Do you remember doing scavenger hunts as a kid? I have vivid memories of running around my neighborhood looking for seemingly random and useless objects that, when found, brought me so much joy. 

That is what photography is for me today. Every day, I feel joy from driving, walking, or biking around where I live and finding hidden treasures that help me make beautiful photographs. 

It can turn daily life into a little game. Grocery shopping, visits to the park, school drop-off, and even filling up the car with gas become opportunities to find interesting places to take pictures of my girls. 

I find myself looking for color, texture, lines, repetition, light, framing, and negative space. The more unexpected the location, the greater the sense of accomplishment I feel. My favorite images are ones where I find beauty in a spot most people would have walked right past.

For the past few years, I have searched for distinctive photo backdrops within my life as a suburban, stay-at-home mother. My favorites may surprise you! Today I am sharing some creative and effective backdrops for photos that can be found anywhere.  

behind the scenes of mom photographing child playing on driveway karlee hooper
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Unexpected Backdrop girl twirling on driveway covered in chalk art by karlee hooper
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The driveway

My older girls love to color with sidewalk chalk. They are always on board to work with me to create a chalk masterpiece on the driveway!

When they are entertained and happy it makes the process of taking photos so much more pleasant. And the outcome is usually much more successful, too!

I like to explain to my older girls that I am trying to create an interesting photo and ask for them to contribute suggestions to the project at hand. My six-year-old will independently draw an idea out on paper and ask me to help her turn it into a photograph. Sharing my love of photography with her makes the resulting images that much more meaningful.

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Since we are often coloring on the driveway or cul-de-sac, I usually shoot from above. This perspective helps me to avoid distractions and allows me to better capture what is being drawn. In the example below, I actually took the screen out of the window above the driveway so I could lean out and get a higher viewpoint of the wave my oldest wanted to create.

Unexpected Backdrop child drawing stars on asphalt karlee hooper
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Unexpected Backdrop girl drawing yellow stars on black asphalt by karlee hooper
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If you are struggling to come up with ideas for what to draw, just ask your kids! My three-year-old suggested creating the night sky on the blacktop. I gave her a bunch of yellow chalk and taught her how to draw stars.

When our masterpiece was finished, I changed her into a yellow dress. I knew that would make the photo look more cohesive and purposeful. No matter your location, take a few moments to consider and adjust the color palette to create a more intentional photograph.

Unexpected Backdrop- Tunnel Pullback karlee hooper
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Unexpected Backdrop- girl pushing stroller in tunnel karlee hooper
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Tunnels and underpasses

I love shooting in tunnels and underpasses. They have great light at any time of day! Not having to wait until golden hour to shoot is especially helpful to me in the summer months when the sun sets way past my kids’ bedtime.

When in the tunnel, be sure to periodically adjust the direction you are shooting so you can achieve a number of different looks.

Shooting with the light behind them can create dramatic silhouettes or dreamy backlight.

Shooting with the light to the side can give great dimensional light.

Unexpected Backdrop- corrugated metal wall girl with three pairs of sunglasses karlee hooper
side light in a tunnel

And shooting with your subject looking toward the light can create nice, even flat light.

Pro tip: If you are shooting a portrait in a tunnel or underpass, be sure to have catchlights in your subject’s eyes to keep them looking lively (that is, as long as their eyes aren’t covered by three pairs of sunglasses…HA!)

Unexpected Backdrop pullback of kids painting peace signs on large paper karlee hooper
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Unexpected Backdrop girl in overalls painting peace signs karlee hooper
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Art

My daughters love to draw and paint! For that reason, I often try to incorporate their art into my images.

Try photographing your subject against a piece of seamless paper they have decorated. Sometimes I let my girls draw whatever they like, but more often than not I come up with a theme to give us some direction.

Be sure to pay attention to what your subject is wearing so each element in the image looks intentional. Here, I had my daughter change into overalls to go with the painting theme.

Unexpected Backdrops girl holding drawing standing in front of drawing gallery karlee hooper

Another fun way to incorporate art into a photo is to take a portrait using the art your kids bring home from school as the backdrop. This adds interest and meaning to images (and always makes me feel a little less guilty about throwing out the art since I now have a photographic record of it). In addition, my kids feel a sense of pride when they see the finished product.

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Unexpected Backdrop flower bed of purple flowers girl in yellow shirt karlee hooper
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Flower beds

I often take portraits of my girls amongst flowers. And you don’t need an endless meadow of wildflowers to make this work.

Instead, I am talking about the flowers that grow in the manicured areas on the side of the road or even in your own front yard. You really only need a small pocket of flowers to make it look like you were in the middle of the countryside!

Don’t be afraid to pull over when you see some pretty blooms and take a quick shot. Just make sure that you and your subjects are safe if you are close to traffic.

In order to add interest to a flower bed image, I try to get my subjects to interact with the flowers. Throwing petals in the air, picking some blooms, or even decorating my girls’ hair with flowers all work well.

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Unexpected Backdrop- Flower bed yellow flowers girl standing looking into distance karlee hooper
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In this image I used the flowers to add texture and depth to the photo. In order to achieve this both my daughter and I had to step into the flower bed. This allowed her to be surrounded by the yellow blooms with blurred flowers in the foreground and background.

Walls

I always have my eyes peeled for interesting walls when I am driving around. They really are everywhere when you start to look!

My favorites are walls that have extra texture like peeling paint or flowering vines on them. I almost always carry my camera with me so I can stop when I see a potential photo opportunity. If that isn’t possible, I will drop a pin on my phone of the location and make sure to go back within the next few days.

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Unexpected Backdrop girl with wooden camera in front of brick wall with purple flowers yellow dress karlee hooper
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In this picture, I just loved the purple flowers and wanted to play with color theory. So when I went back to take a photo, I was sure to put my daughter in yellow to compliment the purple blooms.

A little planning can really help take an image to the next level. If she had been wearing a different color this image wouldn’t have been as striking.

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Unexpected Backdrop girl with magnifying glass in front of green fence by karlee hooper
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Similar to walls, fences make great backdrops. They are everywhere and have geometric repetition and leading lines naturally built into them.

In this shot, there was a little section of green fence in a cluttered antique shop that made the perfect backdrop for a simple portrait.

Unexpected Backdrops Window decorated with heart garland karlee hooper
Unexpected Backdrops Window decorated with lace hearts girl in tutu black and white karlee hooper

Windows

Windows aren’t just a great light source for images, they are also a great backdrop! Try changing your perspective when shooting and use the window so it is behind your subject as a backlight. From this angle, the window effortlessly frames your subject.

I will often get my girls to help me decorate the windows with a certain theme. The images above were taken two years apart around Valentine’s Day. By incorporating a theme into your imagery, you can add character, charm and a sense of whimsy.

Unexpected Backdrop girl dancing in front of brown wall karlee hooper

Find the beauty in your world

I often have other photographers tell me that their gas stations or sidewalks don’t look as beautiful as the ones near me. I used to think the same thing about the scenery around me!

But now, I simply look a little harder for locations with potential. I am not always successful, but I continue to observe my surroundings everyday as I am out living life.

If you are struggling to see the photographic opportunities around you, try to turn it into a game. Over the next week challenge yourself to find a wall, tunnel or flower bed to use as a backdrop. If your kids are old enough, ask them to help spot prospective locations. Alternatively, create a photographic opportunity around your home using chalk, paint, or the boatload of art your kids bring home from school.

More than anything, let these suggestions and examples help empower you to take notice of your everyday surroundings a little differently. Once you start looking, you will realize the opportunities around you really are endless!

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” -Elliot Erwitt