Abstract, Photography

Getting it all wrong on purpose

I was chatting with an artist friend yesterday about how I get some of the abstract results I have been posting recently ‘in camera’. To be honest I don’t usually do ‘technical’ or post about my ‘process’ but, with her questions and a recent comments question about the same, I thought I could do an illustrative post to show how simple it is.

So here is a straight picture of a wild Broom plant I took on a nice sunny walk in the woods recently. The nearly ready-to-pop, pea-like seed pods turn to a great purple black colour and contrast nicely against the very vibrant green of its foliage.


Which is all perfectly nice but a bit straight forward. The interest, and the reason it catches my eye, is the arresting colour mix. Other plants around it are a distraction and moving in to a tiny close up detail isn’t going to give that smack in the eyes of colour that caught the eye originally.

So I reach into my bag and screw my Neutral Density ND64 filter on to my lens. This cuts down the amount of light reaching the sensor and allows me to use a much slower shutter speed than would be available in these kind of conditions normally. (Technical people: 6 Stops)

I can now select a variety of shutter speeds that would normally give blurry results with a handheld camera because of camera shake. Generally you’d want to be avoiding this with faster speeds or using a support like a tripod but I am deliberately aiming to use slow speeds and move the camera during the shot to give a result that is hopefully a bit different.

For most of my pictures of landscape I’ll use a panning technique. So that’s sweeping the camera to the left or right, up or down, and timing the pressing of the shutter to hopefully capture a pleasing composition. I generally aim to be using a shutter speed of around a ¼ sec. and vary the ‘abstractness’ by the speed of the pan.

Much checking of the result in the viewfinder occurs – it’s easier, I’d have to keep changing glasses for checking the rear screen –  to see if I have what I thought I might get or I perhaps need to retry with better timing or a faster/slower movement.

Here I tried some ‘panning’ as I took the picture, so moving the camera downwards as the picture is being taken.


There are a number of ways to vary this basic technique. Generally you get a ‘smooth’ result from starting your pan first then pressing the shutter button during the sweep and just carrying it throughout the shot but here I tried pressing the shutter and then starting the pan after an initial still moment. Recently I’ve been trying a new variant with panning that I’m calling ‘getting jiggy with it’ as well!

This is a ‘jiggy’. I’m trying to move the camera in three directions at once, the pan itself plus an up/down jiggle. I don’t seem to have tried it on the Broom so this example is in a shot of some grasses where you can see they seem to be twisted like corkscrews. Not one of my favourite shots but here to show the result more obviously.


Of course, in the costly 36 exposure film days you had no inkling if a shot worked until much later. With a modern digital camera you can try it all out and see what happens and then try another one, maybe with applying some variances to what you have learned instantly. My only non-technical hindrance is a small white terrier insisting that we came out for a walk and please could we continue.

A couple more techniques are possible to try out. The first is zooming your zoom lens, assuming of course that’s what you have fitted, during the exposure. I’m not sure if you can do this on one of those superzoom or compact cameras with a motorised zoom. It probably stops you doing so because the zoom motor is disabled when the shutter is pressed (or it’s programmed to ‘think’ it’s wrong). I haven’t got one but if you have, give it a try.

I haven’t published one of these zoom movement pictures yet but have tried a few out. Stand by, they can mess with your senses a little…


And the last one is something I don’t try that often but have here just to show you what happens. Instead of panning the camera, you can rotate it at various speeds. All this is freehand so the jiggles can creep in to lend their particular artefacts to it all as well, making pretty much every shot a unique one.


Now, whether they are better, worse or just mess with your eyes and you prefer a straight shot, it is all up to you. I can do ‘straight’ but I like the messes more. Hopefully they’re colourful, dynamic, abstract and expressionist, visually appealing and interesting messes.


So boring technical stuff.

I use RAW mode. This is so I can tweak exposure, contrast and colour balance myself later. It is possible to use any variety of in camera JPEG modes and settings (I never have in my time of using digital cameras used any of these, some prefer it) but be prepared to accept whatever you’re given by the camera as pretty much ‘the result’. You can mess with it and set everything at the time if you like but you won’t have as much range of adjustment later if you do. For some that’s the advantage of JPEG, usable images straight away, but I don’t like that in camera finality and loss of flexibility.

I use Shutter Priority mode to dial in my preferred speed, set ISO to 100 and then let the camera work out the aperture. I try not to let it go up to f22 or 32. Dust spots on the sensor seem to be much more numerous and noticeable on the results at these small apertures so you spend a lot of time spotting them out later on for otherwise good shots.

I ‘lock in’ an initial exposure value with the AE lock, a lot of modern camera systems in auto modes will try to vary the exposure and ‘correct’ as you sweep and the light mix changes, particularly if the sky appears (or vice versa) on the scene when it wasn’t there to start with.

I hope that provides the answers for anyone thinking ‘how did he do that?’ but you’re very welcome to ask if anything occurs to you that you think I didn’t cover well enough.

6 thoughts on “Getting it all wrong on purpose”

  1. A useful and instructive post. My main take away is ND filters, which I always forget about using. Very useful to either slow your shutter speeds and deliberately blur motion, or to be able to use wider apertures for a more shallow depth of field on bright sunny days.

    I remember reading something years ago about being an expert in a certain field. The person suggested that whilst there are degrees of expertise, to be seen as an expert at all, you just have to know a little more than the person you’re showing/teaching.

    You don’t have to be the equivalent of a tenth dan in a discipline to be able to share something valuable to others based on your own knowledge and experience.

    So blog posts where we share something that might seem easy to us because we’ve done it many times, will likely be very helpful to someone who’s not tried it at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Dan, glad to hear you took something from the post.
      I would hope I have struck a balance where experienced people might be able to see that I know what I’m doing and less experienced ones don’t feel like I am preaching to them from a perceived pulpit.
      I’m not good at being ‘instructed’ myself so I would hate to arrogantly do ‘how-to’s, I prefer ‘this is how I do’ and hope that helps someone.


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