National Geographic photographer Krista Rossow traveled to San Francisco to photograph the city for the National Geographic Traveler story “The Social Network.” Here, she shares how to capture the full essence of a city in one frame.
When I’m out shooting in a destination I’m always looking for a way to combine more than one characteristic of a place into a single photo. Landscape, architecture, monuments, activities, and people are all elements that can help a photo give viewers a sense of place. The more a photo can say on its own, without even the need for a caption, the better.
While in San Francisco, I had a running list of elements in my head that were distinctive to the city, from obvious locations like the Golden Gate Bridge to elements such as the city’s love of coffee. One day I wanted to capture the iconic San Francisco cable car, so I decided to ride around town on the cable cars and photograph. But I found that shooting from them wasn’t giving me what I wanted, so I decided to try a different approach.
I’d noticed there were a few places where the cable cars have to make turns midway through their route, and I explored the area until I found a café on one of those corners in the Nob Hill neighborhood. Now I had a scene with three elements that said San Francisco: the cable car, a neighborhood vibe showing a café, and distinctive architecture and signs in the background. This photo would clearly tell a viewer that we aren’t just in any American city—we’re in San Francisco.
But I wasn’t ready to shoot yet. I’d found a scene with a telling sense of place, but it was relatively empty. As I stood debating whether I should move on, a young couple took a seat outside with their dog. I loved that they looked as if they had just come from a workout to brunch and that they had a dog with them. Their clothing spoke to how active the locals are, and it had already become clear to me that San Franciscans love their pets.
So over this entire time I’d been observing the scene and not taking a single photo. The stage had been set, serendipitously, at the moment I almost left. But before I started taking photos, I talked to the couple. In a potentially busy scene, you can’t talk to everyone who might cross your lens, but since the couple would figure prominently in the scene, I wanted them to be at ease. I find it helpful to simply let people know what I’m doing—whether I’m shooting for fun or for an assignment—because I’d appreciate the same if I were in their place. In their eyes it usually changes me from the suspicious looking stranger taking photos to someone who loves photography and finds them to be an interesting subject.
Then it was time to get ready for the cable car to pass by. I took a couple of test shots of the scene to see how I wanted to frame it and checked my exposure. I was lucky the dog was tied to a fire hydrant because he filled that blank expanse of sidewalk with something interesting. Also, I liked the touch of humor the dog added to the photo, since he looked a bit left out by his hydrant while his owners had coffee.
I heard the dinging of the cable car and started shooting, getting down low to lessen the expanse of sidewalk even more and to include the architecture in the top left. I took quite a few frames as the cable car quickly turned the corner and hoped the dog would keep looking at me in the right moment. It was late in the morning and the shadows were already quite heavy, which would have put the cable car completely in shadows if there hadn’t have been a reflection off the side of the building.
In the end, the photo that I originally had wanted to be about cable cars became a story about what it’s like to be in a San Francisco neighborhood. It says San Francisco without being too obvious.
Photo Tip: Make a list of the quintessential elements of a place and then keep your eyes peeled for scenes that let you combine more than one element in one photo. Remember that a sense of place can be conveyed not only by physical locations but also through elements such as weather, activity, and people’s clothing and behaviors.
Photographed with a Nikon D800 and a Nikkor 24-70 mm, f/2.8 lens.
See more of Krista’s photography from San Francisco.