Brighton West Pier

Shooting Familiar Locations Better

Happy New Year! Today I’m looking at why shooting familiar locations is so difficult and how leaving can open your eyes. There’s something mysterious about leaving that refreshes our view of a location. I’ve been in the UK for the New Year and visited Brighton, where I lived for a few years and found myself seeing it as if for the first time.

New Images in Old Scenes

I don’t know about you, but I find it very hard to see new images in old scenes. This is very different to the problem we talked about in New Views of Honeypot Locations where we find ourselves taking the same picture as a million other photographers, Taking Brighton which is both a honeypot location and a town that I lived in for years, as an example, when I first lived there I would go out with enthusiasm and fresh eyes into the countryside and seaside to shoot. but after a few years I found myself unable to see new opportunities,

However when I caught the train to Brighton recently, the weather was foul with the tail end of Storm Henk lashing the country, rendering the seafront as inhospitable as I’ve known it. Despite this I found myself seeing Brighton through fresh eyes and even the prospect of photographing West Pier, one of the most overshot locations in the country was suddenly exciting.

So why do we overlook old locations?

Familiarity breeds Contempt?

It’s an old cliche, but there may be a good reason for this. I’m going to stick my neck out here, I have no proof of this, but I suggest that this is a very old habit indeed. Putting photography to one side, we scrutinise new locations as if they may be hiding danger, a sabre toothed tiger perhaps. In doing so we “see” the location without the filter of familiarity.

When we see the same location every day, we don’t need to look at it very carefully, so we don’t notice the nuances changing ever so slightly. Learning to see in landscape photography is all about noticing the nuances so this is not a helpful characteristic!

Shooting Familiar Locations
The South Downs near Lewes

In familiar locations, we have to kick start our photographic eye by learning to look again. I find the best way to do this is to explore new angles and get out in unfriendly conditions. The photograph above was only made possible by getting myself to the location in terrible weather on the off chance I might get a shot. On this occasion, this arrangement of light, highlighting the flooded plain, remained in place for about twenty seconds. So, two factors were in play.

  1. Getting out of the nice warm house into the windy, cold and wet outdoors!
  2. Recognising and anticipating the light

The second comes with practice, the first I have no excuse for!

Ways of Seeing

Once I recognised that I was not “seeing” familiar locations properly, I started to work out how I could do better.

  1. Visit the locations at different times
  2. Visit the locations in different weather conditions
  3. Restrict myself to a single lens
  4. Spend time in the location
  5. Study the light, not just the composition

Of these, the most contentious is number 5. Light should be a part of every composition and in the two photographs highlighted in this post, light is perhaps the major component. Without the light neither photograph would be remarkable.

A Single Lens

Restricting myself to a single lens is a mechanical answer to a psychological issue. All of the photographs I shot in Brighton were taken with a Canon EF 70-200mm L lens. The telephoto lens has a radically different perspective than the wide angle, reducing the distance to faraway objects for a start, so it made sense to use that lens for these images in these conditions.

There were a few reasons for this, firstly the practical – high winds and bulky backpacks make bad companions. Shooting seas in high winds is best done from a safe distance. The last thing I wanted to do was find myself off balance at the water’s edge. But a single lens forces you to examine things afresh. My everyday lens is a 24-70mm, by far the majority of my photographs are taken using this lens, but I normally supplement it with a 16-35mm and a 70-200mm.

Post Processing

Different light requires different techniques and that has been very true of both of these photos. The RAW files were almost monochromatic but there was colour there.

There are some natural rules to follow. In the seascape, the sunray was warm in real life, but in the photograph looked as if it had been photoshopped in. I struggled with this before reflecting that the sea reflects the colour of the sky. The warmth of the sunray would have been there, but it would be behind the pier so in the photograph it just didn’t work, even though it was in fact a truer reflection of the reality. I cooled the colour down so that it looked more natural in the context of the sea.

Other than that I toned down the highlights where the sun breaks through the clouds and discovered a surprisingly large amount of detail there. This was a result of using DxO Pure RAW on both photographs.

I did side to side testing with Adobe Lightroom, DxO PhotoLab and a combination of PureRAW and Lightroom. The results were interesting and I’ll write them up in detail, but in a nutshell, Lightroom recovered no detail at all and further, left the visible features in the floodplain, murky. PhotoLab almost recovered too much detail, I struggle to get the level of haziness right. The combination of PureRAW and Lightroom worked perfectly in this case.

Conclusion – Shooting Familiar Locations

In all of this, some common themes emerge. First and foremost is creating the opportunity, Seeing things differently isn’t about going to the same location and squinting! It’s about embracing bad light, terrible weather and seeing the location looking radically different.

We can add to this by searching out new compositions, but nothing beats physically different light.

The second theme is “less is more”. Stripping my photography back to basics has made me look harder and I dare say better at familiar objects and locations.

I hope you find 2024 a good year for your photography. With so much turmoil in the world photography feels like a great escape sometimes!

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