Sequence viewing > Aesthetics Index - Resource - © Lloyd Godman

Visual abstractions

While the various aesthetic theories have their pros and cons, and we can turn it into a never ending science, it is valuable to know that people tend to read images in predictable ways, and understanding some simple principles allows us the knowledge to construct our images in a visually compelling way that gives them impact.


To understand visual principles we need to think in a less literal way and look at the subject from a more abstract perspective.

So while the subject of this image is a wave - the first thing we see in the resulting image is the profile of a face. The subject is a breaking wave - while the face is an abstraction created by the profile of the lip of the wave against the sky, areas of light and dark, and the texture around the areas we read as the mouth, nose, eyes.

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The human brain makes sense of the visual chaos which is the world around us by distinguishing one object from another. Our survival depends upon it. We are able to read across intricate colour and tonal values, distinguish spatial relationships to make sense of the visual abstraction that is our vision. As we grow from a new born baby, we learn to interpret this information and distinguish one object from another and what their significance is to us.


For instance; imagine a path where there is an intricate and abstract play of high light and shadow from a canopy of trees, perhaps the wind is blowing and the mottled pattern is also in motion. You are speeding along on a bike, but to navigate the path safely, amongst this visual chaos, we need to understand more than the visual abstraction projected through our eyes - it is essential we understand what is a another bike or a pedestrian etc. our brain needs to clearly warn us what these objects are - separate them from the shadows and give them importance.


The moving floor at Chicago airport has a fantastic animated light display overhead and alongside it are announcement not to look at the light display because it can disorientate.


While light and shadow can provide abstraction, often by framing the subject tightly we can produce a sense of intrigue through abstraction.

Photographing subjects like a garden, bush etc and be difficult in bright sunlight -  the patterns of light and shadow can contradict the intended subject creating an abstraction and the photographer needs to consider the play of light and shadow as the subject.

For many of the images like the one on the left, that I took for the Entropy project, I deliberately played with the burnt black tree trunks and the play of black shadows on the earth. The bold shadows become a key aspect of the image and I had to "see" these within the landscape and frame the image accordingly.

However, in this image from the same series the light is flat and there are no shadows that play across the land.

Many landscape photographers who photograph scenes like this chose to work with flat light and avoid the abstraction that the shadows create.


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