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Finding Photography Inspiration in Ordinary Places

Finding Photography Inspiration in Ordinary Places Featured image

Photography is filled with highs and lows. One week you might find yourself overflowing with ideas and see photographic opportunities all around you. The next week, you’re stuck in a vast wasteland where nothing seems to be worthy of your camera. Finding photography inspiration isn’t something that requires exotic travel destinations or even fancy camera gear. Often you can uncover extraordinary picture opportunities in the most ordinary of places.

finding photography inspiration
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/2000 second, ISO 400. This mockingbird was sitting in a bush near my office.

Inspiration is a tricky thing. While it can come when you least expect it, I have found that you often have to work for it.

If you’re expecting a brilliant photo opportunity to show up on your doorstep, it probably won’t happen. But if you purposely go out in search of photo opportunities, inspiration is usually close behind.

A quote widely attributed to Thomas Edison says that “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

The same applies to photography.

Go on a photo walk. Slowly.

This might sound a bit cliché, but the hustle and hurry of everyday life can be a hindrance to photography. If you’re so busy going to and from work, school, the store, and back, it probably seems like you have no time to take pictures.

When a spare fifteen minutes does come your way, the idea of getting out your camera to take pictures can seem more exhausting than inspiring.

finding photography inspiration
Nikon D750, 50mm, f/8, 1/125 second, ISO 900. Saw this snail on the sidewalk while going from my car to my office. I used a +4 close-up filter which I got online in a four-pack for $30.

A local photo walk can be just the ticket to newfound photography ideas and inspiration. It doesn’t have to be expensive, fancy, or exotic. Instead of spending lots of time and money on a bipedal picture-taking excursion, try just going out your front door and walking down the block. But here’s the trick: go slowly.

The pace of my photo walks has changed over time from a steady gait to almost a crawl. Not literally of course, but you have to tell yourself that your goal isn’t to cover a lot of ground or get your steps in for the day. It’s to look for picture opportunities, often where you never thought you would find them.

Everyday locations like the mailbox, the gas station, the park down the road, or even your own kitchen become fertile ground for inspiration to take root if you keep your eyes open and go slowly.

finding photography inspiration
Nikon D7100, f/2.8, 200mm, 1/1500 second, ISO 100. This was literally in my own back yard.

Your daily locations might not seem exotic to you because you see these things every day. A visitor would see familiar objects with fresh eyes, and the trick to taking this approach is to try to emulate that perspective. Just because you see everyday objects as ordinary and unworthy of photographs, doesn’t mean they can’t lead to flashes of inspiration.

The next time you feel stuck in a photographic rut, take a short, slow walk around a familiar setting and try to see it with a fresh set of eyes. You might be surprised at how things can transform from familiar to phenomenal.

And, even everyday objects can be used for finding photography inspiration.

finding photography inspiration
Fuji X100f, 23mm, f/3.6, 1/30 second, ISO 400. This is just a washing machine still spinning after I opened the lid. I was inspired when I saw it whirling, and I really like the photo I was able to get.

Photograph like you just don’t care

One thing that prevents a lot of people from taking more photos is the thought that they might look silly doing it. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and most times when I am out with my camera, I feel completely awkward and self-conscious. I feel like the whole world is staring at me, pointing and laughing at the weirdo with a camera taking pictures of sticks and leaves and flowers!

In truth, that is almost certainly not the case.

In all likelihood, most people don’t really care about someone minding his or her own business who just happens to be carrying a camera.

When was the last time you stopped and stared indignantly at a passer-by harmlessly taking pictures? If those types of people don’t bother you, then you probably aren’t bothering anyone when you’re the photographer.

finding photography inspiration
Fuji X100f, 23mm, f/16, 1/30 second, ISO 200. This cyclist probably didn’t even notice I was sitting next to the sidewalk.

This kind of advice is easier said than done, but if finding photography inspiration is your goal, then you have to stop worrying about what people think.

Some of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken were in ordinary places like parks or downtown areas filled with people. And, not once has anyone ever told me I was bothering them.

Make sure you’re not being rude, obnoxious, or intrusive when taking pictures. If you’re just being a nice person and not bothering anyone, you can be almost entirely certain that no one will think twice about your presence. If they do, they probably think you’re some kind of fancy artist who clearly knows a lot about photography!

finding photography inspiration
Nikon D200, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/50 second, ISO 400. I felt incredibly awkward and self-conscious taking pictures in a library. I wasn’t harming anyone, and I ended up with a few photos I really liked. It turned into a fun and inspirational experience!

Don’t try to take good photos

This took me a long time to learn, but it’s a lesson that has repeatedly made a big difference for me.

Years ago when I started getting more involved with photography, I thought only great photos were worth taking. I constantly passed up photo opportunities because I didn’t think the results would be worth the effort, and wouldn’t lead to any sort of photography inspiration.

What I learned was that inspiration takes the exact opposite approach! The images I thought were boring, mundane, or just flat-out bad taught me how to improve my photography by leaps and bounds. By examining my bad photos, I was able to understand why they were bad. They helped me learn how to take good photos as a result.

finding photography inspiration
Nikon D200, 50mm, f/2.8, 1/1000 second, ISO 200. This is one of the most boring photos I can recall taking. It’s just not very good. But it taught me a lot about what does make a photo good.

There’s an old saying, Don’t let a perfect plan be the enemy of a good plan. It applies in a variety of situations, particularly photography.

If you’re waiting for inspiration to strike because you are seeking the perfect image, you might be waiting a very very long time. Try the opposite approach instead: take lots of pictures that aren’t great, and see what they can teach you along the way.

Another thing to consider is the sheer enjoyment of the art.

Stop thinking of your images in terms of objective quantification. Learn to value process over product! It’s the repeated practice of process that leads to superior products.

Take pictures because you enjoy it, not because you think the end result is good or bad. Enjoy the journey, take pictures just because you like it, and let that be your source of inspiration.

finding photography inspiration
Nikon D200, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/125 second, ISO 200. I shot this photo years ago just for fun, and I still think about it when I go up and down stairs in tall buildings.

Take a social media hiatus

While social media sites like Instagram can be a boon to photographers, they can also be a curse.

Finding photography inspiration online can seem like a no-brainer: just follow some accounts with brilliant photos and you’ll surely get ideas for your own!

In reality, what often ends up happening is we compare our own photos to others and conclude that we just don’t measure up. All the other pictures look so amazing, so detailed, so colorful, and so full of life! Yours, by contrast, seem dull and lifeless. Worse, your pictures (even ones that you thought were awesome) only got a handful of likes, hearts, or thumbs-up. Meanwhile, someone else’s shot of breakfast cereal got a thousand. It’s just not fair!

finding photography inspiration
Fuji X100f, 23mm, f/16, 30 seconds, ISO 200. I worked hard to get this shot, and it only got 21 likes on Instagram. If I measured my value as a photographer by social media standards, no way would I ever keep going.

Social media can be inspiring, but just as often it can be downright demoralizing.

The solution?

Get rid of social media!

Don’t delete all your accounts, but turn off notifications for photo-sharing sites and move those apps to the neglected depths of your phone screen. Log off social media sites on your computer, and stop measuring your worth by likes and upvotes.

This has consistently been one of the most effective ways of finding photography inspiration for me. Temporarily shutting out social media, removes any temptation to take photos for online accolades and attention. I start to take pictures that are interesting, challenging, or fun. Then I soon find inspiration flooding back.

finding photography inspiration
Nikon D200, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/2500 second, ISO 200. I shot this long before I was sharing photos on social media. It’s nice to return to those halcyon days sometimes.

Conclusion

Finding photography inspiration isn’t always easy, but it can be simpler than you think. It doesn’t have to involve a lot of time, money, travel, or fancy camera gear either.

Inspiration can come in ordinary ways from ordinary places, and lead to some outstanding results.

What about you? What are your favorite ways to get inspired as a photographer? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.