How to Photograph Busy Tourist Sites, or Get The #$%^ Out of My WAY!

Trevi Fountain and tourists

Borobudur covered with tourists

Unless you are a brutal dictator, a head of state, a mafia boss or you sneak in after hours, when visiting iconic places like the Taj Mahal or Great Wall of China or Machu Pichu, you will be sharing it with thousands of other tourists. If you are like me, you’d prefer to get photos without the hordes of people in your shots. You have a couple of options. You can shout at people and tell them to get the $%^& out to the way, call in a bomb threat, or you can follow these strategies that I’ve developed over the years. One could lead to an international incident, the other is more polite. I will let you decide.

8 Tips for Photographing Iconic, Touristy Places

1a. Arrive as early as possible

When the alarm goes off at 4am (or earlier) I am usually cussing, grumpy, and wondering what I am doing with my life. But the single most effective way to photograph a busy place is to arrive at dawn, or as soon as the site opens, and beat the tour groups. In Egypt, we were often the first people to buy tickets each morning. At Borobudur, we paid the extra money to arrive at sunrise. In hot climates this helps avoid the heat of the day, and the morning light is often best for photos.

Sunrise at Borobudur

A quiet corner of Borobudur at sunrise.

1b. Be there at closing time

Some places, however, are best viewed in the evening. Near closing time is also another peaceful time to visit as the tour buses and crowds are long gone. I got this photo of the Pyramids of Giza at sunset as the guards were shooing us out.

Pyramids of Giza with camel

2. Be patient

Someone is standing right in front of the statue you want to photograph? A tour group is blocking your view of the Grand Canyon? You can yell at them to move or be patient. Opt for patience.

Most people take snapshots and move on, or follow mindlesslessly behind a tour leader. Wait and they will move, but be ready to shoot before the next wave of tourists walk by.

Taj Mahal in Black and White

Patience was required to get this shot.

3. Use other visitors for a sense of scale

Some places are so massive that they defy logic. Using other visitors (especially if they are locals) in the frame can give a sense of scale to the photograph and make it more impressive.

Pramadan with girl

The girl in the red headscarf adds a sense of scale to the Pramadan temple in Indonesia

4. Find hidden corners

I like to seek out quiet corners away from the crowds to not only take pictures, but also to enjoy some peace. Do some advance research to see what options you may have. Sometimes this takes effort, like at Petra where we had to climb up a mountain to the vantage point below.

Petra from above

It was a sweaty scramble up the rocks to get to this spot, but worth it to get above the fray.

5. Focus on Details

Taking close-up photos of statues or details in the building can be a great way to exclude the throngs in your shots. Plus, these photos are really appreciated by grandkids, younger siblings and nieces who are forced to sit through your slideshow presentation.

Detailed carving in Rajastan

Carvings on Borobudur

6. Use a very long exposure

At night, it is often possible to use a very long exposure, 30 seconds or more, to blur out all the passers by. I used this technique in the Piazza del Campidoglio (see photo below) to give the scene an empty feel, even though there were people milling around. Avoid this technique where there are superstitious people or religious fanatics –  like in Papua, the Congo or a GOP convention – who may regard it as a form of sorcery and stone you to death.

piazza del campidoglio at night black white

Piazza del Campidoglio at night.

7. Tilt your camera up

Many times, all you have to do is aim above the heads of the tourists to get a great shot, especially if it is a tall building.

Prambanan Indonesia Photo Tips

By tilting the camera up, I could shoot over the tops of the crowds.

Buddhas of Borobudur

8. When all else fails, photograph the maelstrom

If the place is totally overhwelmed with tourists, that may be the most interesting thing going on. Photograph the melee and laugh about it. It must be a special place if so many people want to be there are the same time.

Trevi Fountain and tourists

Tourists swarming the Trevi Fountain.

Combat Photography

9. Help me finish the Post 

Do you have any tips to add, any great insights? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

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30 Comments on “How to Photograph Busy Tourist Sites, or Get The #$%^ Out of My WAY!

  1. “Unless you are a brutal dictator, a head of state, a mafia boss …”

    I think I may have missed my true calling. In my defense, none of the available majors at my college were designed to steer students toward any of these employment options.

    • HAHAHAHA! You know, none of mine did either. My university did have a great pharmacy dept. which I could have used to make a meth lab and rise to the top of the trade, a la Walter White.

  2. Those are some very good tips and some cracking photos..! Loved them, especially the pyramid and the Taj ones.. Regards.

  3. So spot on! Love the Taj Mahal shot. You’re right though with perseverance you can get good shots and I always wonder why people settle for such crummy ones with strangers in them… Only other tip could be to go during the midday sun when tour groups eat lunch and when Asians and other nationalities are scared of the intense sun. Sometimes it can be too bright but I definitely got some good ones in angkor in the midday sun http://juraphotos.com/2013/01/27/running-and-tourist-dodging-at-angkor-wat/

    • Jura, that is a good tip to go out mid-day in Asia if you can handle the heat and sun. Thanks for sharing the link – those are some excellent photos of Angkor Wat and there are no tourists in them!

  4. Your techniques and patience have definitely resulted in some stunning images! I’ve been known to employ my husband to shoo people out of the frame, if approached with tact, most people comply.

    • Laura,

      This is true about asking people politely to move. Often times, they don’t realize they are in the way and with the proliferation of cameras, most everyone wants to take a photo also so they oblige.

  5. Jeff, I do almost everything you mention here every time I travel. But my favorite thing to do is getting up really early in the morning to beat the crowd — I’m an expert on that! 🙂

    • Bama, good to know you that you get up super-early to beat the crowds. If we ever run into you on the road, you are welcome to hang out with us. There is nothing more satisfying than leaving a place mid-morning on the way back to the hotel pool as thousands of people file in.

  6. Jeff these are some great tips, although I am not so keen on the risk of being stoned to death. Your stunning photos really are exclamation points on your points. Not sure I have much to add. Bama may be an expert in early morning, I seem better at the just before closing shots.

    • Sue, my wife and I aren’t ordinarily morning people, but like Bama we adjust our schedules so that we can be there super early. It is worth the effort. In regular life, I see many more sunsets than sunrises!

  7. Jeff, these are all great tips. I am that person who waits patiently for that tiny wee second when the crowds clear a landmark to get the shot. I am always stunned how people just snap away, paying no attention to what they are actually capturing.

    • Lynn, I think digital cameras are to blame for the mass clicking. I think if we all had film cameras, we’d save the shots for our family in front of the monument and maybe one or two clicks sans people. Now, we can take hundreds of photos and throw away the bad ones.

      It is good to know that you opt for patience and don’t start international incidents.

  8. Great tips and wonderful photos to illustrate them, Jeff. I did a Santa Run recently and wished that I had thought to hold the camera up high and aim down (hoping for the best) to capture lots of Santa heads instead of just a few Santa backs. Don’t know if that would work. I guess I’ll have to wait another year to find out!

  9. Great tips and fabulous photos Jeff. Particularly those of the pyramid and the piazza del Campidoglio I am an owl as well, but somehow manage to wake up super early when traveling just to beat the crowds 🙂

  10. Great post. Thanks. One trick I’ve enjoyed using is zooming in fully and using the soft unfocused outline of the people in front of me as a framing device. This can produce some lovely soft vignettes or colourful borders to the subject. Also, how about looking for the people that can add context to a scene. A photo of the main stage at Pacifika fest in Wellington this month with an islander wearing loud shirt and a lay was fun to take.

    http://www.acoupleofbeerstravel.com

  11. Jeff, I came across your blog tonight when researching photography in Meteora (great pics by the way). I had to laugh at the title of this post – you must be my husband’s long-lost twin or are my husband in disguise! People ‘ruining’ the shot is one of his top 3 travel pet peeves. The only thing that will get him up early in the morning is the opportunity to photograph places in the dawn light and without the crowds. Some of my fondest travel memories are photographing San Marco square in the early morning when the men are sweeping with large straw brooms (he only got out of bed when I said I would photograph without him) and of Monument Valley when he fell out of the truck at 5:30 am (claiming his foot got stuck).

    • Thanks for the comment and the kind words. Your husband must be a really cool guy. I have an aversion to waking up while it is still dark, but the allure of getting a great photos drives me to wake up when I really don’t want to. And I am sure his foot got stuck in the truck. Those things happen.

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