4 Quick Tips to Notice the Supporting Cast of Your Landscape Scene

4 Quick Tips to Notice the Supporting Cast of Your Landscape Scene

Recently I took a stroll through my photo archives as a way of bench-marking my progress as a photographer and something dawned on me – I’ve begun to overcome a very troublesome disorder for photographers known as Single Subject Blindness.

Single Subject Blindness

Have You Ever…

Come home from photographing something spectacular only to have ever photograph you upload be of that one spectacular subject? I mean there’s nothing wrong with this problem – after all you are still getting a photograph of one spectacular subject, but could you have gotten more? Done something else? Seen the scene differently?

So when you think back to some of your recent photo adventures – Have you ever photographed a dramatic sunset and walked away with photographs of only the sunset? Have you ever hiked deep into a forest to photograph a waterfall to walk away with only photographs of the waterfall itself? This is what I’m calling single subject blindness and it is something I’d like to mention today and talk about how I avoid it.

Thin Ice

There’s Nothing Wrong With Main Characters – But They Aren’t The Full Story

I do want to mention that there’s nothing wrong with capturing the main characters of your scene, the sunset, the waterfall, the expansive mountain range etc, but I do think that if that’s all you’re photographing when you go out on a shoot you’re missing a big part of the scene around you – the supporting cast!

I’ve done this myself for many years – I’ll get caught up in a scene and return to my computer to see what I’ve captured only to find every photo looks the same. Lately I’ve begun to catch myself doing it in the field and I’ve found a couple of ways to break the habit.

It’s not easy though – The thing is just like in the movies, a great book, or a dramatic play the main characters draw your attention, and keep it. The supporting cast is there to move the story along, but not necessarily be the story – however, they can make for very compelling and interesting subjects when isolated and taken separately. So while we can still photograph our main subjects I think it’s also important to find ways to steer our focus from the obvious subjects to those which are more subtle.

So How Do You Steer Your Focus?

There’s no denying that it’s hard to ignore the main character of your photo shoot – after all many times it’s the reason where there in the first place. If you want to have a chance to photograph the supporting cast of your scene you have to find the strength to divert your focus, even if only for a moment, from that main event. Here are four quick tips that I use to get myself noticing the smaller details of a scene – if you can think of more tricks leave them in the comments below!

Supporting Cast

4 Quick Tips to Notice the Supporting Cast of Your Scene

  1. Step back – It’s no secret that stepping back from you camera from time to time can be a huge benefit in improving your photography. It can help you see the entire scene as a whole, it can help you see different compositions of the subject you’re photograph, and yes it can even allow you to find and isolate the supporting cast of your scene which you might have otherwise missed with your eye glued to the viewfinder. 
  2. Close Your Eyes – Take a minute or two and close your eyes. I love doing this when I’m in the middle of no where, sometimes I’ll even spin myself in a couple circles and really try to disorientate myself (make sure you can find your way home before you try this though). The reason this works is because it causes you to really focus in on your location when you open your eyes to find your bearings. You’ll have a new view of your surroundings and this will help you see something that you didn’t notice before.
  3. Don’t Get Caught Up – I once woke up an hour before dawn in the middle of winter after a snow storm and drove to a frozen lake to photograph sunrise. I took nearly 150 shots during the 45 minutes I was there and ended up with one photograph – the one of the dock above. Of the photographs I took 95% of them looked exactly like the one above. I was cold, tired and very disappointed I didn’t make an effort to photograph other subjects during that shoot, but realized it wasn’t that I didn’t make an effort it was simply that I was caught up in photographing one subject instead of diverting my attention to other smaller details in the scene before me.
  4. Set an Alarm – If you know you’ll have a problem with number three try setting a timer. Allow yourself only a predetermined amount of time to get the shot you want from your main subject, and then once that time is up, spend the rest of your shoot looking for interesting supporting characters. This tip works wonders and it has a two fold effect – one due to the time crunch to capture the shot of your main subject you’ll find yourself working harder to get the shot you want in as short amount of time as possible, two it gets you looking for other interesting details in the scene you’re photographing.

Have You Ever Been Afflicted With Single Subject Blindness? What have You Done to Fix It?

I’d love to hear your own take on this and what you’ve done to avoid the problem in the comments below!

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John Davenport is the creator of PhoGro an online community that aims to help you grow your photography through engagement with other photographers. Join today! John also offers a free email course 6 Weeks to Better Photos. This course covers the most important techniques you need to learn when getting started with photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Tamara September 1, 2013 02:24 pm

    I used to be a single shot blind photographer, until I started doing photobooks of my travels and life, and culling a lot of (oh, that is so much like that one I put on the page before moments.) It doesn't stop me taking a few of the same, but has given me incentive to look for something different or out of the box.

    I recently had visited some friends at the other end of our state and mentioned that I'd like to take some scenic photos of their area. The husband took me to a local gorge, where there had been quite a bit of rainfall I took a lot of photos of different subjects, even stopped underneath a bridge in one town and liked what I took.

  • Anwen September 1, 2013 09:04 am

    The problem I have is actually getting too caught up in the detail... and I forget to take the wide shots!

  • gina September 1, 2013 01:16 am

    This is weird for me, because I NEVER used to have this problem. I would always come home with tons of shots, lots of which weren't premeditated. Lately though it's the opposite. I think I get too critical about what has the potential to be a good shot, and sometimes because of that not only do I miss good shots, I miss spectacular shots.

  • Alan August 25, 2013 04:53 am

    I am a learner and found this discussion interesting. I like the idea of spinning around to force yourself to capture location points. Something I have tried is to ask "What if..." this helps me to think about changing viewpoint, lighting (aperture etc) and composition. eg What would you like in this scene? It's not there so what would make a similar impact? Thanks for tips.

  • Eva August 24, 2013 04:48 pm

    I agree with Tim :-). When I shoot videos (I am no professional, just playing with my camera to record memories), I have a lot of "B-roll" - in fact, enough to fill a lot of clips. I need more 'main characters' to actually do stuff in my videos haha.

    I have taken this into photography and I tend to shoot a lot of the smaller details.
    Being lucky enough to call Sydney my (new) home, I have plenty of main subjects to practice on, though, to get the overall balance right :-)

  • Don August 24, 2013 01:05 am

    Great tips! Fifth would be "Get Low". Site down or lay done for a new perspective.

  • Vince August 24, 2013 12:49 am

    For 7 years I owned a post card wholesale distribution company. When purchased the company was 25 years old. One of my biggest headaches was refreshing the views while avoiding cliches. The answer was to approach the subject from different angles and time of day/season.

  • John Davenport August 23, 2013 10:24 pm

    Wow - thanks for all the awesome comments everyone seems like I'm not alone in the Single Subject Blindness problem, but then it appears that there's also people that go in the opposite route where they struggle to pick one subject to photograph and come away with hundreds of different shots none of which live up to their expectations or hopes.

    There's so many more great pieces of advice above too - I love the simple idea of 'turn around' which was mentioned a couple of times. It really does an amazing job of putting yourself in different light angles, different scenery, and different subjects.

    To answer c.kern's question

    So, my comment is really a question. What else would you have done at the lake/sunset? I might have zoomed in on the trees on the right with the sun behind them, or perhaps on the pier/curve of the lake, ore even on the snow at the base of the “weeds” on the right, as well as the great shot you got. But, as I said, the lesson would be better if you had given actual suggestions as to what else you might have done.

    You're absolutely right it would have been better to think about showing examples of what I could have shot in the same location, but as mentioned in the article I walked away with pretty much only photographs of the dock. Looking back on it now though you did pick out some of the subjects that stand out to me in just the frame - there's also a nice little area with a picnic table a little ways away just outside the frame of the photo which could have added a new dimension to the sunrise.

    Maybe the next time I'm out on a shoot I'll record it to show people how to move around from subject to subject without getting caught up in photographing the main event of the scene.

    Keep the comments coming!

  • John Jessup August 23, 2013 09:12 pm

    Nowadays I have very little time, other than holidays,but fortunately I do live in quite a photogenic place.

    I think by now I know just about any decent location for landscape which can vary quite a lot depending on the season and the light.

    So I have learned that if conditions look right for the shot I want and that is all I'm going to get, I refrain from blasting away with 100 shots of the same thing. 5-10 is normally enough to get what i want.

    But when I'm looking to do macro - usually flowers in the Spring and Summer, I go on a "scouting" drive in my golf cart. Fortunately with macro I'm less dependent on sunrise and sunset light and can use weekends.

  • J R WEEMS August 23, 2013 02:17 pm

    I seem to have been aware of this for some time. I constantly remind myself to 'step out of the box' so to speak. I have done this long before the term was coined. :) With wildlife, I tend to maybe show more than I maybe should, just to sort of tell the story. Not always easy.

  • Jenny August 23, 2013 11:47 am

    Hi I like your comments.
    My trick when out on a shoot is to look behind me, a bit like a good driver pulling out into traffic, check all the visual areas around you in case you've missed something. The other is to zoom in/out and look for a new subject in the same scene, several times...,it makes you look for scenes within a scene.

    I also suffer from taking lots, and lots. I am usually in a moving situation and have missed some potential shots because of blur, so I take extras in case, but then don't know when to stop. I either have to sort through lots of blurred photos because I haven't changed my settings, or lots of the same photos, where one or 3 would have sufficed. We all have this ability now with digital rather than film cameras. It's also about having lots of parameters to choose from, unlike some of the earlier film cameras where people had more fixed lenses and basic light settings.
    I like the idea of treating each photo like film, makes me more careful in the first place.

  • Jessy August 23, 2013 10:46 am

    It helps me when I first arrive at the place , not to unpack my camera, but first to stand still for 5 or 10 min. And just look around and absorb the surrounding and the subject.

  • Silva August 23, 2013 08:24 am

    Excellent article John, I can easily slip into this and come home with gig's not Mg's, - I am a bird photographer and many of one does manage to isolate the best position with the highlight in the eye, - however I can't help feeling that less is more! I often wish I was better at 'one' than picking the best of many. Great topic.

  • Gordon James August 23, 2013 07:18 am

    An extension of your first tip, perhaps, John. Whenever I'm shooting with a zoom lens on a high quality subject I will always go for the shot I first see (before positions, light or anything else changes!). Once I am confident that is in the can, I will at least go to both extremes of the zoom and look for other opportunities. They may not be there, but this has often offered an alternative view from the one I first saw. Combine this with moving your viewpoint and numerous options can open up.

  • C. Kern August 23, 2013 03:37 am

    So, my comment is really a question. What else would you have done at the lake/sunset? I might have zoomed in on the trees on the right with the sun behind them, or perhaps on the pier/curve of the lake, ore even on the snow at the base of the "weeds" on the right, as well as the great shot you got. But, as I said, the lesson would be better if you had given actual suggestions as to what else you might have done.

  • Trish Satkofsky August 23, 2013 03:32 am

    Change your perspective. Use a telephoto & focus it long or short & move it around. Lay down, stand up on something, lay sideways, turn your camera to shoot vertical instead of horizontal, use center focus of scene shooting partially out of focus, turn around to see what else is there. Wait for wildlife to enter when outside. Take unusual objects with you and pose them somewhere within your scene. Take children and shoot their reactions, etc. Need I go on?

  • Christine August 23, 2013 03:25 am

    Don't do to much homework, so you don't have that mindset of getting 'that specific shot' on your brain. I mean, it's great to go somewhere knowing there are iconic scenes, buildings, and such, but if you do too much visual homework, you are at risk of copying someone else's shot anyway. Go with fresh eyes and few expectations. It's a change in mindset, for sure. I was in Santorini last year and had to force myself to discard that mental checklist of photos I had already seen of it's amazing beauty (one of the things that drew me to go there in the first place). We got off the 'beaten path' (where the crowds were) and found more culture and slices of life to experience and photograph.

    Using various lens lengths helps me as well. If you go with a wide angle shot in mind, change to a zoom lens after you've taken a few shots, and start focusing in on details. Even though I've been a photographer longer, becoming a watercolor painter helped me do that, because I needed photos of details in order to help me paint a scene. In the process, I realized I ended up with some nice detail photos.

  • Elaine wainwright August 23, 2013 03:08 am

    I have a super long lense and love the close ups that I can get with it. I have to remind myself to back out of the close ups. The shot is often so much better taken with its surroundings and in context.

  • Deb August 23, 2013 03:07 am

    I've found myself using variants on some of those suggestions - I find the "turn and look back" works great. I also have walked completely away and shot something totally different for a while and have then returned to the original location for a fresh view. Another method I have used: close your eyes and "see" with your other senses - I shoot a lot of flora and fauna as well as landscapes - I do my best to let ambient sounds, smells, etc. "point" me in a direction. I've also tried the "reverse" with some good results - put on my headphones, focus on the music but let my eye wander -

  • James Gonneau August 23, 2013 02:26 am

    "#3: Don’t Get Caught Up"

    Yep. I actually froze my camera doing the same thing, photographing the Scarborough Bluffs here in Toronto. And what is my most "favourited" photo of the Bluffs:


  • Ed August 23, 2013 02:12 am

    I am guilty of this as well. I will focus on the big vista and the grand sunset (main character) and many times come away disappointed. My wife on the other hand will zero in on smaller elements, silhouettes, reflections or grass that is only a few feet in front of her in her foreground making these strong elements in her photo. She will come away with some outstanding shots. Always take time to shoot small.

  • Barry E Warren August 23, 2013 01:25 am

    I find myself doing this from time to time. Thanks for the tips.

  • Deborah August 23, 2013 01:12 am

    I have a self imposed rule. I take 3 frames and change something- change aperture, shutter speed,add a filter, wait for the light to change before snapping another frame, or move.
    I am taking far fewer frames and while I may have a dozen frames that look the same it's less than 100+, and I often find things like: that frame at f10 is much better than the one at f8, and that slight move to the right, left, back, or forward worked out better than my original position.

    Turning around almost always is a good idea. :)

  • Peter Stewart August 22, 2013 11:33 pm

    I forget to tick the follow-up box!!

  • Peter Stewart August 22, 2013 11:24 pm

    Best tip I ever got - get to your location early; even if you know it well, things can change. Cranes get erected, bright orange diggers get parked at the focal point of the image you wanted, trees get blown over and water levels change unpredictably. (All happened to me!). If you give yourself the time before the arrival of the lighting conditions you wanted, you can look for supporting elements and work out how to include (or exclude) them from your frames and decide if they are worthy of more individual attention. Walking away from a shoot and thinking "I wish I'd seen that earlier" is so frustrating! Especially after a sunset shoot when the light hasn't just changed, it's gone completely.

  • L. Johnson August 22, 2013 04:53 am

    I am a rookie, new to photography, and find myself doing this constantly. When I am framing a shot, I force myself to take my eyes "off the prize". Look away from the main subject of the shot, in the viewfinder, to see what else is in the frame. Sometimes there isn't anything interesting, and a single subject is all you have. Sometimes I simply miss the background because I am too focused on the subject.

  • Bruce Dillahunty August 22, 2013 04:37 am

    As an idea (which sounds good but is sometimes hard to implement) :

    Turn around.

    Take a look behind you. Often you are missing an entire different scene. If nothing else you may be able to take some 'set up' shots that your viewers may appreciate for context.

  • Ted Dudziak August 22, 2013 03:15 am

    What I do is to always look around when I do not have my camera. In other words look at everything like you are going to take its picture. Now the problem with this is there are going to be some moments that you will absolutely regret not having your camera with you. But I find that there will be other photographic situations that will be similar and that the developed awareness will payoff by your being aware of the rest of the cast in the scene.

  • Richard Siggins August 22, 2013 03:04 am

    Yep! Been there, done that. In fact, I still do it. I will plan a trip around "the things" I want to shoot. I focus on getting to those places at the right time to get the best light and end up shooting the same shot everyone else has already gotten. When I get home I find I have the iconic shot but missed the story.

    I'm working on a program called "Getting Past Iconic Photography" I'll be doing for a local camera club. I hope to talk about missing the story by focusing on the iconic images. One step I've found to help is to slow down and take a place in without a camera in my hand. Just look around and appreciate everything that can be found and photographed. If I have the discipline to do this I'll have more keepers that tell a story.

  • Mridula August 22, 2013 03:03 am

    I raise my hand. I come back home and stare at rows and rows of photos that result from Single Subject Blindness. So thank you so much for the timely reminder as I travel again in September to new countries for me.


  • Tim August 22, 2013 02:51 am

    I tend to have the opposite problem: if I make a point of going somewhere for the landscape photography, I come back with a lot of scenes when a bit more attention and patience on one would've made for a great print-on-wall kind of shot. :P