Shake Up Your Photography

Three ways to find new inspiration.

Camera gathering dust? Don't wait for your next vacation -- just look around you. Read on to learn how three photographers transformed everyday subjects into masterpieces...and how you can, too.

YOUR BACKYARD

"Shooting bugs has given me different eyes," says Aaron Ansarov. "I've gone from shooting people's expressions to taking the tiniest little thing and giving it a personality."

"The Backyard Project," a series the 34-year-old Ft. Lauderdale, FL, commercial photographer (www.ansarov.com) began less than two years ago, was a big leap. He'd recently retired as a military photographer, where he did most of his shooting with a zoom lens, hanging out of a helicopter.

Now he had time to hunt bugs with his son. One day they found a praying mantis, and the boy asked him to take a picture. "When you see the way a praying mantis moves, it has this weird human element," Ansarov says. "Under studio lights with a 60mm macro lens, at a 1:1 ratio, you can see its expression. Up close it looks like a monster."

Ansarov began bringing interesting insects into his living-room studio. Then he challenged himself to photograph as many living "bugs and critters" as he could. Of the more than 100 insects and small animals he's photographed since, he found nearly all in his own backyard -- from an old home in Virginia, now in Florida. They include a hedgehog, a snapping turtle, and the bluejay we featured in Backstory (October 2008). Just recently, he shot bugs on the road in Poland. "It reminds you how much beauty is underneath our noses," he says.

For a mini-studio for his active subjects, he cut and folded black foamcore into a little black box. The creatures go inside, in front of a tripod-mounted Nikon D2X, 60mm f/2.8D Nikkor macro lens, and Elinchrom studio lights, including a 6-foot Octabank. In 10 minutes or so, Ansarov frees his subject outside.

"Having a personal project is important because it gets your creative juices flowing," he says. "This has turned into a passion."

THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU

In 2007, 29-year old Teppo Moisio was looking for a project to build his confidence and step up his photography. Something that would combine the Helsinki-based journalist's interests in photography and civilian journalism. Then it hit him: Why not take pictures of people in the street? "I called it the 'citizen photojournalist's self-study course for reporting,'" Moisio says.

He set a goal -- 100 portraits of strangers -- and planned out a syllabus of 10-photo assignments, each using different kinds of equipment: first a snapshot camera to get used to asking people to pose, then a DSLR, then a wide-angle lens to capture the environment in the background.

Most photographers find it intimidating to ask strangers to pose, and for Moisio the hardest part was getting started. "It was a big step just to say, 'I'm an amateur photographer and I'd like to take a photo of you just for the fun of it,'" he says. "But then it gets easier. And you learn to live with people saying no."

As his confidence grew, he started having fun chatting with his subjects, and he found that they not only didn't mind being photographed, but liked it. "The more you enjoy talking with people, the more they're going to enjoy talking with you," he says. "I started noticing subjects saying 'thank you' after the session."

The key, he found, was establishing a connection. "You want to truly talk to the person you're photographing," he says. "You should be interested in them, not the camera. When they feel you're putting yourself in the situation, they feel more at ease."

In a few months, he moved up to using wireless lighting gear, remote triggers, and an assistant. Using mainly a Canon EOS 20D (though he also toyed with a Lomo LC-A and a Yashicamat), he experimented with varied Sigma lenses -- some with a standard 18−50mm f/2.8, some with a 10−20mm wide-angle zoom, some with tele lenses. Sometimes he'd stop another stranger in the street to hold a strobe for him.

Moisio completed the project in eight months. The results are documented in his blog (www.100strangers.com), and his idea has even become a popular Flickr group (www.flickr.com/groups/100strangers). Although he has moved on to other projects, he now feels more confident asking people to pose for him -- strangers and friends alike. And he's gotten more creative in directing them.

He finished "100 Strangers" with a five-shot series of randomly selected people mimicking the Beatles' Help! cover. "The people who jumped were the happiest I've taken pictures of," he says. "It's amazing what a little physical exercise does for the mind."

LOCAL LANDMARKS

"Getting a unique shot of the Washington Monument is a challenge," says 42-year-old Lonnie Toshio Kishiyama (www.flickr.com/photos/toshio1). "It's been photographed millions of times."

This sand-colored obelisk started going up right around when wet-plate photography was invented. Pretty much everyone who's seen it has shot it. So why not photograph it hundreds of times yourself?

A lawyer and self-taught photographer, Kishiyama has done just that -- in part for the challenge. "I was looking for ways to make it special and unique rather than a 'postcard' shot," he says.

In the 11 years he's lived in Washington, D.C., Kishiyama has returned to the monument in every season, at every time of day. He's used a Tamron tele zoom, a Sigma wide-angle, and a Sigma macro mostly with his Canon EOS 30D.

In coming back again and again to the same subject, he has learned that the difficulty of exposing for such a tall and narrow subject -- which sunlight inevitably leaves partly bright and partly cast in shadow -- can be overcome by combining multiple exposures. He's learned to use a macro lens in spring to capture blossoms in the foreground, a polarizing filter in the fall to deepen a crisp blue sky or a Cokin Graduated Tobacco filter to mitigate a gray sky. In winter, he discovered that it takes at least +1 EV of exposure compensation to capture the white-on-white of the monument in a dramatic snowy landscape. In summer, he knows to arrive around sunset for silhouettes of the monument and its surrounding mob of admirers.

The repetition has made Kishiyama a more conscientious photographer. "I notice light, shadows and angles with the monument because of its shape," he says. "It's taught me to pay attention to shapes, lines, and form when composing."

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