A Sense of Place

You may be a good photographer, but are you a good travel photographer?  They’re not the same thing.  Taking great travel photos involves more than finding a beautiful place and making an amazing photo of it.  When we only do this we end up with a lot of great photos but they don’t feel like they come together to say anything.  This leaves our viewers wanting more, wanting to know what it feels like to be in a place, to experience life through your unique and amazing point of view.  To be travel photographers we need to move beyond just taking random photos and instead create a sense of place. 

Here are some useful concepts to consider when taking travel photos.

Sense of Place

Dotonburi Shopping Street at Night, Osaka, Japan - 2014
A wide shot establishes the chaos of Dontonbori Street in Osaka, Japan

Travel is about experiencing new places.  As travel photographers we ask ourselves what makes this place different and special to us?  Is it the people, the activities, the architecture, the food, the weather?  Monuments and grand vistas are fun to shoot but the meaning of a place is in its details.  Identifying and shooting the things that make a place unique helps our photos work together to tell a more complete story.

In movies there’s the concept of the establishing shot.  It’s an initial shot that shows the big picture of where we are and how everything fits together.  If you’re going to show what a place is like you’ll need to get a wide general shot.

Thai Man in Phuket
A close up doesn’t show us what’s going on.
Phuket Vegetarian Festival Blessing
A wide shot shows us about the event.

When shooting subjects we give them more meaning by showing how they fit in to the bigger picture. Shooting a subject in isolation strips it of it’s place in the world. Including context, the world behind and around the object, creates a larger story and meaning. A photo that includes the surroundings gives a better sense of the place than a closeup.

As travel photographers our biggest responsibility is to get a variety of photos to communicate a sense of place. We do this by showing the things that make it special to us, by showing the big picture and how small details fit in to that picture.

Uniqueness

Transamerica Building
Typical shot of the Transamerica building in San Francisco.
Transamerica Building Reflected in a Window
A layered shot shows the building, is more interesting, and gives the flavor the neighborhood.

Let’s face it, there are already many amazing photos of every famous place. Those landmarks are an important part of showing off a location. But if you want to stand out, don’t shoot a landmark the same way as everyone else. Show your own point of view, what you feel about it. This can be hard, there’s no easy advice on how to do this, but it’s what makes your pictures personal and different from the crowd.

Some tricks I use to get a different look include finding a new viewpoint like laying on the ground, viewing it through something else like a window, viewing it as a reflection, and viewing it in a different type of lighting. You are not like everyone else so don’t shoot the same photos as everyone else.

People

Hiking the Greenstone Track in New Zealand
We feel a connection with the hikers on the Greenstone Track in New Zealand.
Greenstone Track in New Zealand
The track without people is lovely, but has less story.

Do you wait for people to get out of your way so you can take your photo? You may be missing an opportunity. People are the heart of a place. People are fascinating. This might not apply to landscape photos, but for travel photos a place feels more meaningful when we see a person doing something. It’s a different way of approaching photos from just shooting pretty places, waiting for person to join and enhance the composition, but it’s worth it for the connection and meaning it adds.

When people are the main subject, shooting close up with a wide lens and personal connection feels much more intimate than a sneaky shot taken from across the street with a zoom lens. It’s easy to be sneaky since we don’t have to do much to get the shot. But I say don’t be sneaky, be friendly and intimate. 

For a lot of us approaching strangers is hard. We feel like we’re intruding and should leave them alone! So how to do it? It’s a matter of attitude, of keeping in mind the special thing you saw in these people. Keep that vision in your heart with a smile, a sense of joy, an excitement that these people are awesome and what a great photo you’re going to make together. 

Samurai Relaxing after the Fall Yabusame Parade, Nikko, Japan - 2014
A sneaky telephoto shot lacks a feeling of connection.
Shrine Carriers Giving Blessing at Hotel Offering Table, Phuket Vegetarian Festival, Thailand - 2015
A friendly, close, wide shot feels more connected and exciting.

After you connect with them remember that you are working to get a great shot and don’t be shy about coaching them, in a friendly way, over to a place with better light or background. Stick with them until you get the shot you want, don’t fall back in to feeling like you’re intruding. Remember to always be kind and don’t get so excited that you end up ordering people or pushing them around to get what you want.

To get them to relax you have to be relaxed. One way is, after they’ve agreed to let you shoot them, to relax and hang out until they get comfortable and stop paying attention to you. Then you can shoot casually without worrying about them tensing up and going in to stiff poses.

Photos of people will feel more intimate if they are shot close up with a wide lens. Not every photo needs people but viewers feel a personal connection to a place when there are people doing something in the photo. And after all, connecting with people is often the best part of travel and of getting to the heart of a place.

Punctuation

Flying Fox (bat, inverted) with Watermelon, Bali, Indonesia - 2016
The small piece of red watermelon makes the image more interesting.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia - 2015
The orange robes provide a contrast to the grey stone.

It’s fun taking photos of architecture, doors, alleys and different parts of the local environment. But you can make these photos more interesting by adding ‘punctuation’. Punctuation is an element that pops out and adds interest. A photo of a beautiful door is great but it’s much more engaging if there is a local person passing through. A gentleman is more engaging with a red flower in his lapel. Be careful not to make your punctuation overwhelming, a simple small spot of color can make a huge difference.

Gesture

Robot Restaurant, Tokyo, Japan
Imagine how much less interesting this would be if they were just standing there.

Watch people’s actions, shapes, and gestures. A person doing something is more interesting than someone just standing. A person sitting at a fruit stand is less interesting than if they were stacking the fruit.

Sarria on the Camino Santiago
We don’t see this person arms and shape so they just look like a black rectangle.
Hiking the Routeburn Track in New Zealand
This person is more interesting because of the separation and shape of the arms and legs.

Gestures serve another purpose as well, they make for better shapes in the composition. A person with legs or arms away from the body looks more active and is easier to identify as a person.

Travel Light

When an opportunity comes up you need to be ready to shoot it in an instant. Convenience, mobility, and speed are key. When walking around town I just carry one camera and 28-300 zoom lens. I also have shoulder bag with cleaning supplies, memory cards, batteries, and a polarization filter. It’s not all the gear I travel with, but it’s a nice easy set up for the times I spend walking around exploring.

Take Time

Adare Manor, Ireland - 2013
Adare Manor in Ireland is lovely during the day.
Adare Manor, Ireland - 2013
But at night it has a new kind of magic.

Most of us don’t have much time and grab the best picture we can at the moment. When the picture is not great we make excuses like ‘it was too crowded’, ‘I was only there when the light was bad’, ‘I only had a short time to get the shot’. But if you want to get to know a place and find that magical shot you need to take time. Travel photographers have to spend more time finding shots than tourists do.

One way to hunt that magical shot is to find a nice spot where you can see composition you really like, then have a seat and a coffee and wait for a couple hours for something to happen like an interesting person to come in to your photo, the light to improve, or the crowd to form a pleasing pattern.

Revisit a place you like over and over. Places take on new personalities on different days and times, with different people, events, or weather.

Conclusion

These are just tips, ideas on ways to get more feeling and consistency in your travel shots. None of these are rules and you shouldn’t stress about them and should just enjoy shooting. Travel is about learning about others, ourselves, and our place in the world. The camera is a tool that helps us slow down and examine what a place means to us. With a bit of thought, time, and technique we can create a set of photographs that are uniquely ours, that feel complete and consistent, and that share our experience with the world.

Recommended Reading…

Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision – David duChemin
A Sense of Place – Michael Shapiro
The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen

Acknowledgements

A special thank you to the National Geographic photographers who helped me learn these valuable lessons: Robert Holmes, Catherine Karnow, and Andrea Johnson.

14 thoughts on “A Sense of Place

  1. Kia ora from New Zealand,

    Love all your posts – this one particularly moved me as your detail to word followed up by photographs as the example were wonderful and so easy for me to understand. I am so excited about getting out there with my camera again soon.

    Loved your shot of the Greenstone Track in NZ too. Was quite buzzy to see my country in amongst your photographic adventures.

    More power to you …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the great comment. It’s nice getting feedback like this to know how I’m doing, and it makes me feel great to know I’ve inspired someone, even a little, to enjoy photography.

      I miss NZ! I was there for six weeks and feel like I saw just a very small part of it. Great people and beautiful country.

      Best wishes, Ron

      Like

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