Most of the people start with photography by getting a camera (no matter what type), going out and trying different things. It usually takes a while until one finds what topics or types of photography are the preferred ones and, once that happens, it takes even longer to develop the technique to a relatively good level. What takes even longer, probably a lifetime, is to develop our own vision of that type of photography that we enjoy the most. Making good photos can be difficult, but making unique photos is what makes good photographers stand out and it is indeed the most difficult step of all.
In terms of learning curve, a common problem that arises once we acquired a good technique is one of stagnation. It usually comes a moment in our life as photographers (both amateur and professional) when we find ourselves satisfied with the results we achieve, but where our production rate falls steeply. In fact, for most people, the better one gets as a photographer, the fewer photos one takes and, I think, this is a perfect combination to get us to that stagnation point I mentioned. To get out of that situation it is necessary to find ways to motivate yourself, and trying out different things can be a great idea.
Now, while simply taking a trip or trying a style of photography you are not used to (like, for instance, making some portraits for a landscape photographer) can help you find motivation, today I want to focus on different ways of perceiving and capturing the world with your camera that can be considered as abstract. Some of the ideas I explore in this article are alternate ways of using your gear, while others are just related to the way you look at the world around you. That said, the abstract is a very broad term and creativity has no limits, so don’t be afraid to try different things with your cameras and always be careful with sensitive parts (especially the sensor) when doing so.
This is probably the easiest way of using your camera in a non-standard way. In fact, you may have probably already tried this but if not, it is worth a shot. You basically need a camera with a manual zoom lens. By manual here I simply mean that you can control the focal length with your hand in contrast to using a motor like in compact cameras. You then compose your image and, while taking the photo, move your zoom (either in or out) so that the movement is captured by the camera. For this, you need a relatively slow shutter speed (about 1/10 should do it) and the trickiest part is to actually move the zoom while taking the photo, not before and not after. Also, since the motion of your hand will surely affect the stability of your camera, you might want to try this with your camera on a tripod. Although the technique is very simple, if you carefully choose your subject it can provide an interesting and visually appealing effect.
A camera can be clearly divided into two parts: body and lens. The body is simply the interpreter of the incoming light (through a sensor in the case of a digital camera and through the film in the case of analog cameras) and the lens is the part responsible for focusing the incoming light so that the final image makes some sense. Something you can try is to replace the lens of your camera for some other focusing mechanism.
If you take a photo simply without any lens, you will get an almost completely white image without any information on it. However, if you put some type of focusing object between the camera and the subject and play with your exposure times, you can capture the world under a completely different light. As a focusing object you might try things like glasses (crystal works pretty well), narrow apertures (mimicking a pinhole camera) or even liquids; in general, anything that diffracts the light on some way.
Be very careful with this experiment and do it only under conditions you can control (preferably indoors). When you take a photo without a lens, for the exposure time you are actually exposing the sensor to the surrounding environment and this can lead to a dirty sensor in the end. In fact, even before exposing the sensor, any dust particle flying around can end up deposited on the mirror of the camera and from there it doesn’t take much until it reaches the sensor!
A simpler way to experiment with your camera is by going out and looking at normal subjects from different angles and perspectives. Instead of looking at the global scene in front of you as you usually do, concentrate on small details and, when taking the photo, position yourself in different ways than you normally would. The idea is that, in the end, the photo doesn’t resemble the subject you were capturing, being simply unrecognizable or difficult to identify.
These are just three ideas and I am sure you can come up with much more. The main aim is to avoid repetition and routine to prevent you from practicing your skills. Simply go out and play with your camera and your subjects and you might end up pleasantly surprised!