Photographing Places: Setting the Scene

October 14, 2013

You are standing in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Two dozen people—or more—are crowding around, angling to see it for themselves up close (behind the bulletproof glass). What picture do you take? Do you photograph the painting? Or the crowd?

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New Mexico

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Charles Bridge, Prague

Good travel photos need context, a way to set the scene through your images.

When you are surrounded by new and interesting things, it is tempting to photograph the sights straightforwardly. It’s like a way of saying, “I was here.” But taking it one step further and including more of the scene will give the viewer a better sense of what it was like to be there.

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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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Outside Taos, New Mexico

Look for ways to show the whole space, not just the focal point, whether you’re photographing a room, village, city, campsite, mountain, or landmark. Try framing the image in different ways—more sky, less sky, from down low, from above, facing into the light and away from the light.

Shoot wide to show the whole scene. Use the widest angle lens you have to include everything or to exaggerate an element. (Like the open road in a vast expanse of land.)

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Empire State Building, New York City

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Brooklyn Bridge, NYC

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Summit of Grays Peak, 14,278 ft., Colorado

Include in your images signs, roads, other tourists. The things people often try to shoot around, to leave out, can be the things that evoke a feeling of realness.

Include people for a sense of scale. Having people in a photo also gives interesting life to a scene that might otherwise be static.

Photograph the outside of a building before you go in to help set the scene and—bonus!—to help you remember the names of the places you went.

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DryBar, Manhattan; Oyamel, Washington, D.C.

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Capitol, Washington, D.C.

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Nara, Japan

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Astronomical clock, Prague

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Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

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Joshua Tree National Park, California

And finally, if you see lots of people photographing something, try photographing them. You’ll get humor and wider context.

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New Orleans


Karen Jacot is based in Houston but loves to go other places. She always strives to take photos that will make a good story…and a good photo book. Find her on Facebook or on her website.

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