Patterns, Textures and Abstracts in Photography

by Robert Berdan
November 21, 2010



mixture of patterns and texture photographs by Robert Berdan

Mix of patterns starting at top left: Arbutus bark, top right, Lichen on pine tree, Lower left map lichen, lower
right smooth stones on a beach.

Often photographers look at the big picture and miss opportunities that are right at their feet. I am talking about small things such as the patterns on a plant, bark or fungus growing on a tree. These patterns and textures can include rocks, rusted metal, fungi, moss, lichens, leaves, branches or stones on a beach. Rusted metal found on old vehicles and machinery are often rich in textures and a visit to the scrap yard can provide a wealth of material. Identifying and then photographing these patterns can be an enjoyable pursuit in themselves. To start just begin looking closely at the things around you.

Air bubbles in frozen ice by Robert Berdan

Air bubbles frozen in Ice make for an abstract looking shape - 100 mm macro lens.

The word pattern is derived from the French word patron which refers to a theme of recurring elements. Texture refers to the tactile quality of a surface. The tactile quality of a surface is often emphasized when it is illuminated from an angle or the side. Shadows cast by the elements that make up the texture can add a three dimensional sense of depth. An abstract photograph can be one where the elements that make up the picture are not easily or quickly recognizable and many close-up photographs of real world items can resemble abstract art work. To appreciate abstract art we need to use our imagination when we view them.

Metal textures from a old mining graveyard of machinery by Robert Berdan

Textures made out of rusted metal and paint - photographed at a machinery graveyard in Yellowknife

Patterns and textures are all around us. To take notice of textures and patterns you simply need to stop moving and consciously look around at your environment. The Arctic tundra is covered in a carpet of moss and lichen and when I began to  look closely I discovered an incredibly rich variety of plant life. In a forest, I find the ground covered with leaves, mushrooms and other decaying matter - the closer I  looked the more patterns or textures I could see. While these type of images may  not be my best sellers, I am amazed at how similar some of them look compared to abstract paintings I see in art galleries and other web sites.

Tundra landscape with box showing closeup region with lichen and bearberry by Robert Berdan

The Arctic tundra is covered in lichen and moss and when you move in closer you begin to see the many beautiful
patterns and textures that exist almost everywhere. (see photo below).

Bearberry leaves, lichen and rock by Robert Berdan

Bearberry leaves and lichen growing on a rock - I like to call these type of photographs "Groundscapes"

Caribou salad - mixture of lichens and moss by Robert Berdan

Caribou salad - a mixture of lichen, moss, bear berry leaves make for an interesting groundscape. The antler shaped
lichen is Masonhalea richardsonii (Named after Dr. Richardson of the 1821 Franklin expedition).

To appreciate the details and textures in a picture it often helps to make the pictures large - so it is easier to explore the details. Some photographers prefer to use a large format camera to capture the tiniest details like pine needles on the plants or rocks. You might consider when was the last time you looked really closely at a leaf? The edge, veins and ribs that make up a leaf can be incredibly complex.  To see detail consider carrying a magnifying glass with you. A macro lens or a telephoto lens with the ability to focus closely will be help you capture textures and patterns. To ensure the pictures are sharp and carefully composed, I recommend using a tripod and cable release. If the subject you are photographing is relatively flat, orient your camera parallel to the scene and use  F8 or F11 F-stop setting to get the sharpest pictures. If you need more depth of field set your camera to F16-F22, but realize that you will lose a little bit of sharpness due diffraction of light around the lens aperture. Take lots of pictures but don't rush. Sometimes you discover the best pictures later when you start editing them.

Leaves and Reindeer moss by Robert Berdan

Leaves and Reindeer Moss

Photographs of textures and patterns frequently do not have an obvious center of interest or main element. I think the most effective photos are those that include some repetition, but also a certain amount of chaos or disorder. Sometimes it's the mixture and arrangement of colours and textures that can make for an interesting photo. I have also found that the more time you spend looking and photographing textures, the more you will begin to see. You need to relax and if possible shoot in a single area for at least an hour or more. Study the details.

Forest floor by Robert Berdan

Forest floor in Autumn made up of last year and this years leaves and acorns

Pine needles on granite by Robert Berdan

White pine needles on granite with wet lichen

I sometimes find that when I travel to a place and I become restricted in my movement for what ever reason, that is when I begin to really notice textures and patterns around me. I think the key element is stay in one place and get really close to your subject. You don't have to go anywhere, just sit still in a chair at home, or while resting in your motel and really look at the curtains, floor, or ceiling. Take a walk down a back alley in your neighborhood, find a forest, beach or junk yard and bring your camera. If for no other reason searching for patterns and textures is a good exercise that I believe will improve your photography.

The sea shore is a rich source of textures and patterns

Starfish in tidepool by Robert Berdan

Tide Pool filled with colorful starfish and Anemones

Razor clams by Robert Berdan

Pelagic Goose Barnacles photographed on the West Coast of Vancouver Island - they were attached to a log.

Acorn Barnacles by Robert Berdan

Acorn Barnacles and clams packed onto a rock

Lilly pads by Robert Berdan

LIlly pads of different size crowd into as much area of water as they can - photographed from above

Autumn leaves Bowmount Park by Robert Berdan

Autumn leaves in Bowmount park - a telephoto lens has flattened the perspective

Some General Tips for Photographing Textures and Patterns.

  • Slow down and spend an hour or more in one area
  • Bring a macro lens with you and or magnifying lens
  • Get up close to the objects, ground or trees and look carefully
  • When photographing use a tripod and cable release
  • Try to shoot when you have lighting from the side to create shadows that emphasize the texture
  • overcast light can can make even three dimensional elements appear flat like the leaves above.


Other Articles and references that might be of interest:


Old Truck and Robert Berdan by Kamal Varma ©

Photograph of Rob Berdan and old truck in Miner's graveyard of equipment and tools in Yellowknife, NT
by Kamal Varma ©


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