Extraordinary Images From Ordinary Places

My wife, Allison and I were driving the hills around East Barnard, Vermont, when she suddenly yelled for me to stop. Coming around a corner on a dirt road, she had spotted an unusual double-peaked barn.

By getting right down at the water surface, we could see the barn reflected in a small pond in front of it. We used a 24mm lens with a blue-yellow filter, to enhance the blue of the pond, while not polarizing out the barn’s reflection in the water. A very small lens aperture ensured everything would be in focus.

To add to our satisfaction in finding this shot, no photographic guide we’d found so far had featured it. However, we found a book in Woodstock, Vermont, the following week, entitled “Barns of New England” … and this barn was featured on the front cover!

Later, we determined that, if you approached the barn from the “wrong” direction, you didn’t see this shot at all … you have to come down the road in the right direction, to see it revealed in front of you.

The day was sunny and clear, the morning light superb. My wife Allison and I packed tripods and camera bags and headed down to the Lake Ontario shore. When we arrived at our sailing club, we found the usual collection of sailing dinghies and dollies, up to their collective hips in two feet of snow. It was early February.

I’ve spent many hours of warm-weather time at that club, sailing my fourteen-foot sloop-rigged dinghy in Toronto’s harbor waters. Of course, I’ve done a lot of shooting there, as well, garnering the usual summer shots of sailboats and sailors, hulls and halyards. However, I’d never been there in the winter just after a blizzard blew through. My wife and I discovered a whole new world of smooth, rounded shapes emerging from snowdrifts, favorite summer toys lying abandoned in the storm, and rows of sleek craft waiting, covered in colorful canvas. Allison’s artistic juices began to flow at once, and we were soon hunkered down over our tripods, exchanging creative ideas. This entire experience of becoming visually excited by a very familiar environment simply because the season was “wrong” started me thinking: “How many other familiar places are waiting to present great new photographic opportunities?”

When I thought about it, I realized opportunity is simply a matter of mindset. As Allison constantly tells me, you have to think like a tourist (and view your surroundings through a visitor’s eyes), even when you’re in your hometown–especially when you’re in your hometown! That’s the first rule of opportunity. It has served me well for two decades of freelance travel journalism.

While you’re thinking like a tourist, you’ll realize that every exotic place you’ve ever visited or wished to visit is “ho-hum” to many people. They’ve lived there for years, seen it all, and would love to visit some other exotic place. If you work from the idea that “exotic” describes any place you’ve never seen, you soon realize that every place is exotic, if you just put yourself into the mind of a first-time visitor.

For example, we live in Toronto, a wonderful place for sailing and bicycling with a variety of live theatre, a constantly changing collection of excellent restaurants, and so much green space that you can easily pretend you live in the country. I suspect that there are hordes of folk out there who would love to visit Toronto and think of it as an exotic location. For us, it’s familiar ground, but I have a large carousel full of my favorite Toronto photography, backed up by a large archival 3-ring binder, and I am constantly adding to the collection.

Think of how much film (or the digital equivalent) you shoot when you arrive in a new vacation destination. The scenes are all so exciting, so new… so exotic. You don’t mind getting up early, or staying out late, to capture great shots. If you adopt the philosophy that those same great shots are being chased by visiting photographers in your hometown right now, you’ll soon find yourself in your neighborhood park at dawn, walking the city centre in the late afternoon checking out building reflections, or tramping through the snowdrifts at your sailing club, in February.

This starting point mindset leads to the second rule: Always carry a camera. Familiar places will certainly present wonderful photographic opportunities, but you have to be ready. A photographer lives in our neighborhood whose license plate reads, “F8 BETHERE”. He has the right idea.

So now we come to the third rule: You need to stretch your imagination when you’re making images. If you come home with the same shots that you see in magazines or at the camera club, you won’t maintain your creative high very long. Your challenge is to create new ways of viewing familiar scenes, so the viewer thinks yours is the most exciting photo location he has ever seen. When that viewer is you, you’ve achieved your goal.

To create new viewpoints, you have to work with a variety of lenses and filters and be ready to exploit the rules and techniques of image composition. One way to do this is to explore one of your favorite locations with only one lens, then go back a second time and shoot the same places with a different lens. You’ll soon learn the knack of being able to visualize how a composition will appear using different lenses.

Some compositions almost dictate which lens to use. An image with a circular motif  (like the turntable area at the end of the San Francisco cable car line) cries out for a fish-eye lens. Shooting the same cable car on the rise of Russian Hill, so that the Bay appears behind the car, requires a 300mm telephoto lens. “Ah, but that’s a very exotic location!” you say. Millions of people in San Francisco call it home and use the cable cars simply as convenient transportation. They wonder what all the fuss is about.

So, go out into your backyard at midnight. Visit your favorite golf course in January. Walk along that familiar river when it’s flooding its banks. Turn up at your local farmers’ market at dawn, and stock up on film or pixels. You’ll need it all!

This image is part of an ongoing project I pursue, called “The Country in the City”. In this case, a set of identical cows, facing different directions, placed in a large open area right in the financial district of Toronto.

I’ve photographed these cows, singly and together, in all seasons, over quite a few years, but this image seems to best portray what I visualize here … cows, lying in a field, surrounded by a city. “What are we doing here?”

One just doesn’t visualize a cow lying in the middle of a snowy field, so it captures the imagination. Use of the fish-eye lens emphasizes the feeling of “being surrounded”, and both of these techniques together certainly give the photograph a different look! As with many images made with wide-angle lenses, getting up very close to one major element in the composition emphasizes it. The foreground cow, in this case, creates a very nice leading line that pulls the eye further and further into the frame… don’t step in the cow flops!

While wandering in the Thames area of London, England, some years ago on a gloomy afternoon, I happened on this Chelsea Pensioner, a retired military man, taking the air.

“That uniform would photograph beautifully, in this subdued light, sir,” I suggested to him. “Would you mind if I photograph you?”

He fixed me with a stern eye, a frown on his face. I expected to be soundly rebuffed, in a parade-ground bellow that would be heard halfway across London.

“It’ll cost you a shilling, sonny!”, he replied. I didn’t know what a shilling was, so I set the camera for f2.8, did a number of exposures, and gave him a pound.

During the summer, student bands from the Boston area perform on the beach at Lynn, MA. I had to get up on the roof of a building behind the performance area, to make this “bird’s eye view” photograph, and still, a 24mm lens just captured the complete group. This was a case of “visualizing” the image before it was made, and then finding the right vantage point to implement the vision.

My dinghy sailing club is next to one that caters to larger boats, including both keelboats and multi-hulls. In winter, I take my boat home and put it in the garage, but these large vessels are all stored outdoors.

Even the bows of sailboats, all lined up in a row, offer interesting opportunities for shots of repetitive pattern. I positioned them so as to form a diagonal across the frame, not placing any lines horizontal to the frame. The negative space at the top left of the frame balances the diagonal of boats in the other half of the composition. A polarizing filter ensured a strong blue sky.

The Detroit zoo has this wonderful underwater viewing area, where you can observe the polar bears both under and above the water surface. I could see it was a natural place where kids would be excited, and I “waited in ambush” for the right moment.

I had to use fill flash to capture the people, as they were totally backlit, and I set the flash for one f-stop less light than the bright ambient sky. This was one of those occasions where the modern camera and flash technology came through for me, as everything was balanced and exposed perfectly, as I had hoped it would be, using an automatic exposure mode. The ambient light was changing rapidly, and my older manual equipment would not have allowed this kind of balanced fill flash, when timing was important.

One of the photographic advantages of living in a large urban area is the chance to work with reflections in buildings. Like many modern cities, Toronto builds with glass, so that every downtown street becomes an imaging adventure on a sunny day.

For years, I used to walk the downtown areas for an hour at lunch time while carrying a camera, then go back to my office and eat a sandwich at my desk! This image was made using a 28-90mm zoom lens, hand held, in the area of Yonge Street and Dundas. Since I had to tilt the camera up, I emphasized the “lean” this would cause in the composition, by tilting the camera horizontally as well.

This image was made at a ruined abbey, in southern Scotland, while I was on a hiking trip. From the floor of the abbey, you could see that the shadows were strong, but I had to climb up to a balcony to obtain this “bird’s eye view”. A popular spot, I was lucky to catch a moment when the abbey floor was clear of tourists.

I shouted at one of my fellow hikers, until I had her placed perfectly, in my 24mm lens. Three exposures later, a large group of tourists entered the area, and my shot was gone.

I made this photograph in the dome car, while travelling on the Amtrak train between Santa Barbara and San Francisco.

Because the car is lined (on both sides) with the plushy seats, there is little room for pedestrians and photographers. Use of the fish-eye lens was dictated here by the fact that no other lens could portray the scene without violently cropping it … and besides, I love the effect of the distortion.

While I could have used some fill flash here, I was afraid it would reflect in the glass, ruining the shot (an image where use of a flash is obvious is, to me, a technical failure). I hoped there would be enough light bouncing around to fill in the shadows in the middle of the car, and that proved to be the case. case. case.

Allison and I were bicycling one summer afternoon, exploring the lagoons and bays of the Toronto Islands. We always bring a camera when we take the ferry over to the Islands, and almost always come home with a worthwhile addition to our archives. It’s a huge park, right out in Lake Ontario, and you never know what you will find. With a small airport, a zoo, several huge marinas, and a complete community of non-conformists, it’s a matter of “f8, and be there”. Even the ferries present photo ops. 

On this occasion, this fleet of blue canoes suddenly emerged from behind a point. From our angle, it appeared as though they had paddled across Toronto Harbor from the mainland, and the CN Tower rising in the background made for a wonderful “destination specific” shot. We used a bike as a camera support, sort of a beanbag with wheels. The hardest part of the process was to ensure the horizon was level!

We arrived at the St. Augustine lighthouse at dawn, on a clear sky day. 

This is one of those occasions where symmetry is important. I tilted the camera up, of course, but somehow managed not to introduce any tilt in the St. Augustine lighthouse… and I could live with a bit of perspective distortion. 

A polarizing filter saturated the blue of the sky, and helped reduce reflections on the roof of the building. I did a number of exposures, with brackets, from a number of shooting angles. It was my wife, Allison, who suggested a straight-on shot to take advantage of the symmetry, the only angle I had not exploited (this happens a lot!).

By this time, I was about ready to leave, and had used up my available film supply. I did a quick shot of her suggested composition, with the last frame in the camera … and later discarded all my other shots, keeping only that last exposure, which was perfect.

A winter expedition to a summer place offers all manner of unusual image opportunities. My dinghy sailing club, under two feet of snow in February, presented me with a very different view of a favourite July haunt. 

Many club members have no place for winter storage, so leave their boats under wraps, sitting on the same dollies they use for transport during the sailing season. Indeed, the sky is so full of bare masts, it looks like an aluminum forest, stripped of leaves. 

I managed to isolate this boat, surrounded by a snowdrift, so that I could use it as a foreground. The deep blue winter sky needed no filtering, and after deciding that use of a fish-eye lens would yield a rather different dinghy view, I managed not to photograph my own tripod legs!

I was walking up a snowy road one winter, following my wife Allison back to our rented cottage after a morning of skiing. Of course, I had a camera with me! 

Her shadow on the road’s surface was very sharp and clear. In the past, I’ve had great success with photographing only the shadows of people, leaving their actual image to the viewer’s imagination. In this case, we played with various positions for a few minutes, then I tilted the camera to obtain a different kind of viewpoint.

During the day, the famous sea lions, lying around on the floats adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, look like large indolent black sausages. All my mid-day photos were throw-aways. 

Just before we went in to dinner early one evening, we went back to the floats, to find the late-day sun turning the lions to gold, backlighting fur and whiskers, and creating wonderful shadows. I’d carried my tripod and camera to dinner, in hopes of photographing the sunset afterwards … but we spent so much time photographing the sea lions, we missed the sunset !

During a recent trip to Charleston, SC, we were looking for a “hotel photo” to illustrate the historic heritage of this wonderful little city. There are many hotels in the historic district, and we tried many shots, including a few time exposures, but none of them was really exciting. 

Walking up Church Street in the very late afternoon, we approached our own hotel, to find it glowing in the sunshine. I set up the tripod, and waited until several other guests approached the entrance … and the rest, as they say, is history.

On a sunny, post-snowstorm winter day, I was walking up through a small park very close to my home, when I found these chokeberries, covered in snow.

My wife Allison and I have spent many winter hours walking in this park over the years, but we’ve never seen this phenomenon before … I guess I got there before the wind blew the snow off the berries! 

A 300mm zoom lens with a polarizer was perfect for isolating a few of them, and Fuji Velvia did its usual great job on saturating the colors.

by Michael Goldstein

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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