Signs surround us every day to the point that they become mundane and, in a way, invisible to us. In fact, when composing many images we try to find that nice angle that will eliminate the clutter of all the signs.
As a photographer you need to remember that you are a visual storyteller. And some signs can add tremendous value to many stories. When you travel to foreign lands you’ll find that photos of signs can be an incredible way to illustrate your travels. These images can identify not only the place but often provide insight into the culture. So, don't dismiss signs all together. Find ways to use them in your work.
When The Sign is The Story
Sometimes the sign is the story. SMU in Plano recently installed new signs on their campus and they wanted photos to document the project. One feature of the signs was the fact that they were lighted signs so obviously the story had to be told at night.
My solution was to shoot at dusk and light-paint the area, highlighting the sign. Now SMU has a photo to show how effective the signs are on a busy street at night. They are happy - I'm happy.
Document Your Travel
As you travel around photographing the world, remember to take photos of some of the signs along the way. These don't have to be works of art. The intent is to simply record some type of documentation about the place you are visiting or the subject you are photographing.
For example, one recent trip took me to Washington DC and a visit to the Hirshhorn Museum. In one corner was a polyester resin and fiberglass sculpture by Australian artist Ron Mueck - Untitled (Big Man). It's quite eye catching - and personally I think quit ugly - but it certainly is part of the story of our visit. So, how do I remember all this? I took a photo of the sign. This photo is used only to record information about the subject so I can remember it at a later date. I don't worry about white balance, exposure composition. I just need to be able to read the sign when I get back home.
Signs as Part of the Story
When putting together an album or slide show, you can use photos of signs to mark your progress and help describe the locale. And don’t underestimate the humor that some signs provide whether it is intentional or unintended.
One year our family took a vacation to Paris and while walking down the street I noticed a large sign in a storefront window. It begged to be a part of an image - not just a background or record of where we were, but an integral part of the story. So I asked my son to go stand by the sign and act nonchalant. (Ask a teenager to act nonchalant - that's a whole other story.) The result is a fun shot of my son Drew seemingly being fondly admired by a stranger.
Next time you pack your bag and head out on another adventure, be sure to pay attention to the signs along the way. Signs can help you document your travels, add to the story and provide insight into a foreign culture. And, from time to time, the sign can be the story.
If you've found some great or funny signs along the way, please send them to Rob so we can share them. Use this link to upload your sign images and we'll share them with other Corbell Photographic Workshops fans.