10 Outside-the-Box Techniques to Make Everyday Photos Epic
Often, the main job of a photographer is to make things look epic. To turn everyday life into a cinematic still frame that romanticizes and hero-izes those things that other people would pass right by and not even take notice of. But that’s no easy task and every environment comes with its own limitations and hurdles in achieving it.
For this, we photographers must have some tools at our disposal that help us make art out of the everyday. The following 10 approaches are various ways I’ll either take or make more epic imagery out of normal life.
I’m a very physical photographer; I’ll move around all over the place in order to find my spot, knowing it’s rarely right at eye-level. I bring an apple box with me everywhere and am always trying to get into positions where my point of view is just different. But being on the ground is almost always where my most epic shot happens. There’s just something about being down low — it puts the viewer in the role of something much smaller than the subject and environment, immediately making it look big, ominous, interesting and epic.
For more on getting down for the low angle shot, watch: Extreme Wide Angle Photography, Pt. 1
Photography is mostly a process of isolation. You start isolating the moment you bring a camera up to your eye and frame your shot. You isolate more through composition, depth-of-field, perspective and use of light and shutter speed. The entire world of photography is about your ability to isolate a subject in some way.
In this world, consider every way in which you can hero-ize your subject, even if it means removing a background altogether. Being able to separate an element from its background is simply another in many techniques to bring attention to a subject and can have epic effects.
Of course, in the world of journalism, it is unprofessional to doctor a photo in this way. But, journalism is only one aspect of photography. Having all techniques for isolating imagery in your arsenal will help you in many other endeavors that need epic imagery.
Speaking of integrity in imagery, one could make the case that a panorama is in fact more honest than a 4×3 crop. But regardless of how you feel about manipulating photos, nothing says epic like a very, very wide shot of a landscape or event.
Especially when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your environment and not knowing how to convey the entirety of it, consider the panorama. There is plenty of software these days that can stitch together an image for you, but first check your camera — most cameras these days can do it right there in your hand.
And a panorama is not the only technique for getting wide and epic. You can build a quilt of images in a three-by-three square, which looks especially amazing if you’re shooting wide open, in a very shallow depth of field. And, of course, the easiest way to get big wide shots: shoot with a super wide lens, in the range of 10–24mm.
Speak With Architecture
You already know about leading lines. Take it one step further by looking at architecture as a statement or symbol to use in your imagery.
Brutalist architecture can add a minimalist and hard beauty to your shot, while a baroque environment brings fancy and luxury. Look around at what you’re given from an architecture standpoint and think about how it can add epicness to your shot. And a general rule, the more epic the building, the more epic the shot. Some architects just have a flare for the dramatic. Use that to your advantage.
In this image of a classic Porsche, the lumberyard lines are used to convey speed and motion, even when standing still — as though the car is jetting in warp speed off into the distance. If you can extend your creative thinking outside the subject and into the architecture around you, you increase your chance of finding epic in the everyday.
The Italian Renaissance painters knew a thing or two about making things epic. You can do worse than learn from their techniques. One of the more beautiful approaches was the practice of “sfumato,” which translates from Italian to “soft” or “blurred.” What da Vinci and others of his era understood was that the way light and optics work, objects blend into each other and soften as they recede in space.
And while da Vinci dealt in paint, romanticizing the sfumato of his landscapes and portraits beyond reality, we can honor him back by getting out and shooting in the early morning and late day hours when the low light, spread softly through the atmosphere, singles out the various elements of our skylines to create works of art all our own.
A shot like the above of Brooklyn has an immediate epic grandness to it, entirely because of the tall point-of-view from which it’s taken. And I climbed a water tower on top of a building to get it. I could have taken a similar shot from the rooftop of the building, but that extra story or two just increased the drama enough to make it worth it.
Drones have obviously made the big crane shot an easier grab, but I still prefer to shoot these shots with full-frame cameras and prime lenses that can truly capture every detail of a scene. This shot done with a drone might have much of the same feel, but take a look at the windows toward the bottom of the image, where it seems you can almost feel the life happening inside. Or the romantic way the light spills out from those windows onto other surfaces. This is the work of a good camera at a good height. Nothing else is quite like it.
Find access to rooftops in your city. And when visiting other cities, a surefire way to get that epic shot is to look for parking structures — this is essentially free access to beautiful views. But take your shot quickly and try to get away without using a tripod — security will have you out of there in a minute.
Climbing is not just a technique for aerial shots, either. It can be an epic POV for any shoot. Find ways to get above your subjects for angles that force an extreme perspective on things. If you look at the work of graphic novel and comic book artists, you’ll see this technique used all the time.
Wait For It
For you street photographers out there, capturing that epic moment in precisely the split second (or faster) that it happens can be a highly-rewarding practice — but it takes discipline. Just about 100 percent of the amazing shots you see from artists like Craig Whitehead and his ilk are unplanned images. They stumble upon them. And yet, they do it consistently. How? They have patience and they’ve built up their muscles of urban observation.
My method is the same one used by street photographers for many decades — I find a place, set up my shot and wait for things to happen in that frame. And I wait, and I wait, and I wait. Sometimes I wait so long, the light changes and no longer even offers me the shot. I’ll go back to that spot the next day and wait again. Over time, I’ve built up many, many spots around town where a) I know the light and background is great and b) there’s heavy activity, which increases the chance of things happening to catch.
On the other end of the spectrum of waiting for the precise moment in the real world is creating some kind of artwork back in the privacy of your own studio. Personally, I cherish the moments to myself, looking over images I’ve gathered and doing things with them, playing with them, re-imagining them to see what can be made.
My normal process is to first rotate them and see what they look like sideways and upside down. Then I like to create a new canvas in Photoshop and treat it like a real blank canvas — putting imagery on it, duplicating it, seeing how it looks intertwined and juxtaposed against itself and other images. This, to me, is an extremely creative process that leads to all kinds of interesting images, not all of which see the light of day — but oftentimes will influence my next shoot as ideas pop out from them.
And in the case of this image above, will sometimes lead to something epic.
Think Like A DP
On the set of a movie, commercial or TV show, the director of photography — or cinematographer — is largely responsible for the artistic elements of what you end up seeing. They bring to the table ideas for light, angles, lenses, camera moves and many other things that add creative expression to film.
At its broadest sense, a DP will take the story, be inspired by it and create visuals that make the audience feel what the director is trying to convey. And this is a crucial element for you, as a photographer, because the most powerful images come not just from a great angle or composition, but from a story well told. In practice, that means that while you’re there, experiencing life in the everyday, it’s your imagination and ideas for what you want to do with it that will lead to the best — and most epic — images. It’s a multi-step process:
First, find the story you want to tell. Of course, this is not an easy task — and might necessitate figuring out how you like to be inspired. Next, consider the entire scene, the way a cinematographer might consider it. What kind of lighting would most convey your mood? What are the emotions that you want from your actors? And, very importantly, which lens best tells the story. Remember, a longer lens enhances the height of your background. Play with lens length, not just for how it beautifies your subject, but how it connects them to the background. In The Shining, director Stanley Kubrick and DP John Alcott shot nearly every scene eerily wide, to add an off-kilter sense of fear into the scenes. Think about your scene and how you’ll use your tools to convey the emotions you want to come out of your shot. And study up on the techniques of master cinematographers.
In the real world, without a whole crew around you to help all this occur, of course it’s much harder. This is where I get crafty. I am simply unafraid of asking people to do things for me in interesting locations. It’s easier when I have a dancer or model with me, who is used to taking direction, but I employ my own family, all the time. In the image below, my son played actor for me over a quick concept I had one day as we were walking through a parking lot. I saw the cones, had the concept, thought like a DP and then gave the boy some direction. Still one of the best shots I’ve ever taken:
Shoot Late, Shoot Low
One of my go-to techniques for adding high drama to my images is shooting in the evening, starting at blue hour. It’s easy to forget as we get into the minutia of photography, but we actually interpret images very quickly and with animal-like simplicity. Daylight normally signals all is okay, nighttime is mysterious and dangerous. As photographers, we can work against these stereotypical backdrops, but just as powerful is the technique of leaning way into them.
As nighttime creeps in, light becomes more and more of a player in our image. The actor here lighting a cigarette would look very normal in the middle of the day — but at night, that light becomes nearly the entire mood of the image. Also note here how large and ominous the buildings are behind the actor, accomplished with the long-lens technique described above.
Shooting a cityscape? You’ll add more epic drama waiting to capture it as the sun goes down, or with a long exposure at night, than any shot you can get during the bright day.
Thanks for reading! I hope some of these techniques have provided some inspiration for your own epic photography. If you have shots that are especially epic and would like to share how you got them, join the PHLEARN Phamily and post away! We’d love to make this a continuing dialogue on epic photography.
Originally published at phlearn.com.