With new topographics, the subject of a landscape photo doesn’t have to be exceptional to be worthwhile. Explore how to find inspiration in the mundane with tips from seven established landscape photographers.

It’s easy to take a great picture of a beautiful destination, but what about places that don’t seem interesting at first glance? Is it possible to take an unforgettable shot of an industrial plant, a small-town street corner, a trailer park, or a motel somewhere along the empty highway? In 1975, a group of photographers proved that the answer to that question was a resounding yes!

It all started with a show called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, curated by William Jenkins at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. In contrast to the dramatic landscapes museum and gallery visitors expected, this exhibition included 168 photographs of urban and suburban locations that seemed totally mundane. “Some people found it unutterably boring,” Frank Gohlke, one of the exhibiting photographers, told the LA Times years later. “Some people couldn’t believe we were serious, taking pictures of this stuff.”

Despite the mainstream public’s initial reluctance to accept the concept of New Topographics, these artists reshaped the world of photography forever. These days, Instagram is full of surprising and original photos of everyday locations. About a quarter of a million photos are currently tagged #newtopographics on that platform alone. New Topographics is more than a trend, and documenting the “man-altered landscape” goes deeper than aesthetics. What we build reveals who we are as a culture and a community.

We asked seven photographers to tell us about finding beauty or intrigue in places other people might overlook. Some directly recall the New Topographics photographers, while others veer into surprising, modern territory; nevertheless, they all speak to our ability to discover meaning in the unexpected. Read on to hear their stories and learn some of their tips for making similar photos of your own.

1. “The best advice I can give to any photographer is to keep exploring.”

Jake Hukee

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Keep Exploring

Image by Jake Hukee. Gear: Nikon D800 camera, Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f7.1; ISO 800.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I took this photo days before the 2016 Presidential Election in the middle of Iowa. I love history, and I think that photographing decaying buildings/structures is a method of preserving the past. My grandfather taught me to always know where you come from.

To some, this may just be a photo of a horse trailer in the middle of a field in Middle America, but given the timing, it recounts a story about the polarizing mindset of America. It also reveals my beliefs and my own ignorance.

Living in a liberal, progressive neighborhood in a big city, I never met an outspoken Trump supporter during the 2016 election. The message coming from popular media was that Trump supporters hid in the shadows of big business and in the golden abyss of crops and tractors. The latter group was disregarded, unheard from by newscasts.

Like half of the country, I was flabbergasted to hear Donald Trump was to be the 45th president of the US. But just days before the election, I discovered the truth of our country’s mindset on a foggy farm in Iowa. Still, I chose to overlook the true message that was boldly painted in thick white strokes: The country is divided.

I drove around back highways for three hours, and I was actually heading home before I found this trailer. I’m thankful that I found this scene. I’m thankful to wake up and to remember to engage with folks that aren’t in my bubble of the world. Without challenging myself to explore and shoot, I would have never found this farm. Before I took this photo, I thought people planning on voting for Trump were fools. After reexamining this photo after the 2016 election, I remember a vote doesn’t epitomize who an individual is.

Jake Hukee
Jake Hukee

Pictured: [1] Jake Hukee [2] Jake Hukee

Pro Tip

The best advice I can give to any photographer is to keep exploring. Stories are always out there. Remarkable cameras are made in such compact sizes these days, so bring a camera with you wherever you roam.

Even though my camera is with me a lot of the time, I don’t forget to live in the moment. Don’t strive to be great or to capture a great photograph; live a great life. Listen to the people you’re engaged in conversation with, and look around at the world that surrounds you.

Even seemingly dull spots can create a great image. I’ll spend hours driving around back highways looking for remnants of another time. Sometimes I am unsuccessful in finding the image that I had in my mind before I got in the car, but I can always find one subject worthy of photographing, even if it’s just a railroad leading into a wooded area.

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2. “My approach is minimalistic, which means that I look for scenes with a limited number of elements.”

Josip Predovan

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Minimalism

Image by Josip Predovan. Gear: Canon Powershot S95 camera. Settings: Focal length 6mm; exposure 1/40 sec; f4.5; ISO 80.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This was just an ordinary building whose geometry was unexpectedly interrupted by a single tree. What I found interesting about this scene was not just the composition of the different shapes and colors but also the idea of combining a man-made structure, which I found a bit cold in its geometric austerity, with the organic form of the tree, which, although small and modest, somehow softened the scene and playfully turned its strict order into something more interesting.

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Limit the Number of Elements

Image by Josip Predovan

Pro Tip

If the object of your photographic interest seems mundane and unexciting, your photo should, quite obviously, not be. Finding interesting things and places to photograph should be the least of your worries. Provided you live in any kind of human settlement, there will be plenty of subjects for you to find.

Going on long walks in different neighborhoods around your town is always a good idea. There will be times when your camera will remain in the bag, but it will still be a good exercise. The most important skill is observing, and the most important attribute is patience. The good news is that the kind of subjects we’re discussing are usually static, so you can revisit them.

My approach is minimalistic, which means that I look for scenes with a limited number of elements. I enjoy looking at objects of different shapes, colors, and textures. The direction and quality of the light are also important, as ordinary and unattractive objects sometimes turn into something surprisingly exciting with just a shadow. The reason I love this kind of photography is the pleasure that comes from seeing a bit beyond the mere surface appearance of the things around us.

3. “Careful observation is the first and most important step in creation.”

Vladimir Nenezic

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Engage in Careful Observation

Image by Vladimir Nenezic. Gear: Canon 5d Mark II camera, Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM lens. Settings: Focal length 95mm; exposure 1/2000, 1/500, and 1/125 sec (HDR photo from three bracketed shots); f8; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I took this photo in a suburban part of Belgrade with fast-growing industrial and residential buildings. This area presents a nice opportunity for me to shoot diverse architectural details. I usually work alone, but for this shoot, I was accompanied by a close friend, veteran photographer, and life coach, so aside from the nice graphical composition and aluminum facade detail, this photo represents a memory of time spent with a dear friend.

Vladimir Nenezic
Vladimir Nenezic
Vladimir Nenezic

Pictured: [1] Vladimir Nenezic [2] Vladimir Nenezic [3] Vladimir Nenezic

Pro Tip

Careful observation is the first and most important step in creation. It is always good to write down your observations or to record voice memos. That way, you’ll have a good starting point for when you plan a second visit to the same location.

If possible, always shoot on a tripod, not only for the sake of technical quality but also because it will slow down your shooting and help you to concentrate on composition. Enjoy the possibilities nature gives you, whether it’s a sunny day or an overcast, rainy one; each of those scenarios will give a different look to your photos.

4. “Look for shapes, patterns, texture, colors, and repetition.”

Zivica Kerkez

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Look for Patterns and Repetition

Image by Zivica Kerkez. Gear: Nikon D750 camera, 24-70mm f2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 70mm; exposure 1 sec; f9; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This is an underground parking garage located in my neighborhood. I come here once or twice a week, and usually, I just park my car and go to the shopping mall.

It never crossed my mind to take a photo here until one day, as I was walking to the escalator, I saw something interesting out of the corner of my eye. For some reason, the ground was wet, and I could see reflections everywhere. After that, I noticed that the columns had been freshly painted yellow. Standing in the middle of the road, I saw this picture.

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Find Key Colors and Texture

Image by Zivica Kerkez

Pro Tip

Boring or seemingly mundane locations can be very subjective, and I always challenge myself to take the best possible photo of any given location, wherever I am. One helpful tip is to spend some time alone at a location, exploring and trying to visualize a good frame. Look for shapes, patterns, texture, colors, and repetition.

You have to keep in mind that during post-processing, you will have endless possibilities for improving the composition and the photo itself. It’s important that you have an initial idea and then let your imagination do the rest!

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5. “Getting off the typical route always will always give you something new, even if it’s in a popular place.”

korinoxe

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Leave the Familiar Behind

Image by korinoxe. Gear: Nikon D80 camera, Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G lens. Settings: Focal length 35mm; exposure 1/320 sec; f9; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I had a few days in Marrakesh at the end of my surf trip to Morocco, which I decided to spend as a tourist. The temperature was 48 degrees C, the hottest I’ve ever experienced, but I wanted to visit some popular places there with my camera. El Badi Palace is a popular tourist attraction, but I tried to look for something different. I didn’t want to show only the palace but also the overlooked details in the background.

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Get Off the Typical Route

Image by korinoxe

Pro Tip

Getting off the typical route always will always give you something new, even if it’s in a popular place. The front view might be beautiful, but there is always something behind every building. The geometry of the walls, a closed, shabby door, or a pile of dried leaves somewhere in a backyard are all unique details that are usually overlooked but no less interesting than the main gate. Just keep your eyes open, and be ready to walk a lot. There is always something that nobody else even looks at.

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6. “I try to see what others do not see, and I train my mind every day.”

robypangy

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Look for What Others Don't See

Image by robypangy. Gear: Fuji X70 camera. Settings: Focal length 35mm; exposure 1/250 sec; f13; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I particularly like this photo because it has a delicate background, and the camera stands out within the minimal composition. I would say it’s almost perfect!

robypangy
robypangy
robypangy

Pictured: [1] robypangy [2] robypangy [3] robypangy

Pro Tip

In everyday life, I try to observe my surroundings and to imagine how they would look as a photo. I try to see what others do not see, and I train my mind every day. I take every opportunity that presents itself to me in my everyday life, always bringing with me my faithful mirrorless Fuji X70. For this kind of photo, you can explore shopping centers, covered parking lots, industrial warehouses, and similar locations.

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7. “I always take photos of locations that other people have ignored.”

rathshiki

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Seek What Others Ignore

Image by rathshiki. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon USM 50/1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f7.1; ISO 640.

What’s the story behind this photo?

It is a selfie I shot at the Yick Fat Building, an old vintage estate with many windows. This place is iconic in Hong Kong, and tourists go to take photos here. It also appeared in the Hollywood film Transformers.

New Topographics: Tips for Taking Interesting Photos of Boring Places — Embrace Symmetry

Image by rathshiki

Pro Tip

I always take photos of locations that other people have ignored. Maybe it’s a dog on a footpath, an antenna on a roof, or surprising textures and patterns. I love to adjust my compositions to be symmetrical and minimalistic. I am also interested in cinematography. All of the photographers who inspire me are DOP (Directors of Photography), like Stanley Kubrick, Hoyte Van Hoytema, and Wally Pfister.

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Top Image by Zivica Kerkez