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Sense of Place

This assignment ran from Sep 1 to Sep 22, 2014.

Travel photography is on the surface a very simple endeavor. Go to a faraway place, stand in front of something you can't see at home, and take a picture. What's so hard about that? Well, I may have just described a way to take a travel photo, but it's also the recipe for generations of boring family slideshows (or Facebook albums.) Travel provides transformative experiences, it can even change your life. But how do you capture that kind of emotion in a picture?

First we start with the place. Everyplace we visit, whether across the state or the world, has its own visual signature. Sometimes it's really obvious like the Golden Gate Bridge. Usually, the visual clue is much more subtle. It could be the landscape, the dress of the people who live there, or maybe the prevailing weather. It's our job as photographers to somehow utilize that signature and bring back a photo that faithfully represents that particular place in the world.

This year National Geographic Traveler celebrates its 30th anniversary—30 years of sending photographers out to bring back their visual experiences. We have a term to describe these photos. They are pictures that show a Sense of Place. For this assignment I would like you to treat this phrase as your starting point. Place is really just the beginning of a good travel photo. For a great picture you will need to find a second or third layer to add to the background provided by place. I want to see pictures that go beyond the postcard.

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Curated by:

Daniel Westergren
Director of Photography, National Geographic Travel
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Published Sep 26, 2014.
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What do I mean by "Good Light"?

Posted sep 18, 2014

In my other comments I've alluded to the importance of good light. In an assignment like this good light is especially important because there are many incredibly photogenic places in the world and Your Shot community members have been to many of them. It's pretty hard to get your picture to stand out when someone else posts one of the Tiger's Nest (Taktsang Palphug Monastery) in Bhutan. Light is one way to make your picture stand out. Most people realize that the best light for photography is at the shoulder's of the day. First there's the light that the French painter's call L'huere Bleue, the special way the world looks before the sun comes up. Coincidentally that's when everyone else is in bed, so your pictures will look interesting because most people don't see things that way. (All of these descriptions also work in reverse at sundown) 

Then there's twilight, when the sky just starts to get light. In cities this is an especially magic time for color photography because the exposure of the sky matches the exposure of whatever artificial light may be in the scene. Then there is the first few minutes of the sun cresting the horizon. During this golden hour, photography can be very easy, except for the part of getting out of bed and into position before sunrise. 

Now, keep in mind that sunset and sunrise pictures are pretty boring usually. A good rule is to put your back to the sunrise and photograph the things that the beautiful light is falling on.

But, let's try to figure out what good light really is. It's not just that golden light. There's something else visually happening. I think that differentially lighted scenes make for more interesting photographs. For example it is particularly effective when the foreground of a photograph is dark and then the main subject further in the frame has more light on it. Then fading to dark in the back could be even better. Photography is two dimensional and we need light differentiation to give a photo depth. During the golden hour the light is low, so the difference between highlights and shadows is lower, meaning you can see into the shadows and highlights without photoshop witchery. Isn't also handy that this light is coming from a low angle, hitting different parts of the scene imparting depth. When a picture is too evenly lit it can be boring and flat. 

This lighting can be found almost anywhere, not only at the edges of the day. Imagine being in a dark alleyway in the middle of the day with a small beam of light shining in and bouncing around. Don't photograph the beam of light but the way it lights up the dark parts of the street. Become a student of light, look for interesting spots of light, then learn how to use it in your photography.

Tell a Story

Posted sep 11, 2014

I've been seeing some great pictures of the places you have visited. As I look back at the photos I've favorite, I'm noticing a few things. I'm a sucker for backlighting, and I like small figures in a grand landscape. But as I look back at those pictures I realize that the ones that catch my attention initially may not be the best in the end. Small figures in a landscape can all of a sudden turn into an overdone archetype. One of my colleagues calls these pictures, "dude in a red jacket." And the backlit pictures, upon further reflection don't seem to have lasting meaning. 

In order to transcend these problems the photograph has to have more than one thing going on. Try adding another element. For example a beautiful landscape with, stunning light, and  a small figure with body language that shows struggle or happiness. A backlit cobblestone street with tourists just walking by is one thing, but if the subject is doing something interesting, like playing a violin on the street that's so much better. 

I've also seen many pictures of people either up close, or far away, how about something in between?

The last thing I want to talk about is post processing. Although I like my chili very spicy, I don't feel that way about photographs. In the last few days I have looked at way too many HDR pictures, over-saturated pictures, and photos with overused shadow and highlights and clarity sliders. What's terrible is that most of the overdone shots were taken in places that were already incredible to look at and photograph. 

Yes, tasteful post processing is very important in creating dramatic, compelling photography. I can't tell you how much is too much, so rather than try to explain I'll cop out and use former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's threshold test for obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

Capturing the Emotion

Posted sep 1, 2014

The stage is set by the place, but you will need to have emotion in your photo to make me care. Maybe it's a moment, a subtle interaction between people.  Think beyond the obvious. Sometimes a close-up of a face can show sense of place; some people reflect their surroundings in surprising ways. You just need to look for the right person. If you find amazing light or scary weather, even landscape photos can show a sense of place and emotion. 

Don't just show me what your favorite place looks like. Try to show me what it felt like to be there.

Daniel Westergren

Daniel Westergren

Director of Photography, National Geographic Travel
Dan is the director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine, is based in Washington, D.C., where he spends his days looking at pictures of some of the most beautiful places in the world. Since picking up a camera in the 8th grade, he has been fascinated with photography and the way photographers create objects of beauty from the world at large. He has turned his fascination into a lifetime obsession of constantly photographing everything around him. He's been lucky to photograph amazing places like the summit of Mount Blanc and the North Pole, but often his subjects are just the neighborhood dogs or his kids.