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Tips for Photographing Popular Tourist Destinations

As photographers, we often note that one way to make interesting images that are different from the norm is to get our camera to out-of-the-way places that haven’t been flooded with photographers. But what about those times when you’re heading somewhere that has been photographed millions of times already? Is it possible to create interesting photos of tourist destinations? Can you create something intriguing if you’re headed to the Eiffel Tower, Golden Gate Bridge, Great Wall of China or Mount Rushmore?

I say yes. Let’s consider how you can make an interesting photo, or series of photos, at a famous location. Let’s look at an example from Alcatraz Island, the former prison that’s now a tourist destination in the San Francisco Bay.

Ahockley alcatraz 1

#1 First, cover the usual

Although we want to make photographs that go above and beyond the usual tourist snapshots, that doesn’t mean you’ll want to ignore those vantage points entirely. You’re at the location and you’ve probably seen the postcard photo a hundred times, but this might be your first time there with your camera.

If you’re going to Alcatraz, sure, take a photo of the island from the boat (see image above). It’s not the most interesting composition, but it provides a sense of location. Everyone else has done it, so why shouldn’t you?

#2 The Usual… with a twist

Try to mix it up a bit. How about that usual shot but with some sort of twist? Is there an element you could add to the composition for context? How about:

  • A photo of your ticket stub, with the date of the visit, in front of the tourist destination?
  • Intentionally including huge crowds in your photo instead of fighting with them?
  • Photos of other photographers as they make photos?

What would the usual shot look like if you got there before everyone else? Could a lack of people improve your shot? Do some research and see if there are any early entry or behind-the-scenes options.

At Alcatraz, you could take a photo from the boat, including the flag at the bow indicating your destination.

Ahockley alcatraz 2

#3 Turn around and look behind you

I’ve made many photographs simply by turning around and looking in the opposite direction to where everyone else is pointing their cameras. Could you get an interesting photo of the Marin Headlands while most folks photograph the Golden Gate Bridge from the north? As someone is photographing a sunset over the Pacific Ocean, what if you turned around to see what the golden light is doing to the scene at your back?

In this case, most everyone else was looking the opposite direction and photographing the San Francisco cityscape.


#4 Look for details

Capture the big-picture (pun intended) images. Get one with the whole Golden Gate Bridge in the frame. Go wide and ensure you have a photo of the full height and breadth of the Arc de Triomphe.

After you’ve done that, look for details. Instead of all of Lady Liberty (Statue of Liberty), how about a zoomed-in shot of just the tip of her torch? Take a look around at signs. What stories do they tell? Is there something old and worn out that helps tell the story of the location? Is there something fresh and new?

Ahockley alcatraz 4

Whether you use a zoom lens or just “zoom with your feet” and walk closer, get up close. Photographing a ship in port? Get a shot of the rope wrapped around the cleat at the dock. Hiking to a waterfall? Fill the frame with the area where the water hits the rocks, and get a photo of the trailhead sign as well.

Ahockley alcatraz 5

Each of these detail shots will help you as you get ready to use your images to…

#5 Present a story

You came, you saw, you photographed. What next? Go above and beyond the average tourist by creating an interesting presentation for your images.

After I visited Alcatraz a few times, I made a Blurb book, that’s one idea. Perhaps you would like to print three or four of the best images and display them together on your wall, that’s another. Lightroom’s print module allows you to create a nice album, which can be a fun way to display the images even if the only “printing” that you do is to create a PDF. If you’re going to share the images online, consider how you might present them in an organized gallery rather than just a haphazard fashion.

One of the reasons that good wedding photographers can charge a premium price for their services is not just that make good images, but also that they present those images in a nice fashion. You can do the same. After you’ve returned from your trip or photo expedition, think about how to wrap everything together into a nice storytelling package. Your friends, family, and others who enjoy your images will thank you.

Your turn

Do you have any additional tips for photographing popular tourist locations? Have you visited one recently that you’d like to share? Please do so on the comments section below.

Try these tips for more travel photography ideas:

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Aaron Hockley
Aaron Hockley

is a Portland photographer and writer who frequently mixes the worlds of photography and technology. He publishes Splat Photo which covers a variety of techniques, gear, software, and services to help the forward-thinking photographer. Professionally he tells the stories of small business events and people; for fun he enjoys creating a variety of fine art photography.

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