When searching for non-human subjects to photograph, I’m not usually drawn to the same objects or scenes that others may find appealing. Rather, I’m more attracted to the ordinary - things other photographers might never consider shooting. What I love photographing is the nondescript, the unremarkable, the plain. Things lacking visual appeal. It’s with these sorts of subjects that I can apply my trade, which is trying to make the commonplace interesting. I do this by playing with subject positioning, camera placement, camera angle, focal length selection, depth-of-field, lighting, and, sometimes, prop placement. I’ll also be considering what post-production changes to apply later on. I find this kind of photography far more appealing and challenging (in a good way) than merely recording the pretty things I come across.
Let me address that last point for a moment. I’m certainly not criticizing photographers, amateurs or professionals, who enjoy shooting sunsets, architecture, animals in the wild – the visually stunning items that easily catch the eye. I understand the appeal. But for me, it’s being able to take something most people would consider not worth shooting and coming up, hopefully, with a quality photograph.
I think many photographers don’t consider the possibilities of photographing the ordinary. They don’t realize the wonderful images that can result. That certainly makes sense if they’ve never done this type of shooting before.
For me, this shooting process involves two general steps:
After a while, the photographer will become more comfortable with this process – both with selecting the subjects and using the camera to mold them into appealing photographs. Then, instead of avoiding the mundane, they’ll be embracing it, knowing they have the ability to transform their subjects into wonderful images. It’s really a satisfying feeling, coming up with quality photographs that started with something very ordinary.
Here are some images I believe demonstrate this:
I sometimes wonder if those tasked with installing utility objects, such as these metal pipes, are aware of the beauty they’re creating. I’m intrigued by the straightness of the pipes and the angles produced by the various fittings (the joints that hold the pipes together). The brick background adds an interesting uniformity, color, and background to the pipes. I thought shooting straight-on would best show the pipes’ relationship to one another as well as emphasize the strong horizontal and vertical elements in the image. And then there’s this odd thing. The two diagonal pipes in the middle, bottom of the frame remind me of a person’s lower legs as he/she walks to the right.
I was wandering through a college cafeteria when I spotted this basket of apples. With nothing but the dark silver enclosure and the gray surrounding the apples, their roundness and saturated color really make them pop. I arranged the apples to my liking and darkened the edges of the picture in post-production.
I’ve come across many clotheslines in my wanderings, but none as perfect as this one. That’s because of the following elements: nothing in the background to pull the viewer’s attention away from the subject; colorful clothes with no distracting logos or printing on them; interesting arrangement of shirts and pants; lots of empty sky, helping to highlight the clothing. Furthermore, I like the balance created by having the clothes toward the left side and most of the empty lines toward the right side.
It’s important to keep one’s head up when wandering. Realizing these poles and crane could produce an engrossing photo, I searched for a spot to stand where all the elements would be visible - none being blocked by another. I was lucky that the poles, from my perspective, were all different heights, making them more interesting than if they had not been. Additionally, I was fortunate having beautiful soft and fluffy clouds as a backdrop.
This was shot from a city sidewalk through the window of a clothing store. It was the weird finger positioning of the right hand as well as the unnatural positioning of both hands that caught my attention.
Depth-of-field deals with how much of the area in front of and behind the object you focus on is also in (acceptable) focus.
“Great” or “Deep” or “More” depth-of-field means that a large area in front of and behind the object you focus on is in acceptable focus.
“Less” or “Shallow” depth-of-field means that very little area in front of and behind the object you focus on is in acceptable focus.
Depth-of field is determined primarily, but not only, by the f-stop (aperture) setting. The smaller the opening (the larger the number), the greater the depth-of-field. The larger the opening (the smaller the number), the shallower the depth-of-field. Here are the major factors that determine depth-of-field:
To produce a greater depth-of-field:
Use an aperture (f-stop) with a small opening
Use a wide-angle focal length (zoomed-out)
Move farther away from the subject
To produce a shallower depth-of-field:
Use an aperture (f-stop) with a large opening
Use a telephoto focal length (zoomed-in)
Move closer to the subject
The image below has a great depth-of-field. When first arriving to this location, I realized I wanted everything in the picture to be in focus - from extreme foreground to extreme background. With all the fascinating lines and angles created by the freeway section, I wanted every part of the picture to be sharp. The lens was set to 17mm at f13.
This image has a shallow depth-of-field. What’s interesting, at least to my eye, is not being able to determine which section of barbed wire is in which plane. To me, the center three wires seem to be next to each other, with only the middle wire being in focus. In reality, the wire to the right of the in-focus wire is closer to the camera and the wire to the left of the in-focus wire is farther away. The lens was set to 135mm at f5.6.
Here's what happens when the camera is placed very close to the object being photographed - in this case, a pen etched with lots of zeros. The depth-of-field becomes extremely shallow, almost nonexistent. Not only are most of the zeros and the pen out-of-focus, they're mostly unrecognizable. The lens was set to 105mm at f5.
The four pictures below are identical except that each was shot at a different aperture setting (listed under each image). Each picture was focused at the same point; the area between the numbers 81 and 82. The only difference among them is the depth-of-field. You can see the background becoming more out-of-focus as your eye moves from the top to the bottom photo.
The lens was set to 80mm at f11.
The lens was set to 80mm at f8.
The lens was set to 80mm at f5.6.
The lens was set to 80mm at f4.
Wonderful unexpected picture possibilities can occur any time during a photo shoot. I’ve noticed these possibilities appear while I’m already in the process of taking a picture or while I'm setting up for a new shot. When one does happen, this is what comes next:
I’m never in doubt that these moments will occur during a photo shoot. Therefore, it’s critical to prepare for them. That means constantly keeping an eye on what’s happening around me, both while shooting and between shots. (This cannot be stressed enough - it’s impossible to know when that perfect random shot possibility will occur). When the opportunity does arrive, I’ll respond swiftly, as stated above.
Here are some examples of what I believe to be intriguing shots that came along quite unexpectedly.
My plan for the first of these two photographs was to have Anabel on the bed alone, with the “Private Property” sign covering her chest. As I was preparing to take the picture, however, the dog jumped onto the bed. I held off shooting for just a moment, waiting to see what would happen. I’m glad I waited. He ended up looking as if he were reading the sign. Then, as can be seen in the second photo, and to both our amazements, he began crawling under the top sheet. By the way, Anabel’s open-mouth surprise was quite real.
I was watching Kelly fix-up her daughter's hair. There was lots of energy flowing between the two. Even though I hadn't planned on taking pictures of this interaction, I knew some good photo possibilities were in the making. I wasn’t disappointed. This particular image was far and away the best of the series I shot. Both faces are vibrant, and the intensity of their excitement is wonderful.
Here's another photo where the subject's pet wandered into the shooting area. Without much of a plan, I quickly took a picture as soon as I saw the cat in the camera's viewfinder. I was very lucky with the results - the cat's positioning blocks enough of the strobe's illumination to perfectly highlight Joanna’s upper face. And at the same time, the strobe provides illumination for the cat.
Darla was joking with her daughter, Laurette. Having worked with them before, and knowing how wonderful an actor Laurette is, I knew that worthy things were on their way. I framed the shot and waited. When this interaction happened, I took the picture. Laurette's expression was perfect. It seems to show both fear and amusement. Also, each set of hands has a unique purpose - one pair reaches either lovingly or threateningly while the other pair emphasizes either anxiety or joy.
Joanna and I were photographing in an almost empty parking lot at a local beach. During a break, Joanna had turned and was adjusting her hair. Almost at the same moment, a car pulled up. I saw a perfect photo opportunity and quickly snapped a picture. I loved the results: a sparse composition showing a young woman and a car, both nicely positioned in this parking lot. Every time I look at this image, I wonder why the person in the car stopped right where he did. Perhaps to ogle Joanna?
I would like to address the process of intentionally blurring an image. Blurring refers to observable movement in a photograph. Blur is usually created by a slow shutter speed, camera movement, and/or subject movement.
In the photo above, I panned (moved in a horizontal motion) my camera at the same speed Rebecca was walking, resulting in her head and torso being mostly sharp. But since the background was not moving, it appears blurry. This technique creates a sense of motion and helps the subject stand out from her surroundings (her dark dress helps too).
And there's an added benefit of being able to obscure an intrusive or unpleasant background - for example, a parking lot that's behind a field where kids are playing soccer. With the camera panning alongside the moving players, the blurred area behind them can become almost unidentifiable and, therefore, not intrude on the image of the players. In this photograph, there was no need for that. Her environment is appealing, and being able to identify what it is adds a sense of place to the image. The camera settings were 1/15 sec, f8. (click on photo to enlarge)
Occasionally, I’ll blur the whole image. Mentioning this to people often brings looks of bewilderment. So, I explain that the right amount of blur can produce a photograph that's both interesting and dynamic. It’s when there’s too much blur (making the subject unrecognizable) or just a little blur (making it look as if the photographer screwed-up) that causes problems. Properly done, the subject will still be identifiable, but rendered more diffusely, with softer tones, and hopefully more offbeat.
You’ll have to experiment with various shutter speeds and camera movements to determine what the appropriate amount of blur is. A relatively long shutter speed usually is enough to produce an effective blur. If I need more, I’ll use an even longer shutter speed or slightly move the camera up and down, side to side, or in a circular movement while shooting. Again, experimenting is key. In the photos below, each image has been blurred. (click on photos to enlarge)
Here Maggie is peering out her kitchen’s screen door. The camera settings were 1/10 sec, f4.5.
Kimberly is standing in front of her kitchen window and next to a hanging plant. The camera settings were 1/4 sec, f4.
I asked Danielle to bend slightly forward. The camera settings were 2 secs, f5.6.
A very pregnant Tabitha is standing in front of her bedroom window. The camera settings were 1.5 secs, f5.6.
This is Rebecca playing with her hair. It’s somewhat less blurry than the other pictures. The camera settings were 1/2 sec, f4.
Every once in awhile, some oddball reflection will catch my eye. That attraction might be due to one or more of the following:
The photographs below illustrate different reflection types (click on photos to enlarge).
This is a reflection of a skylight inside a shopping mall. Whenever I’m wandering through this mall, I’ll usually pass by this area. Because the reflection appears to have depth, and if I’m not paying attention, I’ll sometimes mistake it for a hole in the floor - something I need to avoid. It’s fun standing near the reflection, trying to see it not as three-dimensional, but as the flat surface it really is.
I was drawn to how this relatively new glass building was reflecting a much older building from across the street.
Looking at shiny polished metal like this, you realize that you’re not really seeing the pots themselves. What you’re actually viewing are reflections of everything surrounding the pots. It’s the same phenomenon as looking at yourself in a mirror. You’re not seeing the mirror - only your reflection.
It’s really the reflections that define this school hallway. The exterior light coming in through the doors and windows, given a fairly long camera exposure setting, would provide enough illumination for a picture to be taken. However, it’s the reflections on the lockers, walls, and floors that provide shape to this photograph. Without them, the image probably would be flat and dull.
I placed these kids’ blocks on a shiny conference table. It was only after several viewings that I noticed the reflection spells, in upper and lower case letters, “herb”.
I'll often harangue my students about the effect a picture’s background can have on the picture's subject. Every time they set up a shot, I tell them, they need to think not just about the subject, but also about the background. Subject and background are both equally important. A bland or lousy background can hurt the subject. An interesting background can greatly enhance the subject. The photographs below illustrate different background types (click on photos to enlarge).
There are times when it may be difficult distinguishing between subject and background. This can happen where little or no distinction exists between the two. An example would be train tracks, which seem to extend towards infinity.
Then there are instances where no background exists. Or more accurately, the background is pure white. This, by the way, can sometimes be a strong selling point for those wanting to market their images. It allows the buyer to easily drop-out the white background and insert one of their own choosing.
But for the majority of pictures, there likely will be a distinct subject and a distinct background.
I was very happy with both the woman's facial expression and the way her hand and arm were angled as she held her boyfriend's hand. In addition, I think the photo is enhanced by the extra light on her face (thanks to a small hand-held flash) and with me kneeling down and shooting upward to get a more dramatic angle. But I'm pretty sure it's the vibrant sky in the background that makes this photograph pop. Think how different the impact on the subject would have been had the sky been clear blue or overcast.
As I looked through the camera’s viewfinder, it struck me that the background resembled the aftermath of a forest fire - burnt branches and scorched earth. I figured that and the bent parking sign would work well together. To me, they combine to create a dark and foreboding scenario.
I think it’s the over-exposed windows and the wall in the background that make this picture work. There was nothing extraordinary about this potted plant, which is the subject of the photograph. But by centering the windows in the frame and placing the plant directly in the middle, a satisfying balance is established. Further, the bright outdoor lighting produces the following benefits: the outside distractions are hidden by the blown- out windows, the whiteness of the windows (with the wall too) provide a clean backdrop for the leaves, and the image is pleasantly soft and mildly desaturated because of the intense exterior illumination.
(click on photos to enlarge)
There are those that might look at the images above and ask why I left so much space around each subject.
I often shoot images where the subject, human or inanimate, is significantly smaller than the empty space around them. I define “empty space” as either the absence of everything (for example, a completely white area), or a continuation of the subject’s environment. This uninhabited area can greatly affect how the subject is perceived by the viewer.
“Empty space” is not wasted space. I’ve heard it suggested that photographers should crop out the barren area of an image, thereby making the subject more important. For certain pictures, this might be a good idea. But for lots of images, this misses the true intent of empty space. People making suggestions like this, I believe, are unaware of how nothingness can affect an image. Empty space can, for example, emphasize the picture’s location, help define the image’s mood, and lead the viewer’s eye directly to the person or object. To that last point, empty space lets the viewer know precisely where their eyes need to go, thus actually increasing the subject’s importance.
The empty space must be set up with the same care that goes into posing the person or setting up the object. One or more of the following must be done to anything found in that empty space that should not be there:
I’ve seen and made pictures where the size of the subject, relative to the total area, is very small - the empty space takes up the majority of the image’s real estate. If done well, having the subject so small in the picture actually delivers a lot more artistic impact. It seems that as the object gets smaller, its importance grows.
In the photographs shown above, I believe that negative space greatly enhanced some rather simple setups.
(click on photos to enlarge)
I believe achieving accurate portrait skin color is not always necessary. In fact, if I’ve taken a few hundred pictures of the subject (which I often do during a photo shoot), I’d find having every one of them a “normal” skin color to be quite boring. Changing skin color can often dramatically improve even the most ordinary photograph. It's one of those transformations that can make an image "pop".
Additionally, changing the color can change the mood of the photo. For example, blue can imply coolness, sadness, melancholy, or depression; red can denote rage, danger, heat, love, or passion; yellow can symbolize sickness, glory, splendor, or power.
My color changes are almost always done in postproduction. I primarily use Adobe Camera Raw, the program that is included with Adobe Photoshop. In addition, I may add a few more changes using Nik Software.
For no specific reason. I like the idea of initially viewing the image with its normal colors. This is quickly done in Adobe Camera Raw by clicking on something in the picture that’s white, gray, or black, using the White Balance Tool. Or, if I’ve taken a few pictures of the subject holding a gray or white card, I’ll click on that instead. This should render all the colors as normal or something close to it. It’s at this point that I may start thinking about playing around with the color.
The six pictures above are just a few of those I've colored over the years. I think my impetus for doing so was thinking they needed something more to save them. In other words, they seemed a bit ordinary to me. The color change on some is subtle and more extreme on others. But, for me, they are far more dynamic this way than if no coloring had been added.