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.
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.
Here are three easy ways to create context:
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.
Always take your camera with you. Always.
Such has been my mantra for years now and I’m happy I had one with me yesterday for a 30-minute ferry boat ride between Port Townsend, WA and Whidbey Island, WA. My wife, kids and I had just finished up a couple days visiting friends and family on Whidbey and were returning home in the late afternoon. The sky was a bit hazy, but the light was perfect for beautiful shots of maritime traffic in the Puget Sound.
The Whidbey Island ferry (the Kennewick) crosses the main channel of water leading to the shipping ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia. Each day, you’ll see traffic ranging from cruise ships to container ships to tugs to everything else in between. Our ferry boat captain was on an intersection course with the cargo ship Mariner (above), so he slowed down and crossed behind to let the Mariner pass by. I was standing on the fourth deck of the ferry, which helped produce a great photo of the cargo ship from a higher perspective. I processed the image in Photoshop, then brought it into Nik Color Efex Pro 4 to bring out the micro details in the clouds. Finally, I converted the image to black and white in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.
For this image of the Port Townsend Paper Corporation paper mill (below), I photographed it with a Nikon D800, 70-200mm f2.8, and a Nikon 1.4x TC. Behind the paper mill, you’ll see the lower snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountain Range. I was drawn to the texture of the steam and the detail in the clouds. The image looked much better in black and white, so I processed the shot using the same method as the Mariner cargo ship (above).
For the final image below, I wanted to convey a simple NW scene involving a fishing vessel and a sail boat. Behind the two is the subtle outline of Whidbey Island, giving a sense of scale and perspective to the photograph. For this image, I used a Nikon D800, 70-200mm f2.8, and a 1.4x TC. Again, processing was the same as before.
Keep shooting my friends.