Three Easy Ways to Create Context in Your Pictures

Posted July 17th, 2014 by   |  Photography, Travel  |  Permalink
Port Townsend Paper Company

Sailboat in front of Port Townsend Paper Corporation.

Over the last week or two I’ve been spending quite a bit of time on the waters of Washington State’s Puget Sound region. This area is chock full of opportunities for maritime photography and I’ve been shooting like crazy to capture the scenes.

While shooting pictures last week, I consciously planned for a number of them to show the context of the area. I wanted the shots to be more than just a pretty scene or a boat on the water. Rather, I wanted the viewer of the images to gain a better understanding of the setting and environment.


Washington State Ferry boat Kennewick at the Port Townsend Ferry Terminal.

One of the best skills you can have as a travel photographer is the ability to create context for your imagery. For example, it is very easy to take a picture of a boat on the water, but it is much more difficult to illustrate how that boat relates to its surroundings. You should know that when viewers look at your images, they are always thinking about more than the image itself. They are trying to figure out answers to the five W’s – who, what, where, when, why?

Who is in the image?

What is the image about?

Where was it taken?

When was it taken?

Why are you showing this to me?

If your photograph is able to visually answer these questions for the viewer, then you’ve done a good job of creating the context for the image. Obviously, not all images need to answer all of these questions. In fact, many times images work just fine without answering any of these questions. But, if you are trying to tell a story with your images, then you must answer these questions visually by thinking through the design and composition of the photograph.

Indian Island.

Indian Island Naval Base and munitions depot.

Here are three easy ways to create context:

1. Juxtaposition.

Always be thinking about how you can position your subject with other elements in the scene. Rather than shooting an object that is isolated by itself, it needs to be positioned next to something in order for it’s context to be understood. Use things like buildings, trees, crowds of people, parking lots, and roads as background elements in the scene to help the viewer understand location.

2. Include well-known landmarks.

This is the obvious corollary to the juxtaposition tip, but asks you to go one step further by deliberately including something in the background that is well-known. In the case of the images shown here, I included landmarks such as the Olympic Mountains, the historic Port Towsend Post Office building, Mount Rainier and the Port Townsend Paper Company factory. Well-known and famous landmarks are an easy way to help the viewer immediately grasp where the image was taken.

3. Shoot medium wide angle to medium telephoto lenses.

The most difficult part of creating context is figuring out how much of the background you should include to let the viewer know where the photograph was taken. If you include too much by using a super wide angle lens, then the impact of the subject can be lost. If you include too little with a long telephoto lens, then the viewer doesn’t have enough visual information to understand the location of the photo. The solution is to make these types of shots with lenses between 35mm and 200mm focal lengths. In fact, a couple of zoom lenses like a 24-70mm and the 70-200mm make the perfect pair for creating context.

Fort Flagler

Fort Flagler lighthouse in front of Mount Rainier.


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