A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Photograph the Familiar

August 18 2015

by Philip Northeast

Starting out in photography and you can’t find interesting photographic subjects?

Photographers are often inspired by images of exotic places, or unusual scenes.  Frustration can set in when they are unable to go to far away places.

The answer is all around them.  The secret is uncovering the hidden gems often obscured by the everyday point of view. Often life gets in the way and we are too busy to appreciate our surroundings.

Your local is exotic to someone else, particularly with the ability to share photos world wide  using social media platforms, such as instagram or flikr. Pictures are a far more universal means of communication than language opening up a global audience for your local photographs.

My Neighbourhood

The corner of my street on a foggy morning

Two of the keys to creating memorable photographs are timing and  framing.


Cameras record a literal version of the scene that is limited in time and by the angle of view of the camera’s lens.

Our eyes do not see evenly across our field of vision. We see colour in more detail in the central portion and we view motion better in our peripheral vision.  The camera lens has an uncompromising view, something is either in view or not at all.  This sharp delineation forces the viewer to concentrate on the part of the scene selected by the photographer without surrounding distractions.

The photographic process removes the peripheral vision element of the view  creating an unfamiliar view of a familiar scene. Photographers  decide what is in view and what is excluded. This highlights the important elements of the scene, and lessens distracting elements.  This is accomplished through choice of shooting position, the angle of view of the lens,  and the amount of cropping applied to the image during processing.

So what is it?

So what is it?

The emphasis added using framing applies to the size and orientation of the photo. While sweeping exotic vistas are attractive, but getting in close can produce intriguing photographs.  Something small can dominate an  image when a photographer uses framing techniques to remove the object from its  context. When viewers are uncertain of an object’s size it opens up a range of interpretations to intrigue viewers.

The still photograph also frames a scene in time, preserving an instant from the flow of life.  Henri Cartier-Bresson’s  book The Decisive Moment celebrates this  approach to candid street photography.


The advantage of  photographing local subjects is ease of access, which is important for capturing  fleeting moments.

Commuter in the wet city centre on a bicycle

Commuter in the wet city centre on a bicycle

Changes in weather, amount and direction of light, and unusual events are all factors that provide a moment that makes the mundane extraordinary. Part of a photographer’s skill set is the ability to analyse a scene, then anticipate when special conditions are likely and be ready and waiting. Some great “chance” photos are not luck, they are the product of knowing the location and how it varies.

Here today, gone tomorrow

One of the disappointments while scanning my old film photographs  is there are not enough of them. Whatever stage of your life you are at it will change and the everyday will become a distant memory.

Department store on fire in City centre

Department store on fire in City centre

Because you see something everyday it seems uninteresting and commonplace. For other people now, and you in the future, they are a record of social or personal history.

The hole left behind by the department store

The hole left behind by the department store

This is one of the essential elements of street photography where fashions and means of personal transport  provide an ever varying range of  photo opportunities. The results increase in interest over time, so a good catalogue  containing photographs of  ordinary people is of enduring interest.

The new store rising into the sky

The new store rising into the sky

The same approach applies to local architecture, although sometimes the changes are faster and more dramatic. New buildings go up and older structures are demolished, changing familiar streets. Then there are  structures such as new bridges, and renovations of local businesses, providing another opportunity for documenting change.

Learning photography techniques

Even if the local surroundings are not your photographic passion they are a great place to learn and practice the art of photography.  Photographing the same scene with different techniques and settings  offers the opportunity to appreciate the effect of  new approaches.

This  allows photographers to acquire the valuable skills they can use when given the chance to photograph an exotic location or special event.


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