Looking, Seeing, Visual Design – and Abstracts

Summary – Learning to make abstract photos is a good way to learn to see (not just look). Also, abstracts are design-based (not subject-based) and thus are an excellent genre for learning visual design. Part-1 of a series.


” You can observe a lot by watching ” (Yogi Berra) 

Mission: Photography Improvement

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves

Improving your ability both to See & to Compose

Your 6-part mission assignment is described below



D300_091102_182416__DSC9978_nx2 cep4bas brdr

Mark Rothko Made Me Do It 😉

A large-scale found abstract

Background is miles wide & deep

Foreground shape is about 15 feet long

Succeeds in spite of its size by isolating

Person next to me looked at: a sunset (with a tree nearby)

I saw: a shape  silhouetted  by lovely color gradations


Or how about displaying it like this

It’s a design, not a picture of a subject

Orientation is dictated only by a subject

D300_091102_182416__DSC9978_nx2 cep4bas brdr

Up, up & Away


Sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia

How many times have you viewed an image like today’s above?

Not often, if ever, I’d guess

This location, a popular site, can look like a tripod farm at times

Giving rise to 1000’s upon 1000’s of this next version


I prefer to show you something that you didn’t see

Even as you stood “looking” right next to me!

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.
Jonathan Swift

Everyone can do the obvious – and does

Like the version above made at the same time & location

Nice enough BUT repetitive – not original

It’s what every member of a photo workshop

Almost without exception

Came home with after going here with the leader

The differences being only in technical executions


Most workshops are more properly named

Trophy Image Capture Outings

Learn to do what everyone else has already done

Dare to be different!!


Looking & Seeing

Looking is passive

You simply show up & open your eyes

You’re aware of familiar objects like trees and roads

Seeing is actively engaging your brain – primarily its right side

Taking time to be aware of things beyond the obvious 

You see shapes, lines, colors, tones, textures

The objects of visual design



Visual Design addresses the grammar and syntax for creating

2-dimensional visual objects

It specifies the language of composition

The how & where of

Placing visual design objects in the picture space

The foremost teacher of visual design is Freeman Patterson

His book can provide greater photography improvements

Than any new piece of equipment you might next add


Consider the above to be a two-step process:

1. The seeing-step generates the input to step 2

2. The visual design step tells how to arrange this input in the design space (your viewfinder in this case)

Done well, no Photoshop-type step-3 should be needed

Except the normal tonal & color contrast work

Step-1 plus step-2 equal an abstract photograph

1+2+ over-the-top digital filtering is abstract digital art


Your Mission –

With the above short description on looking, seeing & visual design

Make six abstract photos as follows

Three done indoors and three outdoors

A macro/close-up, a wide-angle and a telephoto

You can try for twelve by making

Six found and six created abstracts

(the difference is exactly what the names suggest)

You must use the following as your criteria for abstract –

An abstract contains no immediately identifiable subject

A key abstract “how-to” is to isolate, isolate –

and then isolate some more

Just like “when you think you’re close enough,

move closer” (which is a way to help isolate)

This being the case, the macro/close-up will be easiest

The wide-angle will be the most difficult

Do these on separate days & concentrate on one at a time


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3 thoughts on “Looking, Seeing, Visual Design – and Abstracts

    • Welcome to abstracts. Check tomorrow’s blog for my own personal “1st abstract” in this challenge series. I plan to present 1 or 2 regularly along with a personal image critique – including follow-up attempts to improve on this first one.

  1. Pingback: Abstracts | MJ Springett

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