This is a more subtle and difficult aspect of photography, a topic I’ve thought about off and on ever since I picked up a camera. Until now I’ve avoided writing about it. It’s one of those things you sort of feel when you see a picture. It can be subtle, and perhaps you don’t notice when it’s missing. But every image that has a sense of place is better for it, often much better.
I’m very subject-centered when it comes to photography. I really only care about the subject. It sometimes seems I only care about light, but that’s because any subject looks better in beautiful light. While a lot of photographers look for a subject (like a person or interesting tree) to put into a scene, for me it’s mostly about the scene itself. That’s because every scene is a place, and I think of places as subjects. Any interesting things – people, animals, rocks or trees – that I can include in the scene are there because they make the place more interesting to look at. For me, they’re smaller elements of the larger subject, the place. But if they don’t really belong there, I don’t really like the picture.
Okay, so now that you know my biases on the topic, let’s see what we can do about laying out ways to insert a sense of place into your images. By the way, even if you’re mostly a people photographer, or you do wildlife, these tips apply to you, maybe even more so than to landscape photographers. And if you do travel photography, this is important stuff!
- Learn as much as you can about the place: the plants, animals, human and prehistory. Of course you’re going to know more about areas close to home, but don’t get complacent. We’ve all been surprised to learn something we didn’t know about our home-towns or states. Use that knowledge in your photography. The more you know, the better your pictures will be, so when traveling don’t just research places to photograph. Start with the background information and let photo spots fall out from that.
- Study the pictures in magazines like National Geographic. The editors at Nat. Geo. nearly always choose images with a strong sense of place.
- Photograph during “typical” weather conditions. For example, I live in the Pacific Northwest. This area is most famous for its rain and tall trees. I know (more than many residents) how diverse it is here, with glaciers, deserts and canyons, sunny grasslands. But when I can, and at least in western Oregon and Washington, I do landscape photography during rainy spells. If you avoid the stormy weather here, you are not going to capture images with the strongest sense of place.
- When you have a strong subject, by all means zoom in. But also make images with a hint of background, perhaps out of focus. Include shots that are dominated by landscape, with the subject much smaller. Try putting the subject in the background with a ‘typical’ foreground. In other words, mix it up and shoot at a variety of focal lengths and apertures. When you view the pictures later, ask yourself which one has the best balance between impact/interest and a sense of place.
- Speaking of strong subjects, when you’re looking for subjects to target, think about how strongly they will place themselves. In other words, photographing waterfalls here in the Pacific Northwest is a no-brainer in terms of sense of place, even if a bit obvious. Some things like lighthouses could be on any coastline. So be on the lookout for elements that will zero in on the specific area.
- Move around. This is good general practice, but when combined with an open-minded focus, this can really open up compositions that add a sense of place. Sometimes I’m not even aware of it, but the desire to shoot a composition that is unusual or different will often yield a picture with a strong sense of place.
- While you’re moving around, try shots with very wide angles, focal lengths shorter than 17 mm. Even consider getting a fisheye lens. When combined with getting very close to things, this will help to put viewers into the image, which is part of giving them a sense of place.
- Look for compositions that include the little things that will tell viewers where the place is. This shouldn’t be subtle. People might not know as much about the place as you do, and so need fairly obvious elements to place it. For example, Spanish moss in the deep south, ferns here in the Pacific Northwest, red rocks in the Southwest, eucalyptus trees in Australia and baobabs or mopane trees in Africa.
- Include shots with plenty of depth. I wrote a blog post with tips on adding a sense of depth to your images, so check that out. Anytime your images have the illusion of depth, the viewer is drawn into the image as if they were there. By itself this doesn’t do much for your goal of including a sense of place, but in combination with the other things, it can be powerful.
- Shoot details and small scenes. This allows you to focus on one aspect of a place. It’s a great way to zero in on small elements that help to place the image, things that might get lost if they were part of a larger composition.
- Also do the opposite of the above. Step back and show the surroundings. Sometimes you can be too close, or inside of a place, which robs the viewer of the ability to see its overall setting. Sometimes this is called the “establishment shot”. It establishes the setting.
- Don’t forget a good caption. I did a recent post on captions. Although your photo should do most of the work of giving the viewer a sense of place, why not include a good subject-centered, educational caption to fill things out?
- Don’t turn up your nose at shooting the occasional sign, if they’re interesting and can be used to place photos in a slide show.
- Including some human elements in landscape photographs can help to give them a sense of place. For example, a rail fence says ranch country; when combined with quaking aspens, the impression of a rural Rocky Mountain setting is strong.
- One caveat: Beware the cliche! There is a balance between not being too subtle and overdoing things. This is most common with travel photography. If you’re including something like the Eiffel Tower, make it a small part of the scene, or somehow get a fresh take on it. Don’t avoid shooting something like the Taj Mahal straight on, especially in beautiful light. Just move around and try different compositions and perspectives.
- When it comes time to process your images on the computer, pay close attention to the mood you create. Often it’s useful to try the image in black and white to see if it strengthens its sense of place. The idea of place is tied to that of time, so if you think having an ‘old-timey’ look will help, then go for it! Whatever you do, don’t treat all images in a similar way (such as high contrast and saturated colors). This is from someone who was guilty of that for a time.
An image with a strong sense of place can make the viewer a part of the scene, which of course strengthens your images and makes people want to look at them. And it’s not just travel photography that benefits; all sorts of pictures are made better with a sense of place. Have a great weekend and happy shooting!