Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Sense of Place

One of the many factors that separates a snapshot from a photograph is the ability of the photograph to project a 'sense of place' to the viewer. Doing this effectively is obviously not as simple as walking up to a scene and pressing the shutter release. If this were the case, photography would require little or no skill and would likely be a simple recording medium. In fact, this might be one of the core characteristics distingquishing a snapshot, which might be considered as a simple recording of a particular moment, and a photograph, which is capable of conveying so much more.

How does one capture this elusive sense of place in a two dimensional still image? The answers are probabably as many as there are photographic subjects and even more once you consider the aspect of individual perception and interpretation as part of the mix. That said, there are some things one can do that could be considered prerequisites towards achieving this goal. When I have an idea for an image, I will go to the location and walk it for a while. If the situation lends itself to it, such as a remote wooded stream, I will sit quietly in that place for a bit. I will not do anything at all with the camera at first. Rather, I will watch as the light and air moves over the surfaces, watching as the textures and details slowly change under the ever changing light. Part of this process is actually quieting myself, turning down the inner noise machine in an attempt to be more perceptive and receptive. To describe it as a form of meditation would not be inaccurate, but it is a meditation on the place, rather than the self.

As I observe the setting, I gradually start to consider the aspects that define the characteristics unique to this place and time. Where is the light coming from and what is the quality of that light? What are the surfaces and how do they react to the available light? Is this the best time and conditions for this place and the potential I may recognize within it? At some point in the process an idea will begin to form that I feel will convey what I see and feel about the subject. Once some form of mental consensus has been reached, my focus will shift to the technical aspects required by the camera to see what I see. This pertains not only to the mechanical aspects required by the camera equipment, but consideration of which elements of the scene are the most critical to defining it and how best to compose them within the frame. This may involve a series of shots at subtly different angles and settings once I've settled on the basic parameters of my idea. Sometimes the idea is more of a feeling than something that can be discreetly described. In this case, I will likely take a wider range of variations on the subject and sort out the one that comes closest to that nebulous idea floating in my mind later.

Quite often, I will decide that the light available at the moment is not acceptable to bring the fullness of the image into fruition. In these cases, it will be necessary to wait, sometimes a few minutes or hours as the sun arcs through its natural course, or even months as a location is visited and revisited waiting for the optimal conditions. A good example of this is a photograph that I recently added to my portfolio: Pampas Dawn. The ornamental grass in this scene grows off to one side of the Whitehaven Hotel and I've been interested in it for several years. I made a point of visiting it every morning whenever my wife and I are staying there, but never took a photograph of it, as the conditions were never quite right for what I thought I saw in it. That finally changed when one windy, raining morning I was up before dawn to make another attempt at an old abandoned dock down river in the opposite direction. When I finished that shoot, The sun was finally starting to burn through the heavy cloud cover - and there it was! The polished, brassy glare of the sun filtering through the grass plumes while silouetting the less ephemeral grass stalks was exactly what I had been looking for.

Another example is an image of a small waterfall within a stream that had caught my eye.  I sat with the water for a bit and watched and listened. The spot was an idyllic setting and everything was perfect...except... the light was too flat. It was very early yet, and the stream was at the bottom of a shallow valley. The sun was still well below the intervening ridge, so I went about my business for an hour or so until the sun finally rose sufficiently high to clear the ridge. Running back to that same spot, I found a series of sunbeams moving across the waterfall, lending a faery-like light to the simple scene.

Compare the final shot above, with the earlier shot taken before the sun cleared the ridge, below. 

Both are of the same place, the same day, about an hour apart. Notice how the newly arrived sunbeams bring the scene alive, adding depth and sharpening the details! Both images are accurate depictions of the place in a direct recording sense, but the added dynamic range and highlighted details in the sunbeam image makes all the difference. When I see the top image, I have a much clearer memory and stronger connection to this little spot. I can even feel the motion of the water as it flows around the stones.

This is what can happen when you take the time to 'feel out' a subject and manage to understand something of what gives that place life, the spirit or feel that makes this place in this particular moment so unique unto itself - its sense of place.

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