10 Tips for Making Strong Images In Challenging Locations

Many photographers earn a great reputation for a signature look making portraits in fields during golden hour, but many others do not have the luxury (or the inclination) to always photograph their subjects in jaw-dropping gorgeous, problem-free locations.  Yet, many compelling images are made from locations many photographers would reject as shooting locations outright.  With a little practice, any photographer can turn what may look like a nightmare into a dream location.

Here are 10 tips for making strong images in-camera even in the most challenging locations.

1. Lower Your F-Stop

The easiest way of dealing with a problematic location is to blur out as much as possible.  There are two main ways to do this.  The most common way is to use the lowest f-stop available on your lens.  The closer you are to your subject and the farther away your subject is from the background, the more blur you will achieve.  If you are photographing one person, keep their head facing forward so that both eyes will be in focus.  If you are photographing more than one person, line up their feet so they all stay in-focus!  A high shutter speed can also help achieve a sharp focus at wide apertures.

2. Compress the Background

This method is relatively easy to use, but does require a long lens.  Long lenses compress the background and can turn it into a beautiful, blurry array of colors.  A 70-200mm lens zoomed into 200mm will make the background nearly unrecognizable and gives a painterly feel to your images.  Bear in mind that objects in the background will appear closer with a long lens.  As with using a wide aperture, the closer you are to your subject and the farther away your subject is from the background the blurrier your background will become.  If you regularly shoot in challenging locations, it may be worth investing in a long lens.

3. Get Creative

Panning is a more complicated way of blurring a background, but can be very effective with a little practice.  There are many good tutorials that focus on panning, but the basic idea is to use a slow shutter speed and follow your subject with your camera so that your subject remains in focus, but your background does not.  Some quick tips that I have found help with panning are to follow your subject by moving at the waist rather than just using your arms, starting to shoot your subject with continuous frames before he reaches the spot you are aiming for, and using a higher aperture than your normally would to help keep your subject in focus.  Other creative techniques are to use leading lines or framing to draw your viewer’s attention to where you want it to go to de-emphasize unsightly parts of the frame or using other creative compositional techniques, such as using a slow shutter speed to isolate your subject in a busy area.  Using light creatively can also help, such as placing your subject in pocket of light so that the challenging background falls into darkness.  Incorporate patterns or textures to add interest.  Leave your photo intentionally out of focus or use an unconventional crop.  Remember that rules were meant to be broken!

4. Hide Unsightly Objects

If you find yourself in a location that is mostly nice, but has some undesirable elements, think about ways you can hide those elements you don’t want in your final image.  There are some very simple steps you can take that can save an image or at least save hours of editing time.  Are you in a nice park but notice an ugly trashcan in the background?  Move your subjects to hide it.  If you can’t move your subjects, try using foreground elements such as leaves on a tree, part of a wall or fence, or anything you have on-hand.  Shooting through an object or using objects such as leaves that are naturally occurring in your environment to frame your subject an be effective ways of making a strong image in an ugly location.  Some photographers use small objects, like a prism or plastic sandwich bag with a hole in it to cover or obscure parts of a challenging location.

5. Move Yourself

Although this may seem obvious moving yourself, even slightly, can make a big difference.  Some photographers default to moving the subject or give up when this isn’t possible.  However, changing where you stand, even slightly can sometimes make a big difference in turning a challenging location into one that works well.  Get as close as you can to fill the frame with your subject, move to the left or right to leave an ugly building or sign out of the frame, move closer to your subject to make the background a little blurrier, or walk around your subject until you find a more flattering backdrop.

6. Change Your Perspective 

Related to moving yourself is changing your perspective.  This can go a long way towards dealing with a challenging background.  One of my favourite techniques is shooting with a bird’s-eye view to cut out the background and entirely when shooting from above.  Similarly, using a worm’s-eye view by getting on the ground includes more of the foreground and places less emphasis on the background.  If you usually shoot horizontally change your perspective to shoot vertically or vice versa to see if this change in perspective will give you a stronger image under challenging circumstances.

7. Embrace It

Sometimes what makes a location challenging can turn out to be interesting with a simple change in thinking.  Instead of looking for problems, look for opportunities.  Instead of trying to hide the graffiti, embrace it and make it a prominent part of a fun, colourful image or one with an urban feel.  Are the lights in the background a distraction, or can they be turned into beautiful bokeh?  Are there too many people around to cut out of the frame?  Make them part of the story.  Sometimes a challenging location just requires patience.  Are crowds the problem?  Get your settings right, decide on your composition, and be ready when there is a break in the crowd.  Is a lack of light the problem?  If it’s changing, such as at the movies, wait for a moment when the light is brighter from the screen.  If it’s nighttime, wait until you can shoot your subject walks under a streetlight or in front of an illuminated billboard.  If you embrace your circumstances instead of fighting them, you just may wind up with an amazing image.

8. Know Light

Sometimes a location is challenging because the light isn’t in the right place.  For example, you have a gorgeous backdrop with a lake and trees on one side and an old, ugly building on the other.  However, if your subjects will be facing harsh light with the lake in the background your image will have harsh shadows and squinty eyes.  Unless the lake is meaningful for some reason, your final image will be better if it is well-lit, even if the ugly building is what you see in the background.

9. Lensbaby or Free-lens

A fun way to deal with challenging locations is to use a unique lens or a lens you have in a unique way.  Lensbaby lenses lend dreamy effects to images from the Velvet lenses that give a smooth, buttery feel to images to lenses that give only a slice of focus.  With some practice, free-lensing can also give the effect of leaving only a portion of your image in focus.

10. Practice

The key to developing an eye for making strong images in challenging locations is to practice.  Practice different techniques in different locations.  But, even when you don’t have your camera, look around and think about how you could make a strong image there.  No matter where you are, whether it is at the gas station, supermarket, post office, hardware store, or abandoned lot, take a moment to visualize how you could make a strong image there.  Look for the light, think about how you can be creative with your composition or technique, and which gear you would use.  With enough practice, even if your camera is not in hand, you will feel confident handling any location with confidence.

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