Get creative: how to shoot abstract portraits

Add another element to your portraits by experimenting with multiple exposures, light painting, shadow play and more for amazing abstractions.
Multiple colourful light trails weave around a model with her hands on her hips, against a black background.

Abstraction of the human figure has taken many shapes through the history of art, from Picasso's cubist forms to the sculptures of Henry Moore. In photography, an abstract portrait can offer us a different reality to the everyday faces and bodies that we are all used to seeing. There are no rules, no need for sharpness or accuracy. Rather than capturing an accurate representation of our subjects, we can channel concepts and emotion through our images. It's also a great test of our camera skills and an opportunity for endless experimentation and playfulness.

1. Play with shadows

In this black and white image, a model's head is tightly framed against a black background, the shadow of a mandala design falling onto her forehead and across the rest of her face.

This black and white portrait perfectly highlights the play of shadow and light. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/500 sec, f/4 and ISO100.

A model sits in sunlight against a black backdrop, a mandala pattern held in front of her by a tripod casting shadows across her skin.

Placed between the bright sun and our subject, a circular mandala template casts an array of interesting shadows. The Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM has the ideal focal length for this kind of close-up portrait.

Why not create interesting patterns of light and shade across your subject? All you need is an object with gaps or holes to let the light in. These types of light blockers are called 'gobos' in English (short for go-betweens). You'll probably be able to find lots of items around the house that could work. Loosely woven blankets, radiator covers, slatted window blinds, colanders or even tree branches or metal garden tables outside could all work. Here, we've used a template with a circular mandala pattern. Of course, you could also create your own custom gobos with a sheet of card and a craft knife.

The key to creating well-defined shadows with your gobo is to use a hard-edged light source. Direct sunlight is ideal, but you could also use a torch, a bare bulb or a Speedlite. The smaller the light source, the harder and clearer the shadows will be. Bring the gobo in as close to the face as possible, and if you're using artificial light move the source far away and turn off all other lights. The great thing about abstract portraits is that you don't necessarily need pro-level kit to capture quality shots. A beginner-friendly DSLR such as the Canon EOS 850D with kit lens or portrait lens would be ideal. As for camera settings, use Aperture priority (Av) mode and try adding a stop or two of negative exposure compensation so that the shadows come out nice and deep.

2. Capture surreal reflections

A camera is held close to the ground, aiming at a group of overlapping shards of mirror.

A few shards of broken mirror can be put to use for atmospheric portraits. The vari-angle LCD on the Canon EOS R6 is very handy when shooting low to the ground like this.

A group of mirror shards lie on the ground, the largest piece reflecting the head and torso of a man looking away.

Tell a story about identity and self with broken shards of mirror. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/60 sec, f/22 and ISO640.

Mirrors can evoke strong feelings about self and identity, so they're an ideal prop to introduce into abstract portraiture. When working with mirrors, the challenge is in getting the angles right and positioning the subject in the reflection. You also need to choose between focusing on the reflected figure or the mirror itself, as the two will be on different planes of focus. If you want them both to be sharp then try using a narrow aperture such as f/16, as this lets you expand your depth of field.

Using a mirror you can shoot a whole array of abstract images, experimenting with self-portraits and creating angles. If you have a small hand mirror, you can have your subject hold it close to their face, making a surreal portrait, alternatively you could use more than one large mirror and create the infinity effect of a never-ending image.

3. Paint faces with light

Multiple colourful light trails weave around the head and torso of a model, against a black background.

Colourful light trails can create a dramatic, fantastical effect. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 44mm, 8 sec, f/16 and ISO100.

A model stands in front of a camera and tripod with one hand on her hip. Behind her, a man holds up a twirling, multi-coloured LED light.

A torch or a twirling LED (the kind you can make at home or buy at a fairground) can be used to create swirling light trails around your subject over the course of a long exposure.

While we experience reality from one moment to the next, a camera is capable of capturing different expanses of time, together in a single image. A long exposure lets us stretch out our shutter speed for all kinds of abstract effects, and one of the most eye-catching is light painting.

By moving a light source such as a coloured torch around a scene during an exposure of several seconds, you can create stunning trails of light. To make light-painted portraits you need to shoot in a dark room (it needn't be pitch black), ask your subject to stay as still as possible, and set up your camera on a tripod. The right exposure settings will depend on the strength of the torches and any ambient light, but a good place to start is in Manual (M) mode with shutter speed at 13 seconds, aperture f/16 and ISO100. Press the shutter then start waving your torch or other light sources around your subject in smooth, flowing lines to paint with light. Try painting both in front of and behind your subject to add depth to the effect, and try shining your torch towards their face to illuminate that as well – remember to do this from the side so you're not captured in the final image.

4. Shoot through glass

A man holds a camera up to his eye, shooting through a glass door sprinkled with water droplets to a model on the other side.

Shooting through glass can slightly blur or obscure the subject, while water on the glass can add further atmospheric effects.

A woman looks to the side with her eyes closed. She is out of focus and viewed through glass with water droplets trickling down.

A wide aperture of f/2.8 coupled with the sharpness of the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens lets us bring the water drops on the window to the fore while throwing the face behind out of focus. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO320.

Translucent surfaces are ideal for abstract portraiture. Placed between subject and camera, frosted glass, thin silk or any other semi-opaque surface will obscure the details but leave the impression of the face, resulting in portraits of ethereal beauty. Try placing your subject on one side of a window, facing out towards the light, then shoot from the other side of the glass. Experiment with the point of focus – you might want to focus on the surface so that the face behind is blurred. A spray of water on the glass can create a wonderful melancholy mood, especially when shooting on an overcast day.

5. Create multiple exposures

The outline of a woman's face and shoulders are filled in with swirling red and blue paints.

Shooting a portrait against a bright backdrop means you can then use a double exposure to fill in just their outline. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/5 and ISO100.

The LCD screen of a camera shows the head and shoulders of a woman against a bright sky, overlapped with splashes of blue and red paint.

The Multiple exposure mode on the Canon EOS R6 lets us blend portraits with anything we like. We captured an array of paint splashes for vibrant results.

The Multiple exposure mode on your Canon camera lets you blend two or more photos together to create conceptual images and abstract effects. The effect is inspired by the old film camera technique of exposing the same frame of film twice. But with a Canon camera such as the EOS R6 you can take things to another level. After choosing a number of exposures in the camera menu we take our first shot, then as we compose a second, we'll see the previous frame overlaid on top of the live view feed, which helps us frame them to work in harmony. You can also achieve this effect in post-processing using Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP).

When making double exposure portraits, try framing your subject in profile, silhouetted against a bright backdrop such as the sky or a window. Then, when you go to take your second frame it will conform to the bold outline of the head. As for the second frame (or third, fourth or fifth), the creative choices are endless. You could choose a cityscape or a nature scene, pick an object that's close to the subject's heart, capture an animal or even blend in another person.

Next time you go to shoot a portrait, think about it differently and express yourself with any or all of these tips.

Written by James Paterson

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