Urban Abstract

I frequently run ‘Urban Abstracts‘ workshops and the question that is normally in the forefront of any potential participants mind is “what do you mean by ‘urban abstracts’?”.


As a creative photographer who likes to keep my options open I don’t naturally incline towards fencing myself in with pedantic barriers so my definition is deliberately loose – any abstract, graphic image found in a town or city. For the type of image, I like to take I’ve found the ‘urban’ environment offers greatest potential but these abstract photographs can be found in any environment (see separate box for some suggested themes or subjects).


That is one of the attractions of course – these images can be found almost anywhere and usually very close to home regardless 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 is a great place 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“.

And similarly Marcel Proust said:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.


This requires regular practice, constantly looking at the world searching for photographic potential and very soon you’ll be seeing images in the most unusual & unexpected places. This is one of the reasons why I always carry a camera with me.


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, road markings 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 have previously written about the value of working on projects or themes and this is an approach I’ve found particularly useful with my urban 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). It requires a disciplined approach but I know from personal experience that the rewards make the self-control worthwhile.  Working on a theme 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.


I’ll close with a health warning drawn from personal experience. This type of photography can become incredibly addictive.

It will become impossible to leave the house without seeing potential images everywhere (I even take a camera to the local supermarket!). Friends and family will refuse to stay by you as you kneel down at the kerbside to photograph a particularly photogenic double yellow line. Your dog will start to demand regular treats as a reward for patience each time you spend 15 minutes or more photographing the lines and colours of parked cars. Trust me – your life will never be the same again.



Box 1 – Examples/Suggestions of Subjects

Shadows – use shadows as studies in line and shape.

Road Markings – double yellow lines, painted arrows, ‘Stop’ and ‘Give Way’ markings for example can all be turned into works of art.

Street Signs – most towns and cities are over populated with street and road signs. Frame tightly to crop out extraneous detail and make the most of graphic lines and bold colours.

Patterns in Modern Architecture – a visit to a city centre or the nearest industrial estate can reveal interesting patterns and shapes in the most mundane of buildings. Lighting and composition are the keys to success.

Textures – rust and decay can be found in most urban areas. I’ve spent hours photographing rusty fence posts, rotting railway sleepers, peeling paint on corrugated metal buildings.

Reflections – in puddles, glass fronted office buildings, shop windows can all offer abstract potential.


Box 2 – Equipment Needs

One of the great things about this sort of photography is that it doesn’t require expensive or specialist equipment. Successful images can be made with a compact camera, a DSLR and everything in between.

Zoom lens – one minute you could be taking a close up image and the next a telephoto shot of a distant building or a wide angle view of a subject close by. To minimise the amount of time changing lenses a wide ranging zoom lens offers maximum flexibility and portability. My particular favourite is the Olympus 14-150mm II lens (28-300mm in 35mm equivalent focal lengths). There was a time when these ‘superzooms’ compromised image quality but not so these days.

A Macro lens – could be useful if you like doing a lot of close up, detail work. However a lot of ‘standard’ zooms (and even compact cameras) offer a close up (not true macro) facility and this can be good enough for all but the most specialist application.


Polarising Filter – great for giving a boost to colours or removing reflections from non-metallic surfaces.


A tripod – can improve image quality and allow the use of slow shutter speeds. However, although I’m generally a strong advocate for tripod use, for this type of work I prefer to travel light and work fast, relying on the image stabilisation in my Olympus camera bodies to keep things sharp.



About the Photographer

Steve Gosling is an award winning professional photographer who specialises in producing landscape and travel images. He is an experienced instructor having run workshops in the UK and abroad, encouraging and inspiring photographers of all levels from across the world.

As well as working closely with Phase One and Lee Filters Steve is an Ambassador for Olympus cameras, Manfrotto/Gitzo tripods and Permajet inkjet papers.

Website – www.stevegoslingphotography.co.uk

Steve Gosling runs a programme of workshops for those wanting to improve their landscape photography – for more information visit http://www.stevegoslingphotography.co.uk/workshops.htm





Steve GoslingOther articles by author

Steve is a professional photographer who specialises in producing creative & contemporary landscape and travel images. His photographs have been published internationally illustrating posters, cards, books, magazines, newspapers & calendars. His fine art prints have been widely exhibited and have also appeared on sets for both theatre & film productions.

His work has also won many awards - for example, his landscape images have been successful in the UK’s ‘Black & White Photographer of the Year’ competition and for the last 3 years he has had images shortlisted in the prestigious international 'B&W Spider Awards', achieving an Honourable Mention in 2016.

He enjoys writing & teaching about photography and frequently gives talks on landscape photography to photographic groups in the UK and abroad. He is also a regular contributor to many of the major photography magazines in the UK as well as a growing number of overseas titles. He has run a successful workshop programme for several years in locations across the world from Iceland to Antarctica, encouraging and inspiring photographers of all levels.

As well as working closely with Phase One (for whom he is a Fieldwork Professor) and Lee Filters Steve is an Ambassador for Olympus, Manfrotto/Gitzo tripods & Permajet inkjet papers.

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