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Capturing a sense of place

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BY ART WEBER

It was an opportunity for the shot of a lifetime: a polar bear swimming the Churchill River in northern Manitoba.

I was in a small boat able to approach within a safe distance and capture close-up after close-up of the magnificent animal.

And then it hit me. To a viewer those images could have been taken in a zoo. There was no sense of place. Great images, but no background. No clue that the bear was in northern Manitoba. Change lenses, I told myself, and get that image of a polar bear clearly in the wild.

A photo that gives a sense of place tells a story. It connects the viewer not just to the subject, but to the place.

You’ve heard the clichés “the photo doesn’t do it justice,” “it was even prettier in person.” Those photos failed to capture a sense of place.

When you are able to capture the spirit of the place, you can engage the viewer, allowing them to have a deeper experience with the image.

Several years ago I rode solo up the Dempster Highway – truckers call it the Goat Trail — through stunning wilderness scenery all the way to the Arctic Circle and beyond. Every turn was a photo waiting to be captured. In the excitement I was snapping images left and right.

And then it hit me. I was shooting like a tourist. Slow down, I thought to myself. Take a breath. Think, compose, shoot. Capture the true sense of place with more deliberate approach.

A few years later I was on a three-day visit to Appledore Island and the Shoals Marine Laboratory, off the coast of New Hampshire. Only I arrived to the bad news that a looming hurricane threatened the island, the lab was battening the hatches and the three-day visit was reduced to one so that I could get off the island before the storm.

I had to maximize the short time I had to capture the images I needed. I narrowed my targets to ocean landscapes and marine wildlife, but added the goal of capturing the monarch butterflies that were migrating across the island. Capturing a close-up of a monarch butterfly would not tell the story I was looking for, nor simply a butterfly on milkweed. What would be unique about the image is the seldom-seen image of a monarch with the ocean in the background.

This issue of sense of place carries through to more commonplace opportunities. We all love to shoot sunrises and sunsets, but how many of them are empty scenes – a foreground of miles of open water reflecting the rich hues cast by the setting sun and reflective clouds. A beautiful sight that could be of any body of water anywhere. Meaningful foreground subjects change the image from a simple and often empty scene to an image of a place that just happens to be captured at sunrise or sunset.

A sense of place makes for a better story and a richer experience for your audience.

Communicating the sense of place calls on all the components of composition and it starts with choice of lenses.

I broadly define wide-angle lenses from fisheye to 35 mm. Normal lenses extend from there to around 65 mm. Short telephoto run from 70mm to 200 mm and long telephoto are anything larger.

The focal length you select, whether a prime lens or the specific point you choose in a zoom length, should be chosen to communicate the message you want to convey.

Let’s say you are blessed with the opportunity to do a story on the great redwoods of the Pacific coastal forests.

No matter your assignment you’ll likely want to capture the great height of the redwoods, as well as the massive trunks of these old-growth giants.

Wide-angle lenses take in huge scenes, exaggerate distances and have wide to ultra-wide backgrounds. They can be used to exaggerate height as well as distance so that’s our choice to illustrate the great height of the redwoods. We all know the idea of converging parallel lines as a dynamic way to illustrate distance — think railroad tracks. Now think about applying that idea to a sky-high tree trunk.The wider the angle used the greater the exaggeration and feeling of height.

But we also want to tell the story of the great forest at eye level. Countless huge great redwoods that are so huge it’s difficult to see through the forest — the trunks fill every sight line.

This is a job for the telephoto lenses I call the editors because they enable us to select small pieces of a scene, easily exclude anything that isn’t pertinent to our message, compact the visual distance between foreground and background, and narrow the background.

Pick a spot that pleasingly fills the viewfinder with the huge trunks and that message is conveyed.

The result are images that are clearly of redwood trees in a redwood forest, instead of resulting in a generic image that could be any trees anywhere. ♦

— Art Weber has been blessed with a dual outdoor writing and photography career that included more than 40 years with the Metroparks of the Toledo area where, among other things, he was founding director of the National Center for Nature Photography. He has also been a freelancer for more than 35 years and has published a outdoors and nature column since 1989. Along the way he’s won several hundred international, national, regional and state awards for his writing and photography.

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