Found Photography – And Why It’s My Only Approach

Do you prefer to photograph what you find, as you find it, or set up your compositions like a stage?

In many areas of creativity in the past I’ve found that imposing limitations on myself is freeing, converse to what might seem logical.

By defining the edges of the box, we’re able to start filling it as many beautiful ways as we can, instead being daunted by the infinite possibilities of a box with no edges, then not creating anything at all. 

For example, with poetry I had a phase of writing nothing but 5-7-5 syllable haiku, and my creative rivers opened. I composed hundreds in a matter of weeks, and totalled something like 1200 in a year or so.

Similarly, a spell of sticking to different types of short fiction (sometimes called flash fiction) unlocked a regular flow of six word and 50 word stories I enjoyed greatly.

With photography you’re probably familiar with my experiments with older, slower, resolution digital cameras like the Sony DSC-L1 and Olympus C4040 Zoom – both a mere 4MP – as well as my One Month One Camera project this year, and occasional ventures like One Room, Fifty Photographs.

I also like a few invisible rules for when I’m out shooting photographs.

Mostly I set out on any one photowalk aiming to shoot just colour or just black and white, so I can get my eyes and mind focused on the kind of compositions and subjects best suited to this choice.

Another even stronger unwritten (until now!) rule I have is to never stage a photograph whilst I’m out on a photowalk.

What this means is to simply capture what I find in its untampered with glory. I don’t so much move a branch or leaf.

Yes, I’ll certainly explore different angles of the same scene (literally – my daily yoga practice helps with this!).

But I don’t touch what I’m photographing, even if it might add drama or impact. It’s just not cricket.

This way, I can say all of my photography is “Found Photography”.

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I simply make an image of what I find, then leave it in exactly the same state as when I arrived.

The opposite of this we might called Staged Photography.

In a studio setting where you might be photographing portraits or food or cars or products, then of course this is the best way to get the optimum lighting, positioning and so on, to create the photographs you want.

It makes complete sense to control the conditions and stack as much as you can in your favour.

But for me, all this imposed will disappears when I’m out on a photowalk. 

I remember once reading about a photographer who went out on a dry day with a mist spray bottle of water so they could spray flowers to simulate early morning dew and then photograph them.

I was aghast!

No, this is cheating, you’re turning a natural scene, something you find, into staged photography!

If you want to photograph dew on flowers, go out early in the morning in the autumn when it’s there naturally! Which is what I do.

So my simple rule is to focus only on Found Photography – photographing what I find, without touching or moving anything.

Keep it simple, keep it natural.

How about you? Do you follow a similar “Found Photography” approach? Or does anything go, and you happily to rearrange what you find in nature to change the scene more to your liking?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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12 thoughts on “Found Photography – And Why It’s My Only Approach”

  1. I mostly photograph nature, and not generally man-made stuff unless it’s very old and nature has essentially taken whatever it is back over or years/decades of being in the elements has left its mark. Because of this, I don’t want literal trash in the scene that I’m trying to photograph. Therefore, I will remove litter before taking the shot. I just can’t stand someone’s shiny candy wrapper or soda can ruining the scene. Why people have to discard their garbage all over the landscape is beyond me. But that’s typically about the extent of what I’ll change about a scene, although I don’t really consider that staging. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who takes the time to get rid of trash before releasing the shutter. I mean, who wants a fast food wrapper at the base of a tree they’re about to photograph? To me, there’s nothing “natural” about that.

    1. I do agree P, I fortunately don’t recall come across this much so haven’t needed to do it.

      However I do know of a few places where machinery etc has been abandoned in the woods and photograph that, as it’s part of the nature reclaiming process you mentioned. But a bit of modern rubbish like a sweet wrapper in the midst of an otherwise natural scene I would probably remove too. I’m not touching what’s there naturally.

  2. When I am out and about taking what you call “found” pictures I do just as you suggest. When I find an interesting subject I try to choose the best vantage point, lens focal length, and even time of day, but I don’t move, or even touch, anything either to change the subject’s appearance or gain easier access.

    Where I differ is when taking what I call “domestic” pictures. Examples are room interiors, especially kitchen shots, table settings, artwork on walls, collections on shelves, etc., which I try to make look as if they were “found” but are actually “staged.” I feel free to add things to the picture, remove things from the picture and rearrange things. The only rule I follow is that everything in the picture has to be indigenous to the locale. It’s fine to take some more bottles of hot sauce out of the overhead cabinet to add to the collection on the counter. It is NOT fine to buy more bottles or bring some of mine from home.

    1. Doug, that sums up the two kinds of approaches here very well – found and staged.

      There’s a photographer who’s name I don’t recall who goes to elaborate lengths to stage scenes that look like stills from a movie. I really like these photographs, but the entire thing is set up deliberately, and a whole other creative process has come into play.

      I like to just shoot stuff as I find it, as nature has created it.

  3. I had to think about this. I don’t recall ever having staged anything for a shot except maybe asking someone to move into more flattering light for a portrait. No one looks good squinting. I would never pack a spray bottle for a photo walk, I feel like I’m lucky if I have my keys and wallet.

  4. I think the most I’ve done is move a twig out of my way or maybe slightly re-position a leaf, otherwise my photography is pretty much as is. I’m too lazy to stage anything.

    1. I’m not sure how I would change anything, it would require a whole different thinking process to create a scene, before I photographed it. Which would require plenty of extra thought and effort! And that goes against the point of wandering in nature with a camera, and the relaxation and calm it brings. So I don’t think you’re lazy Mel, we just have different aims for what and why we photograph to some.

  5. Mostly I shoot found photographs but like some of your commenters I sometimes decide what to eliminate from the frame. Pretty sure all the masters did the same. But then they probably didn’t have too much garbage flying around back in the day. I photographed a building with a mural painted on it many times because I just never felt like I got what I was looking for. Then one day a red ball showed up in the scene, problem solved. I wouldn’t consider that staging, more like working the scene and exercising great patience. I haven’t shot the building since as I feel the missing element found it’s way to the scene and I would be hard pressed to improve it.

    1. Ah but that’s what composition is – deciding to what to include in the frame and what to leave out. For me this is about where I stand and how and where I point the camera, to exclude what I don’t want, and keep what I do. Like a kind of live and real time cropping, rather than just shoot a larger composition and crop out anything I don’t want afterwards, which I know is the approach of some.

      I agree that sometimes a scene is like an empty stage, waiting for a bird to fly across or a cloud to drift, or a red ball to roll in. I think we still need that awareness in the first place to notice the potential in the scene, and then, like you said Lisa Marie, the patience to wait for that missing element and make the photo when it appears.

  6. By the way Dan, I like the random post generator. I sometimes work overnights and it’s nice to have something to keep me entertained.

    1. Thanks Jon, I think it’s such a neat tool in WordPress. Without wanting to sound self-indulgent, I use on my own blgo here too, to remind me how I’ve evolved and get ideas for new posts!

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