Tips from a Pro: Shooting Abstract Images

Commercial shooter Nicholas Alan Cope detours from shooting luxury goods to experiment in the unknown

Blue Nail Polish
Blue Nail Polish
Nicholas Alan Cope

What inspired you to make photographic abstractions?
I needed a change of pace. They're completely different from my usual work. Typically, I do luxury-brand product and cosmetic photography, and paper and cardboard fine-art pieces that I design, build, and photograph. They're essentially still lifes of specific objects that I carefully light, often with lots of compositing in post. So I wanted a break. I wanted to try something looser—ambiguous pictures with unidentifiable subjects. For me, it was a way of getting away from clean lines and lots of structure.

Did you find it liberating?
It was very liberating. It wasn't so much about what I could make, light, and arrange with my hands, but was more about the fun of raw seeing on a macro level. It was a very different way of working that was freeing.

What are your subjects?
These pictures are actually from two projects: One of cosmetics like nail polish, lipstick, and eye shadow; the other of more common household items like water, paint, and ink. I wanted to photograph them in a way that you couldn't really tell what they were.

Many look like astrophotography. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. This became an exercise in deconstruction. I would take something I happened to have in my studio and—playing with scale, movement, contrast, and other visual effects—would shoot until it worked as an abstraction. I found myself looking for something cosmic in things that were really very simple.

How did you select subjects?
I experimented. I went to hardware and art supply stores, and bought a bunch of things: inks, paints, solvents. Then I took them into the studio to see what would happen. It was a lot of trial and error. I would have two brands of eye shadow that looked similar and should have photographed similarly, but when I started playing with them, each reacted very differently. I played around to see what I liked.

Is this just a different form of your pro cosmetics work?

I would call it a more elemental, nontraditional approach to macro photography. You can’t really tell they’re cosmetics.

How did you manipulate your subjects?
It was different from my usual process, very unstructured. In some cases I would create a first image of the true color or texture of the subject, then ask, "Well, I've got that—what else can I do?" It kept building that way: New textures, new colors, new ways of looking. I kept adding new elements and mixing them up until I was satisfied.

For the cosmetics, the idea was to paint with eye shadow or lipstick on a black plastic tray. I’d crush and smear lipstick, for example. Then I might add a thinning agent like water or rubbing alcohol, and see what happened. I’d tilt or spin the tray to add line and a suggestion of movement.Each evolved differently and, when I look at them now, I sometimes can’t remember what the actual subject was.

How long for a single image?
It varied. Some subjects worked immediately, others took hours, and some didn't work at all. I shot about 1,500 images in total across a week of shooting in May 2010.

The lighting here seems less sophisticated than your commercial work.
Yes. That was liberating, too. For most of my commercial work, the lighting is the hard part. For lots of products, it's all about the lighting. It has to be clean, subtle and mood-setting. With abstractions, I don't have to obsess so much about it. The energy of the subject's lines and the dynamics of its shapes are my subjects, and they can be communicated with relatively simple, even lighting.

The technique was to shoot straight down at the subject, and I lit all the abstractions with Speedotron 4803cx packs with the 102 heads. For some of these I lit through a scrim, and for others I bounced the light off a large white board above the subject. I blacked out the rest of the room to kill any reflections. It’s actually a setup you might use for copy work, only a little softer. I didn’t want any funky shadows or anything like that.

How did you decide between color and monochrome?
It depended on the image. There was no formula, and as each evolved, I really had no idea if I'd print it in color or black-and-white. I wasn't too hung up on the color-versus-b&w question. I'd play with the image on the computer, and it was usually quickly obvious what worked best one way or the other. It's rare that an abstraction is equally effective in monochrome and in color. I do all my own printing on an Epson Stylus Pro 3800, and if I didn't like a color print, I'd go back and look at it in b&w to see if that was preferable.

Postproduction?
A little bit of exposure correction and color correction. Minor clean-ups. There might be a spot or bubble that was distracting—I would eliminate it. Normally, I do a lot of compositing, but not for these abstractions.

Any tips for photographers who want to attempt this themselves?
Work near a sink. No matter how careful you are, you end up making a mess

Gesso, Paint, Ink and Water
Gesso, Paint, Ink and Water
Cope used the same setup for all of the shots that follow: A Canon 5D Mark II and a 100mm f/2.8 image-stabilized macro. Exposures were 1/125 sec at f/8 - f/13, ISO's 80-100.Nicholas Alan Cope
Crushed Red Lipstick
Crushed Red Lipstick
Nicholas Alan Cope
Gesso, Paint, Ink and Water
Gesso, Paint, Ink and Water
Nicholas Alan Cope
Powdered Eye Shadow and Rubbing Alcohol
Powdered Eye Shadow and Rubbing Alcohol
Nicholas Alan Cope
Blue Nail Polish
Blue Nail Polish
Nicholas Alan Cope
Gesso, Paint, Ink and Water
Gesso, Paint, Ink and Water
Nicholas Alan Cope
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