Using “Sense of Place” to Build Stronger Photographic Images

Harvest Moon (1 of 1)

“If all your life means to you is water running over rocks, then photograph it, but I want to create something that would not have existed without me.”

~Minor White

Ice Flow (Slippery Rock Creek, PA)
Ice Flow (Slippery Rock Creek, PA)

Wiki loosely defines the term “sense of place” as a characteristic that some geographic places have and some do not, while to others it is a feeling or perception held by people (not by the place itself).

Manteo, NC
Manteo, NC

It is often used in relation to those characteristics that make a place special or unique, as well as to those that foster a sense of authentic human attachment and belonging. Others have pointed to senses of place that are not inherently “positive.” Have you ever wandered into a dark forest, and felt a sense of foreboding? Or maybe walking through an old abandoned house makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up?

Dark Places (Western PA)
Dark Places (Western PA)

It is true – some places feel more ominous than others. While I adore a city like New Orleans, there is a certain voodoo-like vibe dripping beneath the banal surface. If you’ve been there, you probably know what I’m talking about. Some would simply define this as “historical character,” although I think there’s more to it than that. I’m not suggesting some sixth-sense thing going on here, although I have always felt that some people are more tapped into the spiritual energy of a place—whether negative or positive.

Bent Pine (Acadia National Park, Maine)
Bent Pine (Acadia National Park, Maine)

Photography is all about personal interpretation. Unless our goal is pure documentation, we should always strive to infuse a bit of ourselves into each photograph—even if we can’t change the inherent nature of the subject that we are photographing.

It goes with saying that if we don’t connect with our subject matter our viewers most likely won’t connect with our photos. If we don’t feel any passion for the subject, it will show. The first step in connecting then, is to ask ourselves this one very basic question: how does the subject make me feel?

Jeannette's Pier (Outer Banks, NC)
Jeannette’s Pier (Outer Banks, NC)

Some possible answers might include: this place feels magical and mysterious; this place is wild and alive; this place reminds me of my childhood; this place scares me; this place is serene and contemplative. Sometimes our sense of place merely describes what we’re observing on the surface as a first impression. Other times, we can dig a little deeper, allowing the emotion we are feeling “from simply being there” to bubble up to the surface.

Dawn at Hunter's Beach (Acadia National Park, Maine)
Dawn at Hunter’s Beach (Acadia National Park, Maine)

Certainly, if we’ve been there before or have intimate knowledge of the area, we might be more tuned into our emotion; more sensitive to what is happening around us. But then again, seeing a place for the first time with the enthusiasm of a curious child or eager tourist can also stir up our sensibilities.

Big Sky, Montana
Big Sky, Montana

If we are to successfully bridge the creative chasm between emotion and execution; between feeling and vision, we must first understand what it was about the place that inspired or intrigued us. Doing this brings us one step closer to translating how we’re feeling into a language our camera can understand.

Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada)
Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada)

Unlike painters who can envision any scene they want onto a blank canvas, we as photographers are somewhat handicapped. Although like any handicap, we can learn to adapt and overcome—refusing to let the circumstances completely dictate the final result.

Early Evening at Pretty Marsh Harbor (Acadia)
Early Evening at Pretty Marsh Harbor (Acadia)

Yes, we can do very little to change and rearrange the scene to our liking. But we can make choices and decisions (both technical and artistic) that will hopefully reinforce and strengthen our vision. From vantage point to focal length; from what elements to include in the frame to what to leave out; from the time of day we choose to photograph to the exact moment—there are specific things we can do to make our photos work a little harder in order to communicate our true intent.

Taking things a bit further, the elements themselves can have meaning. Actually, everything contained within the four walls of the frame matters; everything contributes or detracts from the story we are trying to tell.

For example, colors can communicate different moods. Some colors are more positive; some more negative. Some give the impression that the subject is advancing; while others feel like they are receding. Some colors project warmth; some cold. If there is a predominant color in your composition, it will impact your message, even if subconsciously.

Likewise, lines, shapes, forms, textures, tones, patterns, perspective, and even the properties of light—all have inherent meaning when used in the right context. How we position ourselves and the elements relative to one another can also have a profound effect on how our final photograph is perceived. Concepts like dominance, balance and symmetry all play into the narrative.

Eagle Lake (Acadia)
Eagle Lake (Acadia)

While I won’t attempt to list out every element, choice and decision one can make when composing a photograph, it is important to understand how these all factor into either weakening or strengthening our images.

Simply showing up and having a certain feeling about a place is never enough – as we can’t expect to transport viewers directly into our minds. We must leave them with enough visual clues to at least point them in a certain direction—allowing their own experience and interpretation to fill in the gaps.

I use my own photographs of Acadia National Park to illustrate these points. This was my first time to this breathtaking park, so I was undoubtedly like a kid opening his presents on Christmas morning. Everywhere I looked there was beauty and diversity of subject matter.

Long Pond (Acadia)
Long Pond (Acadia)

Some scenes overwhelmed me with a sense of well-being, serenity and peace; others felt wild and rough around the edges, much like the Maine coastline itself. One such example involved sitting on the edge of a serendipitous inland pond during a quiet and contemplate morning, as the fog gently rolled in over the tree line. Not only did this scene capture what I felt was the quintessential essence of being in Maine during the peak of autumn, I had strong personal feelings about being there.

So what visual clues did I factor into my composition that spoke to well-being, serenity and peace? The high-key diffused lighting and fog gave the image an ethereal and peaceful quality. The inviting autumn colors and calm reflection in the water were reassuring. There were no people in the image to distract, and even the inclusion of the gazebo in the far background helped to project a feeling of tranquility and contemplation. My decision to compose from this particular angle to show the pond retreating into the distance spoke of a journey; of what lay around the corner.

From choice of vantage point to lens selection; from where I was standing to when I chose to photograph, I made specific choices and decisions aimed at better communicating my intent; of reinforcing the emotion I was feeling at the time.

Make no mistake, communicating “sense of place” is subjective. I can describe my feelings like I’ve done above, but there is no guarantee that you’ll come to the same conclusion. If I’ve come close, hopefully I’ve done a reasonable job. It goes without saying that good photographs stand on their own merit—without any explanation. A picture should indeed “be worth a thousand words” if done correctly.

The next time you go out shooting, really think about things before you click the shutter. Don’t just aim to photograph what you see. Rather, photograph how the scene makes you feel. This philosophical paradigm shift can apply to any genre—from landscape to street photography.

Schoodic Point (Coast of Maine)
Schoodic Point (Coast of Maine)

Ask yourself what choices and decisions you can make that will better communicate your feelings. Put yourself into your viewer’s shoes—trying to predict how they might react. Would switching lenses help? Should you go wide or for an extraction? Blur the background or not? Would shooting at a different time of the day make a difference? Would shifting two feet to the right or three to the left matter? Is there an exact moment that would be stronger than another?

Sense of place is whatever you want to make of it. Viewers of your photos may already have a preconceived notion about your photos (and location) – and your interpretation will either resonate or it won’t.

You exponentially increase the likelihood of a positive reaction when you can move your photos beyond just a xerox copy of the scene, imprinting something of yourself onto each photograph. Places will always have something to say. The only real question is—are you listening?

Hunter's Beach (Acadia National Park, Maine)
Hunter’s Beach (Acadia National Park, Maine)