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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Photographing symbols

A few weeks ago we had a look at how you go about getting beyond the cliche and really photographing something in depth. It's always great to have the time to be able to do that but often when we travel we're only in one place for a limited period and don't have that option.

When that happens we don't necessarily have to photograph just cliches but it can really help our audience relate to the pictures when we photograph symbols. Photographing icons of a certain culture can help place the images geographically, and sometimes much more. They immediately tell people where you are in the world and so help ground the viewer.

Take this picture on the left. It can be read on many different levels but I'm guessing that pretty much all of you knew straight away that it is Japan. Cherry blossoms and a bright blue carp flag give it away. So for those with only a limited knowledge of a country it puts them at ease straight away because they recognise the symbols. Subconsciously they think, 'Ah we're going to see some pictures of Japan.'

But symbols can also work for viewers with more knowledge about certain destinations. For example some readers might know that the carp flags are flown on the 5th of May to celebrate childrens' day. Houses traditionally put out a carp flag for each boy child in the family and cities often hang large numbers of flags in public parks around this special day. So now one simple photograph tells you that it was taken in May in Japan.

And for those with even more knowledge of Japan, there's the cherry blossoms. The cherry blossoms bloom in a wave that starts in the southern part of the country (where it's warmest) and gradually make their way north. They start off in southern Japan in March, hit Tokyo in April or so and continue north.

So we know the photo was taken around the 5th of May which means that it isn't Tokyo because the cherry blossoms are already finished there. So it's a lot farther north. In fact it's all the way up at the northern tip of the country.

So by placing two symbols in a simple graphic design we have a series of clues as to exactly when and pretty close to exactly where the photo was taken. Symbols aren't necessarily cliches but when you're on a limited journey they can be a great mine of information.

When you want to place two objects like this in the same image, and have them appear close together reach for the telephoto lens. The compressed perspective makes them appear closer than they actually are. A hint with using a telephoto lens - walk away from your subject when you use one. The farther you are away the more you need to zoom in and the more you get that compressed look. It feels like you're walking in the wrong direction sometimes but just remember to walk closer to something when using the wide-angle and away from something when you're using the telephoto.

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