Finding Good Subjects to Photograph – Part 2

Written by:

By Steve Russell

“Quit trying to find beautiful objects to photograph. Find the ordinary objects so you can transform them by photographing them.”
Morley Baer

“The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” That happened to me this week. I had an article almost completed that was loosely based on the rules of photography when something happened that prompted me to write a sequel to last week’s article. That something was a comment made by one of the readers of the article last week. Since he posted it for all to see, I’ll quote his comment.

“I feel as though finding beauty in our immediate surroundings can be very challenging. I live and work in pretty dull environments and I find it hard to even begin to look for photographic subjects.”

This sounds like the photography version of writer’s block which is not, by the way, an uncommon occurrence. As I mentioned last week, what we see every day becomes commonplace and in our minds eye it becomes gray and lifeless as in Tyler’s case. So I thought I’d offer some suggestions to help get over photographer’s block, especially in our every day surroundings.

Narrow your focus

Regardless of how hardened we are to our immediate surroundings the world becomes magical when viewed through a magnifying glass. Macro-photography can produce spectacular images. An image of something as mundane as the common housefly can be spectacular. Getting up close and personal with insects and flowers, even the tiny flowers on common weeds, can result in surprisingly interesting images.

The mushroom in this image was about two inches tall. My tripod legs were flat on the ground and I was lying on my stomach to take the photo. Although I was in the woods of northern Michigan at the time, I could have taken a similar image in some random vacant lot in an urban environment.


I took this photo in an abandoned sand quarry. I can promise you there wasn’t much to look at except lots of dull, uninteresting sand and some scrawny weeds scattered here and there, but the place was thick with these two species of insects playing out the drama of life. As the wasps would emerge from their nest in a hole in the ground, having just reached adulthood, this other species of insect would pounce on them. Granted, it’s not an image I would frame and hang on my wall, but I still find it fascinating.

Think shapes and geometry

Find an old fence, park bench, ladder, anything with repetitive shapes and experiment by taking images from different angles, from above, from below, straight on, acute angle, etc. One of my all time favorite photos was one I took years ago of a winding walkway through a park in Giessen, Germany. Along the left side of the walkway were Victorian style streetlamps spaced about every ten to 15 meters. On the right side was a lone park bench. It had snowed the night before and there was one set of footprints where someone had walked along the path. That person had stopped to sit on the bench and left an impression in the snow. Frankly, I was on my way to another place and wasn’t planning to take a photo in the park but the symmetry of the streetlamps standing guard along the pathway coupled with the park bench resulted in a terrific black and white image.

Not every image will be noteworthy, but every once in a while you’ll hit one out of the park like I did that winter morning. And, no, I no longer have the photograph or the negative to share – it’s a long story

Experiment with different lighting

Not everything should be “perfectly” exposed. The two images of the old 19th century cook stove were taken from the same position. The only difference is the lighting. The first one was captured using only the natural light coming from an open door near the stove and for the second one I used the pop-up flash on my camera. I’ll let you decide which you prefer but to me, the natural light image is more interesting.
IMG_1141 IMG_1140

Use a prop
When I read the comment last week, I went to Flickr to try to find interesting images of dull and mundane subjects when I stumbled upon this image of a red chair next to a blue door. Now I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t go out looking for a red chair sitting next to a blue door. Nevertheless, it made a great image.

I was so intrigued with this image that I went to the photographer’s Flickr site and discovered that she had taken an entire series of photos with the red chair in different, sometimes whimsical locations. She did the same with red shoes. Her Flickr name is Jasperroz and I recommend you go to her Flickr site and look at all the red chair and red shoe photos.

Here is one with the chair in the middle of a newly plowed field. You have to admit that a plowed field wouldn’t qualify as striking and beautiful, but put a bright red chair in the middle of it and you have a great image.

Attract subjects to you

Degilbo is a regular contributor of images to the BeyondMegapixels group on Flickr. These two photos of beautiful birds were taken in his back yard. He attracts the birds to his yard by putting out bird seed and other treats the birds will come and eat. He lives in Australia so you won’t be able to attract these species of birds to your back yard if you live in London or New York City, but there is still a wide variety of birds that will come to feeders. Not only is it fun and produces some wonderful images, but also taking photos of birds in your backyard is a good way to sharpen many of your photography skills.
2010-02-05 14-27-31 Lorikeet  - IMG_1585 2010-08-07 10-53-34 - IMG_9960 Stand-off at feeding tray

Be creative and somewhat philosophical

Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, it’s dependent on the mood of the beholder. Contemplate a garbage can and you can figure out how to take an interesting image of it. Okay, maybe not a garbage can, but I’ve seen it done before. Try a broken window, a child’s toy abandoned in a yard or an empty softball field. I’ve seen interesting images of a playground basketball goal, a bicycle rack, abandoned buildings, etc. Subjects are everywhere. All you have to do is capture an image that evokes feelings or tells a story.

Stretch your limits and break your own rules

It would help me to pay attention to this one. Spend a day taking photos of things you would never photograph. Push yourself to look at everything differently and you will amaze even yourself.

I tend to think of photography as an outdoor activity, but indoors works as well. Pouring down rain outside? Try taking still life photos. Do things with your camera that you’ve never done before.

Get off your feet

“Get off your feet” is another way of saying, change your perspective. If you’re 5 feet tall, you always see things from the same angle when you’re walking around. I’m over 6 feet tall and I see things from a very different angle than someone who is 5 feet tall. Use a ladder to get a higher perspective. It will change how you see the subject. Of course people will think you’re crazy if you’re lying on the ground taking a photo of a weed, but who cares what they think. It’s the image you’re worried about. Just don’t lie down in the middle of a street or on a fire ant bed.

Be realistic with yourself

Photography is one of the few places that if you fail, you can just hit the delete key. Don’t expect every image to be worthy of the cover of National Geographic or submission for a Pulitzer Prize. Memory is cheap and can be reused. It’s not like you have to pay for every click of the camera like twenty years ago when almost everything was film. If you pass on releasing the shutter and capturing an image, you might have missed what would have been one of your favorite images. If it’s terrible, delete it. No harm done.

I hope this will inspire everyone to look at the world around them differently and take a photo of it. Most importantly, have fun with your camera.

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

- “Mushroom” by Steve Russell
- “Insects” by Steve Russell
- “19th Century Cook Stove (natural light)” by Steve Russell
- “19th Century Cook Stove (flash)” by Steve Russell
- “The Red Chair #10″ by Jasperroz on Flickr
- “The Red Chair #47″ by jasperroz on Flickr
- “Rainbow Lorikeets” by Degilbo on Flickr Creative Commons
- “Rainbow Lorikeets and Crested Pigeons” by Degilbo on Flickr Creative Commons

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  • Sean

    Lisette Model said to one of her students, “Take picture of things that are UGLY!”

  • B Melinda14

    Funny how I’ve always gone lower but not higher! Thanks for the simple tips that can take something ordinary to the extraordinary!

  • Richard Devita

    How did you accomplish the lighting on the mushroom shot?…it’s really good!

  • Brian McLaughlin

    how on EARTH did you get all 4 birds to sit for you- they’re never thatn agreeable for me! well done!

  • JTM

    Ditto! Look right around you,