Thursday, 7 May 2009

Breaking the mould in your shots

Useful techniques for over-photographed locations

So, you find yourself with friends or family at a world-famous location that has been shot by the best and under every favourable lighting condition there is. What's the point in even getting your camera out?

Well people don't often think outside the box when faced with famous monuments or scenes, so if you do, you're likely to make a pretty unique capture!

For me, the best lens for this situation is a 17-85mm with in-built image stabilisation. It gives opportunities for deep perspective and closeups / framing of things a little bit distant. The flexibility this sort of lens gives increases the chances of you making a capture you'll be pleased with dramatically.

In summary

Think about these creative elements and how they might work, camera in hand:
  • Angle
  • Viewpoint
  • Height
  • Extreme close-up
  • Pattern
  • Texture
  • Abstract
  • Observation
  • Think "black and white"
...and the more commonly photographed the monument or scene is, the more extreme you'll need to get!

Unusual Angle

This is the sculpture of St. George and The Dragon (der Heilige Georg als Drachentoter) by Carl Eduard August Kiss, 1855.

I was with a wedding party walking from the church to the reception being held on a canal boat when I saw this fantastic sculpture. I hung back briefly, searching for an angle I could use. Obviously it must have been photographed by thousands of people, but it's quite constrained as to possible points of view.

It was next to the path beside the canal, so you'd have to be on the other side of the canal with a hefty zoom lens to get the whole in frame while giving leeway for composition. The view from the approaches from both up and down the path were obstructed until you were quite close.

But, among some bushes that were just outside a bar, set a little off the path, and then with an overhanging bough pushed up and out the way, this revealed itself through the zoom lens. The thing I liked about it was that you see things from the dragon's aspect; looking almost directly up while being trodden by the horse and impaled by that cold, implacable look from St. George, your slayer, while you desperately rear up to claw and rend the source of your pain.


I was in Vilnius, Lithuania, kindly being shown around by a friend. She brought me through some back streets to this famous landmark, the Bernardine Church of St Francis and St Bernardino.

As I walked around looking for an interesting and unusual viewpoint I noticed the statue of the famous Polish poet, Adam Bernard Mickiewicz (adopted by Lithuania as a sort of national poet).

As you can see here, it turned out that the almost reverential pose of the poet works harmoniously with the church's fascia and the painting of Christ on the cross. I had to crouch a little to get the alignment I wanted between the poet's head and the church.


This is the clock tower of the Melville building in Royal William Yard. Pretty much whenever I'm down there, I see someone with a camera stood in the front taking the obvious shot.

Well, not being satisfied with the obvious, when I wanted to make my shot of this building, I did a quick run around. The swing bridges looked promising and I could see how a conjunction of possibilities might work. The bridge surface at that time was clad in beautifully grained wood and by getting down to a low crouch (and then a lower one!) I was able to arrange the conjunction between the bridge, the railings and the building.


Ok, so I was at the Eden Project in Cornwall. The Core Building, used for teaching, displays and projects, has some unusual architecture but again, I wanted something a little different.

I looked around and noticed that instead of having traditional guttering, they used water channels -- to me, a layman as far as architecture is concerned, this seemed quite unusual. So that and the texture / patina of the metal roof cladding, was the basis for my shot.

I was pretty much at the far end of the zoom to get this close-up, so I was glad to have my default lens on and not have to fiddle around in my camera case... ah, the joys of a 17-85mm lens!

Seek out the pattern

These "sails" form an architectural superstructure to a superstore in Plymouth. They are designed to carry the wind, which sweeps up the River Plym from the sea, up and away from the shoppers and car park.

They form a great pattern but their full glory is only really accessible from one point where they are unobstructed and no other distracting elements end up in the viewfinder.

...and that one spot was standing on tippy-toes, balanced on the slightly raised surround to a tree planting between some parked cars at the edge of the property.


A freshly ploughed field in Devon, where the soils are renowned for their fertility and their rich reds.

As a by-the-way, the reds arise from the high content of the iron ores present in the soils, a side effect of the geological history of this part of the UK .

With different framing and a slight turn to the right (and later in the season when the crops are rising), there is a nicely "twee" shot of a typical Devon farm nestling amongst the rolling hills ....which I resisted this time :)


I had been trying to get a useful shot of the National Marine Aquarium for ages. It has some quite unusual architecture, embodying the rise and fall of the ocean swell in its curves.

Given it's position opposite Plymouth Barbican, and the fact that on land, there are only two approaches to it -- across the lock bridge from the Barbican or from the Queen Anne's Battery direction, hugging the coast -- the possibilities are quite restricted.

I had tried a long lens from various points along the Barbican but I was getting the same old same old. On one particular day I had walked to the Barbican from home and this took me along the QAB approach. Not the first time I had walked that route but it was the first time I noticed the possibilities. After a bit of jiggling around to get the right point of view and framing, I managed this capture.

Much more effective than a standard NMA shot -- nicely abstract with a "future" feel to it, so I called it Teleportation Module.


If you've been following my blog you'll have seen this image a couple of times before. I've included it under this heading because it was a shot from nothing while I was shooting the International Barbican Jazz and Blues Festival at exactly this same time last year.

The blues band in session at the time were taking a break and I was hanging around for them to re-start, so I could get on with my brief. While checking out other possible points of view that would work for the band, I noticed that the little rope barriers all finished with a tied knot.

Aha! There's a possibility here, so I checked out all of them until I found one that was just exquisite and, really luckily, also had a perfect, bland backdrop.

So, keep your eyes open -- don't just focus your mind on the purpose in hand, keep aware of likely opportunities that happenstance puts around you.

Black and White

I was staying here at the Holiday Inn, M4,J4 on business and took a wander in the late afternoon searching out possible shots.

This was a subject that couldn't possibly work in colour (well, I couldn't see how, anyway). The concrete of the hotel was aged and grubby, the windows all had the same nondescript blinds and curtains. But, nevertheless, there were aspects of the architecture that I thought would prove quite powerful in a BW shot and the sky was brewing up a great cloudscape.

I slowly homed in on this end of the building as most interesting for a deep perspective shot and saw some trees that might give good framing. Not only did they cooperate but they gave a softening counterpoint to the hard concrete and a sense of scale to the shot that worked quite well.

So if you're at a loss for a new take, forget colour, think line, pattern, perspective, texture and shape. Pay careful attention to the interaction of the lines and shapes with the frame and each other.

Conclusion on being creative in your photography

Don't be constrained by the usual, think outside the box, look for the hard-to-reach point of view, if there's something to climb on safely and legally -- try that. If all else fails go close-up, think black and white, try a worm's-eye view.

Now, as a challenge to yourself, go out in the backyard, try out some of the above and make 50 -- yes, fifty! -- captures.

Tall order? Don't be frightened, they don't all have to be different subjects. Same subject different point of view, different aperture (for different depth of field), different framing, up close and wide angle, a little further away and zoomed in.

Maybe check for interesting textures in logs, old walls, a pile of rubble...

now over to you...

Please feel free to drop off links to what you achieved, if you decide to give this a go :)

Happy hunting!

[Thanks to canonblogger for inspiring me to write this post]
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