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How to Photograph Our Hometowns and Ancestral Homes

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At some time in our lives, we go back to visit our old hometown and our family's ancestral home. The photographs we take during such trips often have strong appeal only for us and not for others.

Why do some photographs hold more meaning for us than for other people? Why do we treasure some photographs and not others?

We are attracted to and engrossed by our own childhood memories, whether we are looking at photographs or taking photographs. Especially when trying to capture the beauty and memories of our ancestral home or hometown, our vision narrows so we see only what gives us good memories. In such cases, other people may not be as strongly moved by our pictures, because others, even close friends and family, may not share our intense personal feelings.

This is fine for reminiscing, but not for fine-art photography. To have universal appeal, our photographs must have something in them that will connect with a person who has never seen our ancestral home before. It must have universal, not personal, meaning.

How can we achieve that universal connection? This is the artist's challenge. Here are some approaches one can use to achieve universal appeal in the pictures of our ancestral home.

We must look at a scene or subject as geometrical shapes and be aware of the visual design, not our memories of it. Look at the texture, the patterns and the colors. All of these qualities have a hidden universal language. Look also for the visual drama in nature.

When you visit your ancestral home and hometown, pay attention to the vanishing characteristics of your home. Do not forget the little things that typically go unnoticed. Photograph them as a record of what was. So that one day you can share them with your family and friends for your children and grandchildren to enjoy. For example, a mailbox on the street corner, even the mailman these are disappearing in the world rapidly turning to emails and text messages. Other examples are vast agricultural fields, empty lands, barns and traditional farming methods.

Try to look at things without labeling them. See the flower for its colors and ovals, and for its translucent beauty. See the ancestral home without attaching emotions to it see only the shapes, the lines, the shadows. For example, in a landscape made up of sky and land, the shape is two rectangles stacked one on top of the other. A house's shape is a triangle over a rectangle.

Analyze how you can place these geometrical shapes in your picture space to create the best possible visual effect, Do not forget that although we are recording three-dimensional objects, our medium is flat, two-dimensional. To achieve a three-dimensional perspective, we use color (red, yellow, and blue), lighting, and texture.

When you photograph people in the old hometown, maintain the same detachment. Get their names out of your head and do not try to capture their personalities as you remember them, for otherwise you will make your pictures personal and not universal. Observe their gestures, the way they move their hands and head, or their unique smile. Lighting is very important experiment with different conditions to bring out the drama.

Sense of place: Find something unique to the area: clothing, architecture, trade, and craft. The more unique things you capture, the more your viewers are able to visualize what it's like to be there, and the more they would actually want to experience what's in the picture. The background and foreground are equally important. If it is necessary, use subjective focusing to emphasize your message.

Setting the mood is the most important thing. Different lighting conditions will define the moment. Be ready for the gentle light sweeping through the atmosphere. We can use special filters to achieve the desired mood.

Negative space: Don't be afraid to add or leave empty space around your subject matter. That can give calmness to your picture's audience.

Creative exposure: cameras are designed to record a well-exposed image. But that will not always be the way you want it. Decide what the most important area of your image is. That area must have the correct exposure think about how that area should be seen in the final outcome. To achieve this, zoom in on the subject and read the exposure and remember that number. Then zoom out to include other things in the frame. Manually or using EV compensation, adjust the exposure to match the number you noted down earlier, or to under- or overexpose from that reading.

This way, we don't just take a picture. We design the image. That's how we create an image that everybody can enjoy. We are creating the universal connection.

What to take with you in your bag: a tripod, a small notebook, a flash, a flashlight, a reflector, a padlock, an extra memory card or two, raincoat, batteries, lenses (if possible try to get extreme-end lenses such as a 12mm or 500mm), a zoom lens that can cover a good range, and an extra set of clothes.

Do not forget to experiment. Don't be afraid to break the rules. Blind observance of rules, not the rules themselves, limits our creativity and forces us to follow a rigid formula.

When taking pictures, do not make the exposure thinking that you will be able to fix things (adjust/crop/sharpen) using programs like Photoshop. Try to get the picture that you want right at the moment you are shooting.

If you are visiting your ancestral home and want to take photographs, wake up early. Shoot for about two to three hours and then join your family for breakfast. This way you're not taking time away from your family and friends. Disrupting a hometown visit can put a lot of strain on your photography.

During the day when the sun is high, you can take dramatic images indoors. You can use the light filtering through skylights, stained glasses, or windows. Mixing that with a flashlight can create drama.

For evening shots, try to shoot around sunset. Then you're ready to have dinner with the family again.

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