So you’re looking over more photos from someone who’s just returned from a trip to an exotic international photo hotspot. You think…”Wow, I could be making great photos too if only I could go there.” Yes, there’s probably some truth in the quote from National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson –
“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
So where is the “interesting stuff?” You could consult the Forbes magazine list of “The World's Best Destinations For Travel Photography.” Or you could see where those providing photo workshops are taking people. Of course, you’re going to need a couple of things; time, money, and perhaps a passport. I have little or none of those. I’m doubtful when, if ever I’ll get to any of the spots on those lists. Perhaps you can relate? Does that mean we can’t make great photos? I don’t believe that for a minute. “Interesting stuff” is not limited to a geolocation or an iconic, much-photographed scene. A creative photographer is the one who can make compelling images anywhere, with any gear, at any time. So let me offer some ideas on how to “bloom where you’re planted.”
Your home is someone else’s travel destination
It’s funny how we photographer’s buy into the idea that the “grass is always greener” someplace else. No doubt, familiarity with a place takes away the novelty and sense of discovery. Or maybe we just need that sense of awe that comes from traveling to a new place to inspire us. Think about this though – your hometown may be someone else’s “travel destination.” Maybe you just need to look at it with “new eyes.”
Here’s a case in point; I am planning a trip with a photo buddy to Vermont and some other New England states this fall. This has been on my “bucket list” for a very long time, in the planning stages for almost a year, and I’m still saving up for the trip. Now here’s the irony, another Improve Photography writer, Brenda Petrella, calls Vermont home. Her home state is my travel destination. My home state, Idaho, was her travel destination just a few years ago. The photo opportunities are very different in each place, but both beautiful.
So, here’s what you need to do: Revisit your own area as if it were the first time. Or perhaps consider if a photographer from another area came to visit, where would you take them? What would you show them? What would be the best times to shoot in those locations? (If you can host a visiting photographer, even better as you’ll find their excitement in capturing what you might consider “old hat” invigorating).
(A note here before we get started. There are 22 photos in this article. All of them were taken by me. 12 of them were taken in my house or in the yard and the other 10 were all taken no more than 10 miles from my house. No travel required.)
Landmarks and Historic locations
Building on the idea above, what landmarks or historic locations are there in your area? Have you photographed them before or if so, might you photograph them again with different lighting from different perspectives? How might a photographer visiting from a different place shoot them?
Perhaps you live in a city and long for the wide open spaces where you can exercise your landscape creativity. Great, but until you can save up for that trip maybe you should consider that many photographers with a penchant for architectural photography would love to visit your city. So, grab your camera and go on an architectural tour of your hometown. Instead of restricting yourself to shooting whole buildings, look for architectural abstracts, exploring the lines, shapes, and textures of the structures. Perhaps monochrome might be a good approach.
Landscape photographers are often the ones longing for new vistas to capture, but all places have “landscapes” though they may be different. What would a landscape photographer shoot were they to come to your area? What you might consider mundane and boring might, with the right light and a dose of creativity, come alive. Even if you live in an urban area, parks can offer mini-landscapes where you can make good photos.
Were you to travel to some exotic place, the chances are good that you’d want to photograph the people in that place, their clothing, culture, and activities. You do realize that a photographer visiting your area from a distant place would probably see these same things in the people you consider just “everyday folks?” Personally, I have not done much street photography and need to read Michael Allen's article to overcome my hesitation. My point is, there are interesting people and places to photograph right where you live.
You’ve often seen photos from distant lands where the photographer shot in markets and places showing the food of the region. Maybe you are one of those people who when presented an exotic meal while traveling, pulls out your cellphone to snap a picture of your dinner. (I plead guilty). So they don’t serve food where you live? Take your camera to the local farmer’s market, snap that dinner at your favorite restaurant, or maybe try some food photography at home.
Something else you’d likely photograph if you were traveling is the local people engaged in the sports, celebrations, or activities of the area. Your area has these too. Seek out opportunities to take your camera to these events and capture the action, color, flavor, and spirit of what's special about the place you call home.
Sometimes photographers travel to distant spots to get great wildlife photos. I know several photographers in my camera club who have been to Africa for photo safaris and have come home with great shots. Even if a trip to such places is not on your calendar, that doesn’t mean there isn’t wildlife to be photographed where you live. Almost everywhere there are birds. Have a look at my last article on How to Photograph Birds in Flight. Watch for other critters that may be common in your area. If nothing else, go to a local zoo. You may not get the shot of the pride of lions crossing the sunlit savannah, but you still might make a nice photo.
Photographing the changing of the seasons makes for great photos. Looking back over my first “Project 52” done in 2013, I note that seasonal photos comprise many of the weekly postings; snow and ice in the winter, flowers in the spring, sun and water in the summer, and autumn leaves in the fall. Watch for photo opportunities in these things.
I shoot a lot of still life subjects. One reason is that I enjoy it, but other reasons are that it takes no travel whatsoever, minimal expense, and I’m in full control of composition and lighting. A fun challenge is to make a nice shot with a very simple subject. Flowers, fruit, even household objects can make compelling subjects when you bring some creativity to the shot. Many of my still life shots I enjoy were made on the kitchen counter, no travel involved!
Also, consider what kinds of objects you might shoot if you were traveling. Are those same objects available where you live? Check out your local import stores. Rather than you going countries where these things are found, they’ve brought them to you. Set up a still life and tell a story with the scene.
I love to learn new things, new ways to use my camera, and looks I can create with lighting. A fantastic way to learn a new photo technique is to watch someone else do it and then try to re-create it for yourself. The photos featured in several of my previous Improve Photography articles; A Beginner’s Guide to High-Speed Photography, Use that Old Film Camera Lens for Reverse-Lens Macro Photos, Smoke Photography – A How-to Guide, and Improve Your Photographic Vision – Add Oil, Water, and Imagination!, all started with a desire to try a new technique.
My “research library” is Youtube where there is no end of online tutorials showing how to make creative shots. To get you started, check out some of my favorite “instructors” and their online shows – Gavin Hoey – “Take and Make Great Photography”, Mark Wallace – “Exploring Photography”, Bryan Peterson – “You Keep Shooting”, Robert Grant – “Learn My Shot,” Evan Sharboneau – “Photo Extremist.” These guys make regular tutorials on a variety of photo techniques. I know that for almost any creative photo technique you want to try you’ll find a Youtube tutorial.
Here’s a go-to subject you can do just about anywhere. Seeking interesting color, tone and texture is key and many of the compositional concepts of standard photography still apply. What’s not so important is making the image realistic or identifiable. What the picture is of isn’t really important, what counts is making images that are interesting to look at or perhaps evoke emotion. Finding abstract images in everyday objects is a great way to stretch your vision.
In my article, “52 Weeks to Becoming a Stronger Photographer in 2018,” I discussed my Project 52 work, periods when for an entire year I did a photo assignment a week. For my first, I simply shot whatever interested me that week. I did take on some new techniques and a few of the photos in this article are from that first project in 2013. When I did it again in 2016 I used the 52 cards in the Lightbox Photography set, each with an assignment. Now, you don’t have to use the cards or do a year-long project to do a photo assignment.” Simply pick a subject that interests you and decide to shoot what you need to complete that assignment. Example, one week the card I drew had the assignment “Circles.” Deciding what, where, and how to shoot that was a great exercise in seeing. The point is, any exercise that teaches you to see better and find photos where you may be is a good exercise.
Take advantage of travel opportunities!
The point of my article is not to suggest that traveling to great photo spots is a bad idea. Do I wish I could get to some of the international photo hotspots, travel with other photographers and learn in workshops with great instructors? Absolutely! Do I encourage you to seek and participate in such opportunities? You bet! However, if time and money restraints keep you closer to home, don’t get discouraged and think you can’t be a great photographer. Find the opportunities where you are and hone your skills. Join your local camera club and learn about nearby places perhaps you didn’t know where there. Then, when you do get the chance to hit the road or fly off to an exotic land, you’ll be even better prepared to make some awesome shots having all that practice.
One more side note and a shout-out to a good photo buddy who spends all his time making travel photos. Harold Hall is a fellow camera club member who has no “home.” He and his wife live nowhere and everywhere, constantly traveling the world. Through him and his photos, I’m able to enjoy “vicarious vacations” to places all over the globe. I never know where he might be next. If you do enjoy seeing images from just about everywhere, I invite you to check out his blog. You might just see a spot you want to add to your photo bucket list.