The Shape of Water 1

The health and economic consequences of the coronavirus are impacting upon everyone and are highlighted in vivid detail every day on the internet, TV, radio and in the newspapers. Fortunately, so far, I’ve managed to stay fit and well, so I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones.

But, like many of my photographer friends, I have felt the effects of social isolation. As someone who likes to be out and about in the fresh air, I have been working hard to avoid going stir crazy. One of the ways I’ve done that is to take my camera out on my permitted daily walk around our local area (respecting social distancing guidelines of course). I’ve also been occupying myself by looking for abstract photographs around my house and garden. These activities have helped to keep me both entertained and sane!

Although my work takes me all over the world, I have always been a great believer in making the most of my local environment to keep my photographic skills and my creative brain sharp & active. As with any creative endeavour regular practice is required if we are to develop and improve. So, I’m constantly on the lookout for abstract, graphic images based on the lines & shapes created by shadows, the colours & patterns of road markings & street signs, the geometric designs in modern architecture, photogenic textures or reflections in glass or even rain puddles.

One of the attractions of abstract photography is that these images can be found almost anywhere and usually very close to home irrespective of where you live. There is no need to travel to far away exotic locations to find worthwhile photographs. In fact, your immediate local neighbourhood or your own home are great places to start. And it can be both visually stimulating and creatively rewarding to find successful images in the mundane and ordinary things that most people pass by on a daily basis without giving them a second thought.

To make an attractive image from the ordinary (street signs or road markings for example) requires us to develop the ability to see the familiar through fresh eyes – to see the world around us as a child experiencing that environment for the first time. As the Austrian photographer, Ernst Haas once said, “I am not interested in shooting new things. I am interested to see things new”. A sentiment echoed by Marcel Proust, the French novelist, who said “The journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having fresh eyes”.

This requires us to be constantly looking at the world, searching for photographic potential and very soon images can be found in the most unusual & unexpected places. This is one of the reasons why I always carry a camera with me – whether I am going to the supermarket, walking the dog, taking a stroll through the local park or wandering around my back garden.

It is important to discard any pre-conceptions about what makes an attractive subject. We need to look beyond the everyday function or purpose of something to see it as a purely visual entity. I call it ‘looking beyond the obvious’. So for example a manhole cover, a drainpipe, a rusty lock, etc, are not immediately recognisable as photogenic subjects until we start to see them in terms of pattern, texture, shape, colour and tone.  We then begin to photograph not what the subject is but what we really see – this leads to a significant difference in approach.

It often helps in this process to isolate a part of the subject – to move in close (by using our feet or zooming in with a telephoto lens) and concentrating our attention on the element or elements of the subject that are visually most appealing. I refer to this as a ‘reductionist’ approach to composition – stripping away all unwanted or unnecessary elements in the viewfinder until we are left with the core essence of the image. Attention to detail is vital in this process so take great care about what is left in the frame – particularly at the edges. The use of colour, line & shape are important considerations – think about balance in the composition (how elements e.g. light and dark tones relate to each other), use lines to move the viewer around the frame taking them to your focal point (if the image has one).

I frequently like to work on projects or themes as the basis for my abstract work. As these images can be discovered in abundance almost anywhere then finding photographs, ironically, can be more difficult – our visual senses can become overwhelmed by the number of options. Taking a theme or project-based approach narrows down the options, focuses our attention and thereby makes the choice of what we photograph much easier. So, for example, you could go out with the intent of photographing the colour red or concentrating on transport (cars, bikes, buses, etc). I’ve worked on a small project photographing cutlery taken from the kitchen drawer so that it looked like floral shapes. Concentrating on a project or theme requires a disciplined approach but I know from personal experience that the rewards make the self-control worthwhile.  Working in this way (whether short or long term – for one session or over several years) provides us with a purpose and gives coherence to the resulting images.

So, what kit do you need to have to do this sort of photography? Well, the good news is that abstract photography doesn’t require expensive or specialist equipment as successful images can be made with a phone, a compact camera or a DSLR and everything in between. My particular choice is usually one of my Olympus OM-D or PEN-F cameras – they are small and light meaning I can wander around without the burden of heavy gear. I’ve found that a zoom lens is useful as I can quickly switch from a telephoto shot of a distant building to a wide-angle view of a subject close by. I find a wide-ranging zoom lens offers maximum flexibility and portability and my particular favourite is the Olympus 14-150mm II lens. There was a time when these ‘superzooms’ compromised image quality but not so these days – the optical quality of the 14-150mm is superb.

A macro lens could be useful if you like doing a lot of close up, detail work. However, some of ‘standard’ zooms (the Olympus 12-40mm or 12-100mm Pro zooms for example) offer a decent close up capability and this can be good enough for all but the most specialist applications.

I’ll close with a health warning drawn from personal experience (and you’ll be pleased to hear it’s not one related to Covid 19). This type of photography can become incredibly addictive. It will become impossible to have a single day without seeing potential images everywhere. Trust me – your life will never be the same again! But in these difficult times it might just help you to avoid the negative aspects of social isolation, stay positive and keep those creative juices flowing.