Portrait of a Place

So I’ve got a few workshops coming up. Two of these workshops are about travel, storytelling and books. The third is about making documentary portraits. So, I’ve been thinking. I look at a lot of portfolios. A lot. And I look at a lot of books. Many of the books I look at are created by consumers. In many ways I think pros and consumers are all striving for the same thing, and if you reduce this down to one simple idea I would classify it as “The need to tell a story.” The longer you do this you more you learn about not only how to tell the story but you also learn what your audience needs to fully understand what it is you are trying to visually explain.

A lot of the consumer portfolios I see are random. Lots of travel, lots of places and lots of faces, some faces who know they are being photographed and others who don’t. Many of these portfolios are random because that is how the photographer came to photography, simply bringing a camera along and shooting whatever it was they encountered. This is totally fine. However, if you are trying to accurately portray a place, a people, a story, sometimes as the photographer you must think in terms of story or theme. Even within the idea of the story, each piece, whether that be a landscape, a portrait, an action shot, can also have a mini-story attached to it. These small stories, and their information, make up the overall piece.

I’m a little odd because I’ve always worked with theme or story in mind. Always. When I head out and try to work randomly, I find myself falling back into the idea that what I’m working on is a small part of a larger story. Now I’m realizing I need to move even further back and consider that all my stories are actually a part of an even larger idea that will encompass, perhaps, my entire career with a camera in hand. Scary to think about that edit. This idea was presented to me by a book publisher who flat out told me that I should look at everything I’ve done and look for a “master” theme if you will. Again, I can’t imagine sitting down to begin that process. Maybe if I get a nice, long, prison sentence I can start this baby up.

The pictures in this post are from a series I did in Hawaii, on the North Shore of Oahu to be exact. I went to this place, at the same time each year, for almost a decade. Each year I had a mini-theme in mind, sometimes landscape, other times a specific person or place, but overall the images all played together. When I broke down the portrait idea I realized that pulling back was as important as moving forward. What I’m treading around here folks is context. Context simply puts me in the place, beyond a tight face. Context answers things like “Where?” “How?” or “When,” and is essential for telling a story. The goal is stand alone images that all fit together. Think about that. Images that are good enough to completely stand on their own yet fit together like a visual puzzle, ultimately presenting one, enormous, clear theme. It ain’t easy.

So many of the consumer portfolios I see are filled with tight faces because these are very simple images. These images are easy to read. The wrinkled face of the mountain tribe person. The hands or feet of the mountain tribe person. Woman in market, etc. We’ve all seen endless amounts of these images. The are expected, but in many cases they tell little about a place. Again, nothing wrong with these photographs, but I think there is much, much more to explore when it comes to actually telling a story. I think an easy way to begin this journey is to think about creating a picture package, something small, like five or six images. Give yourself a goal. “I’m going to tell the story of Venice Beach California, and I have six images to do so.” Do you think your images will all be tight portraits? Maybe. You might be able to pull this off, but getting the idea of place or story, with only faces is a tough go. So you begin to think about story first and then images. Maybe you need something that says beach? Maybe you need something that says California Beach? Maybe you need something that says Southern California Beach? Maybe you need something that says unique, Southern California beach? You see where I’m going with this?

Now the fun part of working this way is you have the ability to edit the final images into a variety of stories. And, if you show your work to ten different editors, chances are, you will end up with ten different final edits. This is where making books, working in themes, really gets interesting. You being to edit, see your idea coming together then realize, “Hmm, I’m missing something.” You then head back out to figure out that final piece that works as the visual glue to keep the piece together. And believe it or not, many of these type images are NOT the most visually stunning. I call them transitional images, pictures that link sections of a story together, images that provide very small pieces of critical information that assist the viewer. Nobody likes talking about these pictures because we all want to be top guns and talk about the brilliance of our most successful snaps. Again, that is great if you are showing a portfolio perhaps, but when it comes to storytelling sometimes we have to play by different rules.

When I do workshops I’m normally working in theme mode. Information or transitional images are a big part of what I’m doing. If I just walked and looked for lifetime, stand alone pictures, well, I might get lucky but then again I might not. Now here is where things get really tricky. You can’t tune yourself OUT of looking for those incredible one-frame wonders. You have to do both. You have to react to what is happening. You have to anticipate. You have to predict. But in the background your overall theme hums along. I don’t know about you but I talk to myself almost nonstop when I’m working because all of these ideas are flowing without pause. It can be a lot of voices going at one time. And yes, from time to time, I lock them all out and look for a zen-like connection.

So when you look at the images in this post just realize that each one represents a chapter of the overall story. Competition, landscape, portrait, culture, sense of place, are all represented. There are many ways of getting from point A to point B. We each work in our own way. My goal with this post is to get you to think in terms of theme, of story and of the idea that whatever you are working on….there is something larger just outside your view.

22 responses to “Portrait of a Place”

  1. Excellent, very informative and helpful in terms of shooting a story, a theme. That’s what I really look forward to learning so much about in Peru!

    Creating my new Blurb book (proof copy should arrive in a few days) has been an incredible learning experience in storytelling. I also learned that I need to learn to shoot details and transition images!

    • Smogranch says:

      Working in theme form is perfect for then continuing the idea with a book. This opens up an entirely new level of thought, something that can be a mountain to climb, but well worth the effort.

  2. Brian Miller says:

    Thanks for this, Daniel. I think this is a blog post I will refer back to over and over as I work through stories and themes I’m working on. I’ve recently discovered I love telling visual stories of the place I live and places I travel and I’ve been putting together small books of past images-fitting what I’ve got into a story. I often discover I’m missing something crucial to create a transition with. So now I’m heading out with stories in mind and will have to look for those transitional images as well as the star ones. I just love the idea of telling a story in 6 images. Will have to apply that to a project soon.

    Like Flemming, I’m waiting for my Blurb book to arrive as well and it was a huge education to make it. I’ve got another in the works that I’m excited about, and I have yet another that I’ve finished shooting but am working through the prints and edits to get to the point where I can put them in book form.

    • Smogranch says:


      Setting a few limits can be an interesting challenge. I started in the newspaper world where “one picture per story” was the rule of the day. IF they ran a package, which was rare, you were looking at maybe 5-6 images total. Made you really think about what you needed to get info across. Nowadays, with online galleries, the editing has gone out the window. Most of what I see are galleries with 10-20 images, three or four of which are solid and the rest are just filler.

    • Brian Miller says:

      Thanks Daniel. Good point. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to try to tell a story with much fewer, even just 1, image. I do like working with these restrictions though and I find that shooting with my Pentax K1000 film camera actually helps me do this quite a bit. There is just something about slowing down and being more mindful. Thanks for the insights.

    • Smogranch says:

      I think that is one of the great things about film. It kills me to see photographers in the field staring at the back of the camera. I really don’t think people learn that way at all. It distracts us and takes away the kind of focus you need to get great, real images.

  3. Good stuff – as always – Daniel. Shooting with a restriction of 6 frames, I like this. I just put together an Instragram/Blurb book, and really didn’t give much thought to it beyond loading all the images and creating a “volume 1.” It’s a great book, and I’m happy to have all the images from the past year+ out of digital form and in a format with shelf-life. However, I’m now thinking about these iPhone/instagram images from a story telling perspective…maybe building a series of 6 images or so moving forward (from within/outside the daily flow of clicks) to frame up a story or future mini book. I also lilke the new “mobile stories” for this approach.

    • Smogranch says:


      You should try Blurb Mobile. I’ve been using it a lot more. Eight still images and one motion piece, all bound into a short multi-media piece. It’s a GREAT exercise.

  4. Thank you Daniel for another workshop like post. As a beginner in (serious) photography I do a lot of research and I have been clicking through many portfolios. That’s why I totally agree with your statement about consumer portfolios. With that in mind I will try to explore myself the world of story telling in a different, maybe more considered way.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Gilles,

      Well, I’ve written about this many times but I’ll say it again. Finding a vision can be a tricky thing. I think there are a lot of folks who are shooting what they think they are supposed to shoot or what they have seen online. I think spending time in the art world or photo-art world can be interesting because it can teach you about the why, and that the final image may or may not be what is most important. Certain fields in photography are somewhat cut and dry. The art world isn’t.

  5. Sean says:

    I’ve recently returned from the Tokyo Documentary Photography Workshop ( http://www.tdpw.org) run by James Whitlow Delano (I know you know him), Kosuke Okahara, and Yumi Goto. The guest speaker was Jake Price. Everyone above mentioned that to tell a story you need information. To show information you need to show the subject’s environment. To do that you need a wide lens. So I bought a 28 and haven’t regretted it at all. I get the desire for the close up shots of the eyes etc., but eyes don’t give you enough clues (or facts) about the subjects circumstances. I learnt pretty quickly on the TDPW that to show a person’s character you need to show the environment. During the workshop we were drilled over and over with the task of providing more information about the subject.

    The most memorable quote of the week came from Jake when he said “don’t show me their condition, show me the personality.” He meant showing the subject in their environment.

    Your post has reenforced their advice.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Sean,

      I would have loved to take that class. Sounds great. I agree, again it’s about context. When I’m doing documentary work I use a 35mm and a 50m. An 80mm on the Blad. I need that space to help with the information. You have an entire generation of photographer now who just discovered the fixed lens, 1.4 or 1.2 and every image is shot wide open. That is okay for certain things, but using different apertures, wider lenses, will allow for a different story to be told. Both are portraits, but both offer different things.

  6. Interesting read. I dare say it made my day. Cheers!

  7. Cathy says:

    I will also be coming back to this post when I start thinking/working more in this direction.

    As always, inspiring…and often a much-needed kick start.

  8. Aaron says:

    Daniel, I like the others are intrigued by the restriction of telling a story in only 5-6 frames. Ironically, restrictions are often quite liberating…one camera, one lens etc. etc.
    How long did it take you to settle down and bring that sort of focus to bear?
    I’m currently still in the experimental stage. Flipping film, lenses, cameras all the time. I enjoy the variety BUT as I look back over the work (chronicling my children’s youth) it’s a hot mess.

    I love your suggestion (at least cerebrally) of asking the question: “what would a lifetime’s edit look like?” and making choices that would allow you to assemble a strong cohesive and consistent set of images…if that is even possible. Maybe more of a project by project break down is more realistic.
    Thanks as always for the inspiration and thought provoking posts.

    • Smogranch says:


      I was lucky, I went through a photojournalism program, four year, and also worked for newspapers right out of the gate, which was all about short takes and edits. You have to work with the idea that a single image could or should tell the entire story. If you got really lucky, you might get a package run, three, four images tops. So, I took the same idea into all of my work. I like different cameras, but the more I think about it now, the only thing that matters is getting the most amount of focused time in the field possible, and focuses time is most successful when you are NOT thinking about equipment.
      Lifetime edits are totally doable, they happen all the time, but they required a lot of effort, more than most people want to commit to.

  9. Fantastic post, reminiscent of the editing exercise you did for the SPE presentation where I first met you. I’ve already forwarded to several students who would both appreciate and utilize it. Thanks!

    Are some of the Hawaii shits with a G2 Contax? I love having the data in-between the frames!


    • Smogranch says:


      Actually those images were made with a Pentax 645, which has BY FAR the best data on the rebate of any camera out there. Great cameras, wish I still had one.

  10. mike a says:

    good stuff Daniel. I’m shooting a long term project now and I keep finding myself thinking how can I shoot this different. I keep returning looking, listening, thinking, shooting. It may not end up being great work but it’s been a learning process none the less. I just want to grow. Everything you touched on here is all important stuff

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