It’s been some time since we’ve had a photo challenge, but hey, it’s the beginning of March and we’ve got one for you! This month, we want you to practice staying put. It’s the “photo-stay,” a concept I like to think I just invented!
For many of the Casual Photophile community, including me, photography is not a full-time gig. In general, I tend to do photography for myself. But taking photos without the direction of a client or specific project means coming up with some subject matter or approach yourself. This can be hard.
Add in a milquetoast setting or a dreary season and it can be downright depressing. Sure, you can go outside and contribute to the “’Burbs on Film” endeavor, but what if you want to take a photo of something other than someone’s house on a quiet intersection? You say to yourself, “Gee, I wish I lived somewhere else so I could take photos that go beyond contributing to the growing repository of American Foursquare houses.” (Which is not to say that I haven’t seen beautiful photos of American streets at dusk – I’ve just seen a lot of them).
A friend of mine who had just begun her descent into the chasm of film photography, was terribly shy of her shutter release. Nothing was inspiring. No worthwhile frame appeared to her. And I’ve felt the same in these washed-out, barren New England winters—just give me summer’s lushness and then I’ll take some photos.
But here’s my possible antidote and this month’s challenge: force yourself to take photos of an uninspiring spot. There are more rules to it than that, so allow me to outline them:
- You must go somewhere you find to be bland. No heading to a state park or a museum or downtown.
- Now, and most importantly, spend time in the space. Change your position, look inside, feel the place, let the place present itself to you.
- While you are there, you must take (at least!) five photos in the setting.
- You may only move within a reasonable radius to take your photos—I’m inclined to say a radius of 15 feet from whatever center on which you decide, but the point is not to demarcate the distance. The spirit of the rule is to just not walk away from your “spot.”
The aim of this challenge is to force you to see differently and to think before you shoot. One way to break out of a shooting malaise is to go on a photo-walk. I enjoy these and have gone on photo-walks with friends and bigger groups. On these walks, you shoot as you see.
This challenge is nearly the opposite of the photo-walk. It is the photo-stay. You see, and think, and see some more, and think some more, and then you shoot. You stay with the space instead of moving through the space. With instead of through—that’s the difference between the photo-walk and the photo-stay.
I cannot promise that the photos you take during your photo-stay will be good, let alone excellent. I can promise that if you take me up on this challenge you stand a high chance of feeling something about your photography and the world.
You may be thinking that I am waxing too eloquently on this endeavor. I’ll warrant that as a feeler and a romantic, I may be. But I also think that you might be so inclined to wax as eloquently after doing it.
I also speak as someone who has done this. And frankly, I like the images I’ve gained as a result of my photo-stays. In this article, I’ve included five photos I took on one photo-stay. I actually did this photo-stay on a photo-walk when the photo-walk just wasn’t working.
I had been walking around a town square and felt wholly cynical about the whole thing. The buildings were blah, the sun too harsh, the streets too dull. And so, I decided I needed some Gelassenheit, a historical German word for, roughly, “letting be.” Rather than seeking out the world to fill my frame, I needed to let the world come to me.
I was using my Voigtländer Bessa R2 and Zeiss Planar 2/50. Loaded in the camera was Ilford Pan F 50—a slow film for slow moments. As I stopped for my photo-stay, I was on the side of a building. My surroundings were pedestrian. Sidewalk, landscaping, concrete, metal housing for who knows what mechanisms. Even so, this was the spot I decided to stop walking and searching and I spent time getting on tops of things, getting low, and looking for contrast and shapes. But the resulting photos were, in my opinion, more than pedestrian, which means, I guess, the setting itself was more than pedestrian.
Here are some suggestions to consider as you set about your photo-stay.
Consider your gear
On the photo-stay I described above, my gear was super standard. A 50mm f/2 lens. I adore the lens, but a 50mm is called normal for a reason. When you go to your space, consider bringing with you gear that will enable you to capture what presents itself to you. For instance, maybe you’ll need a macro lens to realize the shot that manifests. Or perhaps you’ll need a wide focal length since you’ll be confined to your relatively small radius, or a zoom lens. Likewise, when it comes to camera bodies you may find a camera with continuous mode to capture movement in your scene. Maybe you’ll need a spot meter to get a precise exposure for your subject. Will you need a tripod?
These are all considerations to make ahead of time, but unlike typical planning, you can’t necessarily anticipate what will arise during the stay. In that way, there’s something to be said about adding an additional constraint to your photo-stay in saying something like, “I’m taking my ultrawide lens and that’s that—the photos I take will be ultrawide.” The spirit of the stay is to be acted upon, rather than to act.
Consider your film
This is obvious (as is, possibly, the first point), but worth mentioning. Film stocks add additional constraints. Oftentimes, hobbyist shooters—me included—load up film and make it work no matter the situation, which is to say, we just keep shooting even if the conditions aren’t ideal. But like it or not, different films present different strengths. You’re looking to bring the film out at its best.
An orthochromatic film will render red and oranges tone much darker in comparison to blue and green tones, resulting in higher contrast. Slide films are known for their saturation and contrast but also very fine grain and resolving power. The famed Portra family presents less contrast across tonal values particularly with more exposure and at lower speeds. A black and white infrared film (even one with only slight infrared sensitivity) and a red filter (such as a 092) will produce reds and bright greens that are stunningly white.
This may be old news for you, but if you know where you’ll be headed for your photo-stay, then think in advance of what film, at its best, will allow the place to be captured at its best.
Think in -tychs
A work of art set in five portions is called a pentaptych. You may have heard the words “diptych” or “triptych” float past you on the Internet or maybe you’re an artist who has created diptychs or triptychs. In photography, the dip- and triptychs are sets of photos comprised of two or three photos, respectively, meant to be viewed together.
If you take five photos during your photo-stay, consider producing a pentaptych, that is five photos meant to be viewed as a set. Or consider producing some combination of diptychs and triptychs. This is not to say that taking three photos and putting them together makes sense in every case or produces a set warranting being called a triptych.
What I am suggesting is to consider your photos being taken in sequence rather than isolation. It may be that the best way to capture a subject is not in one photograph, but three photographs. Be mindful of whether that makes sense for your situation and for the subjects that are presenting themselves to you.
Go to your lame monuments
You may be up to taking on my challenge. Already you’re thinking of a spot that satisfies rule number one. You think, “Oh, I’ll go to an alley next to the grocery store,” or, “Maybe I’ll go in my backyard next to that old bird bath.” If these, to you, satisfy rule one, then go for it!
But I might go so far as to say that you should go somewhere that without thinking through it comes off as really, really lame to you. For me, without even thinking about it, I know that the front of my apartment building is one of the worst places in the state of Massachusetts to photograph. It must be. There used to be grass in the front yard, surrounded by raised concrete borders to separate it from the sidewalk. Now, that whole space has been filled in with chunky gravel of the kind the experts call “Base Gravel #3.” Truly the worst of all gravels. Moreover, the sidewalk itself is horrendous. This place—the 20-feet-by-20-feet square that is my building’s front—is soulless.
Now, maybe if I went down there with a camera knowing I had to take five photos and with some sense that I would make these five photos the best they could be, then maybe I would find some inspiration. Off the cuff, I do not. In choosing your spot, contemplate choosing the spot that reflexively is the absolute least suited to beautiful photos.
Go forth and then stop and stay! Remember that we want to see your photo-stay photos and that we’d love to highlight them in our Instagram stories throughout the month.
Please share them with us here in our comments section via a link, or on Instagram using the criminally long hashtag #CasualPhotophileMonthlyPhotoChallenge. I am personally hoping that #photostay becomes a thing—it was used fewer than 20 times last year! Compared to #photowalk approaching 1M all time.
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