Finding Interesting Images in Ordinary Places

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We don't need to travel to scenic places to find good subjects for photographs. I've taken many photographs that I like, within a few miles or even a few blocks of my home.

How do we find such images? It's mostly a matter of learning to look carefully at the details in what we see around us. When we've found a detail that will work as a subject, we then need to be creative in finding the right composition.



Let's examine the process of finding and capturing one image. The first two images below were actually taken a few days after the third one, with a different lens, to illustrate how the third one came about.

Early one morning, I was taking a walk and passed a church parking lot. Here's how it looks:

Not very interesting or appealing, is it? But something in it caught my eye. It was the red flowers, called hesperaloe, blooming against a stucco wall and casting shadows on the wall. See them?

I walked over to investigate. I was trying to think of an interesting way to capture the flowers and shadows. While I was looking and thinking, a hummingbird came to feed at some hesperaloe to my left. I composed a shot. At first the hummingbird wasn't in a good place for a photograph. Then it moved to this location and I clicked the shutter. A second or two later the hummingbird flew off:

The dark patch in the lower left is the shadow of another hesperaloe that's out of the frame. I made a quick decision to include it in the composition—and I'm glad I did. The image reminds me of a Japanese painting, and the shadow on the left suggests calligraphy.

Notice a few things about what occurred:

- First, the scene I was looking at, as a whole, wasn't interesting at all. Only some small details of the scene were. That's often the case, when we're in ordinary places. We need to look for small subjects.

- Second, what started the process was having something catch my eye. I've learned to pay attention when that occurs. I try to identify what caught my eye—and why, and then go for a closer look. Finding interesting subjects can consist of nothing more than paying attention to what catches our eyes—but we have to be looking carefully to notice such things. If I'd just been casually glancing around as I walked, with my mind on other things, I wouldn't have noticed.

- Third, finding a promising subject was only the beginning. The next step—which is more important, and often far more difficult—was finding an interesting composition. Here, it helped that I had already been looking for a good composition when the hummingbird arrived. Its arrival simplified my task, but I still had to wait until it offered an interesting composition .

Finding the right composition is at the heart of what is creative about photography. I think many of us skimp on the process. When I do it properly, I study the subject and visualize the various ways it might be photographed. The camera will see the subject in rectangles. Visualize what rectangles would be produced from different points and views and distances, and with different lenses. For example, we may visualize how the subject would look if we were shooting down on it from above with a macro lens, or up at it from below with an extreme wide-angle lens. This process requires that we pay attention to the background as well as the subject. With practice, we get better at this kind of compositional brainstorming. We can visualize various compositions without actually trying each one, and we can do it quickly. When a possibility strikes us as promising, we try it. 

Sometimes the process is very quick and almost instinctive. Sometimes it's slow and difficult. Early one day I was in a nearby park that, among other things, has some grapevines growing. The grapes were appealing but, for quite a while, I couldn't think of any interesting way to photograph them. As I considered the possibilities, two ideas finally occurred to me. One was to capture the early sun shining on a cluster of grapes.  It was harder to find a suitable, sunlit cluster of grapes than I expected. 

Another was to crawl underneath the grapevine and photograph the grapes hanging down towards me.

In neither case was the result as good as what I'd visualized, but I like both. By the way, don't crawl around under grapevines in a city park if you're worried about what passersby will think of you.

Finding interesting compositions in ordinary places can be difficult because we are usually photographing fairly mundane subjects. If we're photographing the Grand Tetons, the beauty and novelty of the subject may compensate for an indifferent composition. If we're photographing grapes or flowers, that won't happen. We must compose well, or the result will be nothing. It's because composition is so critical in such images that the effort to find those images can teach us a lot about composition. 

A different way to make everyday subjects interesting is to get a bit more adventurous in taking and processing the images. For example, we can move the camera as we're exposing the image, as I did with this image of trees and a pond at a city park:

With a little practice, we can anticipate fairly well what moving the camera while exposing the image will do to a particular scene.

This image of a tree reflected in the same pond looked like a painting, and I pushed it much farther in that direction during processing:

By the way, it's a good idea when you're taking photographs near home, to keep your camera ready for unexpected opportunities. I usually keep a 70-300mm lens on the camera because I've found that most unexpected opportunities call for one. If I need a wide-angle lens, there's almost always time to change lenses. I keep the camera on aperture priority, ISO 200 or 400, with the aperture at f/8 or f/11, and the metering on center-weighted averaging. There's nothing magic about my default setup, and yours may well vary, but find one that's versatile. 

To sum up, the interesting images we find in ordinary places will often, though not always, involve fairly small subjects. We can find those subjects by looking at details in our surroundings, and looking more closely when some detail catches our eyes. Then we have to find an interesting composition—we hope. Much of the time, I never do.

When we succeed, though, there's a particular satisfaction to be taken from finding a good photograph close to home. Even when we fail, we may find that we're seeing our surroundings in ways we'd never seen them before. We're also learning to see as photographers see. 

Don Peters' photographs can be found at  http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/

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Good article.  I always get a kick out of how-to photography magazines with articles like, 'How To Get Better Landscape Pictures' and all the pictures in the article are from Yellowstone... Ummm, how about pictures from 6 Main St.?

Or my favorite... "How to Take Better Bikini Pictures" - First, get $10,000 in new hardware.  Second, hire 5 or 6 gorgeous models.  Next, requisition 30 or 40 $200 designer bikinis.  Fourth, hire photo assistants, hair and makeup artists.  And finally, fly the whole crew to Hawaii for 2 weeks for a shoot on the beach.

How about helping with getting Joe Average to take a better picture of his slightly overweight wife on the beach?

This article starts the thinking in the right direction.  Thanks.

mmontanaro, thanks for the comment.