Essential Tips for Photographing Small Towns

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Angela Fulks
Angela Fulks

Introduction

Small towns present limitless possibilities when it comes to creating unique and memorable photographs.  There are many ways to capture the charm and beauty of small towns, no matter what your favorite genre of photography happens to be.

In this guide we will discuss the following: 

  • Choosing a theme, or not, to help you decide what to photograph in a small town
  • How to handle questions from curious locals
  • How and why to take advantage of every aspect of a small town to expand your photography skills

Recommended Reading: Want a simple way to learn and master photography on the go? Grab our set of 44 printable Snap Cards for reference when you’re out shooting. They cover camera settings, camera techniques, and so much more. Check it out here.

This image is of the clock tower atop a city hall building in a historic small town in Missouri. The town has recently undergone extensive renovations, creating eye-catching juxtapositions between older architecture styles and modern updates. Photograph by Angela Fulks

Find Your Focus

It can be helpful to have an idea of what you are hoping to photograph before you start.  I like to try to choose a theme or two for my photos that day.

I might decide to look for interesting textures, colors, people on the street, buildings, or even something broader like reminders of a relaxed or slower way of life.

There’s never a shortage of little details in a small town to focus your image series on like a set of tables and chairs on the sidewalk, flowerpots lining window displays, or interesting signs.

There’s never a shortage of little details in a small town to focus your image series on...

As an enthusiastic photographer, I don’t always stick to the guidelines I’ve set for myself and can get caught up in my surroundings and end up taking a ton more photos than I anticipated.

I do find it helpful, to begin with, a theme and focus on that until that photography part of my brain kicks and I begin to photograph on instinct.

This was a test shot from the inside of my car before I began to shoot on a photography walk one day. While reviewing my images from that day, I was pulled back to this image over and over again. It certainly wasn’t on theme with my photography goals that day, but I love the hustle and bustle that this photo captured of that Saturday afternoon along this town’s main street. Photograph by Angela Fulks

Key Lesson: Although it can be helpful to have a theme in mind, do not be afraid to let your instincts and creativity determine what images you create.

Dealing With the Locals

Small towns can be tight-knit communities. You may soon notice that you have become the subject of some curious stares or questions from local people, especially with a camera in your hand.

This can be quite uncomfortable at times, but I’ve learned that more often than not, it comes from a place of protective love for their community.

I’ve found that a nod and a smile can go a long way in helping to put any worried onlookers at ease. Some of the bolder or friendlier townspeople may even ask you what you are doing.  I try to remember that in some cases I am a visitor and I need to respect that.

I answer honestly and directly and make sure to hold eye contact. I may even ask them what their favorite spots are around town or if there is any place I may find interesting to photograph. Most people are happy to chime in and offer up information.  

I noticed this gentleman watching me as I was snapping photos. I lowered my camera and gave a quick wave and smile from across the street. I saw him waving back and raised my camera again. After waiting several seconds, I saw that he was continuing to wave, and I clicked my shutter. I gave him a cheery shout of thanks, waved again, and heard him respond just as happily. I suppose I like this photo for the memory and chuckle it gave more than anything else, but it remains a favorite. Photograph by Angela Fulks

Key Lesson: As photographers, we tend to become so used to observing that we forget it can sometimes be necessary to participate. Don’t shy away if confronted on the street while photographing. Be candid about your mission, and maybe even offer to show a few images you’ve captured. Most people just want to know you are being honest and don’t have ulterior motives.

Make the Most of It

My favorite way to photograph around a smaller town is to simply wander around. I like to set aside a day when I can just go explore with my camera. My first stop is usually Main Street.

Most smaller towns have a version of a main street or historic district that is full of inspiration. From colorful storefronts to local window shoppers, old theaters to town squares, murals painted on the sides of buildings to interesting doors and windows, there can be a lot to see!

Take in the main street as a whole and then look for details that catch your interest. Pay attention to old alleyways and the backs of the buildings that line main streets.

Some of my favorite photographs were hiding out of plain sight.

Key Lesson: Take in the nuances and characteristics of a small town and let them guide you in your photography quest.

My father’s parents spent their whole lives in a small Missouri town. I can always count on seeing this mural, repainted and reimagined over the years, during my trips back. Photographing it as an adult always brings me back to my childhood summer visits. Photograph by Angela Fulks

If you’re looking to have some fun with portrait photography, bring along a willing friend (or someone who may want some great Instagram photos) and use the main street as a backdrop for stylized portraits.

Visit a cute corner café or diner together, order a menu favorite, and ask to take a few photos of each other enjoying their specialty, being sure to tag the business in any photos you post on social media.

Do the same in a unique shop after buying a little trinket and show it off in your photos. You can even ask the owner or worker to pose for a few photos.

My daughter and I styled her outfit to bring a sense of nostalgia for this portrait session along the main street of our closest little town. It did the trick and we both walked away so proud of this set of photos. Photography by Angela Fulks

Key Lesson: Support small local businesses that let you photograph in their space by tagging them in social media posts and/or making a purchase. Show your appreciation.

Checking the local calendar of events is a fantastic way to plan a photography outing to a small town. Flea markets, fairs, local parades, car shows, or local sporting events can all provide excellent opportunities to showcase not only your photographic eye but the town itself.

Don’t forget to check out the town beyond the city limits. There can be boundless photography options, from open landscapes to dirt roads to rural farmhouses and land, billboards, fences, and more!

If you’re looking to have some fun with portrait photography, bring along a willing friend.. and use the main street as a backdrop for stylized portraits.

During a trip to Iowa, we took a day to visit a few very small rural towns. This dirt road was off of the main connecting road. I’m so glad I took the time to capture its beauty. Photography by Angela Fulks

There may be famous landmarks or quirky claims to fame in some small towns. They may have even been photographed over and over, but why not stretch your creativity and photograph it yet again? Challenge yourself to find a fresh perspective on a favorite tourist spot.

For us photographers who like to capture the more macabre side of life, local small-town cemeteries can provide us with an important look into the past of the community and the people who lived there.

Look for ornate or interesting grave markers or create a photo series to honor those who lost loved ones due to sicknesses or other tragedies long ago based on their headstones.  

Change up the Time

Many of us already know that multiple visits to the same place can provide a new perspective when photographing and make a huge difference in your images.

If there is a small town that you already like to photograph, switch up your routine and visit during a different season, day of the week, or even a different time of day.

Sunrises, sunsets, or changing seasons can give a familiar place a different feel and introduce new ways to capture light and shadows in your images.

The backside of a small-town newspaper company in Salem, Missouri. Photograph by Angela Fulks

Key Lesson: Visit favorite places more than once to see how the elements and changing of time affect your images.

Recommended Reading: Want a simple way to learn and master photography on the go? Grab our set of 44 printable Snap Cards for reference when you’re out shooting. They cover camera settings, camera techniques, and so much more. Check it out here.

Conclusion

Photograph by Angela Fulks

As with any photography outing, patience can be key. Give yourself plenty of time to explore and become familiar with your surroundings. Take full advantage of what small towns can offer to help you create memorable and strong photographs.  

Self-Check Quiz:

  1. True or False: Deciding on a theme ahead of time can be helpful.
  2. True or False: You should be scared when local people of the town start to notice you.
  3. True or False: The only place worthy of photographing in a small town is the main streets of historic districts.
  4. True or False: It’s impossible to take beautiful or meaningful photos in a town’s cemetery.
  5. True or False: Small town events can be a fun and exciting way to document life in a small town.
  6. True or False: You should never try to photograph a famous landmark or a town’s quirky claim to fame.

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