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The key to successful abstract landscapes is simplification in terms of details, colors, and shapes. The simpler the scene, the more emphasis can be put on the message if it’s correctly executed.
Blur is the enemy of details; but an enemy that you can turn into a friend. To do this, take the camera off the tripod and increase the shutter speed (to between half a second and two seconds). The goal is to smooth out the details and to render an abstract, more intimate, interpretation of the scene.
To simplify colors in an abstract landscape, you don’t want more than one or two hues with smooth gradations and possibly lower saturation.
The atmospheric conditions play a key role. For example, a foggy day hides the blue sky which removes one color from the palette. Pastel hues (like beige and pink) from the sunset that are filtered through mist tend to work exceptionally well. Look for calm and soothing colors to complement the soft nature of the image.
Shapes require special care, since we don’t have the luxury of carefully choosing the composition when we are moving the camera during the exposure. The subject shouldn’t be immediately recognizable, but it should lead the viewer to look in-depth at the image to find more hints of its nature. Actively searching the image is always extremely engaging; the “wow” moment when the subject is discovered leaves a deep sense of satisfaction for the viewer.
One way to abstract a scene is to pan the camera during the exposure. For example, pan it horizontally to follow the movement of waves or pan vertically when shooting tree trunks. Try different paths; don’t be afraid to shoot many frames and test as many combinations as possible to find the perfect abstract exposure.
In Halfmoon Impressions, I looked for a foggy day, hand-held the camera, set the ISO to 50, and closed down to f/16 (for a slow shutter speed of half a second). Diffraction caused by the small aperture is not an issue here, but helps smooth out details. I panned the camera horizontally to follow the waves coming. In post-processing I selectively dodged the wave crest to add that small hint about the real nature of the landscape I was shooting. I completed the image with a touch of a 85A warming digital filter. I selected this particular frame to play with the dark shadows at the bottom to balance the white wave at the top.
In Mount Diablo Impressions, I moved away from a literal interpretation of the beautiful light shining on the hills at sunset, because the hills by themselves didn’t give me a clear and recognizable sense of the place. I opted for an abstract rendition instead to focus on the beautiful tones in the scene and emphasize the gentleness of the hills: I set the ISO to 50 and closed down to f/18, which gave me the exposure of 0.4s i was after. Instead of just panning horizontally, I slightly tilted the camera and panned in the direction of the hills to accommodate the slope. In post, I again completed the image with a touch of a 85A warming digital filter to bring the scene together.
When you are shooting don’t be afraid to experiment with your camera. Feel free to share your own examples in the comments below:
I'm a landscape photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Outside of my (pretty cool) daily desk job, I'm spending most of my spare time chasing the Light and printing it; the rare glimpses of it I manage to capture are in my store.
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