Photography Tips: Capturing the Ordinary and Making It Extraordinary

What’s the most ordinary flower you can think of? In fact, what’s the most ordinary weed you can think of? Dandelions, right? What’s beautiful about dandelions?

To a child… everything.


You see, my boys have always loved dandelions. On a recent photowalk by myself, I happened upon this amazing little field of dandelions. Just steps off a local walking trail, it was as if it was created specifically for my two sons. And me, because I love a good wisher — as we call them — as well.

Dandelion Collage Tip Post

It was high noon when I was bopping around in my newfound favorite secret place, but the trees surrounding my field of flowers were tall. Still I knew that the evening sun would bring some gorgeous tones to the little valley next to the creek and I vowed to bring the boys back to make as many wishes as their little hearts desired.

dandelions-bridge

I didn’t tell them where we were going or what we were doing. As we cross over the arched bridge, they knew. They started running and yelling. “Mommy, there are so many wishers! How will we make this many wishes!” Even before the words were all the way out of their mouths, they got started.

And I started snapping.

I went with my 50mm, 1.8 lens attached to my camera because I knew I wanted great light and great bokeh. The 50mm is just a lovely little lens that does those things, and it’s light, compact and easy to use. I usually roll at 2.2 when I’m trying to shoot fast moving little boys with faces and eyelashes and noses and such. Shooting at 1.8 often means that the tip of a nose will be in focus but the rest of the face will be slightly out of focus. 2.2 in outdoor, lovely “Golden Hour” evening light is almost fail-proof. Almost meaning that, yes, even then some of my shots are out of focus.

I will admit that I shoot mostly in Manual now. When I worked at the newspaper, I was pretty much broken of my Auto habits. I sometimes still end up with kids in a snowstorm or a blackout type of “Oops-my-ISO-was-too-high-or-low” mistake photos, but my fingers are fast to change the settings. This evening I was working anywhere from 250 to 500 ISO, depending on where the sun was hiding in the tall trees. My shutter speed started around 1/1000 — the higher the number, the faster the speed which means you might best catch blowing dandelion seeds — and ended up around 1/640 as the sun continued to dip.

Technical jargon aside, there are some things you can do to take an everyday experience and turn it into a beautiful photograph.

Get close.

Dandelion Collage Tip Post

The photo on the left is okay. You kind of get the feel that we’re in a field of dandelions. You can see some seeds blowing. The colors are okay. But compared to the photo on the right, well, there is no comparison. I simply got closer (and got lower than he was). Doing so may have made the field of dandelions disappear, but it made a much more visually appealing image. The dandelion seeds are easier to spot when not lost in the sea of puffs. The seed in his hair is priceless. The light and bokeh in the trees is just beautiful. The one on the left is a memory. The one on the right is frameable.

Don’t force kids to look at you and smile.

Dandelion Collage Tip Post

I mean, you can. I do. But that’s just for the “grandmas like pics of the boys smiling at the camera” type of photos. For the interesting, “this series of photos tells a story” type of photos, just let them be and get to snapping. Shoot them concentrating on what they’re doing. From the side. From behind, dwarfed by the tall, tall trees. Not every photo has to be about eye contact and their signature grin.

Change up the focus from one shot to the next.

Dandelion Collage Tip Post

While I do work in manual settings, I normally work in auto-focus, mainly because the boys move so quickly. My camera does have an Auto-Focus Continuous setting, meaning that it will continue to follow the center of focus even while there is movement. However, sometimes I still flip it into manual to get the exact focus I want, or I’ll center my focus just to the left, right, top or bottom of what I was just focused on to see the difference. In these two photos, I was focused on one brother to the right and then clicked over to focus on the other to the left.

Let your children lead you.

Dandelion Collage Tip Post

Follow them with the camera, don’t dictate where they’re going to stand or what they’re going to do. Just let things happen naturally. Like, you know, finding a spiderweb and blowing dandelion puffs into it, ticking off the spider. It made for a great picture in the end!

But encourage them to try new things too.

I knew the photo I wanted: I wanted the boys blowing dandelion seeds at the same time, in mass quantities. So after they had fun for about 20 minutes, me following with my camera and making wishes of my own, I had them each pick a handful of dandelions, center themselves in front of my camera and, on the count of three, they blew those seeds. And I snap, snap, snapped. The result?

Only my favorite photograph. Ever.

Wisher Field

Of course, to get that amazing photo, I had to cycle through quite a number of… humorous… ones.

Dandelion Collage Tip Post

Dandelion Collage Tip Post

In the end, I got a few photos I can use and some that are just plain fun to look at even if they aren’t perfect.

I absolutely love that I got a crazy gorgeous, super fun photo on an ordinary Monday evening in a field of un-impressive flowers that society dubs weeds. If I would have forgotten my camera, we would have missed it. If I wouldn’t have let them have their fun before asking them to do something for me, we might not have captured that one great photo. If I wouldn’t have snapped 40 in a row as they were blowing, I might have missed that one perfect frame.

My photos of the ordinary came together to tell the story of one great photo. Yours can too, you just have to go take them and then tell that story.

13 Comments

  1. I am pretty new to photography, but it sounds like we are learning the same things. These are great tips!! I have (for the most part) stopped asking my kids to smile, and just let them do their thing. Makes for the best pictures for sure!

    Reply
  2. Love it! Love it! Love it! -How many times can I say that?
    Simply fascinating photos, the tips and the words. I felt like as if I was there watching your boys … my girls love dandelions too … I may take them somewhere nearby where I can too enjoy the same moment with them like you did with your boys! –and used the tips that you gave out …

    Reply
  3. Gorgeous pictures! Made me smile on this crappy Monday. :)

    Reply
  4. This post and especially the wicked awesome pics(!) filled me with so much happy!! That is Mommy Win! right there!!

    Reply
  5. These are amazing, Jenna!

    Reply
  6. The newspaper misses your talent:(

    Reply
  7. Wow. I am an aspiring photographer in high school, and I love your post. I got a 50 for my birthday last year and am still learning its power. Your post made me realize how to make an ordinary shot an extraordinary one. I can’t wait to read more of your posts in the future.

    Reply
  8. Hi Jenna! These pictures are so wonderful. I had a chance to try out some of your tips this weekend, and got some really adorable shots. I’m planning to put them up this week on my blog, and will definitely make sure to send people your way (to this post). Any chance you have a flickr pool? Thanks again for the tips. :)

    Reply
  9. Also, if you don’t mind sharing, what do you use to make the triptychs (and other sizes of 2-4 pics)?

    Reply
    • It depends. If I have the time to measure out and create a collage/diptych/triptych from scratch, I do it straight in Photoshop. Otherwise, I use ipiccy has a bunch of great collage options for free.

      Reply
      • Thanks!

        Reply

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