Purpose is the beginning of an assignment for sports photographer John McDonnell: Go to a press conference, make a portrait, go to a game. Serendipity is rarely part of the plan because there is usually a lot of travel, heavy equipment to haul and press credentials to navigate before the game even begins. Encyclopedic knowledge of game action can help when trying to capture the fleeting moments — think about the buckling of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin’s knee or the game-winning hockey goal with two seconds left — that make sports history.

So imagine the surprise McDonnell’s fans felt when he started to post images of brussels sprouts and leaves and daffodils on his Instagram feed this year. He began to keep his smartphone in his pocket all the time to capture the photographs he always saw on the road but rarely took. The influence of the master photographers he has studied with such passion over the years began to show up: Bert Stern (see martini glass), Henri Cartier-Bresson (see man on the street in Providence) and Ernst Haas (see red raindrops on the car window), to name a few. When McDonnell captured the plane’s shadow on the football field of Georgetown University, we learned a bit about his strategies. “I always sit on the left side of the plane when I fly into National Airport so I can photograph the National Mall out the window. But I saw this instead.” And he was ready.

It is with this set of photographs that we start the series “While I Was There,” to showcase the images that photographers capture for themselves while working for other people.