Use your neighborhood as a classroom.

The mountain may have come to Muhammed, but I lack that kind of power–so, when I can’t swing a trip to the mountains or the coast or some other wild place, I try to find other, closer subjects for photography.  These rarely make it into the collection I consider portfolio-worthy, but they’re always a great creative learning tool for me.

The challenge for me is never to let my camera collect dust when I’m between trips.  I find myself getting a little restless when I’m not out snapping something, so I’ve started exploring places closer to home to flex and sharpen my skills and push myself out of my landscape comfort zone.

Some of my recent treks have taken me just down the street in my own Hollywood neighborhood to try a little street photography and night photography–and street photography at night.  Because that’s not what I usually spend my quality photography time on, it forces me to pay closer attention to composition and exposure, and in completely different ways from what I’m accustomed to.

It also gives me a RAW file petri dish, in a way, with a group of photos to play with in post-processing, trying out different fixes and treatments.  The results aren’t always great, but they’re great fun to play with, and I have come up with a few that I like.  This shot of the old Roosevelt Hotel brought to mind “old” Hollywood to me, so I did a cyan-heavy black and white conversion on the long-exposure night shot.

And a confession about this shot–I also made a mistake that I (hopefully) won’t make again: I forgot to remove my circular polarizer from the lens.  A circular polarizer is an absolute must for 99% of landscape photos, but there are times you don’t want it.  It prevents light stars–a beautiful effect–from developing in night shots, and you’ll notice the lights in this pic are mere glowing orbs instead.  I still like the pic, but it’s a goof I’ll write off as a learning experience.

Another “assignment” I like to give myself on these close-to-home treks is to choose a single lens, and shoot with that lens only for the entire time I’m out and about.  Depending on the lens I choose, that can be a bit of a challenge–but it also opens up a lot of possibilities.  This past weekend I decided to shoot Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, and decided to use only my 10-20mm wide angle lens.  The station is a wealth of arches, sleek art deco lines and long walkways, all of which make terrific subjects for wide angle compositions.

Finally, I headed to Malibu Pier a couple of weeks ago to take advantage of a minus tide that coincided with sunrise.  I was already looking forward to getting under the pier with the low tide to shoot the pilings and play around with long exposures on the water.  The sunrise itself was subdued and colorless, and while I was initially disappointed by that, it turned out to be a very good thing.  There was fog and a heavy marine layer, so while there was no “color” in the sunrise, there was even, subdued light that positively glowed around the pier, reflected off the water’s surface and lit the pilings from every angle.  I lucked into absolutely perfect conditions for shooting the pier, but didn’t realize it right away.

When I finally went to process the pics, I was surprised and happy with the results, and reminded myself that I don’t always have to hike into the high sierras to get a good shot.

Taking advantage of what my neighborhood has to offer keeps my skills sharp, keeps me shooting, and occasionally surprises me.  It’s a self-directed kind of education I highly recommend.

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