A Sense of Place – Composition Lesson


When I returned from Japan, I wrote a blog post simply entitled “Portraits of Japan”. These images are of a genre that I call a sense of place. In contrast to images about individual things, these are images about the whole. These images convey the sense of being there.

I am introducing this concept to the Thousand Oaks Photo Group for the June Digital Composition Challenge – where every other month I introduce a compositional approach to help our members grow as photographers. A Sense of Place is an image that captures the mood, sensibilities, and essence. Think if it as a portrait of a place.

How to capture the Sense of a Place

What’s the message?

As a photographer, the first thing we need to do, for any image, is to determine the message we want to convey with our image. To capture a sense of place, this means trying to identify what makes it what it is and what makes the current circumstances unique. Years ago, I read the book “Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision” by David duChemin There is one particular topic he discusses in the book that I have carried with me since the day I read it. David talks about taking an inventory of what you see and feel and then using that to determine what to capture.

  • What objects are around you: natural, man-made, regular patterns or chaotic, filled or sparse?
  • What is the weather and atmosphere: hot, cold, misty, windy, dry, wet
  • What are the structures like: old, new, majestic, grand, tiny, dilapidated?
  • What do you feel: busy, crowded, lonely, forgotten?


What visual tells the story?

Once you have consciously gone through this inventory process, the next step is to determine how to capture as much of this inventory in the images your are going to make.

  • How do you capture the heat? the wind? the calm silence?
  • How much do you include?
  • Are people a part of the story or not?


Capture the whole

Finally, these images are about capturing the whole, not the fussy details.


Portraits of Santa Anita Racetrack

Places have many messages and many stories. During the last Thousand Oaks Photo Group field trip to Santa Anita Racetrack, I thought not just about capturing the people (the people were wonderful), but also about capturing the whole – the sense of the racetrack. Here are a few images.

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Use all the composition all techniques

It is important to remember all the compositional techniques that you have learned – the inclusive approach needed for capturing the whole is perhaps more difficult than reductive approach of focusing on the details.

  • Look at the line, light, and color
  • Find an expressive point of view
  • Layer the foreground with the background to link things to their environment
  • Include many elements, but pay careful attention to the relationships between objects: “nothing touches”
  • Wait for an expressive moment

Here are some additional examples:

A simple, humble, portrait of a building





City scape



Neighborhoods and Scenes


Havana Morning




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