Friday Foto Talk: A Sense of Place   22 comments

The ranch country of southwestern Colorado in late autumn.

The ranch country of southwestern Colorado in late autumn.

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.

Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park, Utah speaks strongly of the American Southwest.

Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park, Utah speaks strongly of the American Southwest.

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.
This farmstead in Nepal is complimented and also placed by virtue of the high mountain in the background.

This shot of a farmstead in Nepal has a stronger sense of place by virtue of the high Himalayan mountain in the background.

      • 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.
The rugged coast along the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington is often wrapped in fog.

The rugged coast along the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington is often wrapped in fog.

      • 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.
This house in Leadville, Colorado, registered as a historic landmark, is better placed with the foreground picket fence.

This house in Leadville, Colorado, registered as a historic landmark, is better placed with the foreground picket fence.

      • 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.
A very recent image of Latourell Falls in the Columbia River Gorge was captured during typical Oregon weather.

A very recent image of Latourell Falls in the Columbia River Gorge was captured during typical Oregon weather.

Several subtle elements come together here to place this shot: palms, rice paddy, distinctive house.  Take a guess where it is.

Several subtle elements come together here to place this shot.  Look at the plant growth, the unique house, and take a guess where it is in a comment below.

      • 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.
The ferns and big trees give this image a strong sense of place, and many viewers would recognize the trees as redwoods, greatly narrowing  things down.

The ferns and big trees give this image a strong sense of place, and many viewers would recognize the trees as redwoods, greatly narrowing things down.

      • 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.
The adobe construction of this historic home in Taos, New Mexico is apparent in this image.

The adobe construction is apparent in this image of a historic home in Taos, New Mexico.

      • 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.
The mountain town of Ouray, Colorado is closely surrounded by the spectacular San Juan Mountains.

The mountain town of Ouray, Colorado is closely surrounded by the spectacular San Juan Mountains.

 

      • 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.
Crossing into a remote part of Colorado on a lonely road.

Crossing into a remote part of Colorado on a lonely road.

      • 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.
Sometimes the residents of an area have done the work for you.  Shooting public art like this mural in Taos, New Mexico can add to your image the sense of place felt by the artist.

Sometimes the residents of an area have done the work for you. Shooting public art like this mural in Taos, New Mexico can add to your image the sense of place felt by the artist.  The adobe construction also helps place it.

Colorado in fall means the quaking aspen are in golden leaf.

Colorado in fall means the quaking aspen are in golden leaf.

      • 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.
Prayer flags in the Himalaya are not hard to find, so they have become super-abundant in pictures.  But they still insert a strong sense of place into an image.  Just don't overuse them!

Prayer flags in the Himalaya are not hard to find, so they have become super-abundant in pictures. But they still insert a strong sense of place into an image. Just don’t overuse them!

      • 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.
This image of Lake Crescent on Washington's Olympic Peninsula has the kind of low-key atmosphere that called for sepia and film grain.

Lake Crescent on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula has the kind of low-key atmosphere that harkens back to the old days of summer vacation, a mood enhanced by sepia and film grain.

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!

This is actually one of my favorite images from the desert southwest.  I know many wouldn't agree, but you tell me.  Despite the lack of any obvious identifying features, does it give a strong sense of place?

Road to Nowhere:  This image is actually one of my favorite images from the desert southwest. I know many wouldn’t agree, but you tell me. Despite the lack of any obvious identifying features, does it have a strong sense of place?

An image from Arches National Park in Utah profiles the park's typical 'fins' of orange sandstone.

An image from Arches National Park in Utah profiles the park’s typical ‘fins’ of orange sandstone.

 

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22 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: A Sense of Place

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  1. The Southwest photo reminds me of where I lived on an Indian reservation nearly 40 yrs. ago. The stark beauty is haunting and if you look closely there was a lot going on. Wish I had my current camera then.

  2. Pingback: Take Me There | Eric E Photo

  3. Very nice photos! Our next vacation in a few months is going to be to the Southwest – you have given me some ideas on perspective. Camille

  4. Great post, so many solid points! I also like to spend some time at a place NOT photographing it so I can get a feel for the place. I think that if we want to capture and share the sense of place, we need to be there. I’ve spent an entire day not shooting and I occasionally miss out on a good image but sometimes moments are better without a camera:)

  5. Your image and text drew me into your points.

  6. Thank you for your lesson… There are so many wonderful photos in this blog!

  7. Really great shots you got here!

  8. This post is a gem! Thanks for the great tutorial, your photos are outstanding.
    Enjoy your weekend,
    Dina

  9. The colors and light are stunning. A very mature composition.

    Photos close to home
  10. You’ve shared great tips today some really beautiful photos. Thanks!

  11. Thank you for the excellent suggestions. I’ll take them with me as I head out to shoot this weekend.

  12. Great info and beautiful photos. The mystery photo looks to be somewhere in southeast Asia or islands of the south Pacific.

  13. Interesting post.

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