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Transcending the Familiar

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Reflection in an apartment building swimming pool

An assignment often given in introductory photography classes is to “Shoot a roll of slide film within 30 meters of where you live.” That’s how it was presented to me in 1989. Today it’s probably “Upload 36 JPEG files...” Either way, as they struggle to come up with the requisite quota of images, students may not understand why this exercise can help them take better pictures. Red flower and multicolored bricks

Why the struggle? Photography is usually incidental to some kind of experience— an occasion, a holiday, a trip to some far-away place, or something else special or memorable, where the reason and inspiration to take pictures is clear and obvious. The assignment is intentionally devoid of any of that. It’s photography for its own sake, unrelated to any specific experience or memory. Discarded toilets in late afternoon light

When you’re photographing special subjects, occasions, or places, the pictures often come to you. Because the interest and motivation comes from the subject, it’s easy and very tempting to let the subject do the creative work. But with ordinary subjects in familiar places, you need to actively look for the pictures. You have to provide the inspiration that leads to creative vision. The exercise challenges you to see quotidian things in new ways— to transcend the familiar. Still life of soda bottles and cans destined for recycling

It’s about learning to find the pictures. Or more specifically, learning to look and think, which is what photography really is about. The practice of seeing imaginative images in ordinary things, in your familiar environment, will make your pictures of special subjects or places much more exciting. It will help you create pictures that go beyond mere snapshots that record a memory or experience. Ferns and flowers

I’ve returned to this exercise repeatedly over the years, though with a more practical limitation. Sometimes it was a convenient way to test new cameras, films, lenses, or software. Other times I was exploring something that had caught my eye while I was driving or walking. And occasionally, I just felt like doing it. Earthen flower pot early in the morning

So here is a virtual roll of film, with 36 pictures I’ve taken within walking distance of where I’ve lived (in a rather nondescript Southern California suburb) over a 24-year period. Three of them are slides from that original class assignment in 1989.

Besides offering what I think are some interesting artistic images, these pictures also illustrate some ideas and techniques that I’ve found helpful as creative catalysts to seeing pictures. I hope they can help (and perhaps inspire) you to take better pictures. Like all techniques and ideas, the ones I describe here are merely starting points for looking and thinking. That’s the real key to interesting pictures, whether you’re traveling or exploring your own neighborhood. The techniques are also meant to be mixed and matched. Most of the pictures use several of them.

Tree cone and its large shadow on a sidewalk Roof under construction, early in the morning Electric meters, late in the afternoon Corner of a strip mall in the late afternoon

The “golden hours”— roughly an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset— are a magical time when just about anything can become an interesting subject for photography. The warm golden glow of sunlight filtered through extra layers of atmosphere intensifies colors. The low angle of illumination can also provide side lighting that creates or enhances textures for a three-dimensional effect (“modeling”).

Professional landscape photographers do their work early and late in the day, and leave the midday sun to mad dogs and Englishmen. The “golden hour” is a key ingredient of those eye-popping scenic images you see on calendars. But that special light can work its magic just as well for other types of subjects. If you’re looking for the best way to see familiar things in a different light (literally), this is it!

A few caveats: Some subjects will be in shadow during the early morning or late afternoon. You might need to make repeated visits to find the optimal time of day (or time of year) for pictures. And “gold” is sometimes a matter of luck. I live near the coast in Southern California, where the marine layer of “night and morning low clouds” too often works a reverse alchemy that turns those golden hours a dull leaden gray. On the other hand, if you’re fortunate enough to have a clear winter day, the low angle of the sun can provide modeling light (though without the golden glow) all day long.

In addition to these four pictures, I took most of the other pictures on this page during the “golden hours.”

Detail of a bright red fire sprinkler control Detail of a bright red fire sprinkler control
Red tartan blanket
Detail of a bright red fire sprinkler control Detail of a bright red fire sprinkler control
Blue awning detail Orator sign
Corner of fast food restaurant and sky Orange traffic cone with a green background

Color, particularly when it’s intense or vibrant, can be the focal point, the unifying theme or element, or even the whole point of a picture.

The four pictures at left are details of a large pipe and hydrant, part of the fire suppression system for an office building. You probably wouldn’t know that from looking at the pictures. And it doesn’t matter, because they actually aren’t pictures of a fire suppression system mechanism. The real subject is the vivid red it’s painted, made even more intense by the early morning light.

(These pictures also illustrate two other ideas for seeing pictures. First, isolate specific interesting details of the subject— here the mechanism and brass mechanical parts and lock, or the white graffiti drawing. I’ll have more to say about isolating later. Second, memory cards are cheap. After you think you’ve finished, stop and take another look!)

Similarly, the red tartan blanket still life and the blue awning detail at right are abstractions. The images are intentionally removed from their ostensible subjects. The real subject of each is the dominant color, possibly with related (“analogous”) secondary colors to provide harmonious contrast.

Another way to use color as a subject or compositional theme is to look for contrasting, “complementary,” or even clashing colors. Colors that don’t go together often give the unintuitive result of intensifying both colors, while giving the overall image a restless or dynamic quality.

Harmonious or otherwise, vivid colors require special handling in the digital darkroom. The sRGB color space usually used for JPEG files in cameras and Web browsers often can’t render them properly. Colors can lose their intensity or change— red turns orange; green becomes yellowish; blue acquires a purple or turquoise tint— and details can disappear.

If possible, shoot raw files in the camera, and process them in a wide-gamut color space such as Adobe RGB or ProPhoto. (Scans from film, particularly high-saturation slide film, also benefit from a wide-gamut color space.) You’ll still lose some of the color when you convert the finished pictures to sRGB for the Web, but you’ll keep the full range of colors for prints. Current ink-jet printers, as well as photo labs that make prints on traditional light-sensitive paper, have a gamut (range of colors) much larger than a typical computer display.

Two brick walls Flower and textured tree bark
Detail of a tree's eye Detail of a tree roots with ivy
Newly mowed lawn and trimmed hedge
Manicured bushes detail in black and white Manicured bushes detail in black and white

Contemporary artists have invented new forms— notably installation art— that invite visitors to interact with a work using multiple senses. Photographic technology has yet to provide a way to reproduce smell and taste; and cameras typically don’t record sound with still images. But including texture as an element of a picture can engage the sense of touch as well as sight. The featured texture can be in the foreground or background. Or texture itself can be the subject of the picture.

Using the three-dimensional modeling effect of early morning and late afternoon light is the best way to enhance the texture and tactility of an image. Converting the picture to black and white can also enhance texture and abstract form, as color can be a distraction when that’s what you want to emphasize.

If the subject and lighting don’t provide enough texture, various digital tools can enhance (or create) tactility. Some are built in to photo editing software: The “Clarity” slider in Adobe’s Lightroom and Camera Raw, or the “Clarify” tool in Corel’s Paint Shop Pro. Others come in plug-ins, such as the “Tonal Contrast” filter in Google’s Color Efex Pro suite.

But try the no-cost Local Contrast Enhancement technique first; it uses the old-fashioned Unsharp Mask tool that you’ll find in just about any image editor. The article’s author inexplicably doesn’t mention it, but I suggest that you apply this technique to a duplicate layer. That will give you control over the strength of texture enhancement.

An image can have rhythm, just as music does. Look for patterns of lines, shapes, angles, or other forms. Early-morning or late-afternoon light can strengthen the rhythm. Who could ask for anything more?

Barbed wire fence detail Young palm tree detail
Yellow water plug
1962 Cadillac headlights and chrome 1962 Cadillac detail

Isolate the most interesting element or salient part of a subject or scene, and make it the entire image. You might try to convey the essence of the subject, or create a pure abstraction that makes the subject unrecognizable or irrelevant. Either approach is entirely fine.

Isolating an element usually means moving in close, or using a long focal length lens to crop out everything that’s distracting or extraneous to the specific detail that attracted your attention. You might also use light to highlight the center of interest, and conversely to darken, obscure, or otherwise de-emphasize everything else.

But moving in close is not the only way to isolate. For example, I took a series of pictures of a white 1962 Cadillac that I saw parked near where I lived. The interesting element was the headlight and front grill, which I first isolated in the normal fashion.

But when I turned off the camera and moved back, I saw something much more interesting. (Again, after you think you’re finished, take another look!) The car’s hood was a large area of uniform color (the fancy technical term is negative space). A trim fin also provided a leading line that directs the eye to the headlights. The nearly featureless hood and the fin provided another way to isolate the headlights and grill. That perspective also gave me a nice reflection of the blue sky in the chrome beneath the headlights.

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