Photographing the Everyday

Recently, a podcast that I listen to fielded a question about staying photographically motivated. The question was – and I’m paraphrasing – “Help! I’m a photographer living in boring Nebraska. What can I possibly photograph?” The podcasters gave some advice, but I think there is more to say to this photographer who, like me, lives in a humdrum part of the world. We don’t all live in Switzerland or New York City, but that doesn’t mean we should put our cameras away.

A Little Background
I live in Illinois – no, not Chicago, the southern, rural part. No, not that far south - not the part that has the Ozarks. I live in industrial/rural Illinois right outside of East St. Louis (crime capital of the world). Ok, there is a great big river nearby, but at this point the Mississippi is largely a working river. 
At heart, I'm a travel photographer, but I travel only a few weeks out of the year. I started a 365 project 500+ days ago and I've learned a few things about staying photographically motivated in a less-than-scenic part of the world.
Fields in Storm. 5.31.2016. Any building, in this case an old schoolhouse, provides a focal point especially if the weather is doing something dramatic. Try exploring minimalism if you live in a rural, wide-open environment. Sony A7II 56mm 1/45@f16 ISO100.
Own your Own Zip Code
I hear portrait and wedding photographers talk about owning their own zip code. I think for them it means that they should strive to be the go-to photographer in their area. For me, this phrase means something different - know every nook and cranny of my local area.
Like the photographer from Nebraska, I initially thought there was nothing photographically interesting around, but how did I really know unless I looked? So, I drove down random roads, walked random streets, explored every tourist venue – no matter how obscure.
I kept track of places that I’d been and suggestions of places to go on a map using google mymaps (https://www.google.com/mymaps). On days I need motivation, I choose a place or route that I haven't yet explored.
Once I started looking, there was much more to photograph than I'd thought. I had industrial refineries, abandoned buildings – both urban and rural - fields, and yes, I found a way to photograph the river. 
Few places that I found show up on a map with the label “Photographically Interesting”. I had to get out and find them.
Refinery at Night. 7.3.2016. Sometimes things become more beautiful at night especially if you're in an area where you can add light trails or stars to your image. I live near industrial oil refineries. Ugly during the day, but little cities at night. Sony A7II 55mm 6sec@f16 ISO400 
Photograph for the Fans
Ideally, we photographers should photograph for ourselves, taking photos of what we love, but when motivation is low try photographing for others.
I discovered a vast diversity of groups on Flickr. There were groups for photographers who liked doors, rust, fields, architectural detail, bridges, trains, signs… You name it, there was a group of fans.
Think about what is in your area – even if it doesn’t inspire you. Note the cemeteries, parks, barns, abandoned buildings, rivers, fences, trees, and anything else you come across in daily life. 
Try to capture the best possible photograph of the people, places or things that you encounter everyday and share these photos with the fans. Their joy at seeing a rusty doorknob, a young mother, or a field of corn might be just the spark you need to appreciate the photographic possibilities that you do have.

Shadows. 3.15.2016. An amazing number of people like to photograph doors or urban decay. Add an interesting shadow and you'll have lots of fans. Sony A7II 36mm 1/125@f11 ISO100
Practice for the Epic Shot
Some photographers are simply mismatched with their surroundings. A street photographer living in the country or a landscape photographer in the inner city may have a difficult time finding motivation in their surroundings.
These photographers will need to travel to get their photographic buzz, but that doesn’t mean putting down the camera.
There is value in practicing photographic techniques before taking the epic trip. Landscape photographers shouldn’t be taking a long-exposure for the first time on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Iceland and street photographers shouldn’t be struggling with approaching strangers on a first-time trip to New York City.
Practice seeing and composing photos using the world around you. Even if you’re not making epic photographs today, you are perfecting your photographic skills for when you really want them. This in itself can be a motivating thought.
Learn something with every photo that you post-process. Perfect your style and explore the tools that will make that epic photo. 
Remember that photographing is all about light, so especially practice seeing light and how it changes throughout the day and with different weather conditions. Even weeds can be beautiful if photographed in the right light.
Little Ball in the Street. 1.20,2017. Nothing particularly special about this subject, but I liked the way the light played on the puddle of water and I really needed to get low between parked cars and practice controlling depth of field for this image. Sony A7II 120mm 1/160@f6.3 ISO400
Final Thoughts
My friends laugh at how uninspiring I first found my area of Illinois. They think I’m lucky to live in such a diverse place. You may find your area boring, but only because you see it everyday. Another photographer might be jealous of what you have (wide-open fields, storms, abandoned buildings, people on the street).
Photography isn’t just about documenting your surroundings, but sharing your vision of the world with others. 
I love this quote about the secret to making good photos: "Stand in front of interesting things."
The corollary also applies: "Make the things you're standing in front of interesting."
Morning Reflections. 4.4.2016. I'm always in search of water. Even a tiny, boring reservoir like this will bring me out at the crack of dawn. Add some interesting trees (I prefer to photograph the architecture of the tree as seen in winter trees) and I'm happy. A7II 28mm 1/500@f9.0 ISO100
Back to Top