You’ve planned your trip, bought the tickets, and are on your way to one of the most famous places in the world…only to find that you weren’t the only one with this idea. Hundreds, maybe thousands of fellow tourists are there to see the sights with you, and like you, they’re looking to get a great photo or ten. That means that getting a clear, postcard-perfect shot will be virtually impossible. So what to do?
Get There Early
While not always possible, arriving to popular sites early—during the golden hour if possible—will not only help you beat the crowds, it will also give you some of the best lighting. During the summer this can be challenging, as dawn comes absurdly early (for most of us), but it’s well worth the effort, especially if you’re planning on using a tripod. Of course, some sites are so famous that there’s almost never a time when they’re devoid of people. It’s also not always possible to arrive early. When that happens you’ll need to have a different game plan.
Think Outside the Box
You might think that looking for a creative angle is a fairly obvious solution, but the fact is most tourists don’t think about it. And while zooming in/out, ducking around folks, and/or changing lenses are the more straightforward options, they won’t be enough if there’s a serious press of people. That’s when you’ll need to look around for other vantages. Take this photo of the Taj Mahal, for example. By stepping back (far back to another location actually), photographer Annie Spratt was not only able to get a classic shot of the Taj, but the press of tourists doesn’t in any way detract from the photo. Moving away also allowed for a greater versatility in lens choice, as well as providing ample room for setting up with a tripod (which wasn’t so easy close up).
But finding another vantage to get the perfect shot is just one step or so outside the box. More creative options include finding compositions that tell a story or provide more context for the site. For example, the photo below adds more context to the Taj Mahal complex and makes the tourists part of the story.
Framing the photo in such a way that the tourists don’t detract.
Compose Your Shots with Tourists in Mind
A more challenging, yet often more rewarding style of composition is to actively incorporate the tourists into your shot. This style is considerably different from merely trying to minimize their impact in the photo—it’s actively making them the subject. Doing this well demands a fair amount of creativity and patience, but the results can often be far more interesting than just a shot of the site alone. For example, this shot of the Tower of Pisa by Les Anderson is far more interesting with the people as the subject and the tower as the backdrop than the same photo would be without people in the frame.
Using the tourists as a key part of your composition.
Look for Unique Design Elements
Not all design elements need to be human or architectural. There are often many other creative options available. While finding them can take some sleuthing and creative eye, the images you end up with will often be far more unique than any others you take—especially if you incorporate story into the shot. This photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia of pigeons nestling up against each other with the Eiffel Tower in the background suggests the typical story of “Parisian Love” in a very atypical way:
When All Else Fails, Edit
If you’re looking for a postcard shot (i.e. without tourists included), sometimes editing distractions out in post processing is the only option available. But not all methods of editing/erasing out tourists are created equal. Using the healing brush, clone and stamp, and/or programs such as Snapheal are great options if you have a simple background like the one below, but if the background’s even remotely complex this method will either not work well or become incredibly time-consuming.
The Forbidden City with tourists in the square.
The tourists removed.
A far cleaner way to achieve a scene empty of all distractions is to take multiple shots that, when put together, have all the elements of an unobstructed view. Then, in a program that supports layers (Photoshop, Luminar, Paint.net etc.), simply layer the photos on top of each other and erase or mask out the elements you don’t want. This only works when there’s a level of flow to the crowds and empty spaces open up occasionally, but if you arrive early this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. You’ll probably need to spend a bit of time in the same location waiting for the crowds to move around. Beyond that, all it takes is a tripod and some patience. The result is far cleaner than any you can get from healing or cloning. (There’s no pixel change with multiple exposures.)
These days there’s an infinite amount of advice as to where and how to get the best photos of any tourist destination. If you’re serious about your travel photography, take the time to check for tips and tricks for photographing the location you’re visiting. For example, if you’re wanting to set up a tripod, take the time to learn whether tripods are allowed, the best place(s) to set up, etc. Other information that’s helpful is where to shoot from during both sunrise and sunset (the best light) and the least crowded times to visit. You may even find a gem of unusual advice that helps you get a stellar shot—something that wouldn’t be self-evident by just showing up and hoping for the best.
In the end, great shots are (almost) always possible in just about any location. With a little planning, creativity, and patience you’ll be able to come home with photos you’re proud of.
Max Therry is an architecture student who is fond of photography and wants to become a professional photographer. He is also working on his photography blog about photo editing, modern photo trends, and inspiration. Feel free to reach him by email.