Focus on Photographer's Block
Things to Photograph and How to Find Them
Whatever the artistic endeavor, blocks happen. Photography is no exception. A few months back, some friends of mine started a photography group. The rules are very simple: one original photo, taken that day, from every member.
At first, this was a glorious inspiration. I ventured boldly out, camera in hand, to all of the spots that immediately came to mind. I experimented with my photo editing software's every script and filter, and explored the strange recesses of my camera's most bewildering menu options.
Stuck in a Photo Rut
The group grew rapidly, and produced amazing photographs every day. Many members were serious photographers, and others, like me, beginners. Questions and answers flew, inspiration and ideas flowed freely.
A lot of the folks in this group are from my area. By a week or two in, I had seen three or a dozen shots already posted of every idea I'd been saving. I was going to have to expand my limited grasp of photography, come up with more ideas, or post exactly the same picture we'd all already seen a dozen times.
Inevitably, this was the moment when my mind went completely blank. For the next few weeks, I just kind of pointed the camera at something and shot at least once a day, took the least boring result of the day and did my best to do something interesting with it before uploading.
In the process of making it through that rough patch, I learned a little bit about photography, a little bit about finding things to photograph, and a lot about editing lousy photographs into something interesting. I'm a beginner, a baby photographer, and can only tell you what worked for me. I welcome any and all suggestions from my readers! I hope that you find something useful on this page, and that inspiration, which will return, does so quickly.
All photos on this page taken by the author.
Find Beautiful Photographs in Ugly or Boring Places - Or Take a Beautiful Picture of Something Ugly
Magical treasures hide in the strangest places
The trouble with going to beautiful places to take your beautiful photographs is that they're quite likely to be filled with people taking their own beautiful photographs while intruding on your shots and stealing the last parking places. In my case, the other issue was that every beautiful place in town had already been shared with my photography group. Our group page was starting to look like a travel brochure.
At night, the wastewater treatment facility is a stinky wonderland
One of the cool things about photography, though, is the ability to exclude unwanted elements from your picture. Some, like the aroma of the waste water recovery facility whose lights so beautifully frame the tree above, are excluded by nature. Other unwanted features can be excluded by carefully framing your shot, cropping, or editing.
Flowers grow less pretty and more interesting as they die
Photos of beauty you find or create in unlikely surroundings are likely to be interesting and unique. Sometimes, subjects that are definitely not a decorative feature in the live scene can also make cool components of a photograph. The dead blossoms on my camellias are certainly not my favorite part of the view, but up close they're more interesting to the camera than their pristine younger siblings.
Extraordinary Everyday Photography - Find Beautiful Photographs Hidden All Around You
Wouldn't it be fabulous to simply strike out, camera in hand, for exotic and beautiful lands? Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring have written an excellent guide to doing just that. No travel required.
You don't have to travel to the ends of the Earth to find striking and original subjects for your photography. Learn to see the opportunities for art everywhere you go. Not only does hunting for beautiful photographs in your everyday life help develop your photography skills, it also helps develop your appreciation of the wonders you pass every day.
Take Your Camera with You. Every Time. Always. - When You See a Picture, Pull Over and Take It
A chance encounter with a cool old jeep
Wherever you live, there are probably some major attractions to photograph. Where I live, the ocean probably holds the number one spot. And so, every day, thousands of people stop on the beaches or cliffs and take a picture or two. Many of them are very beautiful, and almost all of them look just like all the other pictures of the beach taken that day. Also, parking's lousy, and there are usually a bunch of people holding cameras in your shot.
The wharf's always crowded, but the quiet cliffs above have their own charm
Take advantage of your knowledge of your home town! Skip the scenic outlooks and the throngs, and head for a vantage point with a great view somewhere on your daily drive. If there's something folks just love to photograph in your town, do you know of a secret spot where you might get a better shot of it from a distance?
The ocean's just as pretty from a less crowded vantage point
The picture above and the one below were taken at a corner I pass every day on my way home from work. It's on a hilltop in a suburban neighborhood, with no throngs of eager tourists. The only hurdle was overcoming some initial awkwardness about parking my big, messy truck in front of some stranger's pretty house and setting up the tripod in the middle of the sidewalk. Contributing to this awkward feeling, my "tripod" at the time was a large, dirty stepladder, on which the folding mechanism broke long ago. I felt pretty conspicuous, but people seemed amused and interested.
My first attempt at fake tilt-shift, taken from afar
As it turned out, the folks in that neighborhood are very friendly! I met a really nice older couple the first time I stopped there, and wound up standing on the corner with them talking about their travels while I took my pictures. Since then, I never hesitate to park wherever I am, safety permitting, when I see a cool picture ready for the taking.
Toys Make Interesting Subjects for Photography - And Photography Makes a Great Excuse to Buy Toys
Toys offer easy action and drama for your photographs
Some days, there's just nothing happening for me out in the Real World. I've carried my camera around all day, scanned my surroundings for interesting colors and lines, and everything just looks unremarkable. When inspiration seems determined to avoid me, prop photography is my treasured failsafe. And for me, prop photography usually means pictures of toys.
This tiny dude came from a vending machine. Isn't he friendly-looking up close?
Taking pictures of toys carries all the benefits of taking pictures of people. Like people, many toys have character and expression, and make inherently interesting subjects for photography. Unlike people, toys are delighted to stay still for as many shots as you'd like, assume weird or embarrassing positions and hold them indefinitely, and immediately drop anything they're doing to pose for you at any hour of the day or night without compensation.
She'll pose for hours without a break
Toys for photography don't need to be high-quality. Really, they don't even need to be of passable quality. If a toy is too flimsy or silly looking to suit your purpose, you can probably fix that in post-processing. If not, try taking a picture of its shadow. Toys with poorly rendered details but great general outlines, like most of the cheapest figurines out there, are perfect for this.
Fun with shadows
The shadow pattern in the picture above is from a flashlight shining through a glass chess board. This brings me handily to the next tactic I found helpful when I was fighting off the "I don't know what to take a picture of" blues...
Hang Out in the Dark with a Flashlight - Night Photography and Light Painting
In the dark with a flashlight, you choose what to show to the camera.
Exploring different techniques, tricks, and styles can really help when you're in a rut. For me, one of the easiest and most entertaining ways to put an interesting spin on a picture is to turn out the lights. Night photography (or "in the hallway with the lights off and towels under the doors" photography) offers lots of interesting opportunities for play with long exposures and different light sources.
Creative lighting helps bring out the details on this little model car
One of my favorite techniques for photography in the dark is light painting. Light painting is a term that encompasses a pretty wide range of techniques. Some people use the term to refer to simply using a small hand-held light to literally "paint" a subject with light, revealing only the details you want to appear in the photograph.
Monkey Wrench: yeah, I'm not above a cheap pun.
At the other end of the spectrum, light painting can refer to the cool trick shots you can achieve by actually directing a moving light source at the lens. In this case, the light itself appears like a solid "brush stroke" in the final image.
My first light painting photograph
Light painting requires a reasonably long exposure, as you're moving the light source to either create a pattern in the image or illuminate various parts of your subject. While it's great to use a DSLR with the option of setting the shutter speed to "bulb," this is by no means necessary. I use both a Nikon D5000 and a point-and-shoot Fujifilm Finepix SL300, which has a shutter speed limit of 8 seconds. The latter just requires faster hands and sometimes a few more practice shots.
A quiet night in the garden with a flashlight
Light painting can be done either indoors or out. The only strict requirements are a dark setting, a camera, and a hand-held light source. Due to the longer exposures required for light painting and most night photography, a tripod is very, very handy. Very. That being said, you can absolutely do without by finding or creating a steady surface at an appropriate height and resting your camera on it. I carried a stepladder around in the back of my truck for ages.
More About Night Photography and Light Painting - My Favorite Tutorials and Guides for Shooting in the Dark
While night photography and light painting are two techniques I really dig, I still have a lot to learn! The single most useful thing I've learned so far about photography in the dark is this: Take a lot of lousy pictures. I suppose, really, that's the single most helpful thing I've learned about photography in general, but it's doubly true for night photography and triply true for light painting. For me, anyway.
If you take a lot of lousy shots, and just try not to take shots the same lousy way twice, you will stumble upon wonderful things. If you do some reading while you're at it, you'll stumble upon those wonderful things sooner and more frequently!
- The Nocturnes Night Photography Web site
Night Photography Workshops, Articles, Tips, Gallery, and Exhibits - presented by The Nocturnes. A great resource for all types of night photography. Tips, tutorials, current moon phase, and a great exhibit of night photographs to inspire you.
- Common Obstacles in Night Photography
A very thorough description of the problems commonly encountered in night photography, and how to solve them.
- Light Painting Photography
Light painting videos, artists, tutorials, tips, and art.
- Seriously Awesome Light Painting Photography Collections
A large collection of amazing light photography images and videos.
- How to Use Steel Wool for Beautiful Light Painting Photographs
Want to see something cool? Light some steel wool on fire.
Pester Your Pets - Animals Make Great Subjects for Photography
Her future's so bright...
While animals won't hold still as patiently as toys, they do offer inherently entertaining poses and antics. Many pets seem to love having their pictures taken, provided you keep it fun for everyone. The camera means attention!
What a sweet face. Who'd guess she had my favorite book for dinner?
My most frequently featured animal model is Ruby, a young mutt who loves the spotlight. Ruby is a rescue dog, whisked away from the San Jose animal shelter hours before she was scheduled to meet an untimely end. She's very sweet and affectionate, and destructive as only a young, strong, untrained dog can be. We both treasure our photo shoots: she for the attention and I for the calmer, quieter dog who emerges before the camera.
Tea with a charming guest in my mother's back yard.
Wild animals also make wonderful photography subjects. Chance encounters with animals are one more great reason to take your camera everywhere! If you keep a little garden or grow flowers in your yard, the addition of a small bird feeder or birdbath may help encourage visits from some charming models for your photography.
Fear Not Thy Photo Editing Software - Post-Processing is Your Friend
Playful editing can bring life back into a dull snapshot.
Compared to the brain behind your eyes, cameras are really stupid. When your eyes see something, they know all kinds of things about it. They know that little, distant things are actually big, and that bright things next to brighter things are still bright, and all sorts of other wonderful bits of information about the thing that's bouncing light at you. Not only do they know this stuff, but they engage in post-processing based on this information without you even needing to think about it.
The camera doesn't know any of that stuff. It does what you tell it to do, if that. In some ways, this makes it a much more reliable observer, as there are no bits being filled in from memory and understanding. For artistic purposes, though, this can be a frustrating limitation.
The ocean was lovely that day, but my hurried snapshot was not.
This is where photo editing software comes into play. Playing with new techniques or filters in your software is a great way to change pace when inspiration runs dry. If you normally make heavy use of photo editing software, try going a week without! If the switch to working solely in the camera doesn't inspire renewed creativity, the return of your full toolbox at the end of the week may.
I use GIMP, a free and powerful image editing program with a nearly inexhaustible array of plugins and add-ons. GIMP runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac operating systems, and suits my needs perfectly. There are, of course, a wide array of other options, ranging from in price from free to figures that should make their peddlers blush.
My Cameras - Two Cameras I Love to Use
You can take a great picture with literally any camera. Some of the coolest pictures I've seen in our group were taken on phones. The most important thing is just to have a camera you like to use and take it everywhere you go.
That being said, some cameras are just a joy to use. I don't necessarily mean the fanciest cameras, though there are certainly high-end cameras I'd love to own if I had the money! In every price range, there are just some cameras that offer great features for the money and simple, intuitive controls. The two I use at the moment were chosen for the feature-to-price ratio, and I've found them both easy and enjoyable to use.
I actually own the D5000, but if I were buying it new today I'd cough up the small difference for the next version, the D5100. It's essentially the same camera, but everything's a little better. Resolution jumps from 12 to 16MP with this model, and it offers significantly less noise at higher ISOs, a plus for night and indoor action photography.
Most of the beginning photographers I know, myself included, frequently find themselves struggling to find inspiration for that next photograph. Seasoned photographers may encounter this less frequently, but I have it on good authority that even the most talented and knowledgeable professional photographers still sing the photographer's block blues once in a while. I've shared the techniques and subjects that keep me smiling at my camera even during creative dry spells. I'd love to hear about what has worked for you!