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Making the Everyday Magical Through Your Photography

September 30, 2016

Liza Gershman

Making the everyday magical in your photography can often seem like a daunting challenge, but with a little shift in perspective, some technical tips, and a bit of creative inspiration, you can turn "normal" into "extraordinary."

Looking at things with different perspectives is a key to making the everyday extraordinary.  The proverbial "stop and smell the roses" expression isn't for nothing.  It really can change your average day into something exceptional when you slow down, calm your mind, and see the details in life.  Looking towards the small elements, the nuances, you can see true beauty.  

When the large picture becomes clouded and full of chaos or appears dull, take a moment to slow down and find beauty in the details with the following helpful tips.

How do we find ourselves in the normal? Start by seeking out authentic moments. Once you become an observer and allow life to happen around you, you can begin to see extraordinary things. There is no need to force this. The more relaxed and aware you can become, the more creative and beautiful your images will become.

Exercises to do to connect dots

Creating a practice of visual isolation will help you to enhance your photography skills. Narrowing in on a scene, a pattern, a color, or illustrating a detail can bring strong interest to your visual work. When one focuses on the details then the ordinary becomes something more.  Practicing some simple exercises to open and shift your visual perspective is the best start. Even the most notable artists, musicians, and writers use daily meditations or journaling to offer them a new glimpse into the ordinary or mundane. As the quote goes, "Love is in the details."

  1. Write for 15 minutes at the start of each day for a month about anything at all. Just the exercise of putting pen to paper will begin to open up your senses and allow for your thoughts to come through. You might discover that you have subconscious ideas that your conscious mind wasn't connected to.
  2. Read a daily poem. Even if you think that you don't like poetry, try this. Many poets find beauty in the ordinary and this is an excellent way to get yourself into a rhythm of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. Some poets to look to are William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath.
  3. Spend 5-15 minutes sitting still, breathing deeply focusing on a single point or one word, clearing your mind.  Many people call this meditation. The act of clearing your mind through deep breathing and intentional focus can help to bring new ideas into your space.
  4. Go for a walk. Walk the same path that you have walked many times before but set your goal to look for specific themes each time.  The first day spend your walk listening to the sounds you hear. Do you hear birds, cars, trains? Are there bells in the distance?  The second walk, spend your time noticing all of the different types of foliage around you. Do the  trees flower? Do the flowers have scent? The third walk, begin to notice the birds, and insects. The fourth walk, notice the changing texture of the ground beneath your feet. And so on...

Naturally, one can find excitement or beauty in a faraway land, or on an adventure away from home, but making the everyday extraordinary can take a bit of imagination and creativity.

If you aren't exploring the pyramids of Egypt or the rain forests of Costa Rica, for example, how do you find excitement and interest for your imagery in your "normal" life?

Juxtaposition in storytelling is a creative way to pull a story out of the everyday.  Where you place your subject in relation to their surroundings can be enough to add interest, create tension, or comfort your viewer.  If you photograph a person on a bridge for example, where on the bridge are they standing? Is the subject of your image standing comfortably on the side of the bridge gazing at the sunset? This is an expected story of a vacation or something romantic.  However, if you move that subject and now they stand on the side-rails of the bridge the story shifts to something altogether different and ultimately distressing to the viewer.  Are they a jumper? Same bridge, same person, different story.

Now take that same bridge and the same subject and dress them in dark clothing with a flashlight. Photograph this scene in the dark of night with only headlights shining towards them.  You have added even more tension to the scene.  What is that character doing? Did they commit a crime? Are they running from the police? You have now suggested three entirely different plot lines using only slight shifts in your image.

A simple way to bring interest to a mundane scene is to use a variety of different lenses to create the image. If you ordinarily use a zoom lens, like the 70mm-200mm, try using a wider angle lens like 11mm-24mm.  A simple shift in perspective can truly change an image for the better and make it more interesting.

Get very very close to your subject with a wide angle lens, or use a long lens and get very very far away. A simple shift of your distance in relation to your subject can dramatically change how your image appears.  Try photographing the same subject with a variety of lenses and see what image you prefer.  Example: The 70-200mm lens can create an illusion of compression. If you are using a full-frame camera and photographing a busy street, and normally use a wide lens, like a 24mm, try photographing this with a zoom lens at the longest point and see the difference. The street will look much more crowded with the long lens due to compression.

Get high or get low.  If you normally shoot at standing height, then see what the world looks like from ground height.  Conversely, get out a ladder and see what the world looks like from a higher vantage point. This easy shift in perspective can create a complete change in the look of your photograph.  Just the act of photographing something from an angle or height that others normally do not see can make something very normal look incredible.  You can always take an image both ways and then compare them side by side to really see the impact that shifting your position can make in your photograph.

Change your depth of field. If you typically view your scene with the subject and the background equally in focus then try shifting this and blurring out the background by changing your Aperture.

Try Aperture priority mode if you don't often shoot on Manual mode. This will be the "Av" dial on your camera.  The smaller the number (like f/2.8, for example) the more blurred your background will be.  Even the simple image of an apple on a table can become more interesting when the apple is in focus and the wall and table are blurred out.  This shift in focus, or change in Depth of Field is one of the easiest ways to turn something ordinary into something more interesting.  Using shallow Depth of Field, you are isolating your subject from its background and drawing the viewer's focus to a specific point in your image.  Try photographing the same subject with each f-stop, starting at f/22 and moving through to f/4 or 2.8 if your lens has that capability, and see the difference that each stop in Aperture makes in your photograph.

Change your Shutter Speed. You can create or stop motion through the use of Shutter Speed in your photography.  A field of weeds on a windy day can become a beautiful romantic artful scene with a little bit of slowing down your shutter and creating motion.  Try using the Shutter Priority mode for this in your camera (Tv).  Use a tripod to steady the camera for best results. Set your camera on the tripod and go through the different Shutter Speeds from 1/1000 to 30 seconds. See what field you like most.

If your daily life consists of a routine, like a 9-5 job in a dreaded cube, you can still find moments and visuals that are more extraordinary than you might think. Start by becoming a keen observer of all details around you.  Look for patterns, shapes and color.  How can you capture these things in moments? Can you arrange the pens on your desk into something geometric and interesting? Can you look at your office from very low on the floor or very high above? Remember that simply changing your perspective in relation to your subject can add interest to an otherwise common scene.

On your way to work what sort of scenes do you encounter? Do you take public transportation? Trains and busses always offer a slew of fascinating characters to photograph.  Even if you are focusing on the floor of the bus you can photograph shoes, details on laces, pattern in light on the floor.

Perhaps you encounter the same people everyday.  Look at their details.  Photograph small elements of those people to tell a larger story.  Take imagery of hands one day, feet only the next. Try eyes only the next day. Photograph the people you know and line them up by color, height, or age. Try photographing someone very young next to someone very old. Someone very tall next to someone short. Juxtaposition can often be enough to make an image interesting.

Even if you rarely see people, you can photograph the textures in your life.  What does your bathroom tile look like with shadows from early morning or late afternoon? Can you add a red bulb to the light fixture and see how the mood changes? Shadows change throughout the day, creating differing shapes and textures on surfaces.  

We can find art in the very normal. Try doing a series of self portraits in the same location each and every day. Even your bathroom mirror will work for this. Your hair will change slightly, your expression, and even your mood.  Notice the details of how shadows change on your face, how lines are exaggerated or reduced based on the amount of sleep. If you do this for a year you will see incredible results. Ten years and you will see a true work of art.

Telling stories or altering imagery through postproduction is an effective way to make the everyday extraordinary. You can take a very simple photograph of something that you consider to be mundane and add a filter, or a texture, and turn the mundane or everyday into something that's quite artistic and even abstract.

Try taking your least favorite image and bringing it into post-production editing software.  Play all you want with this image because remember, you already don't like it and what's the worst that can happen?  Slide the Saturation bar as far up as you can to show maximum saturation in your image. What does this look like to you? If you don't like that extreme, slide the saturation all the way to the other side and desaturate your image.  Does this give the photograph a vintage feel? Try adding an interesting border now. What does that do to the image? Drop a texture over the image at a low percent (look at 10-20%) and see if you've created something that pleases your eye. Try collaging a few images together and see what excites you.  Abstraction through color shifts, borders, filters, and texture is a great way to turn a dull image into something interesting.

You really can find beauty in normal things.  We can't always hop on a flight to the far reaches of the world, but we can look closely at the details in our everyday and see them as beautiful.  It just takes a bit of practice, a camera, and an open mind.

Liza Gershman
Liza Gershman

Liza Gershman is an award-winning photographer, Bay Area native, and seasoned world-traveler. Passionate about food, people, and culture, Liza has had the opportunity to photograph in more than 37 countries and 46 U.S. states during her career.

Liza Gershman

Liza Gershman is an award-winning photographer, Bay Area native, and seasoned world-traveler. Passionate about food, people, and culture, Liza has had the opportunity to photograph in more than 37 countries and 46 U.S. states during her career.

Photographing for a wide and varied range of clients has allowed Liza to refine her ability to tell strong visual stories that support both the vision of a creative director and brand integrity. In 2014, she worked as the Senior Digital Photographer for Williams-Sonoma where she helped to define the new look of their eCommerce site, and has also photographed for clients including Restoration Hardware, Party City, Safeway, and Hyatt Hotels, among others. Liza is a Getty Image Contributor, and has photographed eight cocktail and food cookbooks for numerous publishers in the US, including Random House.

In 2010, Liza was Governor Jerry Brown's campaign photographer, and in 2014 was the lead photographer for the RedBull Youth America's Cup Team NZ2. Many of her additional clients have included celebrity chefs, wineries, beverage brands, restaurants and more.

Liza's passion for storytelling extends beyond her photography into writing, with many published essays in top magazine and newspapers.

Liza is honored to contribute to Canon USA.

Published books include:

  • The Good Cook's Book of Tomatoes (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Book of Mustard (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Book of Oil & Vinegar (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Book of Salt & Pepper (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • The Good Cook's Journal (SkyHorse Publishing). 2015
  • More Than Meatballs (SkyHorse Publishing). 2014
  • Be Fabulous At Any Age (Lions Gate Corporation). 2013
  • San Francisco Entertains; The Junior League of San Francisco’s Centennial Cookbook (Favorite Recipes Press). 2011
  • A Taste for Absinthe (Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House). 2010

Liza's Publications include: Maxim.com, SI.com, Outside Magazine, Huffington Post, Wine Spectator, NBC Bay Area, Chicago Sun Times, C Magazine, Daily Candy, SF Gate, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle PI, Tasting Panel Magazine, Food & Wine.com, Marin Magazine, 7x7, Fairfield County Look, Eater SF, Destination I Do Magazine, Grace Ormonde Wedding Style, Bloomspot, Beer Connoisseur, Wine X Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Table Hopper, Nightclub & Bar, Gig Salad, Tasting Table, MindFood (Australia and New Zealand), VSCO, and Food Arts Magazine to name a few.

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