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What makes a good abstract photograph? What qualities does the image need and what are some of the pitfalls to avoid when composing your images?

In this article I’ll be outlining my own personal guidelines and philosophy, and what I aspire to in my own abstract photography. If you speak with another abstract photographer you may encounter a completely different set of criteria, but that’s the beauty of working in such a diverse and exciting genre!

Paper Stairway - abstract photography by Jane Trotter
‘Paper Stairway’ – simplicity of design


  • For me, simplicity is the most important element.
  • I think there should be a singularity of purpose – by that I mean make a single statement with your image, remove any unwanted or distracting elements and don’t confuse the viewer. There’s likely to be an element of uncertainty in the viewer’s mind already as they may not be able to recognise or determine the original subject matter. Try not to add to the confusion.
  • What’s important is that the design elements from which the shot is constructed are clean, uncluttered and easily processed.
Crossed - abstract photography by Jane Trotter
Ordering shapes and patterns in ‘Crossed’


  • Having a clear structural design is paramount.
  • I firmly believe that abstract photography is not a licence to do whatever you like, where the normal rules of composition don’t apply. If anything, they become even more important and accentuated.
  • Give consideration to how you are going to order the shapes, patterns and colours within the image.
  • In particular, think about balance and proportion. These aspects are crucial as often you may be relying upon very little to create your image.
Colour Contours - abstract photography by Jane Trotter
Controlling colours in ‘Colour Contours’
  • How do the colours contribute to the construction of your image? Some colours may be ‘weighted’ more heavily and draw our attention, either to where we want it, or less ideally, to where we don’t.
  • A colour’s visual impact will be dependent upon and relative to the other colours surrounding it, so think about how you can control the colours in your image to emphasise the shapes or highlight a point of interest.
Piano Kaleidoscope - abstract photography by Jane Trotter
Leading lines in ‘Piano Kaleidoscope’
  • Equally as important is the use of leading lines to control your entry into the picture and subsequent movement around the shot. Do the shapes lead your eye to the main point of interest within the photograph?
  • Controlled and imaginative use of depth of field will also contribute to highlighting areas and guiding your eye to the desired location.


  • Lighting can be used to enhance or exaggerate shape and form, and to give prominence to certain areas within the image. Personally, I almost always prefer to use natural light.
  • Consider the direction of your light source. Several of my images are strongly backlit and that can provide a very different and dramatic effect.
Prismatic - abstract photography by Jane Trotter
Backlighting used in ‘Prismatic’
  • Equally, strong side lighting can be used to give prominence to textural features.
  • The creation and inclusion of shadows can also add mystery, depth and added interest to a shot.
Colour Channels - abstract photography by Jane Trotter
Use of shadows in ‘Colour Channels’

Angle of View

  • The angle of view relates closely to composition and how you wish to present your subject matter. You may need to eliminate certain distracting or displeasing elements – for example, a colour which stands out too prominently, or a particular shape which leads you out of the frame or doesn’t sit well with the other patterns in the image.
  • Work at finding the angle of view which will give you the best possible vantage point for your subject with the least amount of distraction. Always be prepared to be flexible and experiment.
Abstract photography by Jane Trotter
The many orientation possibilites for ‘Noughts and Cross’
  • In fact, you may continue your experimentation post capture by rotating or flipping your image. This is a great opportunity to compare how a shot will look with a different orientation. You may be very pleasantly surprised with the results. Abstracts tend to lend themselves more to this kind of investigation so it’s well worth doing.
Splay of Colour - abstract photography by Jane Trotter
‘Splay of Colour’ – patterns and colours co-existing

Harmony and Cohesion

  • Because there tends to be very little in my shots – what I decide to include must work together harmoniously and cohesively. So, in terms of the balance and proportion of the image, there needs to be a complementary ‘weighting’ of elements.
  • Patterns and colours within the image can’t contradict each other or work in opposition – in other words, I don’t want them fighting for dominance, creating confusion, or drawing the viewer’s eye away from where I want them to be looking.
  • Lines, curves, colours and patterns will ideally co-exist rather than compete, enhance rather than detract.
Birth of Colour - abstract photography by Jane Trotter
Capturing the mystery in ‘Birth of Colour’

Mystery & Accessibility

  • As in all photography, I think an abstract image should engage us on an emotional level. What I’m looking for is an element of mystery, mood and intrigue.
  • I want my images to be inviting – encouraging viewers to really look – so even if they’re unsure of the actual subject matter, they can still appreciate the shapes and forms which make up the image itself.
  • Above all, I want to stimulate the viewer’s imagination and sense of wonder, to share and communicate my vision.

You can find more information on the subject of abstract photography in my articles, Definition of Abstract Photography and the Top 10 Reasons for taking Abstract Photos.

About the Author

Jane Trotter is an abstract photographer living in Dunedin, New Zealand. Reimagining everyday objects found around the home, Jane transforms them into colourful and dramatic pieces of contemporary art.

Jane Trotter