NATURE’S VIEW – Capturing a Sense of Place, Part 4, Story and Photographs by Jim Clark

Part IV: Personal traits for capturing a sense of place


The final piece in capturing a sense of place in our images is using the personal traits we possess as nature photographers to document an area in such a way that the viewer feels what you felt as well as seeing a well-photographed image.

Capturing a sense of place is not easy to do, and for many nature photographers, the process of doing it effectively takes years. Becoming skilled at the technical aspects of photography is important: know how to read light, use the right exposure, understand how the camera operates, etc. But equally important is the individual photographer’s personal response to a moment in time and how he/she effectively captures it on film.

I tell the students who attend my workshops that becoming skilled at the technical aspects of photography should take no more than 365 days. That’s one year. The most challenging aspect of our craft and the one that takes a lifetime to become proficient at is the ability to capture compositions that speak from the heart. If we can’t feel the sense of place in the images we take, then how can we expect the viewer to sense it?

That said, what personal traits help nature photographers capture a true sense of place in their photography? Well, from my 6 decades of being a naturalist and my 39 plus years of photographing nature, here are some that I’m sure have helped me.

  • Childlike curiosity: Have an interest in nature whether or not you have your camera. Be excited about every nuance that the outdoors reveals to you. Remain curious and thirsty to learn more. Be a lifelong student of nature.


  • Not content with the familiar: Avoid using the same tripod holes as the previous photographer. Step outside your zone of comfort and try something new, something that sets you apart from all the others.
  • The process excites you: Whether it’s a location you have photographed time and time again or a new location, use all your senses to get into the moment. Regardless of the weather or the challenges, be thankful, be enthusiastic, and be able to articulate to yourself why this moment is so special with you.
  • Fascination with nature: A quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson illustrates this point: “To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before and which shall never be seen again.” Another quote, this one from E.O. Wilson, “When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all.” Enough said?
  • Reluctance to leave: When I am in the moment, leaving becomes very difficult, especially for those locations where I have a personal attachment. So, have or develop a personal attachment to a location. Photograph it as if it would be the last time you will be there. Rachel Carson wrote, “One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”

A past NANPA President, Jim Clark is the nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia, and is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Jim currently serves as photographer-in-residence at the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve near his home in Leesburg, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son, Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at, blog at or like him on Facebook.