When the muse stops whispering
"My name is J_ and I am looking for new locations for family portraits in the area. I've taken pictures in town, around the walking trails, at the park and beach. I've even taken pictures at the (insert landmark here)... but I am bored and would like to try a new location. Do you have any recommendations?"
I thought I would share this email with you because we, as photographers, have been there. Probably more than once. It feels like that little muse of inspiration has stopped whispering in our ears and suddenly everything we do seems uninspired.
While at first glance the above request seems straight forward, there are several layers that I feel can be addressed. On the surface I could easily reply back with any number of places I have come across in the past or perhaps some suggestions based on feedback from others. However, I feel any list would be arbitrary as there are so many factors involved; previous visits, personal taste, her family's tastes, photogenically pleasing locales, time of season, distance and travel time, accessibility, how common the location is, and many other considerations.
Then there are the factors I don't know; type of photography, specific mood desired, lighting and equipment considerations, is it for a photo shoot or just a day out with the family, etc.
While a lot of questions are left unanswered a key word in the message actually gives me insight into the founding problem. The word is boredom. J_ mentions going to many scenic locations and being bored with them. Without looking through any portfolio or having a chat about specific hangups it is hard to pinpoint the real problem, but in general, this photographer has likely reached a point many of us come to where we ask ourselves, "what else can I do?"
That point typically comes when we can handle the camera confidently enough to get acceptably, and predictably, good results. Exposure is good, framing and composition is adequate and we are actually focusing our attention outward towards our subject rather than inwards towards our cameras. This is the point where many people, including myself, ask, "now what?"
What now is to start exploring advanced photography techniques. Explore exposure techniques by altering the mood of the scene with how you record the light. Start expanding your abilities of controlling light by introducing light modifiers; reflectors, diffusers and flash. Explore light and shadows and how they interact with the subject.
Explore posing techniques by coaxing your subject to express some form of emotion or movement in the frame. Too often family photos are bland and lifeless because they just stand there, patiently, as you snap away. Try to create a dynamic feeling by getting the subject involved. Play with subject interaction or try your hand at creating a story through images.
Explore composition techniques by experimenting with lenses. Different lenses give different results. Learn which lens does what and work to maximize each lens' strengths. Play with cropping and angles by moving in close or backing away, tilting the camera or shooting from high or low. Play with depth of field and watch how the subject interacts with the background. Use different perspectives to put emphasis on specific areas of your image.
The thing about all of these advanced techniques is that you don't need to find a new location. You can go from your front yard to your back yard and get completely different results. Too mundane? Go to your neighbor's yard. Still too mundane? Hit the park down the street. Go to the local school/library/town hall or other public building. Start looking at the details within your own home town to find interest.
J_ may be looking for a new location just to get away. That's a different story. If you find yourself feeling the same way try this; with some free time get into your car and head (insert direction here) to a nearby town you feel like visiting. Drive slowly through the town looking at the architecture and the foliage and any little spot that looks like it might be interesting. When something captures your fancy park and get out the camera and start exploring the area. You are location scouting. Since it is a new location you will be exploring for possibilities. Look at backgrounds, light, shadow, potential compositions, etc. When you find a spot that appeals to you for a suitable location, revisit with the family at a later point. It'll provide a new location for your images and a new spot for the family to explore.
One type of place I love to explore are large nurseries. There are tons of flowers to photograph and plenty of little alcoves to use as a backdrop. Some garden centers have landscaped display areas that have water ponds or fountains, or they may have a sculptured rock garden or statue. All these little golden photo spots are right there within a few steps of each other. They're great for quick impromptu photo shoots but keep in mind that it is private property and they are running a business. You may want to ask first if there's any doubt.
Beaches also provide a wide range of backdrops. From open sand to rocky crags, reedy wetlands and washed up logs. Piers and boats can also be found around a beach for added interest. The ultimate locations can be found in urban settings. Literally everywhere you look is a potential photo op.
If you're still bored get your kid's friends to model for you. That should up the ante. Whether you are bored or not you need to look at your work with a critical eye. Be truthful with yourself and really try to find the problem, or problems, that frustrate you. Once you have identified the problems then you can start working on fixing them, and you don't need a new location for that.