(The following is excerpted from Inspired Photography: 189 Sources of Inspiration For Better Photos , a new book from the editors of Photopreneur.)
One way to create inspired photography is to be inspired by a story — whether it’s drawn from your own memory, friends, the movies, or somewhere else.
Your Favorite Stories
Everyone has their favorite stories, or at least they should. They’re usually drawn from memory and the best always have an element that’s excessive and unusual. The result could be a story that’s funny or shocking, telling or ridiculous. But it’s always entertaining, and that’s an opportunity for an interesting set of photographs.
Think of the stories that you tell most often, re-create them using your images and tell them in a way you’ve never described before.
Begin by making a list of the anecdotes you want to portray. You can start with one, but a list of half a dozen or so will let you experiment with a greater variety of approaches.
Exaggerate the Unusual
You’ll only be shooting one scene from the story so you’ll need to design a composition that summarizes the meaning of the anecdote. Often, that will be something ridiculous — so to portray it clearly in the image, you’ll need to exaggerate the features that make it so unusual.
So if you had a favorite story about a woman who came into a store and asked for a refund for a shirt that she’d bought 10 years ago and worn ever since, you could create a scene in which an old person brings a 19th century uniform to a returns counter.
Or if you have a favorite story about the time your child tried to “rescue” the cat from the top of the stairs, you could place a ladder against the steps and dress him in a firefighter’s outfit.
Or perhaps some of your anecdotes are a little heavier. If you have a story about the time your brakes failed as you were driving on the highway, you could simply shoot a close-up of the brake pedal or photograph the front of the car with the tree in the background that you almost ended up wrapped around.
Other People’s Stories
You can use other people’s anecdotes for this approach, too. That will give you some helpful distance between the photograph and the event while still supplying the inspiration for the composition itself.
The most powerful inspiration for these pictures won’t lie in other people’s photography; it will lie in conversations. So keep your ears open and pay attention to the stories that your friends and colleagues tell you.
Observation is every artist’s most important tool, so sharpen it by listening to the tales that people relate and the anecdotes that people listen to. The stories that pick up the most attention will be the ones that make the best pictures.
Whichever stories you use, you can expect to find yourself divided between the urge to portray the events faithfully and a desire to promote the meaning at the expense of literalness. That conflict alone should be enough to get you thinking about your images.
Re-Create a Movie Scene
Your friends’ stories might be memorable and your own even more so, but many of the most inspiring stories have already been portrayed on the silver screen.
When a Hollywood screenwriter has been paid a fortune to create a series of scenes and turn them into a story, you can certainly feel free to reinterpret them, re-create them and enjoy re-shooting them with your own personal twist — and who knows, perhaps an entirely new ending.
Call a few friends to take on the parts played by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Combine time, pals, and a few costumes and you could be capturing an afternoon to remember.
Choosing Scenes to Shoot
The choice of top movie scenes is almost endless but you want to choose something that you can work with, and ideally something that you can build on rather than replicate.
A shot that shows your friends racing out of a building in cowboy outfits like the last shot of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” would be fun to create. But it would be even more fun if it showed them surrounded by bodies after they’ve shot their way out — or tragic if it showed what actually happened to Butch and Sundance after that famous freeze-frame.
The opening sequence of a James Bond film could be re-shot with a woman wearing a suit and shooting down the gun barrel to give it a feminist twist and take the icon where the movies have never gone.
Monty Python used to deliberately parody the old Godzilla and King Kong movies using a giant cat as the evil monster. You could add your own take by photographing a teddy bear, your child, or even a tripod — then adding it to a shot of a cityscape so that it appears to menace the streets.
The Back of the Box
Or you could reinterpret a famous car chase by photographing children riding skateboards through sewers as Michael Caine’s gang drove through Rome’s sewers in “The Italian Job,” or leaping through New York in a re-enactment of the car chase in “The French Connection.”
The best place to look for inspiration for these kinds of shots is on the back of DVD boxes. They’ll include small stills intended to show buyers what they’ll find on the disc. Those are usually the most memorable scenes — and a good place to start thinking about what you should be shooting.