Illustrate Your Senses Through Lenses

September 14, 2017

Whether you are photographing at home or on a vacation, the familiar or something new, creating imagery inspired by the idea of illustrating each of your five senses can be an enjoyable and successful self-assignment and photographic tool.

Just like writers, photographers can get stumped for ideas on how to cover something from a new or unusual outlook.  Even if photographing each sense isn’t your ultimate goal, this is a very good practice to challenge you to see through a new perspective.  Photographing one scene through your senses will guide you to expand the way in which you visually interact with that scene, and you will likely find new and better ways to create your image than you had imagined before.

The five senses are sight (which we already use in photography), sound, smell, taste and touch. You can experiment with these “sense” ideas using a variety of lenses, or if you are on a budget then you can use something like the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6 III USM, which is the perfect choice for amateur photographers and enthusiasts because it has fantastic image quality, is a very versatile lens, and is budget-conscious.

Another versatile lens for this exercise is the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM. If you are photographing motion in this exercise, this is a great lens for you to work with. Additionally, this lens is dust and water-resistant, so you can protect your gear from the elements. The f/4 version is a fantastic choice for price and overall versatility, considering it has built-in Image Stabilization, and a special macro focus capability which lets it reach up to 0.7x magnification. The f/2.8 version of this lens is more of a splurge but the f/4 version is priced lower, PLUS it’s an L Series lens, Canon’s premiere lens series.

Or, the use of a “do all” lens like the EF-S 18-200 f/3.5-5.6 IS or the EF 28-300 f/3.5-5.6L IS USM can allow you to travel light and still accomplish all your sensory goals. With the versatility of these lenses, you can “do all” in that you can photograph everything from portraits to landscapes to food with a zoom of this sort.

When you are ready to start photographing your space (something that you encounter every day, or a new destination while on a trip), begin by asking yourself a series of questions for each sense. First close your eyes and notice how your senses react to your surroundings. Spend a minute or two with your eyes closed and reflect on these questions:

  • What do I hear?
  • What can I smell?
  • What can I taste?
  • What does it feel like?

What Do I Hear?

Do you hear the sound of traffic or chirping birds? Children playing? Are these sounds close by or are they far off in the distance?

When you illustrate what you hear, you can place a close sound like birds chirping in the foreground of your image.  Use either a telephoto zoom lens, like a 70-200mm to place birds there.

TIP: If you are on the street and want to be a bit stealthy, you can try using a compact camera like the EOS M5 that can help you to be discreet by using the LCD screen to compose your picture, instead of holding the camera up to your eye. This camera has its own series of dedicated lenses but with an adapter, it can accommodate all of Canon’s EF and EF-S series lenses, making it a very versatile tool to have in your bag.

What Can I Smell?

Are the scents around you strong or faint? Are they man-made or natural? Take a walk through your neighborhood or a local park, take a deep breath and notice the scents around you that might illustrate the scene…fresh green grass…flowers in bloom…the smoke from a barbeque grill.


To illustrate this, you can photograph small vignettes and capture many scenes.  Use a 35mm or 50mm lens – try any of the Canon EF 50mm lenses (f/1.8, f/1.4 or f/1.2), which are good versatile lenses. They are lightweight, compact, and discreet lenses for travel photography when you are on the street. They’re fantastic for nighttime photography as well because of the wide aperture ranges these lenses offer.

What Can I Taste?

Each impression that you get from seeing a new country, a new town, or a new restaurant is something that you can express visually.

When you travel (or play tourist at home), what are your first impressions of the place? What sort of foods can you purchase to taste? Try illustrating these tastes and incorporating them into your visual story.

If you see fresh baked bread being placed on a bakery shelf, this sort of moment tells a story and creates a sense of place. Bringing that sense of place through to your photography is what makes an image a lasting moment, rather than a fleeting snapshot, and your memories will be so much more vibrant for it. Not only is it important to capture the literal look of a place, but for strong and memorable imagery, capturing the ambiance is important as well. Remember that capturing the scene through each of your senses will take your imagery to a new level.

Take that bread and photograph everything from the un-baked dough to the hot buns sliding out of the oven onto that shelf. Photograph the baker and make a portrait of them holding a basket of their goods. Place them in front of the bakery sign, or the hot oven, or even at the counter surrounded by bread.

Try using a lens like the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM. When taking portraits, a 70-200mm lens will slim your subject and give you a nice shallow depth of field to blur the background out just enough to draw focus to your baker and his bread. This lens has an ultrasonic motor that creates quick and near noiseless focusing, so you can handhold (as long as you have enough light). Also, the lens has good zoom capabilities so you can have a variety of images for your same scene.

TIP: To photograph more dimly-lit imagery be sure to use a tripod for steadiness, or a high ISO on your camera that allows you to capture the ambiance of a solitary, moody scene at night. Most Canon cameras have incredible ISO capabilities, and will excel at this task.

What Does It Feel Like?

The soft fur of and animal or the rough bark of a tree can excite your senses; the wetness of an ice cube, or the heat from a boiling pot of soup. Touch is such a vital aspect of the human experience and it is wonderful to illustrate this sense through photography. Photograph the steam of the soup, or the droplets of water from the ice. Photograph a close image of the texture of sticky sap on the rough bark of a tree. Photograph the soft fuzz of a kitten’s fur. Get in close and take detailed photographs of textures that really illustrate touch.

You can use a Macro lens for these close details, and that will draw your viewer into your experience. Use EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM or EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM to illustrate the smaller details of your scene. You can photograph a series of closeups of your cat, focusing on its nose, whiskers and fur to convey the overall sense of its softness. If you have a full-frame camera, for example, the 100mm Macro has a minimum focus distance of just one foot, so you can really get close to those details to illustrate how large of an impact they have on the scene in the mind of the image maker.

When You Are at Home or on a Vacation, You Can Enhance Your Sense Experience by Getting Lost!

Wander through backstreets. Sit on steps and in cafes and see life around you as it takes shape. Go in the opposite direction of the tourist path and follow the locals, or take a different route on your way home. If you spend your Saturdays on bike rides with your camera at the ready, take an entirely different route from what you have taken before.

When traveling, the unplanned sights and moments can be some of the best and most visually exciting.  You might stumble upon a local scene of people bartering at a market, or a dance class, an ancient ruin nestled in a city center, a colorful door that you can use as a background for a portrait, or even a new friend.

Allow yourself to put away the map app, the smartphone, or the guidebook, and just lose yourself in the location itself. Then try the exercise of closing your eyes and thinking about some things that may inspire you:

  • Notice your first impressions and write them down.
  • Use this list as a preliminary checklist for your photography.
  • Capture something for each of your five senses that will set your imagery apart.
  • What made you go to this place?
  • What do the scents of this location bring forward?
  • Is there something that only occurs at this particular place that you can illustrate with your senses?
  • Try to look thoughtfully, and thoroughly, and truly see what makes this spot so unique.

Ask yourself what colors, smells, or sounds stand out? Each of these experiences can be expressed through the visual medium of photography. Most importantly, relax, breathe and have fun! Play with the senses idea and use it to expand your photography ideas, try different lenses, angles, and creative compositions.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

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