How to Capture Beauty in Ugly and Mundane Subjects

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A huge part of your job as a photographer is to make people pause, and linger over a photograph. Sometimes it could be a stunningly lit portrait, or maybe an epic landscape. But, if you’re like me, more than likely you don’t live in an area that will provide you with daily majestic shots, and you likely don’t have a full studio set up. So, you need to find inspiration around you, in the day-to-day grind, which is not always obvious.

Roots

Albrect Dürer, the masterful Reformation period painter and engraver said, “Nature holds the beautiful, for the artist who has the insight to extract it. Thus, beauty lies even in humble, perhaps ugly things, and the ideal, which bypasses or improves on nature, may not be truly beautiful in the end.” His studies, such as The Great Piece of Turf, are great examples of this concept.

Even if you live in a concrete jungle, or the strip-mall suburbs, there is some sort of nature around you. And in nature lies the capability and potential for endless creativity. Nature may be trees, flowers and plants to you, but it’s also in the weeds, the decay, or in the ugly, neglected bits along the side of the road.

Snail

The other part to this truth of beauty in ugly is this – we are drawn to imperfection and fascinated by it, it’s human nature. Think about it – the last photo that captured your attention, was it a Photoshopped model with flawless skin in a magazine ad, or was it a side-lit portrait of an older man with a grizzled beard, and experience etched into his face? The more interesting things in life are usually the imperfect ones. We connect more to reality, not ideal perfection. So this search for interesting, compelling images in ugly, may turn you towards the neglected and forlorn places, where decay and rust run rampant.

Seed pod

In your search for beauty in ugliness, try to switch your mindset and look past the obvious subject matter.

A great way to start is to take a walk around where you live, or where you work. All the photos in this post were taken either on a 5-minute walk around the neighborhood, or a 15-minute walk around the campus where I teach. The goal is to stretch your mind on what could be an interesting photo. You could easily do this with your smartphone, as a way to actively work on photography at any time.

If you’re having difficulty getting started, think about these tactics:

Look down and look closely

Much of the decay and imperfection is at your feet, or at the edges of things. Peeling paint, rusting hinges, grass and leaves – all can make compelling images, equal or even more so than the roses or pretty blooms. You need to slow down, and look at the things you normally pass by quickly.

Grass

Shoot tight

Are you fortunate enough to have a macro lens? Use it. No such luck? Experiment with your lenses and find the minimal focal distance that works for you. Even without macro or close focus, think about shooting a quality image (ISO, resolution, etc.) that you can crop in on later. And if you’re doing this as a creative exercise, remember that your smartphone has an incredible macro on it–it’ll focus inches away from your subject. Ugly often works best as a subject in small details rather than big, wide shots.

Seeds

Go for contrast

You’re not just looking for tonal contrast, but any contrast is a magical photo trick. Contrasting textures? Check. Contrasting colors? Check.

Peeling paint

Texture, texture, texture. It’s really your best friend in the search for interesting shots in not-so-pretty settings.

Think deeper

Don’t underestimate the power of symbolism. You intuitively know that there are inherent themes of loneliness, isolation, or neglect in a powerful stark image of something ugly. There is a huge fascination in current society with photographing abandoned spaces, and areas that have been forgotten. These images resonate within people. Alternately, there is a hope that occurs when you see a small bloom emerging from a pile of rubble. Remember the power of a simple visual.

Sprouted pod

Remember the ultimate subject in photography – light.

Ordinary objects can be transformed through your use of light. When you find an object to shoot, circle around it and look to see if you have shafts of light streaming in, or if there’s misty diffused light to add a mood. Just remember that if you’re shooting at noon with a harsh direct sun, it’s a good time to head for the shaded areas.

Condensation

In the end, you’ll find that by concentrating on finding interesting images in the weeds and gutters, it will actually help you in your other photography projects as well. By only documenting the ideal, perfect moments in life, you miss out on the whole story. Next time you’re shooting a wedding, or a child’s birthday party, you’ll be better prepared to capture the unplanned, imperfect moments. Those shots will be the ones that get talked about, and laughed over, for years to come.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Sharon Zoetewey teaches visual arts and journalism to high school students in Cerritos, California. She loves the challenge of documenting life through the details and action, whether in events, travel, athletics, or macro photography. Check out her work on her website, blog, or Instagram.

  • me

    Bravo!
    This is an ant’s nest

  • Michael Croteau

    Nice idea’s, here is a fish vertebrae

  • Sharon Zoetewey

    Awesome! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ant’s nest before–that’s pretty interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  • Sharon Zoetewey

    Thanks Michael! What a great object to photograph–look at those great spaces in between. This is a perfect object to try shooting from a few different angles–I’d love to see it from a side angle!

  • Leyden

    OK, I give. What is the object in example #8 [ bracelet on a tube?]?
    Great article. SEEING is believing.

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  • Becky Severinsen

    I was stumped on that one too, but hovering my mouse over it bought up the label condensation.jpg, so im guessing thats it

  • Sharon Zoetewey

    I love that people are puzzled by this–Becky is on the right track. It’s the back of a pick-up truck covered in frost being warmed up by the sun. The shallow depth of field made the mist rising off it blend in the background, and just that one line of condensation turned a bit jewel-like in the sun. 85mm lens got great bokeh to finish it off. Glad you liked the article.

  • John Voss

    I could have composed this without the tire and junk but they adds wabi sabi kind of balance to what would be an otherwise somewhat sterile scene.

  • John Voss

    I could have composed this without the tire and other junk, but leaving them in the frame adds a kind of wabi sabi balance to what would otherwise be a somewhat sterile scene.

  • Kate Janoskova

    I love to sit under a tree and take pictures of random small things.
    Or just plain random things.

  • Kenny B

    “a side-lit portrait of an older man with a grizzled beard” Hey – we’re not all ugly 😉 Great point – I’d much rather gaze on a ‘constrasty’ environmental portrait than a magazine cover!

  • Kenny B

    “a side-lit portrait of an older man with a grizzled beard” Hey – we’re not all ugly 😉 Great point – I’d much rather gaze on a ‘constrasty’ environmental portrait than a magazine cover!

  • Gregg Hasenjaeger

    Minimalist winter lake scene.

  • Sharon Zoetewey

    Love how you can see all the bits underneath the surface–adds so much interest. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Sharon Zoetewey

    Ah, love that you caught that bit of unclear writing–the imperfect and real were the description for humans, not the word ugly with it…thanks for calling me out on that bit of vagueness. All faces are beautiful in their own way, but the ones with character and authenticity are so awesome and compelling– I think photographers appreciate that.

  • Sharon Zoetewey

    Yes–a kindred spirit! I love random as well, but you probably could tell that from my photos. These are great–love the lighting on the last one.

  • Sharon Zoetewey

    Agreed, especially that tire–it adds so much more of a mood to the shot. Great call on including those foreground elements.

  • Gregg Hasenjaeger

    Thank you.

  • Great article. I’m doing my own 365 Photo Challenge and encouraged others to even try a 52 week one. I’ve done most of my shots with my iPhone. All that you’ve mentioned is pretty much what I’ve been doing because I live in the national forest. There are ample scenic shots but there’s a lot of other interesting things to see. I’m posting my challenge work on Ts?.

  • A predatory fungus emerging from the carcass of a caterpillar, in Costa Rica

  • Sharon Zoetewey

    Wow–that’s so amazing. Nice job of noticing that and getting low to get the shot. I’d love to see an even closer view of it–so interesting! Thanks for posting it.

  • Sharon Zoetewey

    Thanks Patricia–I did a personal one a few years ago and called it a 100 Photos Project. I was posting a photo every 3 days or so, which was better for me than daily. I bet you have endless subjects in the national forest. Glad you liked the article.

  • Rob

    I keep a 2m x 2m tarp handy so even on wet or damp (or dirty) ground, I can get right down with my subject. I also made a simple bracket with a rollerblade wheel that I can rig on my monopod for getting ground level shots with ease (be careful shooting like this in areas with people of they might think you are taking pictures up women’s skirts)

  • waynewerner

    I always enjoy the look of peeling paint

  • Found a web, added some water and voila! Shot on a 100mm macro 2.8

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