How to Photograph Busy Tourist Locations

So, you’ve skipped buying the decadent lattés and cappuccinos at your favourite café. You’ve decided to skip the movies but instead stream a movie at home just so you can save enough money to go on your dream vacation.  You might have saved on those daily expenditures but you did manage to buy yourself the latest camera to capture some unique images along the journey. The day finally comes when you arrive at your destination but the sites that you read about in your well used travel guide are flustered by hordes of other tourists with the same intentions. You could easily say, this is crazy and pack it on. But don’t! With these tips, I’ll show you some ways to think of travel photography from a new perspective in busy tourist locations.

1. Get up early

Sacré-Cœur Basilica, Montmartre, Paris, France

One of the best times to photograph busy places is early morning before the tourists have arrived. This was true when I was in Paris and captured the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. During the day, it would not be possible to capture the image that I did (photo above). I set my alarm for 5:00 a.m., which wasn’t my preferred time to begin the day but I’ve learned that you have to work for these photos. I stayed up late the night before to take photos along the Seine but I didn’t want to miss the morning light either, which is softer and enhances the image. 

2. Include the tourists

Sometimes setting up at dawn can’t guarantee you a tourist free shot. However, sometimes including people (or a person in this case) can enhance your image by giving the final photograph a unique dimension. 

The image above would still have been beautiful without the people in the shot, so even though I could have waited to take the picture without them, I felt that they actually improved the composition. It captured the feeling and mood of that particular location. Consider the idea that conveying the idea of a full, and popular, tourist attraction is a photo-worthy moment in itself.

3. Compose carefully

Horseshoe Bend, located near the town of Page, Arizona is a tourist hot spot. To capture the magic of the horseshoe-shaped incised meander of the Colorado River, it simply required positioning the tripod slightly beyond the tourists. Don’t be crazy though about getting images like these. Locations like these can be very dangerous so don’t prioritize your photos over the safety of you and others. 

4. Take your time

Palais Garnier, Paris, France

I booked a guided tour of the Palais Garnier in Paris a couple of years ago. Although I typically prefer being my own tour guide, I knew that I would learn more about this 1,979-seat opera house, which was built from 1861 to 1875 for the Paris Opera, by going on an organized tour. I stayed at the back of the tour so I could capture images like the one above. I had to wait for about 10 minutes, while my tour group was in an adjacent room, until a few tourists left the scene. Taking your time and being strategic about capturing images like these is well worth it and you will be proud when you return home.

5. Take shots from creative angles

If you’re wandering along some of the popular streets in Agueda, Portugal, during the month of July, look up and your might see a colourful display of umbrellas as part of the Ágitagueda art festival. As you might imagine, the streets of full of tourists, which might not seem like a prime location to start snapping photographs. Don’t give up that easily. To get a unique photo, consider the umbrellas from a wide variety of angles. In this case, zoom in on the colourful subjects and take the tourist distractions out of your frame.

6. Time your visits to outdoor attractions and make the natural lighting work for you

One of the biggest challenges to shooting outdoor attractions can be either harsh shadows or risking over exposed parts of your image. It’s not practical bring strobes and excessive flashes with you so the best alternative is to make the natural light work to your advantage. There are several apps available to help you determine where the sun will be in your particular location. I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris. If you don’t want to use an app, the best times are generally at sunrise and sunset. Don’t forget, though, that other photographers will also be competing for space at these time.

7. Go where the crowds aren’t going

You might travel to a destination to focus on the popular sights – such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Forbidden City in Beijing – but don’t forget to look away from the busy tourist site and see what is behind you. Look for details are being passed by and capture unique images that the hordes of tourists are overlooking. Perhaps, while you are focussed on other details, by the time that are done, the crowd might have thinned out and you will have more time to capture a clean shot of the main attraction.

8. Focus on the details

There’s beauty in details. Similar to my example with the umbrellas in tip #5, don’t underestimate the value of focussing on the details of the architecture in famous landmarks. This shot at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is an example where no one can walk across your view! Shots like these help to create a complete picture of the location you are photographing.

Capturing the essence of a busy tourist hot spot often involves tourists unknowingly wandering into your carefully constructed composition. So, instead of becoming frustrated and trying to avoid them, work harder and think more creatively to get those great photos.

Have you got some great photos from crowded tourist locations? Please share them and your tips in the comments below. 

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How To Photograph Busy Tourist Locations
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How To Photograph Busy Tourist Locations
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Don't let hordes of tourists ruin your travel photos. David shows you ways to think of travel photography from a new perspective in busy tourist locations.
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Lens Flare Travel
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