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The story behind that picture: "Feel inspired to photograph"

By: Thorsten Overgaard


Inspiration is fundamental for photographing; at least if you want it to be fun and you try to reach results above the norm

Some times one may find ones camera sensor as empty as the white paper of the writer with writers block. Then it is time to get inspired, but how to do so?

Bill taking a stand during our workshop in San Francisco


Use your eyes

I find there are several ways to get inspired.

The one I use the most is always carrying a camera when I am traveling, walking, driving, having lunch or meeting people. Opposite to the idea of "going out to photograph" I do not feel a pressure that I have to find photographs but can simply go about with my business and - when inspiration strikes - take advantage of the fact that my camera is with me and ready.


The Lightroom Survival Kit


I can go with my camera for a whole day without taking a single picture without feeling failed or bad about it. But if I walked out and saw a picture and didn't have my camera, that would make me feel guilty.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


Carrying a camera

When I say that I always carry my camera, it actually means that I carry it in a simple thin leather strap across my chest. I don't use lens cap, and the camera is always on. It is basically ready to use within few seconds warning, and I will even adjust the ISO and white balance to where I walk, just to be ready. But usually done as automatically as I switch my mobile to soundless when in a cinema or similar place.


"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera"

- Dorothea Lange


"Fix More, Whine Less" does this t-shirt say on 24th Street in San Francisco. Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


I must admit I find it hard to recommend people a camera "you can always have with you" because few cameras blend in as well as the Leica M. I would not suggest that I know of all cameras, because I may be one of the most ignorant people when it comes to what is new in the camera business. The Canon G12, the Fuji X100, the Leica X2 and a few others could be used a nice camera over the shoulder but mostly invites to live in a bag or a purse.

So many cameras are compact but are not made for hanging silent and ready over the shoulder. They often have a built-in lens cap or a long zoom that expands when you turn it on. And too often they come with a bag or cover that invites to bag the camera and only take it out for sunny days. Hence it is not really ready, is it?


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


Go out and photograph

I am not a big fan of "going out to photograph" because it can often imply that there are something to photograph. And often you may actually take a direction where there is nothing really inspiring. Or it is just one of those days you don't feel the force.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


When I think of "going out to photograph" I think of the people I see on Sundays walking out with a rug sack with too many lenses - and a large tripod, just in case. They may very well have left a message at home to their girlfriend, "Out photographing, will be back tonight."

I find that approach wrong in that photography is a way to capture life as it happens, not a scheduled activity such as goes skiing in the mountains or doing garden work.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


Thought is can be a workable method to get something done. Some days ago we went out "to take photographs" in San Francisco, and I wonder how we did go about with that?

In retro perspective, what we do is that we are actually a group of likeminded people who may have some intelligent ides to share and something to talk about in case everything else fails.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


But I always stress that we are not "out to take photographs" but will meet in a nice coffee place in the morning and then walk towards some destination that may simply be a good lunch place or a camera store to visit. Or if someone needs new shoes, that is a good goal to have as well.

And why is this? Because you should always walk towards something so that the goal is to get somewhere - and photograph whatever inspires you on the way, not to just walk around in a town photographing.


Richard having coffee and photographing from a well-selected spot in a cafe in San Francisco during my workshop.


Add to that that everyone know they have to take photos and from the ones they have taken, they will have to select three the day after to present to the others.

So many times I hear people say, "I am not sure I will have three good photographs" and even more often I hear the pain the day after, trying to edit the good images down to just three images to show.

Editing is about one third of doing good photographs.

You could also do this by your self. Have the purpose to make one or three good photos to publish on Facebook, a photo forum or other. Purpose is good, and having an audience in mind helps.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


When I say, "go out to photograph", some could get the idea it has to be out door, and that would simply be wrong. Actually, often the best photos are taken when we are not taking photos. When you take a break in a cafe to have a coffee, or when someone has to go into a store to buy a bag or a pair of sandals.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


Photographing and documenting life as it happens

I think many more people should bring a camera to work as few or nobody take on the job of being the 'staff photographer' who captures and preserve the current daily life for the future. Once you start bringing a camera, and using is casually, you will start getting results that your colleagues will love you for. Not too many people have a great photo of them self they are proud of, even fewer have photos of them self, doing what they spend most their time doing - working!


Some people see cars like this in the street all the time where they live, some never see things like that. If the people who see them every day would realize how fantastic this is and photgoraph some more of what they experience as the dull every-day ... This way people who see classic cars every day but never have seen an ice bear can exchange pictures with those who see ice bears every day but never any classic cars!


The same goes for the trip to and from work. You have seen that strip so often you wouldn't consider the idea there would be pictures to get. But there is, and if you bring a camera you may start seeing it in a new unit of time.

A fanatic runner performs a few athletic routines in a park in San Francisco.


Looking for everyday action

So many feel that a good reason to photograph requires great sunshine and lots of activity. Such as a flea market, a pride march, an open house in the school or similar.


A group of young people having a talk outside a cafe in San Francisco. Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


It is true that something is happening, and often it is too much. Especially places in cities designed for family or tourist activity, are mostly straight-forward ugly places with clumsy architecture and too many signs screaming for attention, not to mention the crowds of tired people.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


Inspiration is something you seek, not something that is thrown at you. Hence a very quiet street can inspire you to look for things and details that you would never see in a busy place, and it offers you time to reflect and play with the possibilities.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.0 and B&W 8X ND-filter


So make it a rule that you provide the inspiration, not seek somebody who has the aim to entertain you. You don't really need more entertainment than your eyes and the camera.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


When we walked out in San Francisco a few days ago, we met in a nice coffee place in the morning and walked from there. It was in the midst of the Mission District with everyday people, trees along the streets, funky shops and what you could call ordinary San Francisco life.

What would have been a mistake would have to go to somewhere where 'something is happening' because there is things happening in even the smallest streets with few or no people about.



Even in an empty landscape things are happening. The colors change over the year and the light changes from one hour to the next, changing the shapes and atmosphere of the place.


In an empty street we stumbled over this old Volvo that had been cared for by the same young owner for the last 15 years. So we spent a good half hour playing with the light and the shapes of it. Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter

Bill having a go with the Volvo


Leica Galerie Salzburg


Doing research

A sure way to get inspiration is one I seldom use. Which is to do research on a place. I hardly ever know much more about a new city I visit than what hour I will be arriving in the airport and where I will need to go to from there. I believe in first impressions.


I am a bit ignorant in the way that I prefer to learn by seeing, perhaps I even hope to see something others haven't seen (by not having my viewpoint polluted by research). I like to sense the soul of a city or country by being there, and then learn a few interesting facts while there. As for example that Los Angeles used to be a desert (why it is so cold at night), or that Singapore has a plan to grow from 12 million to 20 million people over the next 8 years (mainly by importing qualified people from outside).


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.0 and B&W 8X ND-filter


I really don't need to know who won the war 70 years ago and who built the library. Tough, if I did fancy to research things like that, I would get inspired to photograph them.

Research is a sure way to get inspiration, also for writers who just don't know what to write about or how to get started. One way of getting inspired is definitely studying the images, the history, the facts, the trades, the food, the current affairs, etc of a place. 

But walking about looking for cool hats or good coffee is also research, and that is why it inspires.


Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter. Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 and B&W 8X ND-filter


Having a goal

When I go and do a reportage or portrait, my research is to know what the editor think is the story so I can break it down to images that will express that. I work more in imagining the atmosphere there will be in the final photos rather than who, how many or where. I pre-vision the atmosphere I want to communicate, before I go there.

The atmosphere is the general impression as well as the light, the mood of the scenery and the people.

So you could say that with that aim to capture such an expression, I then do research on location so to find the right light, background and framing. And that is in it self inspiration, because when you go look you always find something unexpected, something extra, something challenging.

When something unexpected happens in what is there and what you had imagined it would be like, suchs as bad weather, no light, not enough space, or other difficult things that make the shot more difficult ... that will be an advantage. This is where inspiration comes in.


Ana was a tourist from Madrid in San Francisco we asked if she would model a bit - and she would. Leica M9 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.0 and B&W 8X ND-filter


But having a goal makes you think and inspires you. Setting your self the goal to document your kids growing up, their first school day, or a cool portrait of your parents before it is too late. All those things starts a lot of thoughts about how, why, what to express, where and when to do it, and so on. That is inspiration.


William Palank, Richard and Bill editing images in San Francisco. Leica M9 with Leica 21mm Super-Elmar-M ASPH f/3.4

I hope this was inspiration to get inspired. Feel free to e-mail me for suggestions, questions or anything else at And consider joining one of my workshops one day.



Thorsten Overgaard, July 24, 2012



Photo above: San Francisco July 2012 with Leica M9 and Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.0 (1990-version). © 2012 Thorsten Overgaard. All Rights Reserved.


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Thorsten Overgaard
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.

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