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Photographing the Mundane

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

Photography is often seen as a way of capturing the extraordinary, the beautiful, and the memorable. But what about the ordinary, the mundane, and the overlooked? Can there be magic in the everyday objects and scenes that we take for granted?


A clothes line with clothes hanging to dry
Photo credit: Esperanza Doronila, Unsplash

Some photographers think so, and they have developed a practice of shooting the mundane with a keen eye and a sense of wonder. They look for the joy in the small things and discover the beauty in the unexpected. They challenge themselves to find new perspectives and meanings in what others might ignore or dismiss.


Why Photograph the Mundane?

One reason to shoot the mundane is to prevent oneself from not shooting at all. When faced with a lack of interesting subjects, it can be tempting to put away the camera and wait for a better opportunity. But this can hinder one’s development as a photographer, as well as one’s appreciation of life.


Throwing up your hands and saying ‘there’s nothing to shoot’ is a common response, but it won’t help you develop as a photographer.

- David Veldman, 7 Ways to Shoot the Mundane | Photzy


Shooting the mundane can also be a way of expressing one’s creativity and individuality. By finding beauty and meaning in what others overlook, one can reveal something about oneself and one’s vision of the world.


The idea of focusing on very small, everyday moments that can be easily missed is the very basis of photography – the gift of observation is as important as that of creation.

- Magic in the mundane: photographers' everyday gems – in pictures | The Guardian


Moreover, shooting the mundane can be a form of meditation and mindfulness. By paying attention to the details and nuances of everyday life, one can become more aware and present in the moment, as well as more grateful and curious.


Mundane photography has little to do with the image produced, and everything to do with the mindset and the experience of the photographer before and during the moment of capture. Photography is an opportunity to zoom in, and to choose a square inch of reality to focus on.

- Carl Tashian, Mundane Photography | Medium


How to Shoot the Mundane?

There is no definitive answer to how to shoot the mundane, as it depends on one’s personal style and preference. However, some general tips and techniques can help one get started.


  • Look for patterns, shapes, colours, textures, contrasts, and light in everyday objects and scenes. These can create interesting compositions and effects.

  • Experiment with different angles, distances, focal lengths, apertures, shutter speeds, and filters. These can alter how one perceives and presents the subject.

  • Use your imagination and curiosity. Try to see beyond the obvious and find hidden stories, meanings, emotions, or connections in what you photograph.

  • Be open-minded and spontaneous. Don’t limit yourself to what you think is worth photographing. Be ready to capture anything that catches your eye or makes you feel something.

  • Have fun and enjoy the process. Don’t worry too much about the outcome or what others might think. Shoot for yourself and for your own delight.


Curtains and a window
Photo credit: Jeff Ma, Unsplash

Pattern

Patterns can be found in nature, such as in leaves, flowers, shells, or animal skins. They can also be found in man-made objects, such as in buildings, fabrics, tiles, or fences. Patterns can be regular or irregular, simple or complex, symmetrical or asymmetrical.


A photograph of a pattern of colourful tiles
Photo credit: Andrew Ridley, Unsplash

To photograph patterns effectively, one should consider the following tips:

  • Fill the frame with the pattern to emphasise its repetition and impact.

  • Use a shallow depth of field to isolate the pattern from the background or foreground.

  • Use different angles and perspectives to create dynamic compositions and show variations in the pattern.

  • Use light and shadow to enhance the contrast and texture of the pattern.

  • Break the pattern with an element that stands out or creates tension.


"Symmetry and repetition make interesting photographic subjects. And when you start looking, you’ll see a surprising amount of patterns around you in the natural and built environment."


Shape

Shapes can create a sense of structure, balance, symmetry, and simplicity in an image. They can also create a sense of depth, perspective, and dimension when combined with other elements.

Effectively representing shape and form in your compositions can turn objects, landscapes and figures into defined, striking focal points.

- Todd Vorenkamp, Elements of a Photograph: Line | B&H Photo Explora


an abstract image of shape
Photo credit: Johannes Plenio, Unsplash

The following should be borne in mind when making shape a main focal point of your photograph:


  • Use a strong backlight to create silhouettes and emphasise the outline of the shape.

  • Use a high contrast between the shape and the background to make it stand out.

  • Use negative space to isolate the shape and create a minimalist composition.

  • Use framing to highlight the shape within another shape.

  • Use multiple shapes to create patterns or arrangements.


Colour

Colour is one of the most powerful elements of photography. Colour can evoke emotions, moods, atmospheres, and meanings in an image. Colour can also create a sense of harmony, contrast, balance, and unity in an image.


Colour can be warm or cool, bright or dull, saturated or desaturated. Colour can be complementary or analogous, monochromatic or polychromatic. Colour can be dominant or subtle, primary or secondary.


colourful books photographed from the side
Photo credit: Kimberley Farmer, Unsplash

Think about the following elements when using colour as the predominant subject of your image:


  • Use a colour wheel to understand the relationships and effects of different colours.

  • Use colour filters to enhance or change the colour temperature and mood of an image.

  • Use colour grading to adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance of an image.

  • Use colour theory to choose colours that work well together and create a mood or a message in your image.

  • Use colour balance to adjust the overall colour cast of your image and create a natural or a creative look.

  • Use colour grading to selectively enhance or change the colours of specific areas or elements in your image.


Together with light, color is one of the most important elements of photography. It affects everything from composition and visual appeal to the viewer’s attention and emotions.

- Judit Ruiz Ricart, A Simple Guide to Understanding Color in Photography | Wix Blog


Texture

Texture is the surface quality of an object or a scene that can be perceived by touch or sight. Texture can be smooth, rough, soft, hard, glossy, matte, or anything in between. Texture can add interest, detail, and depth to an image. It can also create a sense of realism, mood, or atmosphere, especially when made the primary element of your image:


an abstract photograph of a textured wall
Photo credit: Sydney Rae, Unsplash

  • Use a single light source, undiffused and off-axis, to create shadows and highlights that emphasise the texture.

  • Use a low angle of incidence to make the light skim across the surface and reveal the texture.

  • Use a macro lens or a close-up filter to capture the fine details and patterns of the texture.

  • Use a polarising filter to reduce reflections and glare that might obscure the texture.

  • Use a high contrast and sharpness setting to enhance the texture in post-processing.


Todd Vorenkamp writes, "To emphasise texture, a single light source, undiffused and off-axis, is often your best approach. Side light and an oblique angle help make the texture of the lettering jump off the plaque."


Contrast


We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast [...]

- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Chapter 2


Contrast is the difference between the lightest and darkest areas or elements in an image. Contrast can create a sense of drama, tension, and excitement in an image. It can also create a sense of balance, harmony, and order in an image.


Shadows cast from a window on a wall
Photo credit: Seth Hoffman, Unsplash

Contrast can be tonal, colour, or conceptual. Tonal contrast is the difference between bright and dark tones in an image. Colour contrast is the difference between warm and cool colours or complementary colours in an image. Conceptual contrast is the difference between opposing or contrasting ideas or themes in an image.


Consider the following when focusing on contrasts:


  • Use a high dynamic range (HDR) technique to capture the full range of tones in a high-contrast scene.

  • Use a low-key or high-key lighting to create a dramatic or ethereal effect with contrast.

  • Use colour filters or colour grading to create or enhance colour contrast in an image.

  • Use juxtaposition or irony to create or enhance conceptual contrast in an image.

  • Use curves, levels, or contrast sliders to adjust the contrast in post-processing.


Light


The sun diffused behind a cloud
Photo credit: Marcus dal Col, Unspash

Light is the essence of photography. Light is what makes photography possible. Light is what shapes and defines the subject and the mood of an image. Light can be natural or artificial, direct or indirect, hard or soft, warm or cool. And of course, you must use light effectively whatever type of photography you engage in, but where you are using it as the primary subject of your image, think about these points:


  • Understand the direction, quality, and colour of light and how they affect your subject and your exposure.

  • Understand the different types of natural light and how they change throughout the day and throughout the year.

  • Understand the different types of artificial light and how they differ from natural light in terms of colour temperature and intensity.

  • Understand how to use light modifiers such as reflectors, diffusers, umbrellas, softboxes, gels, etc. to shape and control light.

  • Understand how to use light meters, histograms, exposure compensation, etc. to measure and adjust light.


Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

George Eastman

 

Photographing the mundane is not only a challenge, but also a reward. It can help one develop as a photographer, as well as as a person. It can make one see the world in a new light, and find magic in the ordinary.


Photographing the mundane is also a psychological boost, as it has the power to change your opinion of what mundane really is and can really lift your spirits when confronted with the daily grind.


As the photographer Ingrid Newton says, "[l]ooking carefully and finding beauty in everyday observations, trusting in serendipity, elevating the mundane or the transient, is something I have cultivated ever since I first picked up a camera. For me the magic happens as images are linked together and underlying connections are forged."

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