seek out macro lenses with intermediate focal lengths so as to achieve a fair balance between these functions. Regardless, the focal length you choose depends on your needs, your subjects, and your budget.


Normally, macro lenses are made as prime lenses and have a fixed focal length. Some zoom macro lenses are available, but tend to be lower in quality and weaker in magnification ratios.


One particularly important factor to keep in mind when choosing a macro lens is the size of a camera’s image sensor. If used on a full-framed sensor, the focal length of a lens will function at its proper distance, but with a cropped sensor its focal length will become extended. This is known as the crop factor of a camera.

An infographic comparing the different frames of view of various crop factors.

In short, full-frame sensors emanate the dimensions of 35mm film and act as the standard size for image recording. Smaller sensors will crop this full frame of view, thereby cropping the frame of a lens as well. A crop factor is the ratio of the camera’s sensor size to 35mm film.


Take the resulting crop factor number and multiply it by the focal length of the lens, and this will provide the focal length equivalent to that of a full-framed sensor. For example, cameras that have a crop factor of 1.5x, using a 24mm lens would be equivalent to a 36mm lens.


On the surface, this means that the 24mm lens on a 1.5x cropped sensor and the 36mm lens on a full-framed sensor share the same frame of view. However, using the cropped sensor can also have a significant effect on depth of field, background blur, and overall image sharpness.


And speaking of depth of field, using a macro lens at such a close range can be very delicate in achieving sharp focus. Selecting specific points on the focal plane is more doable in manual focus as it grants much more control whereas autofocus is likely to operate in broader strokes and not achieve the same quality.


Lastly, using a tripod is also essential when using a macro lens as it will stabilize the camera and prevent motion blur from any shaking. It will also allow better flexibility with exposure control, particularly with stopping down the aperture or shooting with a slower shutter speed if necessary.


Color Temperature


In photography as well as video, color temperature is not a measurement of heat, but rather the measurement of the hue emitted by a source of light. All light sources radiate different hues ranging from warm to cool colors.


The color of a light is measured in degrees Kelvin, but more specifically, the colors correlate to a black carbon body that is heated at particular temperatures on the Kelvin scale. In this way, the higher the temperature, the cooler the color will appear, and the lower the temperature, the warmer the color will appear.

An infographic showing the scale of color temperatures.

The visible spectrum of the Kelvin scale ranges from about 1700K to 12000K.


When using a camera, color temperature can be adjusted with the white balance function. While the human eye can accurately interpret colors on its own, a camera has to be calibrated in order to reproduce an image without color casting. White balance fulfills the overall color scale by first defining what appears to be white.


Most digital cameras have white balance presets that include an auto setting, tungsten, florescent, daylight, shade, cloudy, flash, and Kelvin. The Kelvin preset acts as a manual parameter where the specific temperature can be dialed in. Bear in mind that these temperatures are estimates and not precise matches to all available light sources.


If a photo looks overly orange or blue, that generally means the temperature needs to be corrected. Fortunately, adjustments can be made either in-camera or in post-processing. Tints are generally fixed by adjusting in the opposite direction of the scale. If an image appears too cool, corrections can be achieved by adding warmer tones.


Nonetheless, depicting a scene in its most natural form can be viewed as a guideline and not so much a concrete rule. By becoming aware of color temperature as a concept, artistic measures can be taken to create some particularly unique images. In these instances, color temperature can be more of a personal preference or style.


Depth of Field


Depth of field is the distance between the closest and farthest objects in an image that appear acceptably sharp. While a camera can only achieve sharp focus on one point, there lies a gradual transition from peak sharpness to out of focus in front of and behind that main focal point.


This distribution of depth on either side of the main focal point is not even. Depth of field generally occurs about one-third on the front side and then two-thirds on the back. Even so, as the focal length increases, this distribution becomes more equal.

An infographic showing the effect of different apertures on depth of field.

The size of a depth of field can be described as narrow or wide, short or long, shallow or deep. The bigger the depth, the more the image is in focus. Landscape photography, for instance, uses a deep depth of field as it strives to have both the foreground and background in focus and strives to show all the detail of a scene.


A combination of factors affects depth of field, however, the three primary factors to keep in mind are aperture, focal length, and distance.


Aperture refers to the size of the opening in the diaphragm of a lens. The diaphragm is a mechanism that expands and contracts, thus controlling the amount of light entering through the lens and reaching the camera’s image plane. The size of this opening is denoted by an f-stop.


The lower the f-stop number, the larger aperture. The higher the f-stop number, the smaller the aperture. Lower f-stop numbers produce a very shallow depth of field and higher f-stop numbers produce a deep depth of field. So, remember:


Large aperture = Low f-stop = Shallow depth of field

Small aperture = High f-stop = Deep depth of field


Distance refers to the distance between the camera and the subject. The shorter the distance, the shorter the depth of field. The longer the distance, the longer the depth of field. Regardless of the aperture, shrinking the distance will also shrink the depth of field.


So long as the physical distance remains unchanged, lenses with short focal lengths (wide-angle lenses) have a larger depth of field than lenses with long focal lengths (telephoto lenses).


The longer the focal length, the shorter the depth of field. For instance, if a subject is 15 feet away, using a full-framed camera with a 50mm lens at a stop of f/8, there will be a depth of field approximately 9 1/2 feet in length. With an 85mm lens, the depth would shrink to just over 3 feet in length.


Sensor size is another of the many factors involved with depth of field. The larger the sensor, the smaller the depth of field because with larger sensors there is a larger frame of view which requires a closer distance to the subject or a longer focal length.


In order to match the depth of field with different sized sensors, you must divide the aperture by the crop factor. For instance, an APS-C sensor has a crop factor of 1.5. In order to match stop of f/12 on a full-framed camera, the equation would be 12/1.5 which equals 8. Therefore, a stop of f/8 on an APS-C sensor would work.


Terms to Remember

macro lens

a lens that can focus very closely on a subject and render it onto the camera's image plane (sensor or film) at a 1:1 magnification ratio.

magnification ratio

the difference between a subject's size when projected onto a camera sensor compared to its size in reality.

working space

the minimum focus distance of a lens, determined by its focal length, is the distance necessary from the subject in order to focus on it.

crop factor

the ratio of the camera’s sensor size to 35mm film which will affect the focal length of a lens and its frame of view.

depth of field

the distance between the closest and farthest objects in an image that appear acceptably sharp.

color temperature

the measurement of the hue emitted by a source of light denoted in degrees Kelvin.

aperture

​the size of the opening in the diaphragm of a lens, controlling the amount of light reaching the camera’s image plane.

Conclusion


Knowing about the specialties of macro lenses is important in abstract photography as they can enhance details in various textures and patterns that can help shape your abstract design. Delving into the more technical concepts, such as color temperature and depth of field, can expand your abstract creativity even further.


Any photographer will tell you that the most important way to learn about the technical lengths of a camera is to go out and use it. Make your mistakes and understand how the errors occurred. By seeing how one concept affects another, you will become immersed in the nature of these rules, and then you will know how to optimize them for your benefit.


Not that you should stay in your living room, but you can certainly achieve a great deal of experimentation in the comforts of your home. Everything you need is within your reach, but it doesn't stop there.


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