How to Make Great Photos in Boring Locations

HDR photo of a pool in someone's backyard behind their house in Florida.

HDR Pool – by Jim Harmer

As a photographer, I am often called to shoot “interesting” events, locations, and clients. I’ve come to expect the unexpected when I’m hired for a shoot, but none of my experiences could match the call I got a couple months ago. I picked up the phone and a woman asked me how much I would charge her for me to go to her backyard and take pictures.  What in her backyard did she want photographed?  The neighbor’s flag.  Apparently, she really liked the way that it waved in the wind.  Yes, she wanted to pay me to go to her house and take some pictures of the neighbor’s flag, and a few other shots of the backyard area.

It gets worse.  She wanted at least two dozen shots so she could print them and hang them on her walls.  Oh, and the shoot occurred on a day when it was pouring rain.  Wow.  Tough.  It was quite the experience, and I rented a lens for the job but–believe it or not–I learned that it is possible to make great shots out of thin air if you spend enough time waiting for the right shot.  Oh, and the client was rich, so she paid really well :-)  All of the pictures on this page are from that shoot.

10 tips for making great shots even when you’re in a pinch… or a client’s backyard

 Tip #1: Reach into the photographer’s bag of tricks.  When you need to take pictures in a place that isn’t interesting, photographers can get great pictures by using non-traditional photography techniques.  For example, I took HDR photos, panoramas, and even time lapse photos while shooting for this client in her backyard.

Tip #2: Go macro.  Not only is this a great tip for finding interesting subjects in tough situations, but it is also a great technique for wedding photographers.  Almost every time I shoot a wedding or engagement, the couple chooses the shots of the wedding rings, the cake topper, the bride’s shoes, etc.  Cropping in tight on some of the details of the scene is a creative way to bring some interest into the boring location.  On this shoot, I applied this technique by shooting the flowers in the garden.

Tip #3: Creative post-production.  Try changing the photo to black and white, or sepia, or make part of the picture color and the rest of it black and white.  Little gimmicks on the computer can really dress up an otherwise dull photo.

Tip #4: Come back at night.  There is something about night photos at always seems to impress viewers.  I have shot night photography in some very dull locations, but which looked great at night.  For example, check out this previous post where I took a picture in the day and then shot the same location at night to show how different the mood of the photo was.

Tip #5: Make the photo an environmental portrait. This is one thing I wish I would have done on this shoot, but that I failed to do.  By simply asking the client to step in for a shot,

Anhinga bird taking off from a pond.

Anhinga’s Flight – by Jim Harmer

I could have taken a really cool portrait of her in the backyard that she so loved.  Opportunity missed.

Tip #6: Get high (no…. not that kind of high).  Okay, this is one of my super-secret tips that I’m about to give away.  Fine, it’s not so super-secret, but it has saved me on more than one occasion.  I often find myself in a location where I think it would be really cool to get an aerial shot.  For example, when shooting this house, I thought it would be cool if I could get a ladder and shoot from 15 or 20 feet in the air down on the house.  Unfortunately, no ladder.  To solve this problem, I extend my tripod legs as long as they go, close up the legs, attach my camera with a wide-angle lens and the 10 second timer, and then left the bottom of my closed tripod above my head.  With this technique I can get my camera 15 feet in the air.  Obviously, it isn’t very steady, but if you use a fast enough shutter speed, it works out fine since you’re using a short lens anyway.  Will this make you look like a lightning rod in a storm?  Yes.  Will it help you to get a really creative shot of a boring location?  Yes.

Tip #7: Use blur and stability together.  When shooting this client’s backyard, I noticed that the palm trees were swaying in the windy storm.  If I would have just taken a picture of them normally, it would be impossible to show that they were moving.  So, I used a longer exposure so the trees would blur.  Ordinarily, a blurry picture of a tree would not be so great, but I shot with a wide-angle lens to include the ground and the house in the picture.  Since the rest of the scene was steady and only the trees were moving, it made for a creative shot.  You could do the same thing in a city by shooting a picture of a car moving in front of a building that is sharp in the photo.

Tip #8: Always, always look at the light.  While in the client’s backyard for this shoot, I was intensely focused on shooting an Anhinga bird in a small pond behind the house.  I wasn’t paying attention to anything else except that bird.  After a while, I turned around and spotted a giant, beautiful double rainbow stretching across the sky!  The mistake I made was focusing too much on the subject, and not watching what the light around me was doing.  Fortunately, I spotted it in time to get a few frames.

Tip #9: Use framing for composing difficult locations.  For the wide shots of the backyard, it was tough to create a strong composition so the shot wouldn’t look “snapshottish” (a completely made up word).  To strengthen my composition of the rainbow in the sky, I went inside the house and shot through a large sliding glass door.  The door provided a great frame for the photo of the rainbow that would have been totally snapshottish without the frame.

Tip #10: What would you suggest?  You are in charge of this last tip.  What other creative ideas do you have to make a great photo even when you’re in a dull location for photography?

Rainbow as seen from inside a house in Florida.

Bedroom Looking Out – by Jim Harmer

Comments from the I.P. Community

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