Are You Guilty of This Very Common Mistake When You Shoot New Places?

Are You Guilty of This Very Common Mistake When You Shoot New Places?

When you photograph a place for the first time, it's thrilling. You might have been planning it for months or years in advance, so when it finally comes to fruition, you can often get overexcited and forget some very important things once you start shooting. Here's one very common error that you should avoid.

For many photographers, there's nothing quite like the rush of planning trips to locations we've always wanted to shoot. Whether it's an exotic landscape in a far-off nation or portraits of people unknown to many in the outside world, the anticipation of the images we might capture is often unrivaled by anything else. The sights, the sounds, the smells, and the unfamiliar are the stuff of dreams for us camera enthusiasts. However, when we finally arrive at our desired locations after all that planning, we can sometimes have so much unrestrained excitement coursing through our veins that we make some very basic mistakes.

One of the most common errors I see many photographers make that can often prove extremely regrettable once the trip is over is the process of storytelling with their images. Storytelling is one of the most widely used terms in photography conversations, but it's used inappropriately the majority of the time. The reason for that is that stories, traditionally, have a start, a middle, and an end. Thus, it's rather hard to encapsulate that three-act process in a single image. And this is where many photographers go wrong. 

They are usually in such haste to get to locations they've studied before arrival that they neglect to shoot points of interest along the way. By ignoring the before and the after, photographers leave a lot of storytelling opportunities on the table and fail to give a location any real context. Let me give you an example to show you what I mean.

I spent the new year down at an island in far southwest Japan, called Tanegashima. It's tradition to spend the new year with family, and there are all sorts of customary behaviors to attend to. One is visiting a shrine on New Year's Day. I went to Homon Jinja with my family and made a point of photographing the place from start to finish to show the significance of each part of the shrine.

When you first enter the grounds of a shrine, you will always walk through a shrine gate, or a "torii." The shrine gates signify that you are leaving the world of the profane behind and entering something more holy: the world of the Shinto kami. Sometimes, as in the image above, they will be adorned with "shimenawa," the sacred ropes that also signify the beginning of the spiritual world. It's important when you walk through the shrine that you bow before you enter, you take the first step with your left foot and you do not walk through the center, as that is reserved for the kami.

Typically, you should walk on the left side as you go through the torii and head towards the main shrine. For that reason, most shrines will have the red lights lined up on the left side of the path.

If you take some time to look at the red lights, many of them will have some writing on them. This is usually an acknowledgment of the people who have donated money to the shrine and helped in its construction. Sometimes, they are individuals, and sometimes, they might be organizations.

When you get closer to the main shrine, you will often see two red lights on either side of the path. This is a sign that you have reached the end of the path and will soon be entering the area of the main shrine itself.

Before you enter through another torii and into the main shrine area, you must always wash your hands at the "temizuya." Ladles and water are available for everyone's use, and at some bigger shrines, instructions on the washing procedures are written in various languages. This shrine is in rural Japan, so no such instructions exist, which made it fun for my wife to explain the customs to my two young daughters. Suffice to say they made a few mistakes, but it's something that almost all Japanese will learn from a very young age. 

Once you get to the main shrine area, you will pass through another torii. Again, you should bow and walk through on the left side. You should also take care not to step on the ground directly under the horizontal part of the torii, as that is the separator of the secular world and the spiritual world.

When you get to the main shrine itself, it is time to pray and make your wishes. Some places will have a bell there. You need to look carefully at surrounding signs to see if it's acceptable to ring the bell or not. At this shrine, it is ok, so I rang the bell once, which is customary. After that, the prayer ritual begins.

At shrines, the easiest way to remember the procedure is 2-2-1. You throw your money into the donation box (the amount is not important), then bow twice and clap twice. If you wish to make a prayer for the year ahead, then after you clap twice is the time to do it. Once your prayer has finished, you should bow deeply once.

At this point, the rituals are over and you can take some time to enjoy the surroundings a little more. Of course, you should never be loud or boisterous, but you can wander around the shrine a little more and take photos (as long as you're permitted).

When you return to your starting point, you should walk on the left side again to give room to those coming, who will also be walking on the left side.

It is at this point that you should also take some time to find interesting images that you may have missed as you entered in the other direction. I found these trees with their branches acting as beautiful natural frames.

Telling Stories: Summing Up

When I was at this shrine, I watched three other photographers come with their cameras while I was there. Each one of them walked with their eyes along the ground until they reached the main shrine area. They hung around the main shrine for a handful of minutes and then returned. It's a routine I see so often when people get to interesting or beautiful locations, and it is such a wasted opportunity.

If you own a website and like to write, your blog piece will be so much more interesting if you have images from the beginning to the end, rather than just a single shot from a single location. Moreover, even if you use social media only, like Instagram, you can still upload up to 10 images in a single post and use them to write a much more interesting caption.

For me, I've used this process to photograph several shrines here in southwest Japan and worked with organizations such as the Japan National Tourism Organization. Unequivocally, they always appreciate this style of documentation. Give it a try next time you're out shooting a new place and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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The ettiquite and series of particular photos definitely adds to the story. When a story is just a collage of 3 random things in the area plus a series of hashtags for quick scroll consumption it doesn't exactly hit like a story should and ends up feeling like empty face value context.

Why do so many people fixate on storytelling with stills photography? Not everybody; beginners or seasoned pros alike want - or need - to tell a story. After all, they're not producing a Powerpoint presentation. Their primary intention is to end up with a single photograph that best encapsulates the mood, environment, people or culture of their visit. And there's nothing wrong, unambitious or negligent about that. Less is always more.

oh well... another article about the "storytelling" buzzword. None of these images itself tells a story, and the set of images visualize what the author explains in the text ie the structure of a shrine - in my books, that is a description, not a "story".

"Storytelling" - another buzzword. What is it?