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10 Experimental Photography Techniques You Should Try

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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.

A black and white image of a woman with her head blurred
Photo by Elina Krima from Pexels

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.

Abstract photo with bright colors

10. Intentional Motion Blur

IBM stands for “Intentional Motion Blur”. In this technique, I intentionally move my camera to blur the image.

Abstract photo with blurred effect
I didn’t have good light at the Agora statues in Chicago’s Grant Park, so I played with IMB. I moved my camera up and down to create this effect. My settings were 0.5 of a second at f6.3, ISO100.

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.

Abstract photo of flowers on a field
Setting my camera with a 100-400mm lens on a tripod, I loosened the collar on the lens. This allowed me to spin the camera while the shutter was open. My settings were 1/5 of a second at f5.6, ISO200.

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.

Experimental photo with light painting
Photographing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, I zoomed my lens with the shutter open. My settings were 15 seconds at f16, ISO400.

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.

Experimental photo with light painting
In this photo, a friend of mine spins burning steel wool in cooking whisk held by about a ½ meter of string. They started walking from the far end of the bridge towards the camera. Photo by Jorge Restrepo @JorgeRestrepoPhotography Jorge’s settings were 20 seconds at f11, ISO 320.

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.

Abstract photo of a Christmas tree
Blurred lights leave the essence of a Christmas tree without the detail. My settings were 1/25 of a second at f4.5, ISO100.

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.

Photo of a girl holding pink flowers in front of her face
Experimental portraiture with the subject blurred. My settings were 1/400 at f2.8, ISO 100.

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.

Stunning abstract portraits photography of a model’s face wrapped in a piece of fabric that captures the patterns from two projectors
Two projectors were used to create this image. One projects onto the background and the other on the model. The model’s face is wrapped in a piece of fabric that captures the details of the projection. Photo by Eric Burke @genuineburke

6. Alternative Filters

Filters can be much more than neutral density or polarizing filters. Anything in front of the lens is a filter.

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.

Photo of a woman looking out of a window
I photographed this model through a glass door. The reflections create a hazy filter. My settings were 1/160 of a second at f4.0, ISO5000.

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.

Fine art photography of two layered photos of the same staircase taken from different angles.
I layered two photos of the same staircase taken from different angles. My settings for both photographs were 1/30th of a second at f4.0, ISO200.

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.

Abstract architecture photo
In this image, it’s difficult to tell what is reflection and what is seen beyond the glass. My settings were 1/160 of a second at f8.0, ISO100

4. Mirroring

Mirroring is copying and flipping an image in Photoshop to create a reflection. Mirroring is one of many alternative photography processes available in Photoshop.

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.

Photo of fireworks reflecting on a waterscape
Fireworks over the Gateway Arch with a reflection added in post-processing. My settings were 2 seconds at f11, ISO100.

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.

Abstract architecture photo
The right side of this image is at the Chicago Cultural Center. Mirroring the image creates new patterns in the architecture. My settings were 1/20th of a second at f8 ISO1600.

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.

A six photo grid of the same blue flower, highlighting the experimentation photography effects of posterization, retro, soft focus, miniature, and illustration.
Six of the effects my camera will add to photographs. The top right photograph is the original. From left to right the effects are posterization, retro, soft focus, miniature, and illustration.

2. Montage

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.

Experimental montage photo
A montage I’m working on using elements of four different photos (so far). The eye and the legs come from one photo. The umbrella comes from another photo. The arches from another photograph. These are layered (and mirrored) on a river scene.

I use a montage approach to create texturing and depth in images. I slice up a photo and place each extract on its own layer in Photoshop. Then I change the blend modes and opacity.

Experimental photo of a stairway
I montaged this spiral staircase by layering slices using different Photoshop techniques.

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 catalog.

Photoshop includes a whole host of filters that can significantly change your photos. Let me show you two popular filters.

Polar Coordinates

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.

Experimental fireworks photo
Image of the St. Louis Gateway Arch under fireworks. I created this image by using the Polar Coordinates filter in Photoshop.

Editing a photo in Photoshop


Many portrait photographers use the Liquify filter in Photoshop. The filter lets portrait photographers change the size and shape of the model’s face, nose, eyes, etc.

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.

Using the liquify effect in Photoshop
Before and after comparison of a photograph taken of the supports under a railway bridge. The bottom image shows distortions created in Photoshop’s liquify filter.

Final Thoughts

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!

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