A Photographer’s Quest to Capture the Mood of a Place

Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 3200, ƒ/4, 1/500

No matter where I adventure to I am always wanting to capture a photo that encapsulates the mood that I felt about the location.

This week my family is enjoying vacation at Emerald Isle, NC. From our front porch you can see the ocean and from the back porch you can see the intracoastal waterway.  We get the sunrise and a sunset over the water.

The downside for where we are located is seeing all the telephone poles and the wires stringing along them and cluttering the view.

Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/2.8, 1/30

Our neighbors up and down the coast are all in what appears to be a vacation mode. No one is in a hurry. Even driving down the road people are way below the speed limit rather than in a rush. It is peaceful and very relaxing.

Fuji X-E2, 55-200mm, ISO 200, ƒ/7.1, 1/640

You see couples enjoying time together in the surf and walking along the beach. Here I enjoyed watching the couple from our 3rd floor balcony.

I can feel some of what I captured in the photos, but still I am not quite satisfied that I have a photo that truly captures the mood of the place.

Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/2.8, 1/75

 No ships and quiet times along the beach in the evenings.

Fuji X-E2, 55-200mm, ISO 200, ƒ/8, 1/800

I am also enjoying capturing the moments of the youth of today reminding all of us that are older of the times we spent playing football on these same beaches years ago. Here I have captured my nephew with our new member of the family who married my niece.  I think the activity captures a mood and takes me back.

Are these just memory joggers for me and my family or are they capturing universal understood moments?

Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 200, ƒ/5, 1/1800

Does the umbrellas on the beach capture what people around the world can relate? Does this help take people to their vacation memory?

This is what most photographers who shoot with a photojournalistic intent look for when trying to capture the mood of a place. Travel photographers, street shooter and photojournalists are looking for those triggers that create a mood and capture a moment.

Stay tuned and see what else I find the rest of my vacation on Emerald Isle, North Carolina.

Vacation Planning Guide for Photography

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 100, ƒ/5.6, 1/800,  Off camera fill-flash using the Nikon SB-900 and SB800.  The Flash is on the Pocketwizard TT5 and being triggered by the Mini TT1 on the Camera with the AC3 to control the output of the flash. Flash is +2 EV and the camera is 0 EV.

I took the past week off for a family cruise of the Caribbean on the Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas with my parents, sisters and all of our families.  There were fourteen of us each evening at the evening meal.

I realized from watching so many folks traveling with cameras and from my own experiences I think you need a basic checklist of what you should bring for your vacation trip.

I am going to address two types of camera kits that you might want to use for your next vacation. The two kits are the Point and shoot camera and the DSLR.

Nikon P7000, ISO 1600, ƒ/3.2, 1/160

Point and Shoot Camera kit

First let me just list what should be included in your carryon bags for this kit.

2 Batteries
Battery Charger
2 Memory cards
Lens cloth which can double for your gray card
Bag or a plan for carrying what you need

The camera is obvious, but many people travel with just one battery. I recommend always having at least one spare battery always charged with you. At the end of each day, I recommend going ahead and charging the battery you used that day and if necessary your backup if you used it.  Too many people miss opportunities due to dead battery on the trip of their lifetime.

Today I would recommend carrying large capacity cards. Check with your camera manual and get the largest capacity possible.  Today many of these cameras will take a 64-gig card. Sometimes it may make more sense for the price to buy a few 16-gig cards than one 64-gig card.  If you take enough memory cards you can eliminate the need of carrying a computer or something like a portable hard drive designed to download memory cards.

Carrying a gray cloth that is designed to clean your lens can help you keep that lens clean and help for white balancing when you need to do so. Please remember to check your lens each day periodically.  Fingerprint on the lens will deteriorate the quality of the images.

Nikon P7000, ISO 100, ƒ/3.5, 1/1250

Which point and shoot should you buy if you don’t have one?

I recommend getting something with a decent zoom on it so you can get those images of things far away. I think most people will be able to find a camera in the $200 – $500 range that gives you a great deal of flexibility that can fit in you pocket.

Here are a few models that I would consider:

Canon PowerShot SX280 HS

Canon PowerShot SX280 HS – It has a 20X zoom, which is equivalent to the DSLR 25 – 500mm. It is a 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor. ISO 80-6400
Nikon Coolpix L610 – It has a 14X zoom which is equivalent to the DSLR 25-350mm. It is a 16-megapixel CMOS sensor. ISO 125-3200
LUMIX ZS25: Compact Long Zoom Camera – It has a 20X zoom, which is equivalent to the DSLR 24 – 480mm. It is a 16-megapixel CMOS sensor. ISO 100-6400

There is another Point and Shoot camera model in between the small pocket camera and the larger DSLR. I call these Bridge Cameras.  They are cameras with incredible zooms that make them a little larger and look like their big brother the DSLR, except you cannot change the lens.  However, with the zoom on these who would ever need another lens.

Here are just three Bridge Cameras you should seriously consider before sinking lots of cash into a DSLR.

Nikon Coolpix P520

Nikon Coolpix P520 – It has a 42X zoom, which is equivalent to the DSLR 24-1000mm. It is an 18.1 megapixel CMOS sensor. ISO 80-3200 [H2 pushed to ISO 12,800]
Canon PowerShot SX50 HS – It has a 50X zoom, which is equivalent to the DSLR 24-1200mm. It is a 12.1 megapixel CMOS sensor. ISO 80-6400
LUMIX LZ30: Long Zoom DSLR Alternative Bridge Camera – It has a 35X zoom, which is equivalent to the DSLR 25 – 875mm. It is a 16.1 megapixel CMOS sensor. ISO 100-6400

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 250, ƒ/8, 1/500

DSLR Camera Kit

Plan to carry this on with you for security reasons.

Off camera flash
Zoom or fixed lenses to cover 24 – 300mm recommended
2 Batteries
Battery Charger
2 Memory cards
Lens cloth which can double for your gray card
Bag or a plan for carrying what you need

The basic difference for the hobbyist and the professional is the need for backup on everything for the pro.  My comments for each are the same as before with the Point and Shoot cameras.

Plan for the plane’s you will fly. If you have one of those really small jets or propeller plans you can only put a very small bag on board with you. If you are carrying a lot of gear I recommend suing the ThinkTank roller bags and check them at the door of the gate.  They will give them back to you as you get off the plane. It is a little safer than checking the bag where it can get lost.

If flying internationally you really do need to watch the weight. This is where a camera vest can pay off because you can put gear in it and it doesn’t count as baggage.  Cargo paints will work great for a lens or two.

My two sisters gave me a surprise kiss during our family photos. Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 12,800 ƒ/8, 1/30 with Nikon SB900 on camera with 0 EV compensation and slow-sync.

Here is a family photo that I setup and asked a person to push the button for us.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 12,800, ƒ/8, 1/125 with SB900 direct flash for fill on slow-sync.

Vacation Photo Tip: Long Lens can compress the scene

Nikon D4, 28-300mm [56mm], ISO 100, ƒ/10, 1/80

We were on our quest to get a good photo of the Hollywood sign by going up the road to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. After parking we immediately took our first attempt here.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm [68mm], ISO 280, ƒ/29, 1/60

Now we move up the road to the observatory. Here the photo is a little better. Had there not been cars and road right behind me I might have backed up a little and used a longer lens. While I like the photo, I still feel that the Hollywood sign is just too far away.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm [190mm], ISO 280, ƒ/29, 1/60

To get the last photo we went further up the mountain. I used a longer focal length and to be sure the Hollywood sign was readable I stopped down to ƒ/29. I like this photo so much I did another one of my wife alone.

Nikon D4, 28-300mm [280mm], ISO 280, ƒ/29, 1/60

One last thing about that latest photo, notice how I zoomed in even more to 280mm focal length. The sign is even closer in feel and based on this if I had shot this with a 600mm it would appear even closer.

Just a couple of posts ago here I recommended composing the background first. This is still the case, but sometime You need to consider bringing the background closer.

Remember this is just the opposite of what they are doing when they shoot TV sitcoms. They are trying to make the most of the small space they often work in and therefore are using moderate to wide angles to expand the set.

Vacation Photos: Compose Background then add family and friends

Nikon D4, ISO 12,800, ƒ/5, 1/100, 28 – 300mm [No Flash]

Today I was touring the Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank, California. We made a stop to see the set of the Friends TV show set.

While I enjoyed seeing the set and took many photos.  I took this shot and then put my wife and daughter into the photo.

Nikon D4, ISO 12,800, ƒ/5, 1/100, 28 – 300mm [No Flash]

I had my wife and daughter get as close to the camera as possible without totally blocking the background.

The diagram shows how their was neon sign lighting my wife and daughter just over my shoulder.

Had we had more time and no one else in the room with us I might have tried a few other angles.

Nikon D4, ISO 12,800, ƒ/5, 1/100, 28 – 300mm [No Flash]

My tip is simple, first compose the background and then get the people as close to the camera as possible. This means they are most likely between three to five feet from the camera at the most.

Nikon P7000, ISO 128, ƒ/2.8, 1/250, -1 EV flash

Earlier we went to Disneyland. Here I just carried my Nikon P7000. I have a already programs my U1 [User Setting 1] where the flash is -1 EV. So in this last photo I used similar technique and got everyone close to the camera. I popped up the on camera flash and because we are so close to each other the subjects faces don’t have those nasty raccoon eyes due to the sun directly overhead.

So the only last tip is to use a flash outside to fill in those shadows. 

Photography Ought To Be Fun

From an early e.Newsletter I sent out in June 2006. The photos are from my first digital camera–Nikon D100.

“Brain research has now proven conclusively that play is essential. It actually restores our intellectual capacities and renews our spirits. It’s essential to good mental health and physical health and to the reductions of tension.”

–Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family 

Deer antlers are among the fastest growing tissues known to man.

My family has always taken pictures. One of my earliest experiences is playing with an old camera that used flash bulbs and making photos. I would run around pretending to make photos.

My father had a darkroom where he would develop his black and white photos. It was so much fun to watch the photos appear on the paper in the trays of chemicals.

Nature and wildlife are probably two of my favorite subjects when I make photos for myself.

This past week I took a few days and met my uncle who is also a professional photographer and who taught me a great deal through the years. He has been widely published as a nature and wild life photographer.

The white tailed deer’s high degree of sensitivity of the smell, which us humans can’t even begin to understand, is used for protection as well as mating.

We decided to meet and camp at Cades Cove in The Great Smoky National Park which is located near Townsend, Tennessee.

We would get up really early before the park opened and be one of the first through the gate each morning and one of the last the leave the park at night. The animals like white tailed deer, turkeys, and coyote typically are more active in the morning and early evening.

The black bear is more unpredictable and could be active at any time. We hoped to see black bear and did. However they seldom would stay around once they spotted us and turned for the woods more than once.

We also noticed that when we used our binoculars more than one of the many bears we spotted turned into a tree stump. Sometimes when we were in the park you would hardly see any wildlife. We believed the heat kept many of the animals relaxing in the shade longer before venturing out to the meadows.

Before we would go into the park we would get a camera ready to go. I would use my Nikon digital camera with a 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 with a 1.4X teleconverter with a 2 gig flash card ready beside me. The lens was mounted on a monopod and the tripod was near by if the scene allowed for it.

Both my uncle and I commented how much more fun this was with digital over shooting film in the past. We shot more than we may have shot in the past, but there were many reasons we liked the digital.

The things we both commented about shooting digital was the pockets on our camera bags where we kept film were now empty or full of something useful. We also enjoyed being able to change the ISO as either it was getting darker due to us going into the woods or the time of day. We also enjoyed playing with the white balance. We experimented with different settings seeing what
we liked best.

In the campground at night I could download my images onto my laptop and see the results from the day. So the next day, we were picky about what we would stop to photograph.

The minute we saw a great lighting situation or black bear, we stopped. For these types of trips you choose a long lens like a 300mm to get close enough to photograph a black bear. Any other lens if you fill the frame with the bear—well you will have more problems with a bear than your photographing abilities.

A teleconverter like a 1.4X or 2X can easily make the 300mm into a 420mm or even a 600mm and add very little weight to the bag.

A moderate wide angle zoom will help you enjoy those scenic scenes with barns. I love using my Nikon 24-120mm lens for this.

There were not as many wildflowers this time of year as earlier in the spring, but I always have a macro 60mm lens for close-up pictures of flowers.

Stream near Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in the Great Smoky
National Park.

While I have a flash I use this as a last resort. But when inside an old farm house this can really help. I still prefer using a tripod, but there is always a possibility you might need one. Some of the cameras like my Nikon D100 have a pop up flash built into the camera and for just about anything they can help when you need a flash.

After shooting early morning, we would drive into Townsend, Tennessee for a good country breakfast. During the hotter time of the day was a great time to explore inside the woods the streams and water falls of the park.

For the really hot day we drove up to Clingmans Dome which is 20° cooler than the rest of the park.

Just seeing if you are paying attention. I photographed this Kangaroo and her Joey at the Kangaroo Conservation Center located in Dawsonville, Georgia June 17, 2006.

Our goal was to make photos and have fun—we exceeded our goal. Remember to just take photos for the fun of it.

Carter Shields Cabin–George Washington “Carter” Shields (1844-1924) bought this land and cabin from John Sparks in 1910. The cabin dates to 1830-40s. Shields lived in the cove until 1921.

Vacation spot?

Do you want to go here and take a horseback ride? If you do then I succeeded.

Telling stories sometimes is about capturing an essence of the place and creating a mood that triggers the soul of the audience. 

I think the best storytellers are those who can take a present moment and capture a nostalgic moment. The moment is so timeless that people are taken to their own memories.

Does this photo trigger memories for you from your summer camps?

I find that many of the memories from our past that we tap into from time to time are not moments of extreme exaggeration with camera angles. The compositions are more simple and straight forward, but yet they are very timeless.

I remember going to camp as a young boy and having fun playing in the pool and as well remembering finding a girl friend. For me this photo triggers those memories. Does it trigger your memories?

Some photos we take can be big picture like the photo of the horses near the lake. Sometimes the photos can be much closer and help bring us into those moments we remember of a horse ride through the woods.

I used a flash to be sure you see the person on horseback. I think her expression captures the relaxation and joy of horseback riding in the woods.

Many times photographers are communicating moments that do not trigger memories, because the audience has never had a similar experience. I believe if the photographer is truly in touch with their emotions when they are photographing and understand how to use light, composition, expressions of subjects and those defining moments they can communicate even to those who have never experienced these moments a desire to want them.

This is truly a snapshot of my daughter when she was 3 years old.  That is some 10 years ago. While I know this is mainly a memory jogger for me of my daughter, I know on some level it will connect with many people because they too have made similar photos like this.  I think the photo works only because I think you can tell my daughter is connecting with me in the photo.  Would I use this photo in a communication package–I don’t think so.

You need to start with the snapshot as I did with my daughter.  What in this photo makes me like it so much? It is my daughter and it means something on this level for me. I like the expression of Chelle in the photo as well. I think on one level many people would like the photo.

What is missing for me is that she is a little too far away for me in the photo.  I wanted to get closer and make it work better.  Do I have one showing that I did that, no I don’t.  I made this photo for me.  That is perfectly OK to do even for a professional photographer.

I do make a lot of snapshots for me. These are my nostalgic moments. I have learned they don’t connect as well as those photos that have taken a little more thought and time to make.

Are you in touch enough with how you feel about a place to capture it? Good communication photos help your audience connect to a location using visual stimulants that make a moment nostalgic and inviting. Hire a photographer who consistently shows this in their portfolio the next time you want to get folks to come to your event.