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Everyday Images: Making Ordinary Pictures into Extraordinary Photography

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Read Time: 9 min

How often have you experienced the following? A friend excitedly invites you to view her latest set of photographs. You sit in front of the computer, television, or projection screen to view what turns out to be photograph after photograph of uninspiring this, that, and another activity. The photographs are of beautiful things and interesting events, but none of them prompt a sudden sucking in of your breath. If we want to effectively communicate our experience to another, we have to be deliberate in constructing a photograph, keeping other viewers in mind.

Chances are, your friend has taken pictures in an attempt to hold and share a moment she experienced, but the pictures are little more than a representation of what she saw. It is luringly easy to snap a picture of what we are seeing, believing that the picture will communicate our entire experience to another viewer. However, a two-dimensional copy of a three-dimensional sight cannot possibly convey what we saw and felt. But in today's tutorial, we're going to try to get as close as we can.

Be observant

First and foremost, train yourself to see beyond the ordinary. I bet that for most of us, our vacation photographs are among the best of our pictures. Not because we were in an exotic locale, but because we were relaxed and in a noticing mode, looking at scenes with fresh, inquiring eyes.

If we use that same skill everyday, we cannot help but discover the extraordinary moments happening all around us at any given time. The next time you are in line at the bank, waiting for your child to exit class, or panting your way on a treadmill, take a deep breath, relax your eyes, and casually look around. See how many small extraordinary moments you can find.

Next time, set yourself a goal of finding the same number of extraordinary moments plus one. Stretch yourself by continuing to increase your goal by one. Before long, moments that make a photograph will be jumping out at you in the most ordinary of places.

With some discipline, I trained myself not to check my smartphone while waiting for the bus, and instead, to look around the scene before me. My reward was this photograph, taken at a busy public transit stop at the end of the day.

Become aware of what you are seeing and experiencing

Before pressing the shutter in quick response to your reaction, take a quick assessment of your reaction. What is it that caught your attention and what response has it evoked? Is it the way the sunlight is dancing across the water, leaving you feeling light and full of optimism? Or did seeing an elderly couple walk down the street hand in hand fill you with hope for the longevity of your own relationship.

I couldn’t help but smile when I caught sight of this teddy bear hanging by his ears on the clothes line. Photographing him from the rear emphasized for me what I imagined was the bear’s indignity and, thus, shared the humor I found in the situation.

Physically and mentally assess your subject

We often see variations in colour and size, but we don’t often take time to assess the materials, textures and nature of our subjects and how they might be influencing our visual experience. Is the subject human - pliable, breathing and soft - or formed of metal - stiff, angular and cool to touch? Is the subject wet and reflective or dry and dusty? How big is the subject? What feelings are evoked in you by the substance of your subject: awe, intimacy, fear, distaste, hunger?

I have taken multiple images of this angel, which stands on a pedestal beside a restored building. Almost all of my images took advantage of clear days and blue skies for the background. However, none of my images were successful until I paused to reflect on my feelings about the angel: angels in our lives are not “out there" but hanging around right here, before and among us. I realized the earthiness and grounding of the brick wall were essential to communicate my emotional response to the angel.

Change your perspective

Typically, we take photographs from in front of our subjects, standing, with our cameras at eye level. This may give us an accurate visual representation of what we are seeing, but rarely communicates anything more to another viewer. Instead, take a walk around your subject. Look up at and down on your subject. Instead of zooming your lens in and out, use your feet and walk away from and closer toward your subject. Is there a perspective that profiles your subject in a better way? Would shooting from lower down communicate a sense of awe for your subject? What feelings are suggested by changing your distance from your subject?

The Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore (Church of the Most Holy Redeemer) in Venice was built to give thanks for the end of the plague in 1577. When I visited the church, I was moved by the faith of the people who built the church and of those who continue to give thanks every year in the Festa del Redentore (Feast of the Redeemer). To communicate my sense of reverence, I shot my image from below and behind the crucifix, taking advantage of my position to also suggest the belief that the Redeemer leads the faithful into light.

Consider what to include and what to exclude

Our natural inclination is to include as much of our subject as we can fit in the frame. Or, if we don’t include all of our subject, we will crop at what seems to be a natural place; for example, photographing a person from the waist up or including the doors and windows of a building if we can’t fit the whole building into the frame.

As well, we usually think about what to include in our image, but not what to exclude. In addition to excluding distracting elements - a trash bin, for example - we may also want to be deliberate about excluding other elements, perhaps to leave the viewer guessing or to force the viewer’s attention on what remains in the image.

I deliberately excluded the woman’s head and the man’s lower legs in this image. I wanted viewers to see more than a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair. I wanted viewers to see the strength of the man, even though sitting, and I wanted to emphasize the irrelevance of who provides the physical power to move because it is clearly the man in the seat who is psychologically in charge.

Emphasize your subject

Often, we do our best to ensure everything in the picture will be visible and clear. However, in doing so, we may give viewers too much to look at and not enough direction to identify what is most important in the image. Ask yourself why you are taking this picture. What is it you want viewers to notice first and why? How could you ensure your subject takes prominence in your image?

Which of the options available to you will add to your story by communicating some of the emotional impact you are trying to share? For example, if one person in a crowd holds your attention, use depth of field to throw all but your subject’s face out of focus to suggest you were captivated by that one person while the others in the crowd retreated into an indistinguishable mass.

When visiting a lace shop one day, I stopped to watch a woman make some lace. I was fascinated by the fine movement and control the woman had in her fingers and hands, and how she could manipulate the thread into such delicate patterns. Instead of photographing the woman making the lace, I elected to photograph only her hands and the lace, using a slower shutter speed to ensure the viewer notices the movement of the woman’s hands.

Choose your moment

There are extraordinary moments in every place, at any time; yet, we rarely pause long enough to capture even one such moment let alone to pick among many for the moment. Just as a fisher’s story about the one who got away will not hold a crowd except perhaps in laughter, a photographer’s image that fails to show the drama of the moment - however subtle - will not hold a viewer.

Usually referred to as “tension," the drama in a moment could be a bird’s wings spread in flight, the sudden glance of a person, or the movement of a golden autumn sun across a field. The drama may even be a profound stillness and quiet. Take time to identify what is happening before you and the best way to capture and show it. Be patient. You may need to wait only seconds, come back a few hours later, or even wait until another season.

Numerous photographs of a fish market failed to capture the smell in the market or the chaos and noise of so many shoppers. However, with patience and timing, I managed to catch a transaction in process. The drama playing out in this moment - testing the fish to see how fresh it is, holding the paper ready to wrap the fish, and wearing heavy yellow rubber gloves to minimize the odour absorbed by the monger’s hands - all speak of the smells and bustle my other photographs failed to capture.

Finally, experiment

It takes practice to be able to quickly construct a photograph so it tells your story, attracts the viewer and shares your experiences of the moment. But there are no hard and fast rules to learn and the practice is worth the gasp of excitement a good photograph elicits. Practice the techniques until you get a sense of how each works for you.

Then experiment with combinations and adaptations of the various techniques to make them your own. You will land on a few favourites and one or two fallbacks that you will pull out of your bag of techniques when creative inspiration fails you. That’s okay. It’s called style, and if you’ve been practising, your style is certainly to be extraordinary.

Have you succeeded at capture a great image of an otherwise ordinary moment? Please don't hestitate to posts links in the comments

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