How to Capture the Scene’s Ambiance with Your Camera

Sometimes we simply want to take a photograph of an interesting or appealing image, regardless of the pictures’ intended end-use. Other times we might want to record an event. But then there are times when we are in a situation where our current experience is as important as that which is visually before us. There in lays the difficulty: how can we better combine what we are feeling into a static, two dimensional image that is only able to address one of our senses?

The example I will use for this discussion is a recent hike I took in a small canyon near Abiquiu New Mexico, called Plaza Blanca. Plaza Blanca is very remote, and very quiet. In my two hour visit, I did not see one other person. There is little daytime wildlife in this area of the high desert, so the only animal noises were the occasional sounds made by a raven’s wings as it created wind turbulence overhead.

The light in New Mexico is amazing and surreal at times. The white canyon walls against the deep azure skies, combined with the canyon stillness made for a deeply poignant experience. So, how on earth do I capture this? How do I convey something beyond the beautiful canyon walls before me?

First: Don’t shoot!

It’s easy in this digital world to see something and start shooting away. It’s made even easier to come home with a full memory card by using the automatic white balance and exposure bracketing features (six shots by pushing the shutter button just once!). Of course, when a scene is short-lived, shooting first may be your only option.

However, if your situation will remain static for a period of time, try leaving the camera untouched. Instead, experience your environment. Be present. Don’t think about camera settings, if you’re with someone don’t talk, and definitely don’t think about creating “art”. If you are walking, feel the earth below you, listen to the sounds your shoes make on the ground, feel the wind, and look at the light as it falls on the objects in front of you. See the patterns made by the shadows. Look for reflections, shapes, and colors. Listen to the world around you. Be present in that moment, and become highly aware of your surrounding environment.

Then: Shoot once

OK, maybe not just once. But don’t take a million pictures. Find the image that best captures what you are feeling. Be sure your camera settings are those with which you are most comfortable. In these situations I normally leave my WB on Auto (shooting RAW I can always fix it later), I’m in Aperture Priority Mode, Spot (or maybe Center-weighted) Metering, with an ISO of 100.

Then, I pick up my camera, compose, focus, and then press the shutter release once. I try hard not to be bound by the myriad rules that often limit photographic creativity. While the end-resulting photo may in fact follow some aspects of “the rules”, I try not to think about them too much, and I definitely try not to be bound by them.

If my histogram looks good, I’m done. Knowing that in some situations protecting my highlights is critical, if my histogram is too far to the left I might change my exposure 1/3 or 1/2 stop and shoot once more.

I’ve done this many times and I’ve compared this way of working to the times when I just shoot a bunch of photos at various settings. In the latter case, what I normally find is I’m just deleting a lot more photos when I get home, and I don’t necessarily end up with better pictures. More important, I may not end up with a photo that captures what I was feeling.

Post-processing that contributes to the ambiance

The subject of post-processing is a topic of much debate because it’s such a personal issue. Everyone has the right to post-process as much or little as they like. There is no right or wrong. However, for me, when the objective is to capture the ambiance as much as possible, I try to use post-processing as a way to help me tell my story. I will always be true to the visual elements that exist in my field of vision. I might change the crop slightly if I capture stuff that is not contributing to what I felt at the moment.  I will tweak the contrast to get the image to represent what it felt like when I squeezed the shutter.

I use is Adobe Lightroom, and I try to follow these criteria: 1) to make changes that mostly could have been made in-camera if chosen (e.g. white balance adjustments), and 2) to make changes that are consistent with helping me make the image evoke the feeling from that moment. The work here is less about trying to create art, and more about trying to tell a story that reflects the scene’s ambiance. Yes, the second criterion provides one with much latitude, so I try to approach this with as much restraint as possible.

The result

In the Be-Present-Then-Shoot method, I usually end up with a photograph that, for me, better captures the environment. Now, whether that makes for a superior photograph is a matter of debate. But the one thing I can definitively say is that I feel more connected with the end result.

Robert J. Mang is a photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You can also visit his Travel Blog


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