I was recently filling out interview questions for a photography student and started thinking about place and how one captures the feeling of being in a place. With regards to travel photography, everyone talks about “sense of place”.
But how do we fully capture this “sense of place”?
Travel photography for me is all about interacting as well as observing interactions. You have to observe how people are interacting with each other, how light is interacting with the scene, and how you’re also interacting with people and your environment to be able to capture a “sense of place”.
So I’ll show you four quick examples. While I’ve got thousands of photos, trying to dig through them all for the very best examples of the concepts I’m talking about below would be a gargantuan task so these snaps would have to do to illustrate my points.
How people are interacting with each other
By observing how people are communicating, verbally or non-verbally, you can start to get a sense of local culture. How various types of people are interacting – men and women, old and young. While recently in Belgrade, Serbia, I ran into locals playing chess. While this is a common scene in many parks all over the world with usually older men at the board, I was intrigued by this older lady playing chess with a much younger man.
While I didn’t want to walk up to them to ask questions – after all, chess requires absolute concentration – focusing on capturing this unique interaction instead of just the older men around surrounding chessboards made for a more interesting shot.
How light is interacting with the scene
As photographers, we should always be looking for light – both natural and artificial – because how it interacts with the current scene or environment can help you capture a sense of place. The feeling of being there and experiencing that warm glow or cold cast yourself.
When I was in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, I spent some time with members of the Zulu tribe and right before they were getting ready to perform at sunset, I observed how light was flowing through the scene and focused on that as opposed to just shots of the dancers. I’d seen tons of photos of Zulu dancers online but I hadn’t seen many that were using natural light this way to set the scene as well.
How I am interacting with people
Sometimes how the photographer interacts with people during their travels also reflects a sense of place. How organic are those interactions? Are people warm? Open to strangers? Maybe a lot more guarded?
I ran into these feisty women who also happened to be redheads in Parga, Greece, a small seaside village where Greeks go to bask in the sun. From their warm dispositions to their manes of red hair to the red scooter they were riding around town, my interaction with them helped me a capture a bit of what it felt like for me to be there. People were open and relaxed. After all, most of them were on vacation.
How I am interacting with my environment
Lastly, how I’m personally interacting with my environment can also communicate a sense of place. How does it feel to be swooshing past pine and spruce trees being pulled by Siberian huskies or a reindeer in Swedish Lapland? These types of “selfie” shots can also transport the viewer by taking them alongside you.
As if they were grabbing onto your waist from behind and peeking over your right shoulder to experience this as well.
Observing as well as interacting are the core ingredients required for capturing sense of a place within your travel photographs.
So what do you guys think? How aware of these concepts are you during your travels?