What to Photograph When There’s Nothing to Photograph

Tips & Techniques

I’m on the annual Photography Life fall colors workshop with Nasim, and our group ran into a tricky photographic situation this morning. A beautiful mountain overlook was completely blocked by clouds at sunrise, ruining any photos we had in mind. Time to pack it up and go home? Not quite.

Here’s the shot we wanted to take, as captured by Nasim a few years ago:

Mt Sneffels at Fall
NIKON D850 + 24-120mm f/4 @ 38mm, ISO 64, 1/3, f/5.6

And here’s how sunrise looked today:

Landscape Covered by Clouds
GFX100S + GF63mmF2.8 R WR @ 63mm, ISO 100, 1/6, f/5.6

It’s hardly the view our group had hoped for after waking up at 5 AM, but sometimes that’s how nature goes. You never know how the sunrise is going to be unless you take the time to get out there yourself.

But even when your plans go awry, some creative thinking can lead to good photos anyway. In this case, the clouds that blocked the mountain weren’t all bad. They also added a layer of fog to the colorful trees all around us.

Rather than facing forward toward the overlook, I started looking around to find compositions that took advantage of the low clouds. With a telephoto lens (I was generally at 240mm with the Canon 24-240mm superzoom we’re testing), some of the foggy trees made for nice, subtle subjects.

Telephoto Aspens in the Fog 1
Canon EOS R5 + RF24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM @ 240mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/8.0
Telephoto Aspens in Fog 2
Canon EOS R5 + RF24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM @ 240mm, ISO 100, 1.6 seconds, f/6.3
Telephoto Aspens in the Fog 3
Canon EOS R5 + RF24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM @ 183mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/10.0

The images don’t scream at you with a nuclear sunrise, but I think the calmer atmosphere suits the subject. A morning that looked like a total loss had become a successful exercise in landscape photography at a distance. With a telephoto rather than a wide angle lens – and facing exactly backwards from the popular direction – our group was able to isolate the most interesting colors and foggy layers of the trees to create plenty of good compositions.

Situations like that are pretty common in photography. You show up somewhere with a photo in mind, and it turns out to be impossible to take. Maybe crowds, the light, the weather, or anything else completely ruins your plans. Looks like there’s nothing to photograph. What do you do?

Don’t stand around waiting against hope for conditions to improve. Don’t put away your gear and leave prematurely. Instead, figure out if there are any non-obvious subjects you missed, and spend some time trying to capture the more hidden shots.

A good place to start is with a telephoto lens, like our group did this morning. Telephotos let you isolate subjects much better than a wide angle, from abstract shots to birds and other wildlife. Look around, including behind you, for opportunities with a telephoto even if you’d never shoot that way with a wide angle. (It’s why we tell our workshop participants to bring along a telephoto even when they don’t expect to need it.)

Another place to look is at the ground. Macro and close-up photography is possible almost anywhere in the world and in almost any conditions. In rainy, dreary landscapes, I’ve taken macro photos of sparkling droplets of water on green leaves that have a very peaceful mood. Even if you’re not carrying a dedicated macro lens, a standard zoom is usually capable of capturing small subjects in interesting ways. Don’t pack up your camera until you’ve looked around for smaller subjects.

Spencer-Cox-2019-199-08-40-_1011579
DC-S1R + LUMIX S 24-105/F4 @ 73mm, ISO 320, 1/80, f/4.0

This article isn’t meant to be a long treatise on composition, just a simple reminder to keep your eyes open for more than just the shot you had in mind. It’s rare for there to truly be nothing to photograph – maybe just nothing obvious. If you deliberately look around for different subjects and get creative with your compositions, you’ll find that almost any scene can lead to high quality images.

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