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.


Backlit portrait of parade participants

The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting

Contrast in a photograph is a pain! Well, it’s good up to a point—until it isn’t. Even modern cameras can only handle so much contrast until either shadows block up or bright areas blow out, or clip. Images with high contrast appear harsh, uninviting. It’s generally not a pleasant look and if you are trying to create a complimentary portrait, it’s a disaster.

Quarter backlit Bed and Breakfast

Quarter backlit Bed and Breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey

There is a simple solution, however, and it doesn’t require diffusion panels, reflectors or piles of photographic lighting equipment.

Simply move your camera position until the primary light source, usually the sun, is behind your subject. Simple. Why is this so effective? With your subject backlit, you will be photographing the shadow side of everything in your frame, whether it’s a person, a building or a tree, and the shadow side of everything will generally be the exact same exposure.

This lighting pattern solves a lot of contrast problems and produces some stunning effects.

First, of course, most everything in the frame is lit at the same level, whether it is two feet from the camera or two miles from the camera. Meter reading can be tricky, but if your main subject is properly exposed, so is everything else.

Backlit Portrait of Yoga Instructor

Backlit portrait of a woman practicing yoga on a grassy hillside

Second, many subjects will have a beautiful, warm rim light, separating them from the background. This is especially important when the background is busy.

Backlit sailboats racing

Backlit sailboats racing in San Francisco Bay

Third, increased color saturation. Light passing through translucent wildflower petals or sailboat spinnakers produces brighter colors than light reflecting off those same subjects.

And lastly, when your model is facing away from the direct rays of the sun, they are much less apt to be squinting into the lens. Getting strong light off a person’s face makes it much easier to achieve those comfortable, revealing expressions we all strive for. The poor photographer will be looking into the sun and squinting furiously, but who cares? It’s worth the benefits. Right?

Next week we’ll cover some of the issues involved in shooting with backlighting.

Text and Photos by Chuck Place


architecture photograph of cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico

3 Steps To Creating Monumental Architecture Photography

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes “monumental” as “serving as or resembling a monument, massive, highly significant, outstanding”.

Often, during travel assignments, I have been called on to photograph iconic building and structures that define a particular area. They are not always large, but they are always important in that they often denote the culture of that area. Because of their importance I always try to make these buildings seem monumental in my photographs.

Photograph of Victorian architecture in Cape May, New Jersey

The Abbey Bed and Breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey

Although photography, at this point, is a two-dimensional medium, there are many ways to create a sense of volume in an image. My first step in photographing most buildings is to find an angle that covers two sides of the structure. Ideally one side is lit while the other is in shadow. This play of light against dark creates a very three dimensional effect, creating volume in this photograph of a bed and breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey.

architecture photograph of cathedral in Mexico

Gothic architecture of the main cathedral in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

My second step has often been planned out before I left on my assignment. I determine which direction the building is oriented using maps and Google Earth so that I know whether this location is a sunrise or sunset shot. The warm, directional light at either end of the day adds a beautiful glow to the cathedral in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Details are strongly enhanced and the location becomes much more welcoming.

Photograph of Taos Indian Pueblo architecture

Taos Indian Pueblo adobe architecture, Taos, New Mexico

In order to give the scene an even greater sense of depth, my third step is to find something interesting in the foreground that gives the viewer a greater sense of the location. A highly textured adobe oven in front of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico provides visual depth as well as highlighting the material from which the entire pueblo is constructed. The round shape also works well to balance the very square lines of the pueblo itself.

This approach will not work with all buildings, of course, but whenever possible, I try for the “monumental” look in order to pay homage to the areas history and culture.


Cambria coast

Give Yourself A Photography Assignment

Early in my career I often found myself wandering around various towns, frustrated, looking for something to photograph. I came to realize that there are always lots of subjects to shoot in any location. All I really needed was a framework, or storyline, about the subject or location. I needed to have something to say before I picked up my camera. I needed an assignment!

Instead of wandering aimlessly, I began to give myself self-assignments, something I continue to do to this day. This forced me to see what was really important about a particular subject and work on creating images that illustrated my viewpoint. My photography quickly got better and I found I was enjoying photography even more.

What do you like to photograph? Do you like to explore small towns, wineries or farmers markets or photograph orchids, sailboats, historic sites or portraits of people? What’s your passion?

Town of Cambria

Quaint tourist destination Cambria, on California’s Central Coast.

Self-assigned photography assignments often fall into three main categories—locations, series and events. Locations can be anything from a National Park to a city or town. What is unique about that location? Is it the physical beauty, the culture, food and wine or maybe even the weather? What makes it interesting to you personally? I had a talented student go to Oaxaca in Mexico to photograph the brightly painted building in the Colonial Center of the city. When he returned, he showed me a beautiful portfolio of colorful buildings, but each had a brightly painted, jewel-toned VW Beatle in front of it. It seems Oaxaca has a tradition of restoring old VWs. He had taken a location assignment and turned it into a series, or collection, of Volkswagen portraits.

Southwest Indian Ruins

Selection of Indian Ruins in the American Southwest.

A series assignment can be anything, from a group of portraits of local chefs to a series on lighthouses, antique cars, California Missions—anything with multiple versions of the same subject. This often requires a greater commitment of time and a larger amount of research before beginning the shoots. This also forces you to create a variety of images while shooting similar subjects multiple times. As a bonus, you get to immerse yourself in the subject during a long-term photography project.

Summer Solstice Parade

Summer Solstice Parade characters in Santa Barbara, California

Event assignments usually require the shortest amount of time, but can be quite an intense experience and often physically demanding. Parades, celebrations, competitions—these can run from a few hours to a week or so. Again, doing some research in advance guarantees you will be in the right place at the right time to capture those powerful images that define an event.

Sit down now and list half a dozen projects that would be fun to photograph. Fill in each with shoot notes—subjects, locations, dates, special equipment—anything that will help you capture great images and expand your coverage. Then go do it!

Stop the aimless wandering looking for something to photograph. Give yourself the framework of an assignment and shoot what really defines the subject. The quality of your photography will improve dramatically and you will have fully developed photo essays to share with those around you. And please use the Reply Box below to share your favorite subjects with other photographers following this blog. Everyone needs ideas.Thanks.


Nurse log among Coast Redwood trees, Redwood National Park, California

Create A Sense Of Depth In Your Photographs Using Leading Lines

One of the age-old dilemmas of photography has always been the desire of photographers to create a three dimensional feel in their images using a two dimensional medium. A number of compositional techniques have evolved to create this sense of visual depth, with leading lines being one of my favorites.

aerial view of vineyard at sunrise, Santa Ynez Valley, California

aerial view of vineyard at sunrise, Santa Ynez Valley, California

Essentially, a photographer includes diagonal elements in an image that create visual lines leading back into the image. These lines can be objects, such as rows of grape vines in a vineyard or they can be composed of just light and shadow, which I used to focus the viewers attention on two racing sailboats on San Francisco Bay.

sailboat race, Big Boat Series, San Francisco, California

sailboat race, Big Boat Series, San Francisco, California

Almost anything can be used to create leading lines. even the simple tracks of a lawnmower leading to Opus One Winery in the Napa Valley.

Opus One Winery, Napa Valley, California

Opus One Winery, Napa Valley, California

Leading lines often have a destination. The curved walls at Pueblo Del Arroyo Ruins in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park in New Mexico draw you back to another part of the ruins. Just as often, however, they merely draw the viewer back into a scene, creating that sense of depth, as does a large log lying in a redwood grove in Redwood National Park in Northern California, seen at the top of this page.

Pueblo Del Arroyo Ruins, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park

Pueblo Del Arroyo Ruins, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, New Mexico

Have you ever shot a landscape and felt it was a little flat, just two-dimensional? Sometimes a flat composition can be very graphic, but often it is just plain flat. Look for those objects or shadow patterns in the foreground that will give your audience that visual path that creates a sense of depth. After a while leading lines will become part of your compositional approach to creating imagery, eliminating those dull, flat photographs of the past.

 

 


The 2 Conditions That Create Beautiful Photographic Reflections

A great blue heron glided into my image, landing right where I would have placed it—if I had a trained blue heron. Better lucky than good! I was photographing a book on San Diego, working with reflections of the ornate Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in Balboa Park. Afternoon was not a particularly colorful time, but as the sun moved lower, the warm tones of the buildings were intensifying and I was photographing the saturated reflection of the architecture in the Reflection Pond. Almost at sunset, the surface of the Reflection Pond was shaded while the buildings caught the last rays of the sun. The golden reflection of an ornate Spanish Revival building was contrasting beautifully with the cool tones of the green lily pads and blue reflected sky, producing a unique image of Balboa Park.

Blue Heron in reflecting pool, Balboa Park, San Diego, California

Fishing_Boat_Reflection

If there is a trick to photographing dynamic reflections, it is making sure that the subject is well lit while the reflecting surface is shaded. Almost any shiny surface can be used to produce a colorful reflection, including store windows and car hoods. My favorite, however, remains water. For me, nothing else conveys the serenity of being on the ocean as does warm light relected off of fishing boats or a coastline at the beginning or end of the day. Even a choppy ocean surface can reflect well with a long enough exposure.

Cathedral Rocks, Red Rock Crossing , Red Rock State Park, Sedona, Arizona

Santa_Cruz_Reflection

Still water acts exactly like a mirror, to the point where some of my tight reflection images have been published upside down. I now add lilly pads or some reference object, if there is no background, to indicate which side is up. I will have to admit, however, some reflections are fscinating viewed upside down and in either case, a reflection provides a unique view of the world and a great change of pace for a photographer.


Capture Easy Color For Powerful Photographic Images

fruit is sold in the mercado in Zaachila, Oaxaca, Mexico

A student recently asked me how I consistently produce images with so much color. I have been working as a professional photographer for over twenty-five years and do many things automatically. I had to think about the question for a few minutes before I could explain it properly.

The short answer, of course, is that I look for color everywhere I travel.
For me, color is an integral part of the travel experience. A vendor’s stall of colorful fruit in a Mexican mercado at sunrise or the rainbow hues of Native American regalia at a powwow draw me like a magnet.  Throw in an occasional sunset and you have the photographer’s “easy” color.

Most travel photographers look for the right light, rather than just colorful subjects. Color tends to be emphasized in certain situations and we capitalize on that. The first and last hour of the day is definitely the most popular time to shoot for many professionals, from nature and travel shooters to architectural photographers. That warm light streaming through your image sets a mood that is hard to beat.

Sienna, Italy

I was standing there, panting, at the top of a bell tower in Sienna, Italy. I had dragged my gear up what seemed like, at least, a thousand stairs, but I knew the image I was about to make would be worth the effort. The sun was on the verge of setting and delicate pink light was sweeping across the ochre-colored town below me, long shadows giving the buildings volume. I merely had to crop tightly with my 80-200 mm zoom lens to capture the intricate mosaic of a beautifully lit Italian hill town.

This opportunity was not an accident or plain old good luck. I had planned this image before I had even left home. I try to plan my shooting schedule so that, for each location, I have at least one main subject to cover each sunrise and sunset. My research even tells me what direction each main building faces, so I know what time of day will give me the best results.

Creating images during the “Magic Hours” of sunrise and sunset can certainly give a photographer great color, but rather than capturing just another sunrise/sunset, use that warm light to create atmosphere as it washes over a new location or subject. Break the “sunset habit” and turn your back on the sun. You may find the color just as saturated and the subjects considerably more interesting.