I want you to try this right now. Go and get some pictures you’ve taken of a famous place while on vacation. Got them? Okay, now I want you to go to Panoramio and search for that place. Are your vacation photos an identical copy of what you see online? If not, that’s awesome! But if you’re tired of taking the same old pictures everyone else takes, I’ve got a few tips for you.
If your photos look like the photos everyone else is taking, there can only be one reason. You’re doing the exact same things they are. Unique photos are unique because the photographer went out of her way to do something that hasn’t been done before. The only question you need to ask yourself is “what is that something? What can I tweak? How can I use my camera in a new way?”
In the photo to the right, it was a matter of angle and timing. The photographer didn’t get back on the ferry with the rest of the Ellis Island tour group. He took his time, pacing around Lady Liberty to find a spot where the torch lines up with the sun. If the sun weren’t already high in the sky he’d have to wait until it’s at the right position. When all of those forces came together, he took a unique photo.
There are a lot of things. You can change the angle, the lighting, the focal point, and the composition, to name a few. Once you start talking about different lenses, it gets even more complex. There are gazillion different ways to photograph the same subject. You just have to step outside of your zone of familiarity. That’s a fancy way of saying you need to think outside of the box.
I like to start with the easy changes. You don’t have to wait until mid-day or sunset to come up with a different angle for your subject. You just need to switch out your lens, or in the case of the Statue of Liberty, take a few extra steps. Get high. Get down low. Shoot from close up. Try taking the same shot from far away. Watch what others are doing and do the exact opposite of that.
Once I’ve seen a subject from multiple angles, I try to imagine what my subject will look like later on in the day with the sun coming in from a different side. If I think something interesting will happen at, say 4 ‘o clock, then you had better believe I’ll be coming back. To get a truly unique photo, you need to be willing to take a brief departure from the tour bus. You have to show up when nobody else is there.
I also try to frame my subject in an interesting way. Don’t just place your subject in the center of the frame. That’s what everyone else does. Try placing your subject one third into the frame, either from left to right or top to bottom. This helps to draw the eye through the image, creating something that is much more visually interesting. We like to call it the “rule of thirds.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day. You won’t always see all of the angles. It’s something that comes with time. During one shoot, you might discover an interesting perspective / shooting arrangement that you can then apply to another shot at a different location. I personally don’t believe in geniuses. I think they just work harder than the rest of us. They can compose great music, write great works of literature, and take amazing photos because they have way more experience than the average dabbler.
So get to work. Start looking for those unique angles, special times of day, interesting cloud formations, bizarre compositions, and uncommon camera settings. You’ll find your photos will be much better as a result.