The Case for Photographing What You Know

If you scroll through Instagram, or any of the other social media platforms, one can get the impression that to make great photos you need to go to a spectacular and exotic places. Of course, it is interesting to see photographs from faraway places and get a glimpse of environments that are unfamiliar. Photographs can be good for showing us places we never will visit and scenes we never will see. But in my eyes, photographs that show me familiar things in new ways are all the more interesting. And anyway, it’s worth remembering that your daily views of your hometown will very possibly be just as exotic and interesting to much of the rest of the world.

It is a well-known tip for authors, to write what you know. I think this is a good bit of advice for photographers as well. When you take photos of places and scenes that are familiar to you, most of the time you will see them in other ways, and with more intimate knowledge than strangers will. You also don’t only get one chance to get that shot, you will likely see the same place repeatedly, in different light and different weather. This can make for interesting series, or a better chance to get the perfect shot.

Another thing is that one day in the future, our photographs will be pictures of the past. And when I look at photos from the past, I enjoy looking at everyday objects and scenes, and familiar places. This shows me how much or how little, and how much, of our lives that have changed over time. So, I see it as a part of our tasks to show the future what our lives were like. Documenting everyday life and familiar places can become more valuable than we can imagine. We can not know now what people in the future will find interesting and exotic about our lives.

And lastly, searching for motives around our hometowns, we need to challenge ourselves to not take the same photos repeatedly. Different cameras, different film, different angles, and different times of the day can make us take more diverse photos and make us learn how to use different conditions to our benefit. I mostly take photos around my hometown because I don’t travel that much. And because I feel my photography benefits from me knowing the locations and conditions. It makes me able to plan better and more easily since I know how the light changes through the day, and if there is likely to be people there or not. It also makes me get to know my hometown even better. I can show you what is both familiar and exotic about where I live. And if I succeed, I can make my townspeople see their hometown in new ways, too.

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Subscribe here.

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

About The Author

19 thoughts on “The Case for Photographing What You Know”

  1. I enjoyed reading this article, succinct and clear. I found myself very much agreeing on two counts. I also take pictures around my immediate vicinity as I am starting to feel I shouldn’t burn up more of the planet’s resources just to get a picture I think might be popular. I also found myself agreeing that trying to see something different in what can seem mundane, has to be good for creativity. I do need to get into the habit more of leaving the digital cameras at home completely and only packing a film camera… still working on that one.

  2. Very true, and nice photos as well. I think that this is all the more important as at least in a small town, there’s actually quite a good chance that no one else is really photographing it, certainly not from your experience of it – whereas in a famous ‘scenic’ spot it’s already been photographed many times in all kinds of ways.
    Just my 2c.

    1. Stefan Andreas Sture

      Yes, I agree. Small towns need another aproach, maybe, than big cities. Still, every place – from small villages to the biggest cities – have places only known to the locals. And every person with a camera has their own take on what to photograph. Myself I photograph different with different cameras.

  3. You make a great point. I know we all wish for more exotic locations but home is where most of us learn our technique and have time to focus and refocus on composition. When I look at an old photo I wonder if they felt like that was an interesting time to live or if it was just another walk in their home town. Thank you for the reminder!

    1. Stefan Andreas Sture

      I guess mostly one thinks it is just normal life, and have no concept of how one will look at it in the future.

  4. Thank you for this.

    I struggled for a while wanting to take images that I thought others mu=ight like, whilst ignoring my real drive:I just like photographing things that I like!

    Very timely.

    1. Stefan Andreas Sture

      Right. Catering to what one might think that others might like can suck the fun right out of any creative process.

  5. Agree with the your points, but also: Your location seems far away and somewhat exotic to someone sitting here in Texas. I work with camera traps on my property, and continually get pictures of armadillos, strange little hard shelled things. I get so many pictures of armadillos that I’ve stopped saving them for the most part, but when people in Europe see them they get so excited to see something “exotic”. So I wish I had badgers, and they want armadillos 🙂

  6. Many years ago when I worked at newspapers (remember those?) we were always encouraged to enter contests for awards. We shooters would often complain that since we were just shooting local we never seemed to win. Big awards always went to someone shooting the latest war or following national and international stories across the globe. We were partially right but not. There were great shooters winning awards for shooting what was in their own back yard so to speak. What it took was looking more deeply and clearly at your own community. It was shooting what you thought you knew but exploring more deeply.

  7. Stefan, I totally agree with this photographic philosophy. I have an exhibit presently on view in my small West Texas hometown of Brownfield. The images are of the local annual fall Harvest Festival and were all shot on film from 1986 to 2022. I used three different cameras but mostly my trusty Canon F1-n Olympic Edition that I purchased in 1984. So much has changed over the decades and no other archive of images covering this event and span of time exists. I call myself an accidental historian because when I started photographing this event in 1986 on Kodachrome 64 I wasn’t thinking about someday producing an exhibit for others to see.

    My film archive also contains images in and around Dallas, Texas dating from 1978 to present. I spent many of the Covid lockdown days scanning and then printing about 500 5×7 proof prints for exhibit selection. There are numerous sub-groups contained within this body of work. One such group is the documentation of a local sports arena from when it was new in 1981 to sixteen months in 2009/10 when it was demolished. Again, all on film. I wrote a story for Emulsive back in 2018 that showcases this story and work where I discussed my thoughts about the process of shooting a personal photo project.

    I also spent 8 years photographing an office complex exterior stairwell through the changing light of the seasons. I consider this body of work to be my most visually challenging and artistic.

    My early photography adventures in the late 1970’s deal with my personal motorcycle tours of the U.S. and Canada. I have lived out what you talk about here and I’m so glad I documented my life and the world around me. No other person on earth has seen or experienced what I have seen and experienced. This work is part of my legacy and I consider it to be my gift to those younger than myself who have yet to discover all the wonderful things that exist around them.

    I hope your article gets a few people to consider following this course. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. It’s good to be reminded of the value of photographing our time and place. It’s also worth thinking about how to make them accessible to future generations.

    My father photographed his Chicago home and neighborhood through the seasons in the years before WWII, but growing up in the early postwar years I never saw any of the photographs and didn’t even know they existed. It was only decades later when we sorted through his things after his passing that we found the 35mm negatives, but no prints. We are not sure that any of them were ever printed. I scanned all of his negatives and have been gradually making 4×6 prints and mailing them to family members with an offer to make larger prints of any they would like.

    And I am doing the same thing with my own photography. Except for very rare trips to Florida all of my photographs are taken within walking distance of my home. All of the family members who receive the prints know that scans of the negatives are on my computer, the physical negatives and contact pages are in binders in my bookcase and, most important, prints are in the hands of relatives all across the country and overseas.

  9. Very well written and totally agree. I even wrote a similar themed article not long ago about photographing the mundane which generally is a comparable topic for me. My everyday, journeys to and from work, to and from nursery, around the local area. Finding beauty and interest in the things everyone passes over.

    Cheers for writing this, makes me feel much more motivated in my search!

  10. Good article here.

    I tend to see different opportunities walking the same streets and dirt paths in my neighbourhood here in NW Calgary, as well as downtown. I can walk the same street or pathway and discover a new shot I never saw before. We have to work with the canvas we are presented. Mine is my city, as I don’t travel much. It makes me much more aware and observant of my surroundings.

    Whether film, and now with old, unwanted CCD sensor digicams (oh, the shame!), I love nothing better (except me wife and kids) than simply strolling somewhere new, or already travelled, with a camera or two ready to capture the experience – even if only for me and my flickr page!

  11. Thanks for your insight. I mostly agree, but with a but.

    A first visit to a new location tends to result in “tourist snaps”, photos that are often pretty generic and focussed on the famous spots, and the beauty of such spots. In my experience, they’re usually not very insightful. But at the positive, they are images made out of genuine emotions, a lot less reasoned and rational than photos made in places one knows by heart.

    The reverse is then that photos made in familiar location tend to get more beyond, are more likely to capture particulars, the unexpected bits, maybe emphasise ugliness as much as beauty. The content has more meat to it. But sometimes it’s missing the heart, and showing too much the head, so to speak.

    As a photographer, I prefer those familiar locations, because it forces me to think a bit more about what I really want to show. It trains the “eye” better to look for opportunities. But when I get back from holidays, I also recognise how lovely it can be to just enjoy whatever is in front of the lens, and go with it.
    So for me, it’s not an either/or, but an and/and – both approaches have value and both help me in their own ways as a photographer.

  12. This is the story of my (photographic life)! I love to roaming around my city when i have the time (mostly just before and after dawn or before the sunset) with my camera and a 35mm manual focus lens. I am shooting the same spots for the last 4-5 years, in different seasons and weather conditions and guess what: every single frame is different! The most interesting thing is the challenge to find a different angle to take advantage of the path of light through the narrow city streets, as the sun’s position changes throughout the year.

    Of course, any exotic place has its merit but in my opinion photos from these places are mostly self composed. You don’t need any photographic skill or extraordinary camera to make a great photo of Dolomites, or Eifel Tower or Faroe Island for example. Take a smartphone and shoot at any random direction: you will end up with a bunch of keepers! But the real challenge lies to the ordinary, to make a good photo out of nothing: the nearby park, or the busy streets or even the car park of the Mall. In my experience the good light and a textured sky can make a huge difference!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top