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This post is intended to give you some ideas to break out of the mold. I am not saying you shouldn’t take the same photo of Mt. Rushmore or the Coliseum that everyone else does, I’m saying also look for a way to capture that monument in a new way. It’s about keeping photography fresh, fun and exciting for those who view your images.
If you are serious about a new photo of an old icon, research is where you should start. Look for images and see what has been done, to death. Then look around the images and see, logistically, where you might be able to get another shot.
Can you get closer than the average tourist? Is there a place maybe higher up? What about at another time of day?
Research also include the simple information such as hours of operation, getting there and angle to the sun. I have mentioned two great resources for remote setup of a shoot based on available light and they are worth repeating: Photographer’s Ephemeris and LightTrac. Both of these tools allow a photographer to find out the best time of day to shoot a large subject based on angle to the sun or moon.
When visiting a famous site, point your camera down, take your finger off the shutter release for a moment and just look. Take it in. Wander around without the need to shoot all the time and you will start to see more than you planned for, most likely. Also look behind you, especially if you were just dropped off by a tour bus. Get off the well worn tour path (as great as they can be) and find a different vantage point.
Once you arrive at your researched location(s), take a moment to really look. Often when we first visit a famous landmark, we get a bit excited or overwhelmed, especially if it is magnificent. This is normal and let yourself experience it. Then settle down to the plan you created when researching.
This may be hard depending on your travel style. If you travel with a packaged tour, chances are your timetable is set for you. If not, you will have more flexibility to wait for good light. Don’t be satisfied with the first viewing, come back if you can when the sun has shifted or if the weather changes.
This is the mantra of most traveling photographers. If all your planning shows there is great location one block north from the third floor, but you find the building you wanted to shoot from is closed, improvise. Don’t let your original idea blind you to the opportunity you still have in front of you.
To demonstrate by example, I recently traveled to Jordan with my daughter as a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board. I knew we would be visiting some classic sites, such as the Dead and Red Seas. We were also slated to visit Petra, an ancient city partially carved into sandstone cliffs and now an UNESCO World Heritage Site. To show how obvious the typical shots were of Petra, I had even used its role as a set-piece for the end of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade to get my daughter interested in the trip.
That final scene, before the literal ride into the sunset, feature the Treasury, or Al Khazneh, a magnificent work of art and architecture and certainly an icon for the rest of Petra. You might know it as it looks like this:
That shot is my first attempt at something new. A small aperture (f/22) was chosen to give the sun a nice burst pattern with a Canon 7D and Canon 10-22mm EF lens at 10mm. Everyone takes the shot straight on when they first view the site, so I got closer. Simple enough, but not bold enough.
Having done research, I learned that as of a couple of years ago, visitors were not allowed onto the steps of the Treasury. Sure enough, a view of recent images posted on Flickr shows a small railing in the way. My close shot removed the railing (being tall helps), but I wanted something bolder.
When I first met my guide for this trip, I told him of my plan, so that he may start thinking about how to accomplish it. I wanted access and was hoping he could help. “I want to take a shot, at night, and place a flash inside the Treasury to light up the chamber,” I explained. “I might be able to help, let me see what I can do,” was the reply.
He made some calls to the Tourism Board and they in turn made calls trying to get me access for my shot. For research, I had seen images of the Petra By Night event put on three times a week. It looks amazing (and has been shot a LOT as well). Hundreds of candles light the 1+km path to the Treasury and hundreds more light the face. What I wanted to do was let the candles light the outside, while a remote triggered strobe lights the inside, giving the scene an eerie glow. I also planned on attaching an orange filter to the strobe to help balance the light according to other night shots I had seen.
Here is the scene full of tourists and without the inner glow.
I ran some test and found my original idea of a long shutter speed would not work as the candles gave off too much light. My best bet was around 30 seconds, as is the picture above. This testing, during the program, was important as I assumed I would have limited time to shoot if I received permission. The program ran its course with some great music and my guide came over to let me know he had procured me access, but I had to wait until the place was cleared. Even then, I would only have 10 minutes.
When it was finally time and the clock was running, I first went up to the entrance to the inner chamber to place my strobe. I also brought my camera and tripod as I had a secondary idea for a great shot, from the inside looking out. I knew my timings from those earlier test and backed my lens up to 10mm for this shot.
With not much time to check the shot in camera, I took a few other images before heading outside with the strobe left behind. Unfortunately, the wireless range on my flash would not let fire the flash from the best vantage point (next time I will pack Pocket Wizards!). I kept moving closer and closer until I could fire the flash inside.
In the end, I got the shot but it wasn’t entirely how I had crafted it in my mind.
In my case, research showed me an idea for a new angle. Putting down my camera before my time to shoot showed me another option. And in the end, the Jordan Tourism Board liked the ‘secondary’ shot so much, they put it on their Facebook page where it has received the most shares of any of their images.
NOTE: A third idea I had was the first image on this post. It was shot at ISO 800, 10mm, f/4.5 and 718 seconds.