Capturing the essence of place

View to Sete Cicades, AzoresFabulous view, but what marks this image out from a postcard of the same thing?

We took a trip to the Azores about five years ago.  Sao Miguel, the island where we were based, was a stunningly beautiful place, its twisting roads winding through incredible scenery.  The roads were narrow, and the only places you could stop were at designated laybys.  The laybys had been thoughtfully situated where the ‘best’ views were, but made me feel that my opportunity to interpret the landscape in a way that was personal to me had been taken away from me.  They might as well have set the area up with concrete footprints and tripod feet impressions, and a sign saying ‘stand and shoot here’.  (I wrote about my experiences here.)

Not every place is quite so restricting, but in many tourist destinations it’s easy to feel that it’s all been done before and that you might as well go and buy some postcards, because your shots are going to look exactly like them anyway.  Although just about everyone wants to go somewhere new and exotic to do some photography, it’s far more difficult to get shots that are personal to you – it’s so easy to get seduced by the sheer beauty or awesomeness of the place and end up taking very standard shots that look like a hundred others.

I get quite bemused looking through the ads for photography holidays, all of them going to amazing, scenic, places.  Yes, it’s fantastic to go and see these places, but until you’ve learned to properly see what’s in your own neighbourhood, you won’t really see what’s there either – all you’ll notice is the obvious.  My feeling is that if you want to stretch yourself photographically then go somewhere where it’s not obvious what to shoot or how to get an interesting picture out of what’s there.  Once you learn to do that, you’re going to get some much better shots when you do go somewhere gorgeous and you won’t waste the opportunity.

When I took these shots five years ago, I was feeling my way towards this approach.  Here are some of the things I found that helped:

Get the obvious shots out of the way – it’s often the case that you need to take these first before you can allow the  less obvious to make itself known to you (it empties your mind so that it can fill again).  They’re not wasted – they’ll act as record shots and bring back memories, and you can show them to people who won’t understand your other stuff.

Give yourself some time to absorb the feeling of the place – one of the reasons that holiday shots can be disappointing is that you can’t keep re-visiting the same spots over a long period of time.  Going back to somewhere again and again will result in better and better shots over time, as you come to know the place and properly ‘see’ it.  Remember that Yosemite was on Ansel Adams doorstep and not some exotic locale he visited occasionally.

When something stops you in your tracks, think about using it as the springboard for a series of themed images.  You can still photograph anything and everything – you don’t want to limit yourself to just one or two themes when you’re visiting somewhere new – but it will act as the basis for your own personal interpretation of the place.  Look for what grabs you personally – often it’s the small details of a place.

Forget about what anyone else thinks – your interpretation of a place might not appeal to everyone, especially if they don’t have the same level of visual education.  Don’t let that get in the way.  Do what’s good for you, and what will give you satisfaction and pleasure, and remember you can still share the more obvious postcard shots with the people who don’t get the other stuff you’re doing.

It was the water on Sao Miguel that captured me, in the end.  It’s full of natural springs, so there are small fountains and water spouts everywhere.  Because of the mineral salts in the water, these are often brilliantly coloured.  I became fascinated by these, and also by the numerous hot springs and pools.  The Azores have some of the highest humidity levels you’ll find anywhere, the islands are small drops of land surrounded by a vast expanse of ocean, water flows and springs and cascades and bubbles up all over the land, and off-season there are sudden torrential downpours of rain, so the essence of the place for me is to be found in its water.  Water is also something I love to photograph, so these images bring together my own fascination for water with the water that symbolises the Azores.

Azorian spring

Azorian spring

Natural spring, Azores

Natural spring, Azores

Natural spring, Azores

Natural spring, Azores

Azorian spring