The Little Things in Photography

Learn how to find the small things that make your photographs stand out.

As photographers, we frequently lust after the ultimate scenic vista or that finite moment when sky and horizon melt together in a fantastic sunrise or sunset. Sometimes, our images do justice to such magnificent, exciting works of nature. But there’s another side of photography–the simple, subtle side. Some of the most memorable images I’ve seen capture small wonders. A sparkle in an eye, the stab of a single ray of light, the velvety softness of a petal aren’t grand gestures, but when I look at images, it is often the “little thing” that delights my eye.

Recently, a photographer/friend joined me for a quick trip to Echo Park in Los Angeles. Each year in late May or early June, Echo Park offers a beautiful display of lotus blossoms, the largest group of lotus plants outside Japan. This year our timing was a little off. Many of the blossoms had already dropped their petals, so we were soon preparing to leave when my friend spotted a mother mallard duck and her babies. It was a hot day, and Mother Duck stood up and spread her tail for the babies to gather under her feet in the shade. My friend and I carefully crept close, doing our best not to disturb her. She knew we were there, but since we were quiet and didn’t move, she stayed calm.

Protecting her young from the strong, hot sun by casting as large a shadow as she could was only a simple little gesture of love and protection on the mother’s part. The moment didn’t last long, because the babies were active and soon slipped onto the water. Once they were all swimming, the mother got in, as well, and led her brood away. Her service was simple, but how necessary for the little ones.

Later that evening, I began to wonder about the “little things” that catch my eye. Do they make the difference in a photograph? Are they the illusive factor that elevates a photograph to more than just an image on paper? I began to comb through my files of images, and I found more than I bargained for. I’ve included some of my discoveries here. I suggest that you go through your body of work. Consider this a self-assignment: Find the “little things” that make your photograph outstanding, and since I’m big on making notes, write a short sentence or two describing what your subject is and why it works.

Here’s the image that started my search:

Even though these lotus are “a little past their prime” they are still graceful and delicate.

Ellie has an attitude that I definitely caught on film. Some people call this good fortune waiting for the “moment” or the “gesture.” Regardless of what you call it, it makes the image work. The “in-your-face” angle of the photo is the little thing that emphasizes that attitude

Although this gorilla mom is only feeding, the moment in which I chose to shoot emphasized a human-like look that makes this image work. It’s an attitude; it’s a captured moment. If you’re working with animals or people, become a good observer and see if you can freeze that instant when the action speaks loudly.

My sister and I were in MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in Los Angeles. They had hung a fabulous large mural on the wall. My sister just happened to be wearing a red coat that blended into the mural. The “little thing” of the matching coat color makes this image work.

This building would be just another tall building if light hadn’t been shining through colored windows onto the building wall. Sometimes a “routine” subject needs something unusual to help make it stand out.

The Coos Bay Bridge in Oregon is a wonderful example of bridge building in earlier times. This was one of the stairways going to the street walkway. I loved the moss on the steps, but the “little thing” in this photo is the few leaves. The moss speaks to me of age and excessive moisture. The few leaves add to that but give depth to the image and seem to mutter of neglect and overgrowth.

It was a wild ocean with furious wind creating foam and blowing mists. While the sunset was still glowing, I wanted to show the magnitude of the storm on this small beach. By including the person (our “little thing”), I accomplished size perspective that emphasized the big rocks, the foam and mist, and the wildness of the sea.

I was walking along a beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The sky was elegant. By including the little reflections in the wet sand, I emphasized the sky.

Rialto Beach on the western side of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington has always been one of my favorite spots. When it’s wild and stormy, huge trees wash up on the rocky shore. The little thing in this photo is not the big log, although that makes a great center of interest. The “little thing” is the other small chunk of wood that mimics the shape of the island. To me, this shape creates a visual triangle that goes from the big log to the island to the small log back to the big log. Thus, the triangle directs the viewer’s eye and holds his or her interest.

Sedona, Arizona is a lovely place. Just at sunset, the light makes the rocks glow. The reflection in the pool sets this image up. (The image would have been better if I had used a ½ graduated, neutral density filter to tone down the sky and distant mountains, so they would “match” the density of color in the reflection more closely. But, without the reflection, this image wouldn’t have been as interesting.)

Walking in the Arboretum, I saw many fan palms crowded together. I knew there was a photo in there somewhere. It wasn’t until I had worked on them for a while that I saw the light. Usually, light is a major part of what we photograph, but here just a small shaft emphasized the curve and design of the palm frond–a “little thing” to learn to see and work on.

One winter weekend, I stayed with friends in a house that had originally been built as a boarding house on the old stage line. The kitchen floor was uneven, and the shelf above the sink held a collection of pressed glass that had been sitting there forever. The night had been very cold, and a thick frost coated the windows. First light was just breaking over the mountains. All of that was great, but the little thing that makes this photo is the dusty old cobwebs draped from the window edge to the glass server.

Bodie, California is an old ghost town. During my workshop, I’m permitted to take participants into the buildings to photograph the artifacts. A collection of bottles stands behind one of the old bars. In this one, all of the bottles in the box are brown–except one. When I lined up this shot, the contrast was the “little thing” that caught my eye.

by Noella Ballenger

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