article by Alex Garcia
22 Ways to Make a Boring Scene Interesting – Tuesday Photo Tips
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Situation grown cold? One way to keep your creative fires burning is to find interesting details that bring the situation into stark relief.
The moment has arrived. You finally have been able to get out of the office or the home to make pictures and nothing is happening. The light may be unexpectedly poor. The crowded area is now empty. The subject is either late or a no-show. The situation someone described to you exists only in their head. It’s just you and your camera, hungry but standing at an empty buffet. The stakes may or may not be high. If you’re on assignment for a publication, especially a daily one, you’ll have to come back with something. Pronto. If you’re shooting for fun, you may not disappoint anyone but yourself, but it’s still frustrating. Time is money. Who wants to see no return on your investment?
Picture editor Mike Davis who runs an excellent blog had a recent post about newspaper photography. He was helpful with his post, but I would have liked to have seen him state more strongly that newspaper photography doesn’t necessarily reflect the talent of newspaper photographers. We often face situations that, for lack of a better term, are pretty boring. It’s a challenge, since the assignment is usually a one-shot chance, because of deadlines or other assignments that need to be shot that day. Perhaps this is why so may analogies exist for this situation, including “making blood from a turnip”, “putting a bow tie on a pig” or for some more inclined to vulgarity, “making chicken from chicken-#%@!”
So what do you do as a photographer? You might not have the power or time to make some of the changes up the decision-making chain that would make your life easier and your photographs better. For what it’s worth, when I find myself flat-footed and frustrated, I run through a mental checklist of ways to make a scene interesting. So this list is what to consider in the meantime. I hope this is helpful for anyone in the trenches, seeking to get out from under the label of “middle-to-lower level of quality” newspaper photographer, or even for that weekend warrior looking to push their vision ahead.
Of course, you don’t want your photo to be just another cliché or to be gimmicky, so sometimes the best answer is to combine 2-3 of these together in unexpected fashion. (So for example, get low to the ground, drag your shutter and maybe pop a remote flash.) In the process, you may not be successful, but you may distract yourself long enough for the main event to actually happen – at which point, you’ll hopefully be prepared to capitalize.
So my caveat? I suggest matching your method to the content or mood of the image in some way. If the method is too heavy-handed, it will call too much attention to the photographer and keep the viewer from entering into the image. Your method needs to pass the sniff test of being appropriate.
Here are my thoughts in no particular order:
1) Use Symbolism – Search for different ways to interpret the assignment to recast its intent or meaning by using symbolism present at the scene. If you were assigned to photograph someone afraid of their neighborhood and they are nowhere to be found, focus instead on scenes or objects that symbolize that fear. Maybe assemble those symbols in a triptych to heighten the effect?
2) Seek Unexpected Light– Seek out any available light source. Use the laptop screen light, overhead track lighting, pen light, car headlight, cell phone light, etc.. Maybe turn off all the available lights and use that one shaft of daylight to convert an office into a more dramatic scene. Walk the floor of a warehouse to find that one spot where light peeks through a broken window.
3) Motion Blur It– If using flash, drag your shutter. If the scene has any motion, pan at a slow shutter speed. The length of time of the shutter and the resulting blur is probably inversely proportional to its chance of getting published, but what the hey, you might have the start of an art gallery show.
4) Head for Extremes – Underexpose or overexpose by 2-3 stops to reveal the situation in a whole new light, maybe all-white or all-dark, to make it a high or low key image. Shoot directly into the sun and play with the lens flare.
5) Deep Dive Your Depth of field – See if it’s possible to use the smallest aperture possible to layer an item in the foreground with the background in an unexpected fashion to create a relationship that might not have been drawn otherwise. That could be even more interesting if you compress with a telephoto on a tripod.
6) Use Remote Flashes or Camera – Can you trigger a camera or flash remotely, giving a surprise look to a scene that would normally be run-of-the-mill? What if you gelled it dark red? What if you put the camera on that ledge? Experiment with any remotes and clamps you might have.
7) Layer On Thick – Look for ways to layer activity, even if your subject finally arrives and you’re in a hurry to get going. Don’t be quick to jump and center them in your viewfinder. Layering is a great modus operandi for making pictures – the more layers, the more meaning, the more information, and generally the more visual interest.
8) Reveal Telling Details – I’ve often found that getting stymied is what forces you to finally look with the eyes of your heart to the details that would normally get ignored in the hustle and bustle of making an image at a scene. Sometimes to tell a story, all you need is a powerful detail that is given the time and care that you might give to a product shot in a studio.
9) Show Strange Reflections – I know, I know, overused. But they can still add a dimension to a scene if it doesn’t look too forced.
10) Back Away – Stepping back can lower the pressure you might be bringing on yourself. You might see that overall you’re missing. Instead of standing in the midst, remove yourself and hope there’s a way to evoke something from the scene that a pedestrian view would miss.
11) Go Above – Is there a way to photograph the scene from on high? Maybe a “Hail Mary” would work miracles. Maybe you need to look higher up. Distance can lend a valuable perspective to a situation that you can’t appreciate while standing in the middle of it. Isn’t that the basic truism of life? If you can get permission, maybe a neighbor’s porch, that bridge down the block, or even a condo rooftop could provide the angle to turn a photo from okay to great.
12) Go Below – Shoot from as low as you can to heighten drama. If you’re afraid of getting stepped on, maybe the viewer will feel that fear too (just to make sure your camera’s insured). Maybe underexpose that flourescent light to produce a green strip. Light from down below and play with the shadows of the monster light.
13) Go Backstage – Sometimes while waiting for an orchestrated event to happen, there is a lot more than meets the eye than an empty stage or set of microphones. Yes, you could catch up on email or chat with colleagues, but if there’s a remote chance that something is happening behind the scenes a short distance away, it’s worth making sure that you’re not missing the good stuff.
14) Incorporate Non-Intuitive Lenses – Do you have a tilt-shift in your bag? Sorry, I had to ask. Maybe just the act of looking at a scene through a different lens will start to get your creative juices flowing. “Maybe if I shoot this wide, then pop a flash zoomed in at 85mm, I could make something less boring…”
15) Ready for A Moment – While changing your controls to make things more creative, always be prepared to switch back quickly to a documentary view of the scene if something unexpected happens. Be prepared for the unexpected. If it happens and you weren’t ready, you’ll kick yourself all the way back to your office. You don’t want that other photographer who didn’t budge an inch or think creatively to emerge with the winning picture.
16) Crop, Uniquely – I just judged a photo contest and can tell you that if I see another set of eyes with their face cropped out, I’ll probably scream. It does work, but not as often as we think. This goes for a tilted horizon. But maybe you can crop and show just the feet or hands of the person. We often get hung up on showing the entire subject, but sometimes just a portion will do.
17) Evoke Moods – Sometimes mood can be content just as much as an actual subject and their emotions. Look for ways to play with color, composition and existing light to make a statement about a landscape that you might not have perceived if you were previously focused on human behavior, or the lack thereof.
18) Go Graphic – It’s not about content anymore, or mood. Make it about visual candy. Take a look at those graphic juxtapositions, that wonderfully retro signage, architectural detail or even bland grey series of buildings. A silhouette of that janitor? Go for it…
19) Cross-Filter – Gel your flash to match the white balance of your camera. Then set the white balance of your camera opposite to the color temperature of the scene in front of you. Or vice-versa. See how that can affect mood or meaning of image..
20) Don’t Ignore Subtleties – Sometimes the arch of an eyebrow, the curl of a lip, the blink of an eye, the massaging of a wedding ring, can tell a story at a mundane press conference or public event. Being overlensed can sometimes be a good thing if it makes you consider shooting what you thought was impossible in the space you had.
21) Investigate – Nothing might be happening, but by asking questions to people in the area who have local knowledge, you might find out you’re just a few blocks away from some amazing visuals. That is especially important overseas, where wires often get crossed in a new culture and physical landscape.
22) Wait – If you can. Even if you don’t think anything will ever happen. If you find yourself brooding in frustration over the situation like a burning hot mental rotisserie, get out your camera manual and read-up on those complex TTL off-camera flash options you’ve been meaning to get to. But keep one eye on the scene. The light may change and the moment may evolve. Capture the image and you’ll end up the conquering hero.