The travel photography bug caught me many years ago. Magnificent buildings, iconic landscapes, and grand vistas grab my photographic eye and drag me in. Yet, it’s the cultural photography that really touches my soul.
Culture is defined as “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or social group.” I gravitate to a scene that illustrates the culture of a location. My creative eye tries to photograph a piece of art in context with the people who created it. I do the same with local schools, religious institutions, governmental structures, and monuments.
Outdoor markets are a great place to see the culture of a location. Piles of fruits and vegetables are universal in a market. Another photographer once told me “a pile of apples is a pile of apples.” That’s true but include the price tag in the pile of apples and there’s a bit of culture. The quaint hand-written sign is far better than the machine-printed sign I see in my local grocery store.
Continuing along in the market, it’s not hard to notice the vendors manning each stall. Peruvian ladies in the market wear traditional hats that denote their home village. Position one of those ladies behind her wares and we’ve added a bit of culture to our photo.
I watch people as they interact with each other in the market. Italian vendors gesture with their hands as they talk with a customer. Moroccan men lean in and whisper a bit of gossip or political news to friends in the market. These small body movements tell us a lot about the culture of a location.
Colors convey the culture in many places around the world. The blue domes against pure white walls let people know they are in the Greek Isles. The blue walls of Chefchaouen, Morocco, draw photographers from far and wide. Orange robes of a Buddhist monk add a splash of color to any photograph.
There are colorful doors on homes and shops in Ireland. A local told me the colors help when the days are cloudy and overcast. Another local said the colorful doors were a throwback to the days of English rule and a way to say the Irish spirit would not be dampened.
Religion bolsters the spirit in many cultures around the world. Some might think one church looks like another, but in reality, each is different. Romanian Orthodox churches are painted throughout with icons of the saints and holy family. The stunning blue paint and gold leaf accents light up the interior of some of these churches making modern lighting irrelevant.
When creating photos in a foreign land, I look for the cultural elements that tell viewers where I am. Moroccan vendors display olives in large piles that have been shaped into a cone. One day I saw one of these cones of purple olives. The shop had a similarly colored purple awning. The blank space between the nearby olives and the distant awning was the right size for a person walking in front of the shop. I turned my camera vertical, placed the olives in the bottom right third of the frame, the awning in the top left third, and then waited for the right person to walk through the frame.
I’ve used that technique countless times in my photography. Find a cultural element or elements for the photo. Then wait for the right person to enter the frame. In some places, I might wait for the right horse cart or donkey cart to pass through the frame.
Showing on the hands of a subject can create a cultural photograph. Hands that have been calloused and shaped by a lifetime of hard work convey the local culture. A visit to a local woodworker, tinsmith, or potter gives us a chance to photograph the working culture of a location.
High ISO gives me a chance to stop working hands without adding a flash that might distract the worker. I use a fast shutter speed and high ISO to stop the hands and show all their details. Sometimes I let the shutter speed drop to blur some motion and show action.
I also play with depth-of-field to isolate one cultural element or show the entire scene. Candles, crosses, clothing, or pieces of jewelry are lovely against a blurry background thanks to an ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6. I try to keep as much distance between the subject and background to create a lovely blurred background.
The opposite comes into play when I want to show everything in the scene. I use an ƒ/16 or ƒ/22 to show all the columns in a historic church. The same aperture applies if I’m trying to show an abandoned building in the starkness of a desert. Each conveys the culture of the setting.
Cultural photography shows the “hand of man.” There’s no hiding the human impact in a cultural photo. The point of the photo, after all, is to show the customs, arts, and achievements of the people in that location.