8 Tips to Avoid Crowds at Popular Landscape Locations

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Photographing popular tourist destinations can at times be a great challenge. Hundreds of people are walking within your frame, and regardless of the direction you’re facin,g it’s nearly impossible to capture an image without people in it.

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I often visit beautiful landscapes, many of which are popular among tourists, even though I prefer to shoot more unique locations, and enjoy photographing in quite areas where it’s nothing but nature and me. So when I visit extremely crowded landscapes, I get slightly stressed. But these touristic places are popular for a reason.

When I visited the famous Svartifoss, Iceland a few weeks back, I left without taking more than a couple snapshots, most with my phone. Even though the roughly 40 minute long hike is considered challenging by some, I was amazed to see the amount of people gathered around the waterfall, not to mention the bunch of tripods placed all over. It seemed to be impossible to take the classic image with the river leading up towards the falls, as a group of tourists had occupied the entire place.

Even though it might seem impossible to take professional looking landscape images from these places, there are ways to avoid the crowds and enjoy them alone. It all comes down to planning and prioritizing.

1 – Choose the Hour Wisely

If you’re into landscape photography you may already know that the best time to photograph is during the Golden Hour. This is the time of the day where the sun’s position in the sky is at the lowest, which creates a soft light ideal for photography.

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2 – Wake Up Early

Since many tourists aren’t dedicated photographers, most of them won’t be awake and out in nature for sunrise. Normally they prefer spending a couple extra hours in bed and having breakfast at the hotel.

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This is a great advantage for us who wish to capture the beautiful landscapes in optimal light. It’s rare that you meet large crowds this early in the morning, but you may meet a fellow photographer or two. Usually most photographers, and non-photographers, that are up for sunrise try not to get in each other’s way.

About one or two hours after sunrise, depending on what time of the year it is, the first busses filled with tourists begin to arrive. This gives you a lot of time to enjoy these places, and take the images that will be difficult to capture when it gets annoyingly crowded.

3 – Enjoy the Sunset

It’s no secret that it’s more normal to be awake for sunset than for than sunrise. Accordingly the crowd will be a larger during this hour, and if you’re photographing close to a large town it might even be very crowded. Since I’m a landscape photographer and this article is mainly focused on avoiding crowds at popular landscape destinations, I won’t get into cityscapes, etc.

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What you will see when you are photographing landscapes during sunset is that most people present are fellow photographers. Most normal tourists tend to head back towards the town or hotel, for dinner or other activities.

4 – Photograph the Night Sky

If you haven’t photographed landscapes at night yet, I strongly recommend you try it. Be aware though, as it is highly addictive!

Images captured during the night can often be quite different than what you normally see from these touristic locations, since the majority of people prefer to sleep at this time. I would say the lack of sleep is part of a landscape photographer’s life (for both beginners and professionals).

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Another benefit of photographing at night is that you might witness certain astrological events, such as meteorite showers, or the northern lights in the northern hemisphere. Be sure to bring something warm to drink as it may get chilly throughout the night.

5 – Choose the Month Strategically

I know that getting vacation days outside the normal holidays might not be possible for everyone, and some locations are definitely best to visit during certain times of the year. But, visiting during low-season is the best method to avoid the crowds.

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If you want to photograph events such as the Tulip Festival in the PSNW (Washington/Oregon), or the Cherry Blossom in Japan, you have to visit during a specific time of the year, and most likely it’s going to be crowded with both photographers and tourists. While the tips above still will be beneficial, you will most likely not be at these places alone.

However, if you’re not photographing a specific event, visiting during low season can be a great choice. Not only will you avoid the biggest crowds, you may also be rewarded with some unique scenery and weather.

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I’ve visited Iceland during low season a couple times, and the results have been great. Yes, it has been challenging with the harsh weather but when the light is good, it’s GOOD!

6 – When the Crowds Won’t Leave

But what if you’re not able to go during low season, sunrise, or sunset? What if there is still a large crowd even during these times? Should you just give up and head back home? Of course not! There’s always a solution, so don’t worry.

7 – Use a Neutral Density Filter

While I won’t get too into the technical aspects of Neutral Density Filters, they allow you to use a longer shutter speed. By placing the dark piece of glass in front of your lens, you need a longer shutter speed to get the correct amount of light to reach the camera sensor. Just be sure to bring a tripod, I doubt you will be able to hold your camera completely still for several seconds or minutes.

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Why it’s Beneficial to use an ND Filter at Crowded Locations

When you are using a long shutter speed, all motion within the frame will become blurred. The longer your shutter speed is, the less visible people will be. In fact, if you set the shutter speed to a couple minutes, you may even completely remove all people from your image.

8 – Stack Multiple Images

Stacking multiple images is another method to remove crowds from your pictures. This is a little more advanced than using an ND Filter, and requires that you have an image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. Let’s do this step by step:

  1. Take a set of images from the exact same position. Ideally you should use a tripod so that the frame is the same on each image. Try to take 20-25 images with an interval of roughly 20 seconds. Having this interval will allow people to move a little between each shot.
  2. Import the images to your computer.
  3. Open Photoshop
  4. Click File > Scripts > Statistics
  5. Choose Median as your Stack Mode in the box that appears, and check the box for “Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images”.
  6. Go to YouTube and watch funny videos until Photoshop is done processing…
  7. When the image is done, zoom in to 100% and look for any spots where the script wasn’t able to do a perfect job. If you find such spots select the Spot Removal Tool and carefully heal these places.

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This is a great technique to remove people from your images. My experience is that the script works well on 99% of images, and even on the remaining 1% it does a decent job.

Final Words

I think most of us have experienced being frustrated due to the large crowds more than once. Personally I think it’s important to remain respectful to both fellow photographers and other tourists when we are at these popular places. Sometimes all you need is a little patience.

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On another note, the best way to avoid the crowds is to go somewhere less known. I know it’s scary for many to go explore new locations, as you already know how beautiful the popular spots are, but the best images are often taken at less known locations.

What do you do when photographing these popular locations?

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Christian Hoiberg is a Norwegian landscape photographer and the founder of Capture Landscapes, a website to improve your landscape photography. His images can be found on his website or Instagram. He's also the author of the well-received Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography.

  • Maha B

    Thanks for sharing your expertise on this subject. I personally tend to patiently wait for a gap in crowds, but sometimes that’s not ideal. Some people love to linger or walk very slowly out of your frame. I also avoid crowds by looking for a different angle to take the image. This, too, has its challenges. Sometimes there is only one way to capture the image. I do like your idea of using an ND filter with longer shutter speeds. I’ve read about it before, but haven’t given it a try yet.

  • Christian Hoiberg

    Like you say there are many solutions but they don’t always work at a given situation! Using ND filters is a good way to make people disappear, just make sure the exposure is long enough if people are being slow!

  • suruha

    Great ideas! As you wrote, if the destination is one you can’t wait to snap, other folks are going to be there, too. I think of Disney World and get nightmares! Geez!
    I saw a class online once where Ben Wilmore removed every instance of anything he did NOT want in his image by color adjusting all the items he wanted ‘removed’. It took time, but, it was magical.
    Thank you for sharing your tips!
    Su

  • DeHaven

    I only travel Off-Season, so in most cases I can get the shot I want without too much interference. For example, Old Faithful geyser, located in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, literally has thousands of people surrounding it in the summer. When I was last there it was October. We were the only car in the 20 football field parking lot, and there were all of six people waiting for her to erupt. Venice, on the other hand is always In season, but a little less so in the winter. I am too obsessed with getting shots without people, so I am trying to relax and follow the lead of other photographers who include the human factor and produce stunning shots with a whole new perspective. Thank you for your insights and photos, they are so moving.

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