Sometimes there really doesn't seem to be anything to take pictures of.
Your house is boring. Your backyard is boring. Your kids are playing video games so, you know, right now they're pretty boring too. You're tired of the same old, same old, and you need some inspiration.
Fortunately, despite how you may feel at this particular moment, there really is no such thing as boring when it comes to photography. If you look hard enough, you can always find some new way to feel inspired or some new trick to try. One of the first things I suggest is to just page through my list of tips and tricks - there's almost certainly something here you've never tried before. But if that seems like a daunting task, have a quick read through these ideas instead.
1. Something old.
Pretty much every home contains something old. It could be a family heirloom, or it could be an old rusty tool that has lived in your toolbox next to all the much newer tools for as long as you can remember. It could be that old rusty car that your husband has in the backyard for reasons that are still completely unclear to you. Or it could be something you collect, like old coins or antique harnesses.
Wagon Wheel by Flickr user Big Grey Mare
Now the trick to photographing old things, of course, is to frame them in such a way that they intrigue your viewer. So that old wagon wheel you have propped up outside your front door or against your fence is not really going to be very interesting if you just shoot it from straight on, wherever it happens to be standing. Instead, think of what it is about that wheel that makes it so appealing to you, personally. It could be the patina on the metal parts. It could be the cracked and weathered wood. Look at that object up close and notice where it has the best texture and the most geometric interest. Try to photograph it from an angle that you don’t ordinarily view it from, and try to showcase all that lovely texture.
Pay attention to the light, too—remember that light that comes from overhead is really bad for showcasing texture, and texture is ultimately what’s going to give photos of old things the most appeal. Don’t shoot when the light is coming from in front of the object, either, instead wait until you have a nice, soft side light—this happens very early in the morning, just after sunrise, or very late in the afternoon, just before sunset. If this particular object isn’t oriented in a place where it gets side light, look into moving it or find an object that does.
2. Something new.
Everyone loves babies, no matter what species they are. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a human baby in your life, look for another variety of baby instead. This could be a litter of kittens at the local ASPCA or it could be a batch of new chicks at the feed store. Find a local farm and ask if you can come take pictures of baby goats or other animals (spring is the best time for this, but some farms have baby animals at other times of the year, too). If baby animals aren’t your thing, go for a walk and look for new life in the environment. Photograph flower buds or tiny stems of grass coming out of the ground (note: use macro mode and take care to isolate these delicate little subjects from any distractions in the background).
New doesn’t just have to be a living thing—you could photograph a new car, or you could take a picture of your daughter wearing a new sweater or a new pair of earrings. Whatever you decide to do, remember that “new” is not just an adjective, it’s also an emotion. New things make us feel happy. If your photograph doesn’t convey some of the excitement and pleasure of that new thing, think of a way to photograph it that does.
Lines are everywhere in our world—they are ubiquitous in man made objects, but they occur in nature, too. Instead of setting out to photograph a specific subject, instead tell yourself that you’re going to spend an entire day shooting nothing but lines. You could walk through a forest and take photos of vertical lines—but don’t think of it as being that simple. Shoot those vertical lines from the base of a large tree, looking up, shoot them from a distance, shoot them with a zoom lens and shoot them with both a horizontal and vertical orientation. Now look for diagonal lines in the same environment—fallen trees make great diagonals and can help add a sense of dimension to your photographs. Now try to find converging lines—these are great tools for making a photo appear three dimensional. You can find them in roads, fences and rivers and streams.
Lines by Flickr user Trotaparamos
Lines don’t always have to be straight, either—curved lines will make your viewer feel relaxed, maybe even lazy. Roads and rivers can give you curved lines too, but don’t stop there—you’ll find curved lines in architectural details, in the way the wind moves sand around at the beach, and even in the human body. For this exercise, just make sure that the line or lines are the focus of the image, the primary reason for its existence. If you can do that, your image almost can’t fail to be visually compelling.
If you're like a lot of photographers you may not associate photography with abstraction. An abstraction is something that appears on canvas—a red dot in the middle of a yellow plain, for example. We associate photography with realism, so many of us don't think that a camera is a very good tool for creating abstraction. In fact, a camera is actually a great tool for creating abstractions—it's really just about perspective. To create an abstract photograph, first try simply getting very close to the object you're photographing. Now, of course, not just any object do—you need to choose something that has interest when separated from its context. For example, a tree may be very interesting when photographed as a tree, in the context of a forest. But when you get very close to that same tree and photograph its bark, it becomes an abstraction. When that bark is separated from the context of the tree and the forest it is no longer just bark. Now it is a texture, a series of lines—in essence, it is a photograph about those things rather than about the object itself.
Guggenheim abstract by Flickr user kevin dooley
Getting close to your subject isn't the only way to turn it into an abstraction. You can also make a very successful abstraction by standing back and shooting something from a distance. The trick to making this work is to find an object that has a strong geometric shape or pattern. When you photograph the object in such a way that its identity is no longer important, then you've got the ingredients for a good abstract photo. It may be that your viewer is still able to identify the object itself, but that’s not important as long as shape and form have greater significance than the object’s identity.
A great place to look for abstract images is in the city. Architectural details almost always make for great abstractions, but if you're still not feeling inspired, try going in the late afternoon when the shadows are long. Sometimes an object’s shadow all by itself makes for an interesting abstract photo.
Try spending an entire day shooting nothing but abstractions. Whenever you encounter an interesting object, walk around it and see if there's a way that you can photograph it so that context is either removed or rendered unimportant, and the photo becomes more about form and shape, line and geometric design than it does about the object itself.
5. HDR, etc.
Sometimes the best way to find inspiration is to try something completely different, or completely outside of your comfort level. If you're the sort of person who avoids post processing, it's time to venture out and do a little experimenting. I like to suggest HDR as a place to start. This might actually surprise you, because HDR looks like something that would be complicated to learn. In fact, HDR is a very simple technique, and almost anyone can do it provided they have a tripod and a camera that gives you control over your settings.
To shoot an HDR photograph, simply mount your camera on a tripod and then switch to raw format (if your camera has it). Don't worry if it doesn't, you can still do HDR with JPEG. Now switch to manual mode and meter the scene. Take one photograph that is about one stop below where your meter think you ought to be exposing, then take one shot at the suggested meter reading, then take a third shot that is about one stop above what your camera suggests. (Note that you can actually take more photos, but three is a good place to start.) Make sure you're using a remote release so that the position of your camera doesn't shift even slightly between one exposure and the next—you will find it a lot easier to line up your images in post-processing if you take this precaution. Also keep in mind that the movement of the wind, or any humans or animals who might walk through the frame can also cause problems in post-processing, so it's best to shoot on a still and windless day in a place where there aren’t a lot of tourists.
Now open up your three images in post-processing. If your software is Adobe, you simply go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro and select each one of the exposures. The software will automatically take all three images and then present you with a series of processing options. Some of them are going to be a little over-the-top, the way you are probably used to HDR photos appearing. But others will give you a much more natural-looking image—it’s up to you to decide which one suits you best.
The advantage of HDR is that you will be able to capture a broad range of tones from highlight to shadow—something that most modern cameras aren't capable of doing in bright, sunny lighting conditions. If you're not quite ready to tackle HDR, you could also try a simpler technique, such as converting your landscape photos to black and white. To get the most out of a black and white conversion, try experimenting with the different color channels. If you adjust each color channel separately, you can get some really dramatic results, such as very black blues or very white greens, or vice versa.
If you really are stuck for ideas, I hope this will give you a nice range of different things to try. But if you still aren't feeling inspired, don't forget that I've got lots of other tips and ideas on my blog—I'm certain that something on this website will inspire you. The point is not to follow any of my suggestions to the letter, but to really feel excited about trying something new or achieving a certain goal with your photographs. Once you can do that, I bet you will no longer be waking up in the morning and thinking to yourself there's nothing to photograph, instead you're going to be thinking to yourself there's so much to photograph, how could I possibly work it all in?
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