How to give your photos a sense of place :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to give your photos a sense of place

by David Peterson 0 comments

Travel photography is something pretty much all of us do. If you ever leave your house with your camera, and you travel farther away than your hometown to take photographs, you are a travel photographer.

Whether we’re shooting images of our family and friends out there on the road or just images of the destination itself, very few photographers don’t love to capture visual records of the places we have been. But there's a difference between just shooting a photograph of a tourist destination and capturing an image that has a real sense of place. How do you know the difference? Read on to find out.

What is a sense of place?

A sense of place is essentially a visual signature. It is a mood or a feeling that we experience when we are in a particular place. How do you capture that in a photograph? Doing this well can mean the difference between having an album full of meaningful travel photographs and an album full of photographs that simply state a few facts about where you went. Look at it this way: it's one thing to capture a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge that looks just like most of the other photographs you've ever seen of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it's quite another accomplishment altogether to capture a photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge that really gives the viewer a sense of what it feels like to stand there and look at that famous landmark in person.

Exclude the tourists

Most people don't love to look at photographs that are full of tourists. Of course, we're all tourists to some degree or another, but for the most part the tourists who are not a part of our own traveling party are visual clutter in a photograph. Now may be thinking that tourists help give a landmark a sense of place, and they certainly are ever-present in some locations—but if you think about it, that landmark became a tourist trap over time, it was not (at least not in most places) designed to be one.

Tourists are drawn to certain places because of the mood or experience of being in those places; they aren't really a part of the mood or experience itself. So what you really want to do is to capture the essence of what makes that place appealing to tourists, rather than the tourists themselves.

So if there’s a khaki-clad camera-toting tourist wandering around in the scene, he probably doesn’t belong in your photograph. Wait for him to wander through before taking the shot. But what if there are a few dozen or more khaki-clad, camera-toting tourists in the scene? As soon as one of them wanders out of the frame, another one is just as likely to wander in. In this situation, how can you get a shot that’s sans-tourist?

One way to do it is with a neutral density filter and a super-long exposure. If your exposure is long enough, most, if not all, of the tourists are going to be blurred right out of the photograph. Now, for this to work you need to be in a place where people are mostly moving quickly—if it’s a spot where people like to stop and rest or where you might find people reading or chatting, even a minutes-long exposure isn’t going to eliminate those people completely. But for busy locations, this can be a successful technique.

You do need a very dark neutral density filter and a tripod to mount your camera on, as well as a few moments when you are not going to be in danger of someone walking too close to you and disturbing the tripod. The tripod needs to be stable during the long exposure, which may last a minute or two, depending on how dark your filter is and how bright it is in your location.

Winchester Cathedral by Flickr user neilalderney123

This may not be practical for everybody, of course, and there’s always a possibility you will experience frustration brought on by those few tourists who insist on lingering in the frame when you really need them to keep moving. So if you find that this technique just doesn’t work for you, try visiting during the off-season or at a time of the day when there aren’t so many people gathered around. Early in the morning, as soon as the destination opens is a good time to capture the scene with as few people as possible, as is the late afternoon just before the attraction closes. If you’re feeling daring, try visiting in bad weather—those stormy skies will not only keep the tourists at bay, they’ll also provide a wonderful, dramatic backdrop for your subject.

Capturing the mood

In order for an image to really have a sense of place you need to make sure that you have a good light. Good light will help highlight all of those important details that make a place what it is.

Good light can be found at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, which just happen to coincide with those times of day when there are less likely to be a lot of tourists milling around. During these “golden hours” the light is low, even and soft, and it is more likely to create that magical mood or quality that can really give us a feeling for what it is like to stand in that place.

As a general rule, leave it the sun out of your place photos—I know it's tempting to photograph the sunrise or sunset but that isn’t really going to be so much a photograph about the place, but rather the time of day. Sunset and sunrise photographs can be beautiful but those lovely orange skies not only overshadow the things that are in that scene, but the setting sun can also cause everything else to fall into silhouette. So instead of shooting into the sun, put the light behind you or to one side and concentrate on really highlighting the objects that are illuminated by the sun rather than focusing on the sun itself.

The locals

I know we just talked about excluding tourists from your photograph, but one other way you can give a photograph a strong sense of place is by including the locals. Local people are much easier to spot because they aren’t generally carrying cameras around with them, and they're usually engaged in activities such as shop keeping or just sitting around in the morning at a favorite local coffee shop with a cup of cappuccino. Look for people at work, such as police officers, farmers at the outdoor market or fisherman down at the local marina. Remember to include some context in these images, because otherwise you're just going to have a portrait—that's not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but for this exercise your goal is for that person to complement the place rather than become the subject. So make sure that you capture the fisherman's gear as well as the ocean he fishes in, and make sure that you include the vegetables that are being sold by the farmer at the local open air market.

If photographing strangers is something that intimidates you, now is a good time to step outside of your comfort zone. You can be sneaky and use a telephoto lens, or pretend like you’re playing Angry Birds on your smartphone when you're really taking pictures, but sometimes the best way to get good character-filled shots of local places and their inhabitants is to simply ask permission. Most people are actually pretty willing to have their photographs taken, and their personalities will help add to that sense of place that you're hoping to capture.


Sometimes in order to really tell your viewer something about a place you need to tell a story about something that is happening in that place. The story doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with people—it could be about animals such as birds or livestock or it could simply be about the weather. Some places, for example, are prone to a lot of fog or cloudy weather (coastal places are notoriously foggy and cloudy). The Golden Gate Bridge is often shrouded by so much fog that it’s impossible to get a clear picture of it—so rather than waiting for that perfect sunny day (which doesn't actually happen that often in San Francisco), try to capture a picture of the bridge rising out of that wall of fog. That's going to help tell a story about what that day was like, give your viewer a sense of how cold and damp it probably was when you were standing there and provide him with a real feeling for what the Golden Gate Bridge is like—rather than just showing him yet another postcard.

If course those stories can include people as well—instead of capturing a portrait of someone selling their wares at the farmer’s market, capture a photograph of two people haggling over those wares. Whenever you tell a story it gives your viewers an opportunity to think about what it might have been like to be involved in that story. They start to imagine the beginning, middle and end, and that makes them more personally invested in the scene, which is what makes it a more successful image.


Emotion is similar to storytelling, or at least inclusive within most stories. For example, if you photograph an image of one of the locals looking out to sea with a sad expression on her face, your viewer will vicariously experience some of that same emotion. At the very least, he’ll wonder why she looks so sad, and what her mood might have to do with the sea. Did she lose somebody at sea? The emotion is inextricably tied to her surroundings, and it will give your viewer a strong sense of the place where she is and of her experience within that place.


In short, just try to capture photographs of places that have more of a sense of what makes that place unique. Try to capture those photos in such a way that they don't just look like postcards you might buy down at the gift shop. Those postcards tend to feature beautiful photographs, but they also are soulless, because they are intended to appeal to the masses, to be that one documented example of what the place looks like to most of the people who visit it. It’s mass marketing, and that is not what you're going for when you take travel photos—or at least it shouldn't be what you're going for. Instead, you should try to give your viewer a sense of how you felt personally when you were in that place. If you can accomplish that, then you’ll have an album full of travel photos that go far beyond just being documents of where you’ve been.


  1. What is a sense of place?
    • A visual signature
    • A mood or feeling
  2. Exclude the tourists
    • Use an ND filter and long exposure
    • Arrive in the off season or early/late in the day
  3. Capture the mood
    • Look for good light
  4. Photograph the locals
  5. Tell a story
  6. Capture emotion

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