Bar in the Union Hotel

The Joy Of Exploring Small Towns With Your Camera

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

I love exploring with my camera and small towns are one of my favorite subjects. Does the town have a colorful history? Does it have a unique culture? Is it located in a photogenic location? The concept of a small town as it’s own little universe just appeals to me. I even live in the large “small” town of Santa Barbara

When I first started shooting for travel magazines, small town assignments were actually a little intimidating. What should I photograph? Who should I photograph? Where in town should I shoot? As it turned out, these were all the wrong questions to start with.

A photographer needs to be clear in their mind about what is important or unusual about the location. What makes that town unique? What makes it worth exploring? That is the most critical first step. Once I answered that one simple question, everything fell into place.

Bar Stools, Union Hotel, Los Alamos

Farm tractor bar stools in the Union Hotel in Los Alamos

The answer to that question supplies the framework for my photo shoots and frees me up to have fun while capturing the images I need for my client. That one step narrows the focus of my shoot to a manageable range of subjects and eliminates the worry that I am missing something.

I often find that students in my class “Location Photo Shoots With A Pro” often go through the same anguishing process. Our first job when we arrive at a location is answering that question of what is unusual about this small town, not what do we shoot. And don’t think this restricts what a photographer can shoot. In my classes, the answer to what do we shoot is merely a framework for each photographer. It’s amazing how many different ways a single theme can be interpreted by talented individuals.

Rusty antique farm machinery

Rusty antique farm machinery in Los Alamos

Last year we visited the Western town of Los Alamos in the Santa Ynez Valley above Santa Barbara. It’s a very small town, but in recent years restaurants and wine tasting rooms have appeared in some of the old false front buildings. The historic Union Hotel and Bar has long been the main attraction for visitors there, along with a selection of antique shops. We quickly decided that we would try to create images that stressed that old Western feel, whether a new restaurant or rusting farm machinery out in front of the towns old railroad freight depot.

Bell Street Farm Restaurant

Bell Street Farm restaurant and server in Los Alamos

This shoot was both an adventure and challenging all at the same time. Some participants concentrated on the old architecture and one produced abstracts of the old farm machinery. I photographed the blending of old and new as tourism slowly transformed the town. Developing our own assignments covering one small location made the process exciting and forced us to become more thoughtful photographers.

Wine Tasting Rooms

Wine tasting rooms in Los Alamos

As I mentioned in a previous post, give yourself assignments that require you to grow as a photographer. And don’t forget the most important aspect of photography. If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it all wrong!

Let us know in the Leave A Reply section below if you have a favorite small town that you have enjoyed photographing. Thanks.

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