Unpacking the Visual Environment and Making It Your Own

On our last trip to Montana, I was shooting inside an old Victorian hotel with creaking wooden floors and walls painted pastel earth colours. In one room, the old range sat rusting beside a window. The place was full of photographic opportunities; outside the windows old log cabins sat in the snow. In fact, it was easy to like everything we saw—after all, the light, colours, shapes, smells and even sounds were very different from what we experienced at home. 

In a strange environment we naturally want to take images to capture our delight in the new place. In other words, we want to register on film or digitally what we see. We want to fix the memory. The problem is that this urge to photograph the scene usually results in repetitive and derivative imagery. We act like tourists, snapping and moving on. We are making postcards.

Paradoxically, a new place can be a stumbling block to crafting a great image. In order to go beyond our initial reaction, we must become familiar with our surroundings. We need to look more carefully. For example, when going through a door we see the pine table in the middle of the room. It must have been a dining room. Most of us stop right there. We take a few photos and move on. But if we have already taken a few first-reaction shots and looked around, we settle the building into a context and move to a more observant, creative and personal stage of seeing. We start extracting pieces of the environment and putting them in our own visual frame. We look at the light, the textures, the view through the window. We capture the essence.         

When entering the old hotel, I was in awe of the visuals. Old wooden floors, colourful and beautifully textured walls provided a powerful background to the basic furniture and other simple items. I was excited and eager to shoot. At the same time, I was aware that my first seeing was no different from most people. I was just seeing the obvious visuals. I knew I had to move beyond that. 

There are no shortcuts from the initial stage to an intimate and personal seeing. After spending half an hour wandering around the hotel and taking a few initial photos, I had become familiar with all the elements. Now, I had to focus on my own vision. I stopped seeing the items as they were and began building the frame one element after another. I had to stand back and gain perspective.

This is how the images below were crafted. Believe me, they would never see the light of the day if I had just gone there and snapped a few images. It is only when you take time and get below the surface that you open up to new visual possibilities. It requires self-discipline but it’s well worth it. It was Martin Parr who said,

“Photography is the simplest thing in the world, but it is incredibly complicated to make it really work.”

I couldn’t agree more.

The imagery below was taken with Hasselblad X1DII and Fujifilm GFX50S with 24mm, 35mm and 85mm focal length lenses (in full frame terms).

Next time we will go outside.


Due to a cancellation I have one spot available for the Visual Poet Experience Workshop in San Francisco this March. If you are interested, please give me a shout or register through www.visualpoetexperience.com

Also, for those of you who are committed to an intensive and highly personal learning experience or would like to take your photographic practice to the next level, I have one remaining release for OLAFPHOTO UNLIMITED. This is a very special package (only 5 per year), which gives you the opportunity to attend an unlimited number of my workshops at no extra charge plus one full day private workshop (location to be discussed) plus monthly private photographic consultations and much more. This is the best offer I have ever created for my most committed students! Yes, you read it correctly—with this package you can attend as many of my workshops as you want in the next five years at no extra cost. Please contact me for details and pricing.  

2020 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.   

8 thoughts on “Unpacking the Visual Environment and Making It Your Own

  1. What you write is very useful for me, so I would like to share with you very useful information. To enlarge the image I use Image Enlarger is a real revolution of consciousness. The best editor to improve photo quality and increase image detail. All these things can be done online. Free access to such a valuable resource. A true treasure for a photo editor or graphic design. Now these are the most innovative technologies. Your real assistant in the fight for quality.

  2. “We act like tourists, snapping and moving on. We are making postcards.” This summer, I spent about 3 weeks in Japan, then 3 weeks visiting family in my home state of Oklahoma. I didn’t take any good photos in Japan – I was mesmerized with the place, and stuck in tourist postcard mode. Conversely, I took much better photos in Oklahoma becuase I was able to see more clearly.

    I really love these images in the old hotel. As Eric said in his comment, amazing how you turn this empty space into art.

    1. Thank you so much Jeff for your kind note. Japan is next on my list – I really hope I will be able to travel and photograph there this year.

    1. Hello Luis,

      Great stuff! Yes, I also visited Shaniko, Molson and many, many others. Montana has some amazing ghost towns like Elkhorn, Garnet and Bannack (images above). Highly recommended! Thank you for visiting and for your kind note.

      Warm Regards,


  3. Excellent article. It’s amazing how you turn empty spaces into fine art. I have enjoyed seeing your work. Your articles have definitely caused me to think about my own photography work in new ways. Thank you for sharing.

Leave a Reply