Sometimes the hardest photos to take are the ones of the places we are most familiar with. When was the last time you took a walk through your own neighborhood and found interesting things to photograph? If you're like many people, you probably haven't spent a lot of time doing that at all. Usually, when we decide to go out in search of photographs, we leave the places that are familiar behind in favor of unfamiliar, new, and therefore interesting things to take pictures out. But if you ignore the photographic potential of your own neighborhood, you are actually doing yourself a disservice. Not only are you missing out on photographs that will be important to you personally in the years to come, you are also missing out on photographic opportunities that you didn't even know existed.
Exploring your neighborhood
Whether you live in the suburbs, in a rural community or in a city center, start by walking around your own neighborhood. Spend some time looking at the details. Try to see the place you live through the eyes of someone who doesn't live there. Try to view your neighbor’s fence or that row of mailboxes in a different way. Are there any interesting textures or patterns that you might be able to capture? What about color? Are there any places that you've never explored in your own neighborhood? Let's say you never really gone into the local mom-and-pop market, or you’ve never stood at the top of the hill at the end of your street. It could be that you’ve never really spent a lot of time walking around your neighborhood at all—if you make an effort to explore the once-unseen corners of your community, you’ll almost certainly find details that surprise you. And if you traverse your neighborhood on foot, you'll also notice that things look really different from the sidewalk than they do from the driver’s seat of your car.
The Old Neighborhood by Flickr user TheMorganBurke
Try to capture a sense of life where you live
Your neighborhood, like any neighborhood in the world, has its own unique qualities and personality. Things happen in your neighborhood roughly the same way they happen all over the world, but with a certain unique tempo. For example, it could be that your neighbor three doors down always begins his morning by retrieving the newspaper off of his driveway (yes, it’s true, some people do still subscribe to the morning paper). It could be that your other neighbor always goes for a jog or walks the dog. As the day progresses, neighbors get in cars, take their kids to school, or send older kids off to the bus stop. Shops open for business, people pick up coffee, people go to work, have lunch and come home again—and those routines change only as people move in and out of the neighborhood.
If you know your neighbors very well, start by informing them that you plan to spend a day photographing life in your neighborhood. If they know what you're up to, they're going to be less surprised (and possibly annoyed) when they see you out there first thing in the morning snapping pictures of them as they get to their cars to go to work. And if you don’t know your neighbors very well, try to focus on the less personal details, or use this project as an excuse to knock on doors and introduce yourself. Being open about what you’re doing is going to help avoid the perception that you’re a weird stalker with a camera—that’s the last thing you want said about you, especially in your own neighborhood. And I'm sure I don't have to tell you that you should always get permission to photograph someone else's child—even if it's somebody you know.
Now when you're working on this project, don't just hang back and shoot everything as it happens. Think about how you can capture life where you live in an interesting and unusual way—even if there isn’t much that happens in your neighborhood that could be classified as interesting or unusual. Try to get some close shots. Look at the details. For example, instead of just zooming in on your neighbor as she embarks on her morning walk with her dog, try to capture the expression on the dog’s face. Try to capture that moment when she first puts the leash on her dog’s collar. Zoom in, and capture those moments that transpire between people and animals, or between two people, or between people and whatever it is that happen to be doing.
Jogger, the Green by Flickr user Michael Foley Photography
Street photography (even in the suburbs)
Neighborhoods and their personalities can vary a lot. You may live in an area that mostly has houses and not a lot of services—if that's the case you may have to spread out a little and find the places where people congregate. Parks make good locations for this type of work, or you can go a little further and take photographs at cafés or corner stores. Even if you’re in the suburbs, this is still a form of street photography, so you'll need to gather your courage. A lot of people find it exceedingly difficult to photograph strangers, and if that's you, you'll have to adopt a new strategy. For example, you can try stealth photography—a smart phone is great for that because you can pretend to be doing something else on it while you are secretly photographing suburbanites in their natural environment. You can also shoot from the hip, which is a technique that involves selecting a narrow aperture to assist with blind focusing, and taking pictures while your camera is hanging on a strap around your neck or literally at your hip. When you’re not looking through your viewfinder, people aren’t usually going to suspect that you’re taking photographs, and that will help you feel bolder. Shooting from the hip is fun but it does take some time to master, so if you’re not getting great results right away, keep trying. That one magical shot out of dozens that maybe didn’t work so well will really help get you hooked on this technique.
If you're not planning to be stealthy, you can take one of a few different approaches. First, you can shoot first and not ask any questions later. A lot of street photographers just walk straight up to the person they want to photograph, take the picture, and walk away. Most of the time your subject is going to be so surprised that they won't be able to think of anything to say to you before you disappear. Your next approach could be to simply strike up a conversation with your potential subject and then ask him whether or not you can take his picture. I think you'll be surprised by how many people are flattered and perfectly willing to be your subject. Just keep in mind that you may get less natural photos, because your subject is naturally going to be attempting to pose for the camera. So once you've obtained permission, try to carry on the conversation so you can capture some natural expressions of the person laughing, or thinking seriously about serious questions. The less posed the photo will looks, the better.
If you don’t think photographing strangers (or even your neighbors) is necessarily for you, that doesn't mean that you can't still capture images of your neighborhood. Focus more on the non-animate elements of life where you live, such as fallen leaves on the sidewalk, or squirrels in the trees. If you live in a more rural area, try taking photographs of livestock or interesting outbuildings like barns and sheds. You could also shoot fences—weathered fences in particular make for interesting photos.
Suburban neighborhoods have occasionally been criticized for being a little cookie cutter. If your neighborhood fits into that mold, try to capture the repetitiveness of the houses and yards as a pattern. If there are any identical houses in your neighborhood, consider taking pictures of all of the similarities. For example, you can stand on the sidewalk and try to capture two or more identical homes in the same frame. You can do the same with similar mailboxes, similar cars, or similar people. Don't forget those perfect, manicured lawns—the truth is that some people in suburban neighborhoods like to create a pretense that everything is perfect when it may not be, so if you can find the one flaw in that otherwise perfect landscape, capture it for a photo that contains some irony.
I won't lie—photographing your own neighborhood can be a little bit of a challenge. It can be hard to find inspiration in ordinary places, and the place where you live can, on the surface, seem pretty ordinary. But the truth is that you can find something interesting to photograph no matter where you go, so if you're not feeling inspired right away don't worry, just keep looking around and eventually a subject will reveal itself to you.
- Explore your neighborhood
- Capture a sense of life where you live
- Photograph your neighbors (with permission)
- Try to find a unique perspective
- Suburban street photography
- Use stealth techniques (smartphones, shooting from the hip)
- Shoot without asking, or
- Get to know your subject first, then ask permission
- Look for patterns
- Photograph cookie-cutter houses or mailboxes
- Look for flaws
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