How to do Great Photography Even When Your Surroundings are Boring

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Gowanus Fire Hydrant

Gowanus Fire Hydrant

I have always been fascinated with great photography taken in areas that people might commonly refer to as ‘boring.’

I use the word boring because that is the specific word I most often see used as an excuse for people having trouble with their photography. Someone will say, “I wish I lived somewhere more interesting and beautiful”or “I can’t do interesting work where I live. It’s too boring.”. Can you relate to that?

What these people don’t realize is that what might seem boring and routine to them could seem fascinating to others, and by dismissing where they live they do not even give themselves a chance to try and photograph it in an interesting way.  They take themselves out of the game before they even start.

When someone uses the word boring, I tend to think that they mean quiet and not traditionally picturesque, or maybe there are not many people around and the ones that are around seem uninteresting.  These are not reasons that you cannot take an interesting photo. In fact, these topics all sound fascinating to me. Use these aspects to your advantage and figure out ways to make them interesting, photogenic, and appealing. Also, keep in mind that often the people that seem the least interesting, actually tend to be the most interesting.

Here are some tips to capture interesting photos in ‘boring’ places, and I hope after you read this article you will never use the word boring again.

Capture images of people you come across in everyday situations

Capture people that you come across in everyday situations

Take a camera with you on everyday excursions

Many people have the habit of only taking their camera out when there is supposed to be a picturesque moment. Maybe it’s a sunset, or to the park, or on a trip. This is a tough way to shoot because you already have the images you want to capture in your mind before you take them.

The goal here is to not stop yourself from taking images before you even start. The more ‘boring’ you think the place is, the more you should bring out your camera. Go into a situation with the mindset that you are going to figure out how to take an interesting photo no matter what happens.

Try to create interesting images in the course of your everyday life. Photograph your neighborhood. It could be at the gas station, at a roadside diner, in a supermarket, in a parking lot, or stopping on a quiet street corner at dusk. For me, this is the true fun of photography. It’s a way of helping you see aspects of your everyday world in an unique way.

Remember, if you have a DSLR that is too heavy to carry around frequently, there are alternatives. The most important one is the cellphone in your pocket. Cellphone cameras have come a long way, and while they are not close to the quality of a camera, you can still make good prints out of them. The most important reason for using a cellphone is that you are training your eye by using them when you otherwise wouldn’t take a camera with you.

Some other alternatives are to purchase a smaller prime lens or a pancake lens to lighten your DSLR for everyday use, or purchasing a mirrorless or micro 4/3rds camera. I personally love the Fuji X100s.

Dancer in Pharmacy

Dancer in Pharmacy. Taken with iPhone 4S.

Find beauty in the mundane

This is the most important point. Try to go beyond the safe photo. Capture something that you find interesting even though many people might not choose to put it on their walls. Don’t be afraid if other people hate it. That’s often a good sign. It only matters if you like it.

Focus on details and use everyday elements to make an image interesting. You don’t have to have a mountain, a stream, or a sunset in your photo to make it interesting. A brick wall, a parking cone, a street sign, or a bare building can all be beautiful when captured in the right way. Capture people that you come across over the course of your everyday routine. These can be the most interesting images since you will already know the subject well.

Aim to capture subtle images as part of your work. Subtle images might not jump out at a viewer right away, but they will stick with them. These images will make someone think and will become more interesting to the viewer over time as they wonder about them. Subtle images can be very powerful when done correctly.

Red Chair, Crate and Barrel

Red Chair, Crate and Barrel

To be honest, the jury is out on what I think about this image above, and I think it will have to age before I figure it out.  But I had to try it.  It might look completely normal and banal, especially if you live in the U.S., but it takes on a different meaning when you compare it to this image taken by William Eggleston in 1984.  The ‘boringness’, the browns and muted tones become the point of this image.

Tell a story

Pretend you have a viewer that knows nothing about where you are from. Maybe you live in a quiet corner of suburbia, where all the houses look the same, or maybe you’re in the middle of a rural area.

Your photos should tell the viewer what it is like to be there. Think about it as though you are talking to the viewer through your images. Use your images to tell the stories that surround you, no matter how big or small.

Gentrification

Gentrification

I have walked past this building with my camera every couple of days for almost seven years.  Then, one day there was an interesting image.

Experiment

It is a hard process to learn to photograph this way and you will undoubtedly take many bad photos during the learning process. You will have a hard time figuring out what is good and even asking for feedback might confuse you further. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like fun to me.

Find a friend or two or a fellow photographer that you trust and show them your images over time. Let them grow with your work while you do. This will become invaluable feedback down the road and help you talk out your work with them.

The only constant in this process is that it takes time to succeed and to figure out what you are doing and what you are photographing. There is no roadmap for doing this type of work.

White Face

White Face

Don’t take your area or lifestyle for granted

Just because something does not seem interesting to you, does not mean it is not interesting. The way you do things and your environment are both vastly different from the rest of the world. Keep that in mind. Capture intimate aspects of your world for others and they will find those photographs fascinating, even if they might feel routine or normal to you.

Great photographers can do great photography anywhere, however it sometimes can take a little inspiration to get the wheels turning. The most important thing is to walk out the door frequently. If you think you are not going to capture any interesting images then you are not going to walk out the door.

Take a long walk, anywhere, at anytime, and challenge yourself to capture an interesting image.

A Plant Grows, Chase Bank

Plant, Chase Bank

Further viewing

For further viewing, I highly suggest exploring the work of Williams Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, and Stephen Shore.  They are photographic masters who have spent much of their time photographing in this way.

On This Site in 1897 Nothing Happened

On This Site in 1897 Nothing Happened

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James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

  • MarjorieBDaugherty

    Just because something does not seem interesting to you, does not mean it is not interesting. The way you do things and your environment are both vastly different from the rest of the world. Keep that in mind. Capture intimate aspects of your world for others and they will find those photographs fascinating, even if they might feel routine or normal to you. http://num.to/212623272779

  • Michael Owens

    Thanks for sharing James.

    I also agre with Marjorie, people find interest in the mundane and beauty! You just have to change the way you view thiings!

  • Michael Owens

    @darlenehildebrandt:disqus

    Yet another shopping link. Spam bots?

  • I agree. I think we all have this preconceived notion about what beauty is. Which is to say that it’s really what society has told us is beautiful – the mainstream instagram version of beauty. I’m not saying that imitating beautiful shots is a bad thing, but it’s worth noting that beauty is interpreted by the viewer and is influenced by mood, the setting, and perspective. That’s all I have to say about that!

  • Ted Dudziak

    For me I always look at something as if I were going to capture it with my camera. In other words even when I do not have my camera I try to visualize what I would do with the scene. I always try to make the ordinary extraordinary.

  • Balayage

    Sorry, I did not find inspiration in your article. For me to take a photograph, I need to feel others will appreciate the image or be entertained. If the subject does not inspire me, I am likely not going to put much effort into investigating composition and exposure. I find most people click happy, taking images of most anything without thought. To me, photography is an art form where one is inspired by something visual or imaginary and then working to obtain the image that best portrays what one saw or working to create a situation that comes close to what you imagined. The ordinary will always be ordinary no matter how much you dress it up.

  • I might disagree with that. I’ve done a lot of art shows and displays and the comments I would get frequently is that I had a way of taking ordinary things and making them look beautiful or extraordinary. I think a great photographer can photograph anything and make art. You’re saying it is all about the subject. I’m suggesting it’s not. I used to photograph commercial jobs and had to go into industrial areas and photograph THE ugliest machines and areas and make them look good. That’s what a good photographer does, that’s what separates good from great IMO.

  • how about this? It’s a 3″ plastic ornament on a xmas tree in a shop window I photographed.

  • Hi Balayage – I appreciate your comment but I have to disagree with a few things. This article was about thinking twice about what you might consider ordinary, because when you look closer and think about it in a different way you might find that it can become extraordinary. It’s about seeking inspiration right outside of your front door and not disregarding the content right in front of you. It’s not about seeking composition in subjects that do not inspire you, it’s about trying to find new ways to think about those subjects so that they become interesting.

  • Jason Dries

    I have to agree with this article. I frequently fall under the “this place is too boring” category and tend to skip it. However, I’m constantly looking on Flickr or perusing other photographers’ websites and seeing portraiture in the middle of what I’d normally consider terrible/boring surroundings and they pull it off and make me envious. I’m attempting to develop an eye for it, or more appropriately, a mental filter allowing me to discover these new surroundings and utilize them.

  • manicdee

    Go check the photo captioned “White Face”. I experienced joy after I looked at the photo, wondered what was so special about it, read the caption, then realised I had missed something interesting and studied the photo closer and found the white face.

    I’m serious, that was a genuine, “Oh! Isn’t that intriguing!” moment.

    Otherwise, that photo is pretty urbane and uninspiring.

    The take-home message for me is: look around your neighbourhood. What things are here that are nowhere else? Try some “graphic photography” where you just use the shapes and colours around you to make an image. Or perhaps there are little things which are incongruous in the surroundings, like the tiny potted plant in the aluminium & glass world of the local bank.

  • Thanks Manicdee – and great comment. I’m happy to hear you had these reactions. These aren’t images that will necessarily catch the attention right away, but when they do hopefully they will hold a viewer’s attention.

  • 1

    Terrible photos….

  • Kelley Candee

    Thank you James for the great article..I am quite inspired by it. I look at the work of photographers from around the world and think…not fair, they live in an exotic place. Yet, they compliment my work as well and it is quite encouraging. I think you are spot on, though it may seem mundane to me, people from other areas will love it. I love the challenge of creating something from what seems to be nothing!
    Again, thank you.

  • Nathalie B

    I agree totally! I find nothing boring 😀 I am inspired by any “mundane” thing, it is scary sometimes lol

  • Johann (SA)

    A “boring” Centipede or Millipede? 🙂

    (First time that I post an image and I compressed it quite a bit so I am not sure what it will looks like.
    Better photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/riemlander/13189384953 )

  • My pleasure Kelley – I’m happy to hear you think so!

  • Albin

    I like some of these in a sort of William Eggleston vein. “Boredom” is a subjective emotion of a person, not an objective quality of the surroundings. It may be that no less than a car crash or frogs falling from the sky will shake me out of it, but that says nothing important about my physical location.

  • walwit

    What you said makes sense, but have you happen to know the work of Vivian Maier ?

  • Annie

    I heard someone say recently “What a totally boring story – it’s only about an old guy who goes fishing!” He was talking about Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”. Same deal.

  • patrick dinneen

    I find that there is probably an interesting photo ‘hidden’ within a few meters no matter where you are. Sometimes it’s just a case of being inventive or looking beyone the norm; maybe a close up or abstract photo

    Below is a bunch of straws with the colours inverted- http://www.photoblog.ie/inverted-coloured-straws/

  • J Public

    Also, and something you don’t really mention, is the advantage that you know your own area really well. That means when something extraordinary happens (after a rainshower, mystic light, supermoon on the rise, etc) you know exactly where to go and what to do. That is where a bit of imagination is handy: seeing something and thinking “how would that look in moonlight / after a storm / in winter etc.”

  • I agree with most of your statements, James. I wanted to point out some ideas that I completely relate to but they started adding up and in the end I have decided it’s best to say I agree with all! 😉

    “Art”, such a grandiose word; “interesting”, such a subjective idea… Photography is part content and part form, as it is any other art, and you can focus on any of both to get a pleasing, powerful image. If you manage to master both at once, then you are onto something big. Anything can be made meaningful in the right context and with the right treatment, the same way that the most exotic, awesome subject usually leads to uneventful captures.

    Here you can see images of a stroll I took in a rundown, ordinary neighborhood of Bangkok that is about to being demolished: http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2014/05/vanishing-bangkok-walk-among-soon-to.html

  • Completely agree J!

  • Very good points Gonzalo!

  • Gaz Hippman

    I note all the ‘knockers’ expect people to appreciate what they do and therefore are not interested in trying to find something interesting to photograph that the majority might find mundane. For me, photography is my art, my expression, my journey. Yes, I like it when people appreciate what I do, but that’s the bonus! It’s not expected! Therefore, what I do, I do for me, without expectations of praise and appreciation. Therefore my art grows from my own drive and intuition and choice, not someone else’s.

  • Gary Peterson

    Great article. I take it as a challenge to find something to photograph when there isn’t anything that most people would find “picturesque”. It may mean looking at things from a different perspective or getting in closer. Every place is unique in it’s own way.

  • Crystal Johnson

    I really did not find much inspiration from the pictures, but then again art is subjective and we all like differant things. This article did make me think about photographing my local area live. I live somewhere pretty borning – rural Illinois. One can only take so many pictures of corn fields and wind turbines. I think this sounds like a good weekend project, go out and explore and find something interesting in my rural county.

  • tonyc0101

    THIS is freakin’ AWESOME!! Great tip too!

  • Gillian Bank

    This article really inspired me. Honestly I don’t normally take my camera everywhere because I feel like I won’t see anything interesting and when I do I get mad at myself for not bringing it. The area I live in to be is personally very boring, mainly because it’s just town houses and boring buildings but the one time I chose to bring it I was at a gas station and this really cool Coke truck was parked there and it made a amazing shot. I’m definitely going to start bringing my camera more. Here is the shot I was talking about, the quality is low because it wouldn’t let me post the original btw

  • Gillian Bank

    This is beautiful omg

  • Thanks

  • Jerry Mathers

    They say a picture is worth a thousand words. And yours illustrates the point far more effectively than words. Nicely done.

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