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18 Secrets Of Finding Photography Ideas and Subjects
If you've been working through the PAC series on digital photography basics, you will doubtless have been trying out all the new techniques you've learned along the way. But what subjects did you try them out on? When putting into practice your new camera skills, how many really intersting pictures have you actually produced? How many inspiring photography ideas have you had?
I'm going to bet you have way too many pictures of: a) your pet b) random objects on your desk c) pissed off looking family/friends c) pot plants/flowers and d) self-portraits where you look like a serial killer. I'm also going to bet that the above list aren't the kinds of things that inspired you to start mastering your camera in the first place!
So this article is all about reminding you why you began exploring photography: to do justice to amazing sights, places, people and events with your camera. You never wanted to make your computer, calculater and cup of coffee look like a masterpiece. You always wanted to capture the colours of a landscape at sunset, the vibrance of a street in a city you're staying in, or the emotion in people's faces.
Below are my tips on the secrets of selecting great subjects and always having a head full of ideas for the next project.
The secrets of selecting great subjects
The key word in the above sub-heading is "selecting". There's always a temptation to be trigger happy when you have a camera hanging around your neck. But this invariably results in sitting at the computer sorting through 417 average snaps, instead of 50 good ones with 2 or 3 corkers! So these are my tips for getting a great subject:
1. Always have a camera of some kind about your person. Photography opportunities tend to emerge out of the blue, often when you're least expecting them. As a rule, try to take your best camera with you whenever possible, because it will give you the most flexibility. But always carry a compact, or a really good smart phone camera. An interesting subject captured on an iPhone is better than a high resolution, perfectly exposed but boring shot from a DSLR any day.
An iPhone snap of the Cutty Sark from the other day.
2. Be on the lookout for dramatic lighting. It's incredible how interesting light can transform mundane things into wondeful spectacles. It can be useful to almost think of the light as the subject itself sometimes. Obviously, the ideal is to have a fascinating subject bathed in beautiful light. But light alone, with its ability to bring out colours, textures and contrast, can often make an image by itself.
3. When the National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry was asked to give one piece of advice to new photographers he said, "Leave home". The point he was making was that new visual experiences can feed your excitement and desire to create images. On an every day level, try to just visit less familiar locations and don't get stuck in a rut shooting the same places all the time. Oh, and make the most any travelling you do.
4. When photographing people, look for emotion above all else. Instead of taking painstaking effort to create the perfect composition, seize on emotion as soon as you see it. Not only that, but try to create it! Talk with your subject - make them laugh, think and respond in a way they would without a camera pointing at them. It's amazing how much emotional expression can emerge in someone's face during a simple conversation.
5. When Henri Cartier-Bresson used to walk the streets hunting for a decisive moment, he would find a promising location and compose the scene perfectly before waiting for the passers-by to come along and "make" the shot. This is a fanatastic method, as it allows you take the time to get the background in order and then focus all your attention on seizing a moment of action or emotion when it occurs. Make sure you go somewhere there is plenty of activity, otherwise you could be waiting a long time!
6. Your camera is not a paintbrush! Don't expect to be able to convert a boring subject into something wonderful, just by shooting it with the right settings. Whilst you might be inspired to create a painting or a sketch by looking at something that is on the surface rather dull, a camera does not have this power. You can never put as much of yourself into a photograph as you can a drawing or painting. What you can do, though, is observe and select what to show. This is, in itself, a creative process and a lot of fun. But the subject must be compelling exactly as you see it.
7. Photographing old people or children is normally a winner! I know this sounds a bit crude, and it's by no means a foolproof tip. But these just happen to be 2 really great subjects that very often are a gift to the photographer. Why? I suppose it's the fact that children lack self-consciousness and are able to be natural in front of the camera, whilst old people have all the fascinating marks of long experience marked visibly on their face and in their eyes.
Image by Thomas Leuthard
8. If you're lucky enough to have a friend or family member who doesn't hate having the camera pointed at them non-stop, take full advantage! Use the opportunity to practice taking candid shots, and try to select interesting moments of action or emotion.
9. Wherever you happen to be, don't just look straight ahead for a subject, but look up, down and all around for potential subjects. Crouching down, for example, almost always makes you see things that you hadn't noticed before - like the opportunity to use a lead-in line or a different foreground object. Just changing your perspective can bring to your attention entirely new subjects.
The secrets to getting great photography ideas
Ok, having looked at some tips for choosing worthy subjects, lets now switch to some suggestions for finding ideas and inspiration. What do you do when the inspiration dries up and you don't know where to look for the next photography opportunity? Here are some useful suggestions:
10. Join a local photography club. This is such a great thing to do for lots of reasons. You will probably find there are monthly, or even weekly, themes to keep the ideas fresh. Plus, when it comes to sharing your work with others in the group, you'll get dozens of new ideas from their images. Many photography clubs also have regular talks from visitng photographers who share their tips, experiences and ideas. In short, this is probably the quickest and most enjoyable way to keep your inspiration levels high!
11. Check out the websites of photographers in your local area. I recently did this for landscape photographers in my area and came across about 5 really wonderful sites, full of images of nearby places I have never visited with my camera. I now have a list of about 20 locations that I will shoot at over the next few months.
12. Sign up for a Flickr account and begin exploring the millions of photographs people have uploaded. It's often a good idea to sort your searches with the "interesting" filter, as this pulls out the images that have gained the most attention. There are literally thousands of incredibly gifted photographers on Flickr, whose photostreams can become a mainstay of inspiration for you. Be sure to join Flickr groups too, and take part in themed competitions.
13. Do a Google search for things like, "inspiring landscape photos", "best portrait photos" or "incredible macro photos". You'll find that the web is littered with cool posts that compile the authors' picks of some of the best photographs around. These are often actually drawn from Flickr, or sometimes the galleries of well known photographers. A Google image search with similar search times is also good idea.
14. Grab a photography magazine once in a while. I sometimes actually avoid reading photography magazines because I know I will be left with dozens of ideas that I just don't have time for! But when you're looking for a new project, a really good magazine is a great resource. There will usually be numerous features on both subject matter and technique, as well as reader photo galleries and interviews.
15. Think about the end result - the physical object you will be producing. Sometimes the ideas come flooding in when you set about creating a calendar, a pack of greetings cards or a series of prints. If your photos have an end purpose, it becomes a lot easier to come up with ideas for what to shoot. For example, take a calendar shot each month of the year and then produce some calendars as Christmas presents! Check out the photographers on Etsy for ideas on how to turn your pictures into sets of prints, cards and other objects.
16. Look at the winning entries from major photography competitions. One of the best ways to get inspiration is to look at great pictures. Check out both national and international competition websites and explore some of the incredible work that is being produced by top photographers at the moment. You're sure to pick up an idea or two, and to get a clearer idea of the kinds of photos you want to be producing.
17. Discover the work of famous photographers. Following on from the above point, it's always worth getting hold of a big coffee table book full of inspiring pictures. This gives you the opportunity to thumb through the pages whenever you like, and get a constant reminder of what cameras are capable of producing. Take a look at the offerings from Magnum and National Geographic as starting points.
The Unguarded Moment, by Steve McCurry
18. In addition to Flickr, there are many other fantastic online communites that enable you to draw on ideas from other members. One of my favourite photography forums is Luminous Landscape, where the contributors have a huge amount of knowledge and often share their latest work. I also enjoy checking out the user galleries at photo.net, which is a vast resource for photographers.
Hopefully, with the above tips, you'll never be short of photography ideas again! It's always worth remembering that you shouldn't just take pictures of anything and everything for the sake of it. Be selective and shoot subject that actually interest you. Do you have a favourite resource for picking up photography ideas, or any thoughts on finding subjects? Please share them in the comments...