A Sense Of Place – Discovering Travel Photography

Rating: 0 based on 0 Ratings
Bill Sharpsteen
May 16, 2016 By Bill Sharpsteen
A Sense Of Place – Discovering Travel Photography www.sleeklens.com

Dusy Basin is one of my favorite backpacking destinations in the Sierra Mountains. Filled with alpine lakes, surrounded by sawtooth ridges and—requiring a seven-mile hike over a 12,000’ pass to get there—touched by remoteness, it provides plenty of photogenic possibilities. Yet, when I’m there, I struggle to zero in on one of the essential elements of landscape and travel photography: what it feels like to be there. A sense of place.

This is, in part, a reaction to the boatloads of spectacular landscape images out there that are so beautiful—so dramatic—they stiff-arm the viewer from having an emotional link to the subject itself. They are the pictures that scream the loudest with their prowess for pretty while excluding one from what it felt like to stand next to the photographer.

And so, there I am at Dusy Basin, beside a lake, almost trying to ignore the splendor and instead of searching for a way to gently convey to the viewer such elements as, Was it hot, cold, windy, quiet, secluded, calm, scary, relaxing, energizing? How did it feel?

Dusy Basin. The intention here was to convey the peacefulness of the foreground lake.
Dusy Basin. The intention here was to convey the peacefulness of the foreground lake.

That’s not always the easiest thing to pull off.

Some people say the solution is to look for what’s unique about a place and highlight that. I think that’s only half the job and partly an intellectual exercise at that. The ultimate goal is to suck a person into the picture so they stop, even for a moment, and think, “I can almost feel the cool mountain air.” With that, you’ve created an emotional link to the image.

This requires pausing yourself before taking the picture to not only observe the surroundings but interact with the environment in some way. If you want to communicate a sense of place, you need to have your own emotional reaction to it. Again, shove aside the physical elements and instead consider what’s it like to be there at that moment.

Lower Yosemite Falls
Lower Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park

The Importance of Good Composition

Creating a photograph with a sense of place means choosing the feeling you want to suggest and then paring down the elements to just that. For example, in the picture above of Lower Yosemite Falls I wanted the viewer to feel the power of the water as well as the mist flying in the air like a giant humidifier. So I squeezed down the image to just a slice of the falls hitting the rocks and used a slow enough shutter to suggest the thundering water without blurring it so much it became silky which would have quieted the feeling I was looking for. I also used black and white to simplify the picture even more.

Colonia de la Sacramento, Uruguay
Colonia de la Sacramento, Uruguay

Or, with the sunset shot from Colonia de la Sacramento, Uruguay, I could have taken it from the harbor highlighting the sun over the river, but instead chose to put the small café in the foreground not only for the human element but to suggest what a peaceful moment it was. Here were people just appreciating the scene. I look at this image and get a sense of what it was like to sit there at a table sipping a drink.

Good Light Sets the Mood

Good light can be anything if it serves the intent of showing a sense of place. It need not be early or late in the day for that golden hour. If you want to suggest desert heat, maybe the glare at midday will do it better than the warm light at dawn. Creating the feel of a deep, lush forest is usually accomplished best on an overcast day when there aren’t distracting harsh globs of sunlight hitting the leaves.

Garrapata State Park, California
Garrapata State Park, California

The rugged, almost primal quality of the California coast near Carmel in the shot above comes across more clearly with the cold, stormy weather I experienced there. On other days, I’ve photographed the same area to show a different sense of place, one where the ocean is a calming, renewing force. In either case, I tried to communicate how it felt to me at the time.

The Processing Angle

While I’m not going to get deep into processing an image, here are some things that I consider while I’m sitting at the computer with either Lightroom or Photoshop on the screen.

Impala, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Impala, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Use contrast to your advantage—If I want a calm, tranquil feeling, I keep the contrast relatively soft. In the shot of the impala in Kruger National Park, South Africa, I resisted the urge to make the scene really crispy, thus making it even more dramatic. I wanted the tranquility of the moment to come through instead. However, with the shot below of the canyoners headed into Spry Canyon, Zion National Park, crisp is exactly what I wanted. It brings out the texture and contours of the slick rock and suggests the danger of rappelling down into the canyon. I also showed the enormity of the place by waiting until she was far enough away to be a tiny figure in an overwhelming landscape.

Spry Canyon, Zion National Park
Spry Canyon, Zion National Park

Don’t be afraid to crop—Yeah, you want to get the cropping right in the camera, but who said you have to be a prisoner of the sensor’s aspect ratio? By cropping to a square, for example, you can eliminate extraneous space on the sides of the composition and better draw the eye to the subject. With that comes a certain calmness because the image is well-balanced. On the other hand, you can create more tension with a rectangular frame by placing your subject off-center.

Use a vignette—Darkening the edges of an image not only directs the eye toward the subject, but can also add a specific mood. I usually try to keep the vignette from drawing attention to itself by not making it too dark, but if I want to suggest a feeling of intimacy, I’ll make it a little heavier than normal. In the picture of the canyoneering rappelling into Vinegaroon Canyon, Death Valley National Park, I darkened the sides with a curves adjustment in Photoshop to give the feel of dropping into a deep, enclosed space (I masked out the canyoners to maintain the light pouring in from above).

Vineagaroon Canyon, Death Valley National Park
Vinegaroon Canyon, Death Valley National Park

If a moment is overwhelming you, go ahead and first get the record shot or go for the beauty shot. But then pause to think about what is making this place special to you and how it feels to be there. That is, discover the sense of place, and I think the resulting photograph can be the true winner because it will connect with the viewer on a deeper, more emotional level and therefore be a lot more powerful.

Rating: 0 based on 0 Ratings

The following two tabs change content below.
Bill Sharpsteen
Bill Sharpsteen has seen photography evolve from the primitive days of film (his first camera was a cheap metal box with plastic lens and a hundred light leaks) to digital sophistication (he now works with a Canon EOS-1D X). Not once has he ever uttered the words, “Real photographers only use film.” He's a freelance photographer and writer; his first book project, Dirty Water: One Man’s Fight to Clean Up One of the World’s Most Polluted Bays, was released in 2010, and his next book, The Docks, about the Port of Los Angeles was published in 2011, both by University of California Press. His latest book, self-published in 2015, is a collection of essays and photographs about the sport of canyoneering called Canyon Deep: Descents Into Hidden Landscapes.

His photographs have appeared in Washington Post, Entrepreneur, Emmy, Westways, Washington Journey, Outdoor Photographer and Photo Techniques. He has published more than 60 articles for such publications as Los Angeles Times Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Washington Post, TV Guide, Entrepreneur, Photo Techniques, Outdoor Photographer and Alaska Airlines Magazine. The topics covered a wide range of interests including business, television, the environment, personalities, travel and entertainment.

Sharpsteen also worked during the early 1980s as an award-winning documentary director covering Alaska Natives and the social issues facing them. Those shows garnered such awards as a silver medal in the 1983 International Film & TV Festival of New York, the Lincoln Unity Award and Alaska Press Club awards for best documentary and best video photography.

He lives in the Los Angeles area.

Comments (0)

There are no comments yet.

Sign me up for a weekly summary of the best articles published on the blog

Your email is safe with us. Pinky swear