Return To The Scene Of The Crime: Shooting Mundane Scenes In Different Light To Improve Your Photography

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We all have parts of our life that are mundane. Even the most seasoned traveler has mundane tasks or habits that seem anything less than glamorous. While there is certainly something to be touted and enjoyed from the exotic images we all love, there is also some thing to be appreciated in the mundane.

First, the mundane is often not always that. While a scene may be commonplace, unless the light never changes, ever, there is always something different about it day to day.

My challenge to you is to find beauty, not so much in the objects you see every day, but in the light hitting them. By way of example, take a look at these six images taken of the same spit of land on Whidbey Island, Washington. This is the Southern tip of the island and there’s nothing too remarkable about it. I see it about every other day on my crossings to what we on the island like to call the Mainland. Hawaiians will understand.

Would it surprise you to know the first four pictures were taken on the same day? The first two were on the same crossing and the second two were on the same crossing. The crossing time is only 15 minutes. The second two images were taken only one and three days after the first set, respectively. The images only received minor adjustments (and some healthy cropping as I took the images at different points on the water crossing). They look very close to how you see them represented here.

And they point out something I often forget while ‘trudging’ through my daily life; light changes all the time without us noticing it. It creates its own beauty if we take the time to stop, look and soak it all in. None of these images is that stellar by itself, I readily admit that. But the aggregate of all the images, in a series, tells a story you will never get from one picture alone. Yes, eventually I will have a shot of a gorgeous sunset from this vantage point, and while I wait for that twice a year event (because of where the sun sets in each season), I have more of a story to tell in the mundane.

Lastly, this experiment will hopefully help you see more in your daily grind than you do now. It will help you see light daily and that activity will help you notice neuances you missed before because you were waiting for the spectacular sunset or rainbow on the horizon (and believe me, living in Seattle in the Winter helps you to remember to not wait for gorgeous sunsets).

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to record a mundane scene in your life in different light for a week. Just a week. Take your camera with you to work. Use your iPhone or a disposable camera. Use SOMETHING! Just don’t let the device, or lack there of, distract you from the task. That’s an excuse and will not help you take better photos. Taking more photos and thinking about light, how it falls on everyday scenes, how it brightens some areas and deepens shadows in other, how it plays off reflective surfaces….thinking about those things and trying to capture them every day does help.

Get out and shoot.

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Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Panama, Alaska, Seattle and Los Angeles. He is also the creator of 31 Days to Better Photography & 31 Days of Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

  • This is always a good piece of advice, and you managed to illustrate it brilliantly with those photographs. Truly inspired me today to re-visit some of the places I go by over the course of the day 🙂

  • Scottc

    This is a great exercise, I did a similar project with a location near where I used to live in Germany. A very “mundane” hill, right on the edge of town, but a change of light in different seasons (along with a “healthy” crop as well) made photographing it a learning experience.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4280952141/

  • Yacko

    This shouldn’t be an “exercise”. Every photographer, regardless of photo style (outdoor, wedding, interiors, fashion, portrait etc) should have a local location (or two) most likely outdoors (but could be indoors with windows) that they obsessively shoot through time, preferably many years. Different light, different weather, different time of day, different season, different event, etc.

    I have a local natural steep-sided 4 acre pond surrounded by dense trees but next to a shopping center and a for profit college. Due to poison ivy and the steep banks and background lights, there are only a half dozen usable angles to shoot. Over the last 25 years I have photographed one such angle taking just short of 2000 photos. I will probably move sometime the next 4 years and I will definitely miss the routine.

  • Very good advice. I’m going to have to give the challenge a try.

    In the mean time, here’s a series of shots from about a year ago of the Hoover Dam (arguably NOT a mundane scene).

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2011/01/hoover-dam.html

  • I like your idea of extending this practice of shooting in different light over the course of a week. I will give that a try. Something I have done already is just photographing the same subject at night and during the day:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/12/6/photograph-the-same-subject-during-the-day-at-night.html

    I have a location in mind that I can use for a week long project. Thanks for the idea.

  • “Would it surprise you to know the first four pictures were taken on the same day?”

    Not me… but then I live on the Kitsap Peninsula and see the same thing on the Bremerton-to-Seattle route. All of these were taken on the same day – and all but one on the same crossing:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/31736686@N00/archives/date-taken/2011/10/23/

  • You’ve just given me a grrrrreat idea…. Never though abt attempting to “step into the same river twice”, but looking at these pics I love the thought. Thank you!

  • I glanced at that first picture And immediately knew where it has been taken.

  • Hi

    Wonderful suggestions…I have ben to Rosecrans National cemetary many times in San Diego but always was faced with bad light…not this time!

    Lesson – go back many times if you can…re-look, re-composed, re-think

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/rosecrans-national-cemetary-california/

  • MsKirpi

    I’m going to try this. Living out in the country like I do, there are many seemingly “mundane” places/areas/items/scenes to photograph. Thanks for the advice and the great idea. I’m new to photography and really trying to improve my skills and my outlook.

  • Al

    This is the view from my buddy’s condo that always just seemed like a mediocre view.
    I took this shot one day when the clouds got all dramatic on me.
    I would’ve taken the shot for a week for this assignment but you would just see a crappy shot 6 times.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/albertshu/6880428785/in/photostream/

  • Lovely illustration of the point Peter. I think there’s a lot to be said for timing the light, and also for learning to adapt your photography to the prevailing conditions. The oft-quoted ‘golden hour rule’ is a great case in point – yes, ideally that’s a good time to shoot, but if you only shoot at such times you’ll rarely have your camera to hand when something really interesting happens!

  • I live on the Eastside of the state now, but I am from Mukilteo and we had property on the island so I am very familiar with this exact location and view. I will be riding the ferry tomorrow as it turns out – for a weekend trip with the wife… I look forward to poking my head out in the drab to see how it happens to be lit during my adventure.

    Nice article – I enjoyed it.

  • juan

    Pictures 1, 2 and 4 from top to bottom are great!!

  • NEKate

    There is a project called PicturePost that I take part in out of the University of New Hampshire, USA which uses a permanent post with an octagonal platform on top to get the exact same pictures. 360 over time. You upload them to a webpage -instructions on the site. It’s amazing to see the changes over time.

  • Robert

    I did this exercise for one week while driving home, I was amazed at how the sky can change for day at day and we often don’t even notice. The colours were so different day after day. Monday I had a dark sort of black and purple layer across the sky by the week end it was bright sun and fluffy clouds

  • One thing I have been doing for the last six months is getting off the public transport a few stops earlier and walking into work, rain or shine. What you have pointed out here is exactly what I have noticed, even if it took me 4 months to see it! The same street scenes change with the light, the people and the cars. it became especially clear to me as we moved from Autumn and through Winter, it got darker and now it’s getting lighter and I am now walking during the “golden hour”.

    It keeps me doing it every day just so I can see how the same places change a little or some days very dramatically.

  • LOL – I smugly thought “I do this all the time”. Then I had to admit I repeatedly shoot one vista exclusively, Mt. Rainier and the south end of Mercer Island. It’s time to embrace this exercise in other locations.Thanks for the push.

  • This morning I was reviewing all my shots from 2011. Looking at some of the experiences I have had, the happy times I remembered. I’ve decided to revisit at least 6 of the photo shoots I did last year. They won’t be exactly the same, but that’s the point isn’t it?

    You’ll be able to find my returns on my blog.

    Starting with a return to York tomorrow morning.

    M.

  • Great article. I don’t think that any of us live in a place where the scenery is 100% amazing all the time, so there will be a lot of times when you are looking at something mundane. You showed very well how different light can really jazz up a scene.

  • I envy you living on Whidby Is. Wife and I lived in Redmond, WA in 90’s and took ferry rides just about every weekend. We especially loved Widby!!

Some Older Comments

  • Dave Ryan February 25, 2012 03:22 am

    I envy you living on Whidby Is. Wife and I lived in Redmond, WA in 90's and took ferry rides just about every weekend. We especially loved Widby!!

  • Marcus Davis February 19, 2012 04:40 am

    Great article. I don't think that any of us live in a place where the scenery is 100% amazing all the time, so there will be a lot of times when you are looking at something mundane. You showed very well how different light can really jazz up a scene.

  • MikeC366 February 18, 2012 02:46 am

    This morning I was reviewing all my shots from 2011. Looking at some of the experiences I have had, the happy times I remembered. I've decided to revisit at least 6 of the photo shoots I did last year. They won't be exactly the same, but that's the point isn't it?

    You'll be able to find my returns on my blog.

    Starting with a return to York tomorrow morning.

    M.

  • SeattleDee February 17, 2012 03:57 am

    LOL - I smugly thought "I do this all the time". Then I had to admit I repeatedly shoot one vista exclusively, Mt. Rainier and the south end of Mercer Island. It's time to embrace this exercise in other locations.Thanks for the push.

  • Fuzzypiggy February 16, 2012 07:12 pm

    One thing I have been doing for the last six months is getting off the public transport a few stops earlier and walking into work, rain or shine. What you have pointed out here is exactly what I have noticed, even if it took me 4 months to see it! The same street scenes change with the light, the people and the cars. it became especially clear to me as we moved from Autumn and through Winter, it got darker and now it's getting lighter and I am now walking during the "golden hour".

    It keeps me doing it every day just so I can see how the same places change a little or some days very dramatically.

  • Robert February 16, 2012 05:34 pm

    I did this exercise for one week while driving home, I was amazed at how the sky can change for day at day and we often don’t even notice. The colours were so different day after day. Monday I had a dark sort of black and purple layer across the sky by the week end it was bright sun and fluffy clouds

  • NEKate February 16, 2012 01:47 pm

    There is a project called PicturePost that I take part in out of the University of New Hampshire, USA which uses a permanent post with an octagonal platform on top to get the exact same pictures. 360 over time. You upload them to a webpage -instructions on the site. It's amazing to see the changes over time.

  • juan February 16, 2012 09:18 am

    Pictures 1, 2 and 4 from top to bottom are great!!

  • Jens February 16, 2012 05:26 am

    I live on the Eastside of the state now, but I am from Mukilteo and we had property on the island so I am very familiar with this exact location and view. I will be riding the ferry tomorrow as it turns out - for a weekend trip with the wife... I look forward to poking my head out in the drab to see how it happens to be lit during my adventure.

    Nice article - I enjoyed it.

  • Shotslot February 16, 2012 01:03 am

    Lovely illustration of the point Peter. I think there's a lot to be said for timing the light, and also for learning to adapt your photography to the prevailing conditions. The oft-quoted 'golden hour rule' is a great case in point - yes, ideally that's a good time to shoot, but if you only shoot at such times you'll rarely have your camera to hand when something really interesting happens!

  • Al February 15, 2012 10:43 pm

    This is the view from my buddy's condo that always just seemed like a mediocre view.
    I took this shot one day when the clouds got all dramatic on me.
    I would've taken the shot for a week for this assignment but you would just see a crappy shot 6 times.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/albertshu/6880428785/in/photostream/

  • MsKirpi February 15, 2012 07:06 am

    I'm going to try this. Living out in the country like I do, there are many seemingly "mundane" places/areas/items/scenes to photograph. Thanks for the advice and the great idea. I'm new to photography and really trying to improve my skills and my outlook.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck February 15, 2012 05:24 am

    Hi

    Wonderful suggestions...I have ben to Rosecrans National cemetary many times in San Diego but always was faced with bad light...not this time!

    Lesson - go back many times if you can...re-look, re-composed, re-think

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/rosecrans-national-cemetary-california/

  • Michelle Goodrum February 15, 2012 05:23 am

    I glanced at that first picture And immediately knew where it has been taken.

  • Dori February 15, 2012 04:22 am

    You've just given me a grrrrreat idea.... Never though abt attempting to "step into the same river twice", but looking at these pics I love the thought. Thank you!

  • Derek Lyons February 15, 2012 03:57 am

    "Would it surprise you to know the first four pictures were taken on the same day?"

    Not me... but then I live on the Kitsap Peninsula and see the same thing on the Bremerton-to-Seattle route. All of these were taken on the same day - and all but one on the same crossing:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/31736686@N00/archives/date-taken/2011/10/23/

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer February 15, 2012 02:26 am

    I like your idea of extending this practice of shooting in different light over the course of a week. I will give that a try. Something I have done already is just photographing the same subject at night and during the day:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/12/6/photograph-the-same-subject-during-the-day-at-night.html

    I have a location in mind that I can use for a week long project. Thanks for the idea.

  • Jeff E Jensen February 15, 2012 01:57 am

    Very good advice. I'm going to have to give the challenge a try.

    In the mean time, here's a series of shots from about a year ago of the Hoover Dam (arguably NOT a mundane scene).

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2011/01/hoover-dam.html

  • Yacko February 15, 2012 01:48 am

    This shouldn't be an "exercise". Every photographer, regardless of photo style (outdoor, wedding, interiors, fashion, portrait etc) should have a local location (or two) most likely outdoors (but could be indoors with windows) that they obsessively shoot through time, preferably many years. Different light, different weather, different time of day, different season, different event, etc.

    I have a local natural steep-sided 4 acre pond surrounded by dense trees but next to a shopping center and a for profit college. Due to poison ivy and the steep banks and background lights, there are only a half dozen usable angles to shoot. Over the last 25 years I have photographed one such angle taking just short of 2000 photos. I will probably move sometime the next 4 years and I will definitely miss the routine.

  • Scottc February 15, 2012 01:16 am

    This is a great exercise, I did a similar project with a location near where I used to live in Germany. A very "mundane" hill, right on the edge of town, but a change of light in different seasons (along with a "healthy" crop as well) made photographing it a learning experience.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4280952141/

  • Claudio February 15, 2012 01:05 am

    This is always a good piece of advice, and you managed to illustrate it brilliantly with those photographs. Truly inspired me today to re-visit some of the places I go by over the course of the day :-)

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