How to do Abstract Watercolor Photography
When you’re ready to make the transition from “snapshooter” to a serious photographer, make photographs rather than simply take pictures, then you’re also ready to begin thinking like an artist. No longer should you snap a photo to simply record a representation of what you saw. You will want to begin to think about how to craft your image so that it tells a story, captures the emotion, and involves the viewer in a way that communicates to them. While the subject and the location still matter, it is also important to consider “how does my image make the viewer feel?”
A Wikipedia article on the famous photographer, Minor White, (July 9, 1908 – June 24, 1976) describes him this way – “An American photographer, theoretician, critic, and educator. He combined an intense interest in how people viewed and understood photographs with a personal vision that was guided by a variety of spiritual and intellectual philosophies.”
I especially like this quote from White –
“One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.” – Minor White
The use of the term watercolors in this article is not to describe how you might photograph a watercolor painting nor is it about how to use digital tools and techniques to emulate a watercolor look with your photograph. Instead, we explore how you can learn to see, and then photograph the interplay of light and water to make interesting, and often abstract, images. Such images will require you to look harder, quietly observe, study and then decide how you will use your camera to capture the image. You will want to think about how the scene makes you feel and how you will communicate that to your viewer.
A real benefit of making these kinds of photos is – unlike joining the dozens of photographers who might line up at sunrise at that iconic location and all snap away, essentially all making the same shot – these kinds of images will be uniquely yours.
Every image will be different. In most cases, you couldn’t replicate the shot even if you tried.
There’s much satisfaction in crafting something that is uniquely your vision and creation.
The qualities of light and water
You may have heard the origin of the word “photography,” based on the Greek words “phos” for light and “graphé” meaning drawing. Thus, photography is ‘”drawing with light.”
The light that enters our camera lens is either direct (emitted from a source like the sun, or an artificial light source), or reflected (light bouncing off an object and into our lens). We study the effect of light, and it’s absence, and use it to define the objects we photograph.
Now add water into the scene. Water can also reflect the light (and the various colors comprising it). It can also refract the light – bending, altering, and even splitting it into its component colors.
Light waves are changed as they pass from a less-dense material like air to a more-dense medium like water. Understanding the physics behind how this works isn’t important. What you as a photographer, a trained observer, and an artist, want to do is learn how to watch for and then capture the interplay of light and water.
The three properties of water
Okay, hang on, just a little more physics here.
Water exists in three states:
- solid (ice and snow), and
- gas (steam, fog, clouds, mist).
How light behaves when it is reflected off the water in these states or refracted through them will become part of your observation training as photographer and artist.
Something else water can do is move. From massive ocean waves, flowing rivers, erupting geysers, human-made fountains, tiny dripping drops, swirling fog and mist, snow and rain, in many forms water moves.
Our cameras can freeze that motion with high shutter speeds or flash or blur it with long exposures. Water and how it behaves gives us tremendous opportunities for creativity with our cameras.
Combining still objects in the photo which don’t move, (think a rocky coastline), with water that does (like the waves) in a long exposure, and you create an exciting image that displays both static and dynamic elements.
Realistic or abstract?
There are no rules when it comes to how you choose to depict water in your photo. It might be quite literal like an image of a waterfall. It could play a “supporting role,” adding story and color to an image. Or it could be about how the light interacts with the water; liquid, solid, or gas. Alternatively, maybe it’s totally abstract – all about the shape, form, line, and color with no concern whatsoever to what the subject might be.
The objective here is to become a “student of light,” observing how light and water interact to create interesting scenes to photograph.
Learning by observing
The rest of this article will be about the photos. Study how I made each one and the way water, in its various forms, is used in combination with the light to make the image. I have captioned the photos with additional information about them. See what you can learn and then go make your own unique images.