Returning to a Location

If you frequently return to the same location for photography, how do your photos change over time? Do you gain a better understanding of the scene in front of you? These questions have been on my mind recently as I return to old locations for various reasons.

To me, revisiting a location is one of the most powerful tools in the photographer’s toolbox. One reason is that it forces you to look beyond the obvious shot. In 2015, I first visited a popular overlook of Mt Sneffels in Colorado. The sky was bare, most of the aspens hadn’t changed color, and I didn’t really like the shot I took.

2015 Mt Sneffels Overlook Attempt
2015

Still, I loved the location and wanted to refine the image. I returned to the spot a few times and took different compositions under different lighting conditions, finally getting the image I wanted in 2018. That year had good colors on the aspen trees, and I visited during a sunrise with some beautiful pastel light that complemented the subject.

2018 Mt Sneffels Overlook Fall Colors
2018

It’s a nice refinement of my first attempt, and there’s not much I’d change about the light or conditions. Although I’m happy about that, it leads to a tricky question: What next?

This is a place that I visit all the time because of our workshops. It’s a beautiful overlook, and I love being there at sunrise. But because I had taken a “classic” shot I was happy with, I (mistakenly) found myself less enchanted with the idea of returning here and thought all I’d be able to take in the future would be minor variations of the image.

The following year, when I went back during our workshop, I experimented with neutral density filters, long exposure, and black-and-white processing with high contrast. My goal was to branch out and avoid putting the same image in my portfolio. But even though it’s different from the previous year’s image, it’s a superficial difference, and it’s not a better shot. The intense post-processing doesn’t suit my impression of the subject. Not to mention that I hardly branched out anyway. Aside from minor differences in clouds and snow, they could have been taken minutes apart from each other and you’d never know.

2019 Long Exposure Monochrome Variation of Sneffels
2019

When I found myself back at the same location a couple weeks ago, I no longer felt any excitement for the scene or that particular shot. I was almost relieved when a cloud covered the mountain and gave me an excuse not to take the picture. But something surprising happened. For the first time at this location in at least few years, I felt a sudden inspiration to take pictures.

It wasn’t of the obvious subject, which was still covered by clouds, but instead in the exact opposite direction with a 240mm telephoto lens. My tripod stood in the same spot as previous years, but my composition gave no indication that it was the same place at all. The image I took is one of my favorites of this year’s workshop.

2021 Aspen Details from Sneffels Overlook
2021

Is it better than the 2018 image? Maybe not. But I like it more. It’s the first time in years that I’ve taken a “new” photo at that location rather than re-using an old composition. It feels deliberate, emotional, and meaningful to me. This image opened up a mental block I had, and next year, I can’t wait to go back to this location and try out some new compositions. I haven’t exhausted this location at all, not by a long shot.

Revisiting a location doesn’t make it boring – actually the opposite. This experience showed me that a particular photo might get boring to you if you’ve already captured it a dozen times. But after it does, next time, you’ll instinctively look for unique compositions at that location beyond the obvious shot. You’ll exercise your creative muscles almost without thinking, and your photography will grow because of it.

On similar lines, some of my all-time favorite locations for photography are places like forests and sand dunes that offer nearly limitless opportunities for different, intimate landscape compositions. I think I could take abstract photos of sand dunes every day for the rest of my life and not get tired. In locations like these, you won’t feel pressure to take the obvious photo ten years in a row, because there may not be an obvious photo. Each composition must be figured out anew.

The images below are a good example of what I mean. All of them are monochromatic, semi-abstract pictures taken at the same sand dunes in Colorado over a span of five years. It’s a location I revisit all the time, not just because it’s reasonably close to where I live, but because I find something interesting there each time I go. It’s filled with opportunities.

2016 Black and White Sand Dunes
2016
2017 Sand Dunes Abstract
2017
2018 Great Sand Dunes Black and White
2018
2019 Great Sand Dunes Black and White
2019
Sand Dune Soft Focus B&W Abstract
2021
Great Sand Dunes Abstract
2021

I’m not showing the photos above as a progression from worst to best (I don’t have much of a preference among them) but to show how much there is to explore when you revisit a location. Even limiting myself to black and white, and keeping all the compositions abstract, I think each photo “says” something different. Some of the dunes above are inviting, and others aren’t. Some remind me of the ocean.

When you revisit a location, you start to learn how it really works. You notice the things that change and the things that stay the same. You figure out the weather conditions in different seasons; you figure out different vantage points and what subjects draw your eye the best. This knowledge helps you take better photos there.

It doesn’t need to be a landscape. For years, the location I revisited was my backyard for macro photography. I began to understand which months brought out the most interesting bugs, what plants they liked, and where to stand for the most colorful backgrounds. I learned things about that particular yard which don’t apply anywhere else, like the best puddle for photographing toads, and it improved the quality of my images.

Photography isn’t just about showing up somewhere, pulling out your camera, and taking a photo with a good composition. It’s also about having familiarity with your subject. Over the years, the scene changes. You change too. Those changes show up in your photos.

That’s why I encourage you to find a location that you can revisit, even if it’s as simple as a local park or your backyard. You’ll gradually refine the obvious shot, and then you’ll start looking beyond it. You’ll discover that the location is filled with opportunities, some of which are obvious while others are hidden. And you’ll learn more than you ever expected to know about that place’s unique qualities.

Much of what makes a good photo is conveying emotion. As you revisit a particular place or subject, its emotions become more clear. Maybe the photos won’t get better over the years, per se, but they’ll get more personal. A location you revisit is a location you understand at a deeper level.