Travel Photography

Snapshots as a Starting Point

Snapshots as a Starting Point

Snapshots taken while wandering aimlessly seem like they have little value. I would argue that these resources are starting points for something bigger!

I’ve talked in previous posts about the best ways to organize photo trips and other such outings. Most photographers know that if you leave the house, camera in hand, with no particular destination in mind, you are unlikely to come back with more than a handful (if you are lucky!) of art-worthy photographs. That is because, in order to create art, you need organization, discipline, a strategy. Aimless wanderings often result in little more than snapshots.

But sometimes, you simply don’t have a photo trip planned. You don’t have goals in mind nor do you have any particular inspiration guiding you. What then? Well, maybe that is the time for those aimless wanderings. Perhaps those times of low inspiration when you don’t have projects in the works are the perfect time to head out, gather a bunch of snapshots and use those snapshots as a starting point.

Let me take a moment to explain a bit of this process, how you can turn those wandering excursions and memory cards full of missed shots into a potential opportunity.

Starting Your Journey

This process of using snapshots as a starting point all starts with exploration. Presumably, if you had a specific destination in mind, you’d be planning an organized outing around that destination. But since you don’t have a destination in mind, yet you do feel the urge to take some photographs, feel free to explore. Check out some of those byways you’ve always wanted to travel or explore a nature area that you’ve not yet visited. The whole point of this journey is to see and experience as much as possible. If you happen to see an abandoned building that interests you or some other neat feature as you wonder, then stop and take a closer look. Just explore!

And while you are exploring, take lots and lots of photographs. Sure, perhaps you’ve not had the time to thoroughly study your surroundings, to come up with the inspiration that leads to art. And that is OK because that is not the point of this expedition. The point is to create a library of potential, a library of ideas, and possible locations for future reference.

For example, I’ve come across abandoned buildings in my wanderings and even though I didn’t have any particular ideas on how to go about photographing these buildings, I still took the time to walk through (with permission, if it is required, of course) and photograph the building thoroughly. Not only photographs of the building itself from various angles but also photographs of the details like doorways, windows, machinery that had been left behind, and so forth. Now, an awful lot of these photos were poorly exposed because I’d left the house without a plan. I only took along my favorite lens and not a larger kit that would cover all potential situations so I didn’t have the gear that I needed to photograph this building properly. And again, that is OK because I wasn’t intending to make art — only gather ideas.

Take Your Snapshots Home

The second step of this process is to take all of these snapshots, hopefully, dozens or even hundreds of them, home. Make an album out of them. It doesn’t have to be anything complex — just a group of JPEGs tossed together in a slideshow. Don’t focus on the images that you feel are most artistic or technically correct. Instead, make sure that your album covers the potential subject material as thoroughly as possible, even if many of the images in the album are less than perfect.

The reason for creating this album is simple: It is meant to be a resource for you to study, a visual map of the subject material that you can look at easily from the comfort of your own home as you ponder ways you can take photographs when you return. You might decide, looking at your album, that you really need to pack a couple of strobes for fill lighting the next time you return. Or you might decide that a neutral density filter would have come in handy. As you look at an image of a doorway, you may think to yourself that the snapshot of the doorway is nothing special but if only you’d turned around and photographed if, from the other direction, that would have been an image with potential. Study these images, use them to plan your official trip, and most importantly, use them to give yourself ideas and inspiration for when you return.

During this part of the process, you may even decide to tinker with post-processing. Convert some images to black and white or try out other effects so that you know the types of photos you’d like to take of this object or place in the future. Whatever you do with your snapshots, take your time. Spend weeks, months, whatever it takes, just letting these images “cook,” so to speak. Write down ideas that come to you as you ponder the images and take detailed notes on shots you’d like to create the next time you return to your newly discovered location.

Do Your Research

Another important thing to do once you’ve taken your snapshots home is a bit of research about your new locations. If you’re studying an abandoned building, then learn about it. Search online and figure out what purpose it once served, learn a little something of its history. Was it a home? A store? An old factory or some other kind of business? The things that you discover are things that can help color your perceptions of the location. You might photograph an abandoned home differently from the way you’d photograph an abandoned factory, for instance. Everything, from the general feeling you are trying to express to the colors, tones, and post-processing could turn out differently depending on what you learn about that building’s history. If you are photographing a park or nature preserve, then perhaps the maps that you find as you research will reveal little-known trails or small ponds and other points of interest that you didn’t know about.

Finally, there is the last step, which is making the art itself. Take everything you've learned from your visit, the snapshots, the research, and use all of that to guide you to create the final image or the final series of images. In the work and study that you've put in, you'll have gained valuable insights that will allow you to create meaningful art.

About the author

Will Moneymaker

Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.