Experimental photography is excellent if you’re stuck in a rut or trapped inside because of the weather. Here are 10 techniques you should try for a motivational kick.
In this article, I’ll focus on digital photography rather than film-based photography. Most of the techniques you can do without purchasing extra equipment. All you’ll need is your camera, some everyday items, and Photoshop.
What Is Experimental Photography?
Experimental photography is using your camera or post-processing in a non-traditional way. It’s about taking your photographs beyond the norm to create unique pieces of art. The sky’s the limit when it comes to experimental photography, it’s all about having fun and making crazy images! There’s really no way you can go wrong.
A search for “experimental photography” or “experimental portraiture” online will blow your mind with beautiful and disturbing images. Some images take a great deal of technical knowledge to achieve. Beginner photographers can also accomplish amazing experimental photography if they have a vision.
10. Intentional Motion Blur
IBM stands for “Intentional Motion Blur”. In this technique, I intentionally move my camera to blur the image.
To create a motion effect, I set a long shutter speed (about a ½-second) and move the camera while the shutter is open. I can move the camera side-to-side or up or down. I can spin the camera around.
Photographers with sure hands can set a 2-second timer and throw their cameras into the air. Just be sure to catch it!
Zoom blurs are a sub-set of IBM. With my camera mounted on a tripod, I set a 5 to 30-second shutter speed. This technique works best at night. Though I’ve also used a neutral density filter to create zoom blurs during the day. I set a 2-second timer to give me time to get ready to zoom.
When the shutter opens, I smoothly zoom my lens. I zoom both in and out to get different effects.
9. Light Painting
Light painting is using a light source (like a flashlight) to create light trails in an image. All you need is a dark environment.
Mount your camera on a tripod and set your shutter speed to 30 seconds. While the shutter is open, move a light source through the frame. If you’re moving fast, you will disappear, but the light will burn onto the image.
Run, dance, write. Do anything you’d like!
Incorporate light painting into a portrait for a dynamic background. A stationary person or object will show in the frame.
Popular online are photos of spinning steel wool. The photos are fun, but safety first! If you experiment with this technique, choose a place that won’t catch fire. Be ready with a fire extinguisher if something goes wrong.
8. Impressionistic Focus
Photographers spend a lot of time trying to get photos in focus. But creating an out of focus image sometimes better captures a mood or a shape. Throwing the image out of focus softens the subject, leaving only an impression. This is like Monet painting water lilies.
A very wide aperture (like f2.8) can create images where most of the frame is out of focus. With impressionistic focus, there’s no need to have any part of the image in focus.
Set your camera on manual focus and experiment with blur. I try to keep some of the shape of my subject, but you can go really abstract with this technique.
This Christmas tree was much more interesting with the lights out of focus. The in-focus version showed details like the wires connecting the lights. The blurred version is much more subtle.
You can use the impressionistic focus effect in experimental portrait photographer. Experimental portraits explore the essence of a person or explore the human form in a unique way. This may mean bending or breaking traditional portraiture “rules”.
In this image, I kept one of the flowers somewhat in focus, but feel free to blur everything.
7. Projected Image
Projecting light, shapes, and colors onto a surface is a way of adding dimension to an image. The surface can be anything: a backdrop, an object or even a person.
Some photographers place green screens behind their subjects. The green screen is later replaced with fantastic backdrops.
Using a projection technique can create experimental and even abstract portrait photography. Photographer Eric Burke uses projectors to cast shapes and textures onto his models, which creates photographic body art.
6. Alternative Filters
Wrap your lens with a sheet of clingfilm or sheer fabric. Or find an opaque surface: an old window with warped glass, a plastic bottle, or flowing water.
Photographing through alternative filters will create unique effects in your images.
You can also create unique bokeh effects by cutting a shape in an index card and holding it in front of your camera.
Look around the house and see what you have to play with. Some alternative filters you’ll like and others you won’t. That’s the fun of experimenting. It’s all about exploring artistic photography.
If you want to pursue these types of looks further, Lens Baby makes a series of lenses with unique effects.
5. Double Exposure
Double exposure is layering two images. Layer a landscape over a close-up of an animal or flower. Layer a cityscape over a portrait. Double exposures can add texture to a picture or add to the story.
Film photographers discovered this technique. A double exposure happens when the shutter is clicked without advancing the film.
Many digital cameras can be set to take double exposures. Since my camera (Sony A7R3) does not do double exposures, I use Photoshop. I create two layers with two different images. There is usually one primary image and one overlay. I usually reduce the opacity of the overlay. Then I try different blend modes to merge the photos together.
Another technique to create double exposures in-camera is looking for reflections. I can create a double exposure by shooting through a glass window. I capture the reflection as well as what lays beyond the glass.
I use this technique to create reflections in the water that may not have existed in reality (but should have!)
I copy the image in Photoshop and flip the copy vertically. To make the scene more realistic, I add ripple filters.
I also use the mirroring technique to create unique shapes. In the image below, I mirrored an architectural photograph horizontally. This creates a world that doesn’t exist in reality.
3. In-Camera effects
Many digital cameras have picture effects built into the camera. On my Sony A7II, I have effects like toy camera, selective color, and posterization.
These effects change the look of your photographs. Some add a color filter, while others add a painterly effect. Select an effect, and your camera will apply this effect to every picture you take.
Look in your camera’s menu to see what picture effects are available. You may have dozens of options to experiment with.
Montages are photographic collages.
Images, or elements of images, are layered together to create a new scene. Some photographers seamlessly layer the images, creating a unique world. Other photographers let the viewer see distinct images as separate yet connected.
1. Photoshop Filters
If I haven’t given you enough experimental photography techniques to play with, this final one might keep you busy for a while. Apply Photoshop filters to images in your back catalogue.
Photoshop includes a whole host of filters that can significantly change your photos. Let me show you two popular filters.
If you’ve ever seen circular images online and wondered how to create these, here’s the fairly easy trick. Apply the polar coordinates filter in Photoshop.
Using the photo of the fireworks over the St. Louis Gateway Arch, I create a square crop in Photoshop. Then I selected FILTER – DISTORT – and POLAR COORDINATES.
I played with both Rectangular to Polar and Polar to Rectangular choices. I also tried flipping my image upside-down. These options create different effects.
Some images work better than others, and that’s part of the experiment.
If you go too far with this tool, you can create Dali-inspired experimental portraits.
But I use the liquify tool to add all kinds of distortions to my images.
Selecting FILTERS and LIQUIFY in Photoshop will bring up a new editing tool. Play with them all! A little change goes a long way.
If you don’t use Photoshop, look at the tools in your post-processing software. Or try a new photo-processing app. My favourite is the free app Adobe Capture.
These 10 experimental photography techniques will help spark creative photography ideas. There are also plenty of others you can try!
Play with alternative photo-making equipment like pin-hole, toy, or infrared cameras. Or try your hand at alternative film processing techniques.
Experimental digital photography is anything outside the norm. It is about exploring what is possible with your camera and even what can be defined as a “photograph”.
Have some fun and use your camera and post-processing tools in a creative way!