On Boston's Beacon Hill, a bright-red door, illuminated by a hanging lantern and framed by a brick archway, struck me as beautiful. So I pointed my camera and shot picture after picture until the door swung open, and a barefoot guy emerged, his hair a little tousled, his white T-shirt wrinkled from sleep. He didn't look up at the group of camera-wielding tourists standing feet away from him on the sidewalk. He simply bent over, plucked the newspaper from his stoop, and retreated quickly back into the house.
Our tour guide, Saba Alhadi, seemed unfazed.
"Five days a week, two tours a day," she told us of her schedule, suggesting that Beacon Hill's residents are used to neck-craning interest in their neighborhood.
Of course, Beacon Hill has been photographed countless times by countless numbers of tourists who hike up and down its winding, cobbled lanes. In fact, the narrow, sloping Acorn Street is said to be the most-photographed street in Boston. But if those tourists are anything like me, most of their artfully shot photos were taken purely by accident. So instead of going it alone, my brother, Harry, and I were exploring with PhotoWalks, which runs photo "safaris" that combine historical walking tours with photography tips.
"We're still in door-knocker mode," Alhadi announced to the group of about 15 of us, pointing her camera at a shiny brass door knocker. We saw on her camera's digital display that the door knocker was reflecting the house across the street.
"There are three things I need on Beacon Hill for a great tour," Alhadi said. "Great light, polished door knockers, and colorful window boxes."
The distorted reflection of the house looked really cool, and we all gripped our cameras eagerly, waiting for our turn to photograph the door knocker. When it was my turn, I climbed the steps up to the door and shot quickly, hoping whoever was on the other side of the door didn't open it to find my camera lens shoved in his face.
As we walked on, Alhadi pointed out neat little details of the neighborhood that we might have overlooked, like the pinecone that tops the gold-domed Massachusetts State House and how shiny the cobblestones look right after the rain.
"I've always had an eye for photography," Alhadi said, whose career as a travel agent and love for taking pictures led her to create PhotoWalks nearly a decade ago. "Walking engages all the senses. All you have to do is ask yourself, how can I shoot this creatively?"
As we walked, we noticed a door that looks as if it has a face thanks to two windows for eyes and a door-knocker nose. Alhadi showed us reflections in puddles and pretty windows framed by branches.
"It makes you look at things differently," said Cassandra, a woman on the tour. "Puddles will never look the same again."
And in fact, that was one of the biggest advantages of the PhotoWalk. During the tour's 90 minutes I did not become Ansel Adams, but I did see things through my viewfinder that I never would have noticed myself. I also learned a few tips for composing better pictures.
For instance, at the beginning of the tour, I tried to get a shot of a Freedom Trail marker on the sidewalk, but it just didn't look right.
"Just try to get the word Boston," Alhadi advised, as she leaned in to check on my shot. She put her hand over mine to tilt my camera slightly, and presto: a decent picture.
"Just a few inches makes a big impact on the end result," she said.
By the end of the tour, we needed less hand-holding from Alhadi and were more confident in our approach. Instead of waiting meekly to copy her shots, we were ducking under railings and lying on the ground to discover our own.
And even though lots of my photos were of the door knockers, windows, and wrought iron railings that make Beacon Hill famous, turning the camera on the tour itself produced one of my favorite pictures of the day. It shows a cluster of amateur photographers at the top of Acorn Street, squatting on the cobblestones and squinting into their viewfinders, seeing that most-photographed street in a new way for the first time, and trying to find their own perfect shot.