How to make fulfilling photographs in familiar locations
To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.
- Elliott Erwitt
A common complaint among photographers is the inability to see new compositions in locations that they have visited many times over.
“How do I bring fresh eyes to the same old scenes?”, they ask.
But there are two problems with that question.
Firstly, in labelling them as “the same old scenes”, the implication is that there is something wrong with them.
Something wrong with familiarity.
Secondly, photographers are too easily tempted by the low-hanging fruit.
At any popular landscape photography location, you will find that most photographs are of a handful of things.
They’re taken from certain viewpoints with asphalted parking lots. They’re taken from popular hiking trails, similarly well-made.
They’re taken of iconic animals, subjects, events or phenomena.
These are the low-hanging fruit. The easy pickings. The photographs that have a low-effort, high-reward dynamic to them.
But the rewards, high as they are, do not tend to last long.
The low-hanging fruit is a known quantity. Arrive at a certain place at a certain time and there’s a good chance you’ll drive home with a nice photograph.
But as with achieving most difficult things, there is a certain satisfaction in picking the high-hanging fruit. The local areas, the banal areas, the areas seldom visited or glorified.
In fact, any area that rewards repeated efforts over a period of time.
The good news is that it is possible (and very rewarding) to bring fresh eyes to the same old scenes.
To that end, here are three ways to get you started.
Challenge your perceptions of intimacy
Avoid the temptation to only visit a location when you think conditions are primed for great photography.
You know what I’m talking about, gorgeous golden hour light with a spattering of clouds. Comfortable, mid-range temperatures, no wind. Timed perfectly for the fall colours or annual butterfly migration.
Visit your regular haunts at different times of the year. Visit them when the weather is less than favourable. Visit them when the last thing you feel like doing is visiting them.
Take the forests of New England as a purely hypothetical example. The attraction of these forests in the fall is obvious, as vibrant colours dominate the landscape.
But what happens when winter arrives? The crowds dissipate. The air is crystal clear, colour more subdued. Early morning mist forms over bodies of water. And sunrise comes at a much more agreeable time.
How could these unique factors influence the way that you see your little corner of the world? There is only one way to find out.
Build up a working knowledge of an area across different times of day and year.
Photographers who make repeated visits to a location become intimate with that location, observing things that the casual visitor could never hope to notice.
Although I’m hesitant to use clichés, they become one with the landscape.
Importantly, they also develop context.
Context is how you tell stories in your photography, and good storytelling can only result from a deep understanding of your connection to subject or location.
Without context, it is virtually impossible to express yourself in a meaningful fashion.
Indeed, it is supremely important that you don’t write off a location after one or two visits in the same conditions. Especially if you feel you have a personal connection to that location.
Move your feet
An obvious point, but one that bears repeating. Some photographers border on robotic in their approach to a scene.
They never bend their knees, get on their stomachs or survey a subject from all angles. They never deviate from the path — literally or metaphorically.
Don’t underestimate the effect of even minor positional changes on your compositions.
Moving your feet is particularly useful in cluttered environments such as forests, where one movement could be the difference between a good composition and an even better one.
But in general, it is a good idea to work the scene, as it were.
Take fifty photographs of that same tree from fifty different angles.
You’ll be sure to discover one or two keepers, and you’ll gain valuable compositional insights that you can apply next time.
Prime lenses are another way to get your feet moving. The lack of zoom forces you to move your body and freshen up those eyes. In a matter of seconds, compositions become more thoughtful and deliberate.
Photographer Freeman Patterson calls this process thinking sideways:
It is simply a matter of building up a mass of visual information about your subject matter by observing it from many points of view.
- Freeman Patterson
This process is especially helpful for those who want to break out of habitual ways of seeing things.
Thinking sideways enables you to push past your limiting beliefs and increase the likelihood of serendipitous discoveries.
More to the point, you give yourself the opportunity to grow as a photographer.
Taking one photograph at eye level and then moving on is no way to expand your repertoire.
Sure, there is a low chance that the photo might be brilliant. But exploring the myriad other perspectives may yield something more brilliant still.
Rediscover that child-like wonder
It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country.
- Bill Brandt
When we were children, we viewed the world we awe and curiosity. We took our time to explore things in detail.
To say that we lose this ability as adults is incorrect. Rather, our adult responsibilities have repressed this curiosity — but it has always been there.
Tired after a long day at work, photography is often the last thing on our minds. We’d rather collapse in a heap and watch television or stare mindlessly into our phones.
When do we make it out with our cameras, we tend to devalue familiar subjects and locations over time.
In other words, we grow tired of the perceived status quo.
We have taken every photograph we’ll ever take of that duck pond down the road.
Or so we tell ourselves.
Devaluation is insidious.
Things with increasingly higher perceived value are attained, become familiar and then are devalued in turn. It’s a classic photographer’s hedonic treadmill.
Before you know it, you’re remortgaging the house for a spot on that $30K Antarctic photo expedition.
But I digress.
Zen Buddhism likens the child-like wonder for the world to Beginner’s Mind.
Beginner’s Mind is an attitude of eagerness, openness, spontaneity and non-judgement.
Why is it important?
In the context of photography, you build preconceptions of a location based on your past interactions with it.
Preconceptions then build habits and formulaic ways of thinking.
You favour certain locations or subjects, and you make negative judgements about the rest.
Of course, these judgements often have no basis in logic or fact.
You might love the sights and sounds of a particular waterfall in the spring, only to discount the beautiful rock face that is exposed during the dry summer months.
You might subconsciously avoid a summit hike because you know through experience that it’s often shrouded in fog.
And besides, there are always so many mosquitoes on that hike. It’s not worth the hassle.
Paradoxically, your intimate knowledge of an area prohibits you from entertaining other possibilities. You’re merely scraping the surface of what a location has to offer.
You know what works, for sure. But you don’t know everything that works.
Embrace the mindset of a beginner
The next time you visit a familiar location, pretend like it is the first time you’ve been there.
Take an interest in the smallest insect. Study it in detail. Study the rock that it is crawling across. If it helps, put the camera down and explore for the simple joy of discovering new things.
You don’t have to ignore the fact that you’re in a familiar location. Just be open to new possibilities.
For example, say that you know of a certain tree that catches the dawn light beautifully.
Perhaps you sit by that tree and contemplate what else you find fascinating about it.
Maybe it’s the shape of its branches that emanate harmoniously from a single point.
Maybe it’s the raucous dawn chorus of birds that pierces the morning stillness.
Come to think of it, you’ve never taken the time to identify the species behind this noise.
That evening, you sit by the tree again and watch the birds as they come home to roost. It turns out that they are a family of brown falcons — two parents and a fledgeling.
They like to congregate on a dead branch extending out from this tree. You notice that their silhouettes make for powerful shapes against the setting sun, so you make a photograph or two.
Embrace that child-like quality of curious living in the present moment, and your eyes will stay fresh.
Luckily for us, the world is full of infinite and endless beauty. But we still need to be open to seeing it.
When we convince ourselves that we have exhausted the potential of a subject or location, we ignore this endless, untapped source of inspiration.
Freshening your photographic eyes may be as simple as taking a few steps to the left, or laying down on your back and looking up.
Photographers who develop intimate working relationships with locations will find the most reward. There is no substitute for the connection to a landscape that intimacy brings.
Ultimately, bringing fresh eyes to familiar scenes involves leaving your preconceptions at the door, and being present and open to new possibilities.
Find that child-like wonder which, like the beautiful world, is ever-present and waiting to be rediscovered.