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A Sense of Place


Text and Photography Copyright © Michael Busselle - All rights reserved.

One of the potential disappointments of modern travel is that sometimes a new town or country simply does not seem different enough from the places we're familiar with. I remember many years ago travelling, with a great sense of anticipation, to Honolulu. It was my first long-haul flight and what, I imagined rather naively, would be my first experience of an "exotic" island. I was bitterly disappointed, my initial sight of Waikiki reminded me mainly of Benidorm with an inferior beach and much less evidence of an indigenous culture.

I'm sure that frequent business travellers who are restricted mainly to airport transfers and modern city-centre hotels must, sometimes, for a moment or two, have to remind themselves exactly which city or country they are in. Even more far-flung locations can, on occasions, also have an over-familiar air. A colleague of mine returned recently from an assignment in South America and complained that the landscape seemed uncannily like Gloucestershire.

Creating a sense of place within the limitations of an image on a piece of film is an important facet of travel photography and simply being in a foreign place by no means guarantees success. One approach which many photographers, stock libraries and publishers adopt is that of seeking images of well-known sights and landmarks, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Big Ben for London, the Sydney Opera House, the leaning Tower of Pisa, and so on and on.

Pictures like these have the merit of instant recognition, needing little in the way of caption information and ensuring that even the most reclusive viewer will know to which place they refer. It's a sad fact that such images are among the most sought after by photo-libraries and their clients, usually heading the lists of wanted pictures which are circulated to stock-image photographers. It's sad because it encourages a copy-cat approach and discourages the more perceptive, innovative and individual eye.

Even with pictures of this type, however, it is possible to inject a more interesting and atmospheric quality. The standard approach is to use the most familiar viewpoints and frame the picture so that the subject is clearly revealed, usually in its entirety, and to shoot in "ideal" lighting conditions - sunlight from behind the camera and blue sky, preferably with a few white clouds. By changing all or some of these factors photographs of even the most over-familiar landmarks can be given considerable impact and renewed interest.

An unfamiliar viewpoint is always worth seeking. The popularity of aerial photographs of well-known sights has been well established and recently one enterprising photographer has developed a high-tech balloon which carries a remote control camera and video set-up allowing the subject to be framed and composed with great precision, something which is not possible from an aircraft. However, more modest measures can also have a telling effect and a careful exploration of possible viewpoints will often reveal facets of a subject which give it a new and unfamiliar visual quality.

Lighting is a crucial factor in creating atmosphere. Although bright sunlight and blue sky tend to produce a bland, picture-postcard image, this type of picture is usually considered obligatory in the holiday travel industry simply because any indication of less-than-perfect weather is seen as a negative selling point. However, publications which are more concerned with reality are likely to prefer the atmospheric and eye-catching qualities of pictures taken in rain, fog or at dusk, for example.

The way in which a subject is framed and the image composed can also create an added degree of impact and help to present a familiar subject in a new and more interesting way. The cliche images of well-known sights can often be avoided by the simple expedient of being highly selective and isolating details in preference to including all of the subject in the frame.

Happily there are many publications where an alternative is actively sought to the hackneyed, instant-recognition landmark type of photography. Indeed, there is often a strong desire to reveal the less familiar and unknown aspects of a place and to surprise the reader instead of reinforcing his, or her, preconceptions. This is especially true of extended features and books where the portrayal of a subject can be dealt with in a series or sequence of photographs rather than a single say-it-all image allowing a photographer to adopt a more subtle, intimate and personal approach.

Even so, creating a sense of place in a photograph is something which is not always easily or automatically achieved and a keen, perceptive eye is needed to recognise the details which will reveal the character and identity of a location. Although civilised society the world over is becoming increasingly homogeneous in its outward appearance, there are inevitably small features and details which can be used to provide a visual clue. In urban locations many different things can work in this way, like shop signs, advertising, lettering, transport and fashion. The inclusion of a fire hydrant or a yellow cab in a street scene would help to identify New York, for example. In a similar way a Indian film poster, a London businessman or a French farmer in his working blues can all be used to create a subtle but distinctive trigger.

In rural situations and with landscape photography you can often use architectural features and agricultural methods to create identity and a sense of place. Even within the same country regional characteristics can often be strongly identified in this way. Think how strikingly the timber-framed farmhouses of Normandy, the red ridge-tiled cottages of Provence and the turreted stone houses of the Dordogne or Lot declare the precise part of France in which a picture was taken.

Although the initial impact of a new and unfamiliar destination can often make you instantly aware of some local characteristics and features, like a London bus for instance, these can also have a tendency to become cliches and it is sometimes the less immediately obvious things which can be more effective in the long run. I find that although the first flurry of photographic activity stimulated by the sheer novelty and excitement of a new experience will often provide some good photographs, it is frequently those taken later in a more relaxed and contemplative way that prove to be the most satisfying and revealing images of a place. When time permits it pays to allow time for a degree of acclimatisation and local knowledge to be acquired before spending too much time shooting pictures since it is easy to believe you are producing more meaningful and striking images than you actually are when carried away by excessive enthusiasm.

Preliminary research can help a great deal in this respect since a prepared mind tends to make for a more perceptive eye and the significance of the things you see more fully understood and appreciated. I like to gather as much information as possible from colleagues, tourist offices and a range of guide books when preparing for a trip to an unfamiliar destination.

One of the dangers of taking photographs in new locations, and also of preparatory research, is that it can be easy to form preconceptions about the places to which you are travelling and this can affect both what and how you see. There can be a temptation to seek out those elements of a place which you have seen, perhaps subconsciously, before and in this way you can unwittingly help to perpetuate a sort of myth about a place.

I remember vividly, on a visit to the Maldive Islands, accidentally discovering the quintessential tropical-island image of a single palm tree leaning at a dizzy angle over the translucent water. I reacted strongly, I suppose, mainly because I had seen the image many times before and it had become, subconsciously, a "typical" feature of such a location.

My enthusiasm was rather dampened by the fact that I had to wait my turn while another photographer finished taking his pictures. I've since seen this same tree on numerous occasions and I'm sure that most photo libraries have it in their catalogue. As this particular tree is used so frequently it is pertinent to wonder just how typical it really is.

It is necessary to find a balance between an image which creates a positive identity for a location and one which looks deeper than the superficial characteristics but is, perhaps, rather less spontaneously recognised.

About the photos - The images to the right are thumbnail links to larger images with descriptions, which are presented in a slide show format.

About the Author

Based in the United Kingdom, Michael Busselle has been a professional photographer for over 40 years. Michael has authored 46 books, including Creative Digital Photography, Michael Busselle's Guide to Photographing Landscapes and Gardens, Better Picture Guide to Travel Photography, The Question-And-Answer Guide to Photo Techniques and The Perfect Portrait Guide: How to Photograph People. Michael's book, Masterclass in Photography was just published by Barnes and Noble in the USA and Pavilion/Chrysalis Books in the UK.

You can read more about Michael Busselle on his Wikipedia Page.

Comments on TPN travel photography articles? Please feel free to send them to editor@travelphotographers.net. We would be pleased to hear from you!


by Walter Rowe

Freelance Photographer
IT Professional

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