How to Capture the Essence of a Place as a Landscape and Travel Photographer
I recently came across the fact that I often go to new places mostly to photograph their beautiful landscapes by getting creative composition, doing technical photographs such as night photography and so on. But the truth is, when people asked me to show them photographs of my trips and I start showing my creative compositions, people are like "that's cool and beautiful" but I can sense that they're missing a little bit of something about the places themselves. There is actually nothing wrong in going creative, far from it, just that it won't always represent the essence of a place. Therefore, I recently tried to create a small portfolio of the places I am going to, which helps create a story that reflects the essence of a place.
At the age of social medias, I have the feeling that many photographers have actually lost the meaning of photography and are just aiming for the most impressive picture that will get the most likes. With the emergence of AI, this is even becoming worse. That's where we make a difference, by telling a story to represent something or someone.
In this article, I will share with you some few tips as to how to capture the essence of a location by taking the well known Lofoten Islands as an example.
What is the essence of a place?
By "Essence", I am referring to a representation, a feeling, an atmosphere that a place convey. The first thing we would generally be thinking about are its people, its architecture, the specificities linked to the place in question. This is a rather broad term, which is amazing, as everyone can have its own interpretation. But, for landscape photographers, it becomes more difficult. Going somewhere and photographing the landscapes in a way that have been already shot thousands of times is nice but in the end, very common. I am personally uncomfortable photographing people and so not used to it that my results would be just acceptable. However, nothing prevents us from integrating in our landscapes some of the things that represent a place. And that's where it gets interesting, as we can start experimenting by using our landscape photography skills in more meaningful way.
For example, in the below set of images, I decided to represent the Lofoten Islands from a fishing point of view, since this is its main economic activity.
Alright, now that we got the concept, let's take a look at how can this be implemented in practice.
Make it a small project as part of your trip
If you're a landscape photographer, and you're going to visit a new place with the goal of photographing it, doing a project might not be your priority. However, this might be a way of discovering something new in photography and to actually get to know a place differently than how you initially imagined it. We should never forget that beyond landscapes, most visited places are represented by its people and its activities.
Making it a project will force you to get out of your comfort zone and might help you to better understand the place you are visiting. This will be the base of what you can use to best describe it to friends, family, or anyone who is interested in the trip you had.
It does not even have to be the main driver of your trip, unless you decide it, and so it doesn't have to take a lot of your time. And, if you are well prepared, a few photographs here and there will help you get what you want.
Do define the place in question
The first step will be to define the location you are going to be visiting. Defining it will help you understand what to look for and what to focus on in your photographs. The best way to get a better and quick understanding of a location will be to take a look at their tourism board website. They will usually describe briefly the economic activities, tell you what to see and visit, what you should not miss and so on. Then informing yourselves on the place you are visiting through blogs, youtube videos, travel guides, etc. will give you even more to chew on.
Once you know this, you could make a list of the things you wish to take a look at and potentially photograph. You will already have an idea of what to expect and maybe start imagining some potential photographs you could make.
Do keep in mind that this should be fun to do, and that's why you want to include what defines a place in your landscape photography.
As an example, the Lofoten Islands is a place of fisherman, in the Nordics with traditional local architecture, including incredible mountains joining the sea, with an opportunity to see the Auroras but fairly unpredictable weather and with the possibility to see some mooses. Based on these things, I have a clearer idea of what I should be looking for once there.
What do you want to show
There are multiple ways of showing the essence of a place, and you can choose to do as many as you wish.
Now, it's up to you to decide if you wish to show the entirety of a place so that your viewer will have a global understanding of the place you are visiting.
The other possibility is to target a very specific topic you want to explore in depth and keep your focus on it while you are visiting the place. That type of project will be more artistic.
As a rule of thumbs, I would, nowadays, try to get a global understanding of a place with my photographs and then choose one or two other topics to make sure to have at least one feasible projects in case one of them fails.
Following up on the Lofoten Islands example. You might want to get a global picture of the place as more of a souvenir type of project. Then you could target the crazy weather of the place and try to capture its essence and another project around the aurora. That way, if one of the project fails, you will be sure to get another one.
Try to tell a story
I, personally, never found anything harder than telling a story with landscape photography. Unless you target a specific event such as a storm, wildfires, etc. Representing the essence of a place with just landscape photography is not an easy task. However, the previous steps should help in doing so. The story does not have to be the usual beginning/events/end. It can, and will certainly, be a series of images representing the topic you wish to show. Since this is part of your project, you will be looking for these things and each photographs that will compose your project will have its own story. Not only this will create memories for yourself, but it will also back your projects with interesting and surely fun facts.
Keep it small, focus on quality
This one is really important. Keeping your project small will help you focus on quality. With digital cameras, we fill up memory cards quicker than ever. This is cool because we have the right for a second chance for each shot. But sometimes we forget to think about what we capture.
By keeping your project small, you will focus on quality. Target 10 or 15 photographs to represent the place you are visiting or to implement the project you have in mind. By knowing that you only have a few shots, and sticking to it, your eyes and mind will be looking for the best shots you can ever photograph.
Not only, this will help you get a higher quality portfolio, but it will also support your photography self-improvement and help you get better at what you're doing.
In case you need some more guidance to help you improve your skills, feel free to take a look at my 12 tips to improve your landscape and travel photography skills article.
Show the obvious... and the unobvious
As you visit a new region, you're usually attracted by the beautiful pictures you saw from this place on social medias, books, and so on. Therefore, these might actually be the main target spots that you're going to visit during your trip. That's totally normal. This is what I named the obvious here. What I would call the unobvious, is trying to go out of the beaten path. Maybe explore a place more in depth. Or try to find some unknown angles, although this might not come that easy for well known places. Also, as you drive along the region or place you're visiting, don't hesitate to stop and capture things that caught your eyes and might be relevant to the story you have in mind. Showing the unobvious is actually very pleasing, as these are moments that you own, that usually no one else captured at the same time. These are likely not to be as popular as others, especially if shared on social medias. But, in the end, who cares, you just caught a specific moment in time that will translate in some good emotions and memories for you.
For example, the below pictures show one of the most well known place in the Lofoten Islands, Hamnoy captured from the bridge, this would be the obvious one. The second one is a picture captured in anoter village which is in a not so well known place but that I found having a lot of character.
Make it concrete
Making something concrete is in many cases the best outcome you can opt for, especially for something you put effort into. And this is no different in photography. One of the best ways to concretize your project is printing. Whether you print a book or some wall prints is obviously up to you. Immortalizing your effrots will be the ultimate satisfaction that the place will provide you. If you're printing a book, think about making sections with your different projects, that way you can remember all the interesting things about the places you visited.
That's pretty much it, about how you can provide the essence of a place from end to end. This is obviously my way of seeing things. I would be also be interested in knowing how you do it. So, feel free to share in the comment section below what you're thinking about it.
About the Author
I am Rémi Bergougnoux, a French travel and landscape photographer currently based in Zurich, Switzerland. My most influential destinations include Latin America, where I spent about a year, Namibia, Iceland, Lofoten and certainly many others.
Aside from photography, hiking, cooking, enjoying good wines and socializing are my main hobbies.