The Essence Of Place

When I was 18, I traveled to Japan to tour with a dance company. I had also just been formally introduced to photography in a studio art class and had fallen head over heels in love with it. As excited as I was to perform in a foreign country, I was perhaps even more excited at the prospect of taking pictures. Giddy, even.

I had never been out of the country, never even been on an airplane before, and as I packed my cheap little camera (and more rolls of film than I had ever seen), my mind was wild with possibility. The minute we set foot on Japanese soil, I couldn’t seem to put my camera down, and when we finally made our way back to the States, I couldn’t wait to get my film developed.

When I finally got my prints back, I was crushed. The Japan in my photographs was nothing like the Japan I had seen. I chalked it up to inexperience and the cheap little camera I had so stupidly brought with me, but had I known what I know now, I would have been able to capture a great deal more, crappy camera and all. Sure, Japan through the beautiful glass lens of an excellent camera would have been ideal, but if I had known what to look for and how to frame it, a little bit more of Japan’s magic would have shown up in my pictures.

Truth is, if you have a few tricks up your sleeve, you can do a lot with a little. You can capture your experiences with pretty much any kind of camera. Whether you’re traveling abroad or just wandering the neighborhood, there are a few things that can help you more fully capture the essence of what you see and the places you experience, wherever you are in the world.

Get all the obvious shots out of your system. This is, by far, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given. Sometimes, to get the really special images—the ones that really tell the true story of a place—you need to get all the more obvious shots out of the way first.

You know the ones—the more traditionally composed shots of landscapes, monuments, architecture and the family photographs. Once you’ve done this, you can relax and shoot whatever you want, take as many risks with your images as you like. The pressure is off.

This is usually the first thing I do when traveling, especially when experiencing a new place for the first time. And, true to form, the magic photographs always seem to come right after I’ve exhausted the obvious.

Find personality in the details. Sometimes the places we visit have as much personality as the people we encounter. Learning to look for it, training our eyes to really see it, is key. More often than not, the true character of a place can be found in the details—in color, pattern, texture, in the imperfections and quirks. It’s an oddly placed sign, a collection of colors, evidence of years and years of wear and tear. Focus on these kinds of details to really bring the story into focus.

Consider scale. Use clever, unusual ways to showcase scale. Bring figures into the frame, use physical presence of friends (or strangers) to reveal scale in funny or profound ways. This can be as simple as including the movement of passing pedestrians up against enormous buildings or silhouetted figures against scenery. It’s all about juxtaposition, using what or who you have in the frame to showcase the size, and thus, a little bit more of the story, of a particular place.

Throw the focus, embrace the blur. By intentionally throwing focus off while shooting, your images take on a completely different feeling. Intentionally blurred, out-of-focus images tend toward a dreamlike, painterly quality. The type of blur (or out-of-focus) image you get will depend on the kind of camera you’re shooting with and the amount of control you have. It will take a little bit of play and experimentation to figure out what you can do. Move the camera slightly when you shoot. Play around with low ISO or choose a wider aperture and set your camera to manual focus mode. Adjust the focus until you get an image that feels right. There are no rules; go by feeling.

Wait for the right moment. There are times when it pays to wait. Sometimes you just need to sit and observe a place for a while, soak in all the activity, all the movement, consider the entire scene before you shoot. Let things unfold a bit before you raise your camera. Look at every little thing around you, note the sounds you’re hearing and the quality of the light. It’s in these more mindful moments that we actually slow down and, in the process, compose more thoughtfully. And the resulting images tell not only the story of a particular place, but an extraordinary moment, a specific frame of mind.

Photographer, writer and teacher Andrea Corrona Jenkins is a contributor at Shutter Sisters, a core contributor for UPPERCASE magazine and instructor of the "Instant Magic" polaroid photography workshops. See more of her work over at her blog, hulaseventy.blogspot.com.

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