When traveling, do you wait for fellow tourists to get out of the way
before taking a picture? Why? If you're trying to communicate the
experience of being in a place, aren't those mobs of tourists part of
the experience? The more despoiled by tourism a place has become, the
more important it is to capture a big tour group clogging a
Let's consider this from another perspective. Suppose that you are
offered a choice of viewing some photos of the Eiffel Tower that were
taken in the 1930s. Would you rather see a photo containing tourists
of the period or a photo of the tower by itself? The Eiffel Tower
hasn't changed in any interesting ways since the 1930s, but tourists
have. A photo captured at 6 am showing a deserted site before all of
the other tourists showed up might have more value for a postcard or
calendar, but it is a less interesting record of the experience people
in the early 21st Century had at that site.
In each section below, we will look at a typical quality photograph of
a heavily visited site. The photograph will accurately depict the
site, but show no tourists. That photo will be followed by between 1
and 5 photos of the same place, but showing tourists doing the things
that tourists do.
From Machu Picchu: The first image
is not that different from what National Geographic might have run in
April 1913. The average visitor today, however, does not experience
the solitude that Hiram Bingham and his Yale pals did in 1911.
From Barcelona: Gaudi's garden
dragon is a great work of art, but a picture of the dragon alone,
taken at high noon, won't win any prizes.
From Jack's Camp in
Botswana: Any fool with a 70-200/2.8 lens can get a great
portrait of a Meerkat. What is more interesting is showing how
accustomed to humans some Meerkats are, which is, of course, why any
fool with a short telephoto lens can get a great portrait of a
From Victoria Falls: On a
short visit it is almost impossible to create a competitive photograph
of Victoria Falls. The best photos of the falls were taken during
just the right water flow conditions (some spray but not too much)
when perfect weather and great light aligned. The trails, however,
are filled with people trying to protect themselves from the spray,
take photos, and protect their cameras from getting soaked.
From Namibia: The ancient Namib
desert is one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet.
The first image, therefore, is not unrepresentative of what a tourist
renting a camper truck might experience. However, even in this
authentically unspoiled place, a picture or two with fellow tourists
adds humor and highlights the puny scale of things human.
From the Hearst Castle in Central
Coast of California: From the first photo, you might conclude that
a visit to this Newspaper magnate's retreat would evoke thoughts of
the Gilded Age. The subsequent photos demonstrate that the reality is
being herded onto a crowded bus and being pushed through the house in
a mob of the decidedly unfashionable.
From Galapagos: If you
want to show that the animals aren't afraid of humans, one of the
unique properties of these islands, you need to include some people in
From the Peruvian Amazon:
The Amazon is indeed vast and much of it is trackless. However, it is
impractical for the average tourist to visit the Amazon except in a
group and/or staying close to a lodge. A photo showing the tourists
is a better record of the Amazon leisure experience than a photo
showing the wilderness.
From the Grand
Canyon: One of the most heavily photographed places in the world.
You're unlikely to be fortunate enough to be in the right place during
the right weather to capture a definitive image. You might be the
only one to capture this particular corner of the canyon with a group
in contemporary outdoor garb.
From New Mexico: The Anasazi
ruins inspire wonder. White people attempting to commune with the
spirits of the Anasazi inspire even more wonder.
From Turkey: Volcanic tuff and
erosion create fantastic land forms in Cappadocia. An Asian tour
group adds interest to almost any scene, however.
From the Vatican: Remember
that a tripod, or leaning against a wall, and a slow shutter speed can
reduce tourists on the move to an abstraction.
From Rome: Note the heavy winter clothing; this is the off season.
From Venice: A great place to
explore the human desire to be photographed in front of a famous site.
From Paris: Art in the City of Lights is
interesting, but always look for photographs of people responding to
the art. Nobody needs a straight-ahead photo of the Mona Lisa.
From India: There is nothing remarkable about being mobbed by people
in India. However, it is very seldom that one is mobbed by fellow
foreign tourists. In a country of more than 1 billion people, the 3
million annual foreign tourists, each of whom stays less than one
month, are scarcely apparent. Consequently, if you do find yourself
in a situation where you see a big tour group, take a moment to
capture it. Either you are recording the growth of the Indian middle
class, if the tour group is domestic, or an unusual gathering of
foreigners, if the tour group is from overseas.
From Travels with
Samantha, Chapter IX: Denali National Park seems like a
vast lonely wilderness. In fact, the National Park Service packs
tourists into schoolbuses for 12-hour rides down a dirt road. There
is nothing natural, quiet, or solitary about the experience unless you
get a backcountry permit and wander off on a multi-day hike (don't
forget your mosquito headnet).
From Travels with
Samantha, Chapter X: Looking at one of the ubiquitous
photographs of a Katmai National Park bear, one might wonder just how
rugged and wild the experience of being a nature photographer there
is. The second photo, of a bunch of folks standing on a National Park
Service wooden deck, should answer the question. If you can bring
only one lens, make it the 300/2.8 and a teleconverter. If you can
bring two, though, add a wide-to-telephoto zoom for recording the
antics of the other humans on the platforms.
From San Miguel de Allende, the gringo capital of Mexico: an image of
authentically dressed-up-for-the-tourists locals might be interesting
to some third grade geography students; an image of those locals
interacting with tourists is your best chance to make an adult viewer
"If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." That
old photojournalism bromide applies here. To give viewers the feeling
that they are hemmed in by a crowd, you'll need to be close to a few
other people. If you're close to some people, the only way to show
the rest of the crowd is with a wide angle lens. Most of the best
photos in this article were taken between 16mm and 35mm on a full
frame digital SLR. An ideal lens on a full-frame camera therefore
would be a 16-35mm zoom; on a small sensor (APS) camera, the
equivalent would be 10-22mm.
Oftentimes the tourists are trying to stay in the shade while the
monument is lit by direct sun. This creates a tremendous amount of
contrast, maybe not too much for a camera RAW file to represent, but
certainly too much for a JPEG or any printing technology. A powerful
on-camera flash can brighten the foreground and help reduce the
inherent contrast in the image, saving a lot of digital
Can you take these kinds of images with a mobile phone or point and
shoot camera? Sure! The humor in the photo is more important than
image quality. If choosing a point and shoot camera for this
application, try to get one with a lens that can zoom out as wide as
possible, at least a 28mm equivalent and preferably 24mm. Point and
shoot cameras never offer the wide perspectives that are available on
digital SLRs with accessory lenses, so you can definitely improve your
images in this genre by carrying a digital SLR.
The world has grown substantially wealthier in the years since
standard tourism sites were established and photographed. The Boeing
747 made round-the-world air travel cheap enough for middle class
people everywhere. Massive tour groups need not be your only subject
when visiting a beautiful or intriguing place, but it is not
necessarily a good idea to ignore them, work around them, and pretend
that mass tourism does not exist.
Fifty years from now, people will look at your photos and they might
be impressed by the composition and lighting. Most likely, however,
the first thing that will jump out at them are the hairstyles, the pay
phones, the clunky mobile phones that people hold up to their ears,
the ridiculous laptop computers, the enormous cameras, the hideous
clothing. A fat tourist might seem like an obstacle to creating a
photo with impact, but in decades to come, he or she might become the
most interesting part of the photo.