Travel & Photography: Capturing the Essence of a Place

Have you ever seen a photograph that instantly transports you to another place and time? Photos have the power to make us feel as if we’re there. They show us how a place looks, and if we’re lucky, how a place feels. How can you create images that will move your audience and convey the essence of a place you’ve been?

What is the “Essence” of a Place?

By definition, “essence” is the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character. The essence of a location is what it is at its very core, and how you perceive it.  If we want our travel photographs to last and continually remind us of our experience, they need to capture the feeling of a place in addition to the way it looks at face value.

Why Did You Come Here?

Before you can capture the essence of a place, you have to understand that essence in depth. It’s often abstract, but a good starting point on the journey towards discovery is asking yourself why you chose this place to travel to, over every other place in the world. What is it about this city, town, country, forest, mountain, or museum that called to you?

In fact, the reason you came here may be that you wanted to photograph something in particular. Maybe you’d like to capture the huge sequoias in California or the Colosseum in Rome. Yet, there may be much more than meets the eye, so it’s important to do your research as well. Read travel brochures and books, watch documentaries, and talk to locals to find out the best kept secrets of your destination.

For example, I was drawn to Phnom Penh because, to me, it is old and mysterious. I don’t quite understand it as a place, and this ignorance intrigued me to walk the streets, enter the temples during sunset prayers, and talk with monks who are willing to speak to their connection to their home. It is a shy city, with many secrets, unwilling to share because it’s been so hurt in the past, and I sought to capture that through my photographs.

The First Impression is the Truth

One of the best times to get a glimpse into the essence of a place is the first time you step out of the airport or off of the bus. First impressions are a personal experience, and they’re usually intensely accurate to how you’ll come to feel about a place. 

Pause to take it all in - the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of a new place. Have a notebook with you to jot some notes about it in case the moment passes before you can get your camera out. The way the light hits the cobblestone streets or the ambience of live music by street musicians can be incredibly inspiring when you’re trying to capture the core of a place. 

What Will You Long to Remember?

When you’re sitting at a sidewalk cafe or lounging by the sea, think about the things you’ll long to remember years down the road. What has moved you in this place and how can you bring that to those who will view your photographs?

It could be anything, concrete or abstract; perhaps a patch of flowers, a boat on a river, or ancient architecture reflected in the puddle from an afternoon rain shower. Photographs are just memories on paper, so capture what sticks out in your mind the most.

Walk Early, Walk Late, Walk Often.

Getting out and walking on the street is the best way to learn the rhythm of a place and to discover how the locals live their lives. When you walk early in the morning or later in the evening, you’ll escape the influx of tourists on walking (or heaven forbid - Segway) tours. 

Walking also gives you a constant panorama of everything around you. You can miss all kinds of treasures on a bus or in a car.

There is a coffee shop called La Casa Del Caffe Tazza D’oro near the Pantheon in Rome. Early in the morning, it’s packed with locals drinking their daily cappuccinos with a single sugar packet each. Down the road, the Pantheon is quiet, like the temple that it was meant to be. There is no line outside, and the birds play in the fountain out front. This is the real Rome, before the tourists are out, and it’s so worth walking for a while to capture.

Spontaneity is Key

Knowing what you want to capture when you travel to a place is essential. However, some of the best photographs come from completely unanticipated, spontaneous adventures. Don’t be afraid to go with the flow of a place. Carry your camera with you always and keep your eyes open for that perfect moment with the perfect light.