We all love going to exotic places, right? However, with the vastly restricted potential for travel at the moment I thought this article on Details might be appropriate. Yes, the photos shown are from “Exotic Places”, but the principles listed below apply where you are far away or at home in isolation. It’s an invitation to truly look around you and see.

There is nothing like fresh sights to inspire the creative juices but it’s all too easy to be so overwhelmed by the scene right in front of you and thus overlook small details that might be equally significant or at least add context to the surroundings. Look for the details and you might be surprised at what you find.

When I am in a new place I tend to look for the obvious images first. I may have some preconceived images in my head from prior research or it may be that there are certain ‘must-have’ images that are too obvious to ignore. This is a reasonable approach because even though the obvious image might be considered a cliche, that’s no reason not to shoot it because the reason it’s a cliche is probably because it’s actually a good image! Your own take on it might be subtly different, the weather might offer you different light or your post-production techniques might distinguish it from the other images already out there.

On a trip to China I visited the Long Wu Lamasery in Tongren where large groups of monks gather in the main courtyard to chant and debate. This image is the ‘obvious’ shot – wide, encompassing the whole scene, with a good tonal range and a reasonably balanced composition. It’s the safe option and a genuinely useful editorial or stock image so it’s an essential image.

Long Wu Lamaserey, China.

But obviously there is a whole lot more to such a place so once the straightforward images are in the bag it’s a really good idea to start to look around and try to find the little detail image that you will have missed while capturing the bigger picture stuff.

Here in the Long Wu lamasery in Qinghai Province, China, one position used by praying monks over many, many years has been deeply worn into the wooden floor leaving a very distinct image of two feet. If you didn’t know it was there it would be easy to miss, but as luck would have it I was there when the light was low, bringing the worn foot shape into deep relief.

Footprints worn into the timber floor during prayer. Long Wu Lamaserey, China.

When the monks go into the main prayer hall, where photos are not allowed, they take off their boots and leave them scattered all about the entrance doors. Right next to the doors are some beautifully painted wooden panels so to combine the boots and the panels makes an image which tells another part of the story. Easy to shoot once you see it.

Tongren, boots outside temple.

Photography is about communicating – telling stories if you will. This can sometimes be done in one single image to be hung on a wall, or in a set of images such as might be published in a magazine. Multiple images allow for a deeper description of a place so it’s important to keep your eyes open for opportunities.

Getting sharp well exposed, high resolution images has never been easier. The technological shifts in photography over the past ten years have democratised the process of shooting images to the point where just about everyone can produce publishable quality images – even my phone can produce decent A4 prints. Given that the technical playing field is now more or less level for most image makers, it now comes down to what you point your camera *at*, what you notice with your own eyes and then translating that into an image.

In a word, it’s about ‘seeing’.

In the examples shown so far the wide shot of the monks in the courtyard could have been shot by anyone, at least from a technical point of view. It’s a very high contrast subject with full sun and deep shadows, but the current crop of digital cameras (in this case a Leica S2) can capture excellent shadow details which can easily be revealed in Lightroom or some other raw processing software. This image is more about just being there and letting the camera do its stuff.

The other images are less easy to create – or should I say they are easy to *shoot*, but harder to see in the first place. In other words none offer a challenge to the camera but you as the photographer need to see them to shoot them, and this takes a bit of thought and practice.

Doorway, Tongren, China.

Here are a few pointers to help with that thought process:

1. Look up. It’s so easy to simply see what is in front of you but the world exists in three dimensions and something that is just outside of your field of view could be a compelling image.
2. Look down! Same deal here, what’s at your feet could be really cool.
3. Look over your shoulder as you explore a new location. As you walk around your point of view continually changes so looking at where you have been from where you are now might reveal an image that you just walked past.
4. Following on from 3, reverse your course after walking through a new location for the first time. The change of viewpoint will reveal missed opportunities.
5. Think small. Tiny details are easy to miss but can make excellent images.
6. Pay particular attention to backgrounds. A small detail might be really interesting but make sure what is behind it does not distract or confuse.
7. Re-visit a location – a different time of day, or just having fresh eyes, can lead to new and more interesting images.
8. Once you have captured the ‘money-shots’ consider limiting yourself to a single lens such as a 50mm for a while. Then your eye will be tuned into images that will work with that lens and will not be distracted by all possible images.
9. Climb up high and look down.
10. Get down low and see what this new angle reveals.

Candles in a temple, Tongren.

Detail shots need not require fancy gear either. That’s what I am alluding to in Tip #8 above. A simple fixed 50mm lens has a perspective much the same as the human eye and so the images it creates have a realism that’s hard to beat. Photos taken with lenses like this can have an immediacy and realism that telephoto or wide angle lenses do not have, and the challenge of working with a fixed lens can lead to ‘seeing’ in a new way. This frees up your visual mind for looking and seeing, a critical skill to nurture if you are on the prowl for those elusive detail images.

If you are stuck at home, have a close look around you and see how the light falls on different objects at different time of the day. You might be amazed at how much image potential goes noticed.

'Gold' bowls in a street market, China - Tibetan plateau.