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  • Writer's pictureWilson Haynes

Abstract Photography

One of my favorite types of photography that I do is what I like to call abstract photography. Now I am sure there are multiple ways abstract photography is done or other types that it describes but what that is just what I have always called it, or maybe I heard someone say it, I’m not sure it's been awhile.

Before I get started I need to give a shoutout to Josh Kirshner who introduced it to me and showed me how to do it. Josh is a fantastic photographer in and out of the water. We met while doing surf photography and he’s been a great person to share content with and talk creatively with.

Josh is currently doing a lot of photography with the Jaguars and building up a very diverse portfolio so he is definitely someone to give a follow!

His instagram is thewayfarersdream and he his website is

So first things first, what is abstract photography to me? To me it is the ability to capture an image in the camera, meaning that there isn't any editing done to create the main part of the final result. The image captured in the camera does not necessarily look like anything you would see in real life but it makes sense when you understand what it is you're looking at.

Here are some examples of what the end result looks like:

So what you're looking at is the sunrise before the sun even comes up at the beach. Being there before the sun actually comes up is crucial because that is when all the ambient light is coming out and the sun is not there to overexpose the shot and have it be too dominating in the picture due to its color and brightness.

Step one is timing and location. I usually take these pictures about 20 to 30 minutes before the sun comes up. This has tended to be the sweet spot for me to capture the right amount of color and light without it being overexposed and still allowing me to get nice crisp lines. To achieve this you can stand on a boardwalk, in the sand, or higher up in a condo, just as long as you're pointing at the ocean.

Another part of step one is planning. I try to make sure the skies will be clear because this allows the most light and color to be seen. That being said I have had mornings where it is very cloudy and it actually turns out very cool so it just depends on what you're going for.

So step two is your camera settings. You need to have the camera in full manual for this to work

First things first is shutter speed, for me I am usually 1.3-2.3 seconds. This somewhat depends on how early or late you are. The earlier you are, the longer that shutter needs to be open so that it can capture as much light, color, and data as possible. The later you are the less it needs to be open because it is brighter and you don’t want a blown out image.

It is also important to be aware of the light changing and not just set your shutter at 2 seconds and then 15 minutes go by and there is now more light so you should be at a 1 second shutter and half of your shots are blown out. That is why I preview my images briefly throughout the process so that I can make adjustments as the lighting adjusts.

Step three is your aperture. This is important because if you choose the wrong one then your shot might not be in focus and it could lead to the horizon lines not being sharp which is crucial for making the shots look so good in my opinion.

So when I am working on these pictures I try to stay above f/11, I have found this creates a sharp image throughout the entirety of the picture. The majority of them are even as high as f/16. Having your camera do this is all possible when shooting in full manual, which may be intimidating but it is so much better because it allows you complete control.

Step four is the pan, this is just what it sounds like. You pan from right to left, or left to right while you're taking pictures. This is the process that actually creates that blurring effect without even editing it that way. One note for when panning is that it's important to have the camera in continuous shooting mode so that you can just hold down the shutter as you move from side to side and it will capture as many images as your camera can do.

You want to pan quickly but not too fast and this is a huge trial and error process that just takes time to figure out.

I have tried using tripods and I have done this process handheld and over the years I am always more happy with my handheld shots. I am not sure if that is because it seems more challenging which makes the end result feel better but whatever the reason I do it all handheld now.

By no means do I have a super steady hand either, the trick that I have found is to use the viewfinder so that it's pressed up against you and you just rotate your body with the camera from side to side while pressing down that shutter button.

As you do this you'll notice that there are some sections on the horizon that are more vibrant than others. So I try to figure that spot out and then time my shots so that my shutter will be opening up right before I pan by that spot. These always are the best shots because they have the most color and vibrancy to them.

So those are the steps to getting the shot; plan, shutter speed, aperture, and panning.

Now that you've gotten the shot you will have something that might look like this:

And we want to get it to something that looks like this:

So now is when we dive into the editing process. One thing that I should have mentioned earlier is that to really be able to edit and make these beautiful images you need to have your camera set to RAW. This allows the camera to capture all the data it can and then gives you more to work with when editing.

The editing of these shots is easier than you would think. I personally use Adobe lightroom and it is a pretty seamless process. The first thing I do after uploading all the shots is go through and flag which ones I like. What I am looking for is a good bit of color, sharp lines, and nice compositions with waves that might be breaking.

After that I filter the images to show me the flagged ones and I start editing on the first one. Doing simple things like bringing up brightness, saturation, contrast, fixing any blemishes that might be caused due to sand on the lens.

Once I am happy with that I copy the edit settings and post them on other images to see what they look like. This is somewhat of a rough edit. Then I go through looking at them to find my favorites, there might be three, and then I do a deep edit on those three. Fixing as much as I can and bringing the image to what I want I imagine it can be.

The beauty of shooting in RAW is that all the data is there and as I edit I am just pulling it out of the image and bringing it to life.

After diving into those few images you get your end result and hopefully you are happy with what you captured. This is something that took me quite a few tries to really feel confident about but when you nail one it's so epic because of how unique your image will look.

These tips can be applied to other aspects of photography, sports photos for example. If you implement motion blur to sport photos by using a slower shutter speed then you can add a different perspective that is different from the usual frozen action shot that we are used to seeing.

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