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!
I love this quote by Jim Richardson (slightly paraphrased):
“To make great photos, stand in front of interesting things.”
The corollary also applies:
“To make great photos, make the things you’re standing in front of interesting.”
This post is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and keeping motivated in our everyday world.
A Little Background
I live in Illinois.
No, not Chicago!
The southern part of the state.
The rural part.
No, not that far south!
If you hit the Ozarks, you’ve gone to far.
I live in industrial/rural Illinois right outside of East St. Louis (crime capital of the world – if not the world than at least the U.S.)
Ok, there is a great big river nearby which could be photographically interesting, but at this point, the Mississippi is largely a working river. This means that I have to work to even get to the river. Oil refineries and other industries greedily hog all the riverfront property and they really mean it when they say “no trespassing”!
At heart, I’m a travel photographer, and I take trips several times a year, but life bases me in the St. Louis area. This is where I am most days of the year.
When I started a 365 project, I learned a few things about staying photographically motivated in a less-than-scenic part of the world.
Own your own Zipcode
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. Owning my zip code means knowing 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 hadn’t yet explored.
Once I started looking, there was much more to photograph than I’d thought. I photographed industrial refineries, abandoned buildings – both urban and rural – fields, and yes, I found a way to photograph the river sometimes without even trespassing!
Few places that I found show up on maps with the label “Photographically Interesting Place”. I had to get out and find them.
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 their 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 photographic skills for when you really want them.
This in itself can be a motivating thought.
Learn something with every photo that you make. 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.
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 – but only because they’ve seen my photos. 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.
* Updated reprint of post published on old blog 2/15/2017.