creativity exercise | 7 ways to capture contemporary culture with your camera

dora sheets by KristyDooley

We all know that a photograph captures a moment in time, yet so often we extol the merits of a photograph’s “timelessness.” What does it even mean to shoot a photograph that is “timeless”? We define it variously as enduring, abiding, or withstanding the test of time. In characterizing a photograph as timeless, we often look to some combination of artistic style, photographic technique, story, and subject matter, asking ourselves, “Could this have emerged from any era? Is it likely to resonate with viewers decades or even centuries from now?”

listening to music on iphone by rcjcc
*image by rcjcc

With this in mind, we may also strip elements from the frame that could “date” a photo, such as contemporary fashion, technology, or brand elements. While there is certain merit in creating images that transcend time and trend entirely, embracing a more documentary approach serves a purpose of its own. Consider, for example, the extent to which there is value in using your camera to record concrete details of everyday life or to capture images that might later trigger meaningful memories. This month, we’re going to work on deliberately dating our photos — not with trendy techniques or processing, but with the elements we choose to include within the frame. Take a portrait of yourself, your significant other, your child(ren), or simply the world around you, deliberately incorporating elements that provide the clear context of present-day. Identify subjects or settings that are certain to become anachronisms within the next decade or so. Ask this question before you set out to shoot: “If I were to create a time capsule for myself or for my children that represents the present generation, what items would I put in it?” Can you include these in your image? Here are a few elements you might incorporate as part of this challenge:

1) Newspaper or Magazine: We know that a newspaper is the quintessential representation of daily events. What magazines are popular right now? What are the hot topics in politics, entertainment, technology, or fashion? Incorporating a notable headline makes for especially compelling context and might even provide the foundation around which you build the story in the frame.

2) Product Placement: Include identifiably branded products just as they do in television and film. Here, it’s less about advertising and more about the way logo typography, packaging styles, or the products themselves help to date the image.

3) Contemporary Fashion, Accessories, or Hairstyles: Some things never go out of style; we’re going to incorporate the things that will. Indeed, hair and wardrobe are primary cues when dating vintage photos. And remember, one day, your photos will be vintage, too!

4) Toys and Books: What are the toys of the moment? From Teddy Ruxpin and Cabbage Patch dolls to Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmo, toy trends can often be linked to a particular generation. Consider, too, popular books or movies of today and the way they (or their accompanying products) can be incorporated in the frame.

5) Technology: It seems like nothing changes faster than contemporary technology. Modern gadgets, vehicles, or mobile technology provide wonderful context.

6) Architecture, Furniture, and Interior Design: How might your general environment help to define a present-day setting? This may not work as well if you tend to embrace a classic design aesthetic or live in a turn of the century home, but if you are all about on-trend colors or patterns, modern furniture, or your home’s architecture has distinctively contemporary elements, you can work these into your photo.

7) Local Culture: Is there a popular retail shop, restaurant, or downtown area that might provide a great backdrop for the times? Might you capture some contemporary fashion amongst strangers (as found in The Sartorialist or Humans of New York)? Or perhaps you could photograph elements that might be approaching the end of their existence, such as pay phones, the American shopping mall, or urban storefronts.

The goal this month is to compose an image that bears a visual time stamp of today. This is different, of course, from just shooting snapshots that include the authentic environment; you should still compose your images carefully and deliberately. The image might feature era-relevant elements prominently or formally — such as an environmental portrait of a child in her poster-adorned bedroom or surrounded by a careful layout of her favorite toys of the moment. Or the image might provide more subtle cues, such as the branded cereal packaging visible on the kitchen counter. The key is to create a beautiful photograph that someone might look at in 20 years and be able to identify as an image from today. For an extra challenge, think about how timelessness can coexist with fads, trends, and obsolete technology. In what ways might your children’s children look back on these images, learn a little something about the era, and still powerfully connect with the subject, setting, or story? How might you incorporate stories or emotions that are universally enduring alongside elements that will be fascinatingly outdated in a few years?

editors choice!

Clickin Moms editors choice award

Congratulations to the ladies below whose photographs were selected as this month’s Editors Choices!


maternity photo by elodie


boy playing on iPhone by amcarlon


fallen building photo by annmariek


photo of new family by carriey


toys by StaceyBeilman


watching tv by nataliej


superman and my little pony balloon by chrissywichman


minecraft book by kimberly_smithphotography


dora sheets by KristyDooley

Thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise! We love seeing all the beautiful imagery! Do you want to participate in the next Creativity Exercise? Visit the forum here where Sarah Wilkerson has challenged us with the theme “The Unplanned Diptych“. We’d love to see your work!

free creative photography exercises by Sarah Wilkerson for Clickin Moms


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