#579. On Un-destination photography

By philberphoto | Travel Photography

Apr 05

We all know about destination weddings. The place you NEED to go (and have all your friends and family join you) for that purrfect wedding. Well, we have destination photography, too. The places you NEED to go to take that purrfect shot. The ice chunks of Jökulsalon, in Iceland, the dawn shots of Reine, in the Lofoten, Norway. The jagged edges of the peaks at Torres del paine, Patagonia, Chile. The sand dunes of Sosussvlei, Namibia. Golden light on the waterfall of Horsetail fall in Yosemite national Park, Antelope Canyon or Horseshoe Bend, or Mono Lake, all four in the USA. Or lake Inle and the stupas of Mandalay in Myanmar. Or…



There are 2 problems with these destination shots.



One is severe overcrowding. Because of the dissemination of photography through social media, blogs et al, we all now about these awesome, iconic places, and we all want to go there and nail that shot. And the more of us actually go there, the less each of us can nail the shot. When I was at Jökulsarlon with my friend Boris, he was sometimes in my shot, and I may have had to wait 10-20mn for him to be done and move on. And we never had to contend with more than one or two other ‘togs on our side of the river, as, for some unfathomable reason, the tens of tourist released by minibuses all chose the other side. And we were seriously off-season. In season, there can be hundreds of photography wannabes there at the same time. Beyond the fact that it seriously enriches the locals, because it pushes the prices up sky-high, the possibility of quality photography evaporates PDQ.



The second problem is that our eyes feast on the first time we take in an iconic picture of nature’s glory, but, by the 50th time, we get seriously blasé, and enjoyment evaporates PDQ. Yet, when we go there, each of us feels compelled to also take that expected shot. At the expense of everything in photography that is creation.



And if you think I am only railing at landscape photography here, think again. Try to go to Venice and get great shots. In the dark of night, off-season, maybe. The rest of the time, you’ll feel like you are in a carriage in the Tokyo public transport system. The Louvre and Versailles, in Paris, the same. The fabled Kinkakuji (golden temple) in Kyoto is maybe even more frustrating. You can only approach it -relatively speaking- from one side, and get the one possible postcard shot. Everything else is cordoned off. And, to get that one shot, I had to wait many minutes of high crowd-compression.



You get my drift? There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. And, clearly, DearSusan contributes to the problem by circulating such images. I, for one, must plead guilty to it.



So, what now?

Un-destination photography, that’s what.



This came about from two separate discussions with Pascal, the thinker-at-large and anarchist extraordinaire behind DS.

One had to do with the recent release of 2 medium-format camera systems, the Fuji GF-X and the Hasselblad X1D. Obviously, we lusted for both of them, which only rekindled questions about existing such cameras, the Pentax 645Z and the Leica S. So far, no cigar. Yes, they might be better than Sony A7RII, certainly in some ways they are, but not so in every respect, so that overall they don’t amount to enough of an upgrade to justify the heavy price tag. Two factors could change that early assessment, though. One is that these are very early days, and, with time, with serious ‘togs finding ways to get the most out of them, including better RAW conversion, images might improve quite a bit, pushing us over the edge. Or Sony could release a newer generation of A7 which could elevate performance to where the MF camers simply don’t appeal any more.

So, feeling quite pleased with myself for having decided to not spend mony on yet more gear, at least not immediately, I told Pascal, you know, if you and I really want to produce wonderful shots, we need to get “out there” more often. Great sites, perfect timing, great light. Those are the keys behind wonderful images from great pros. And it wouldn’t even cost that much. Mere hundreds compared to over 10.000 for a MF system. Remember when we went to Mont Saint-Michel. It cost next to nothing, we had a great time (again, off season, very early morning. By the time we were done, the sounds and vibrations of the thundering hordes of tourists could be felt, and we fled).

We should do more of that.



The other discussion was triggered by Pascal’s shots from the Dune du Pyla, close to Bordeaux and a hermitage in the hills of his home Provence (the two below). I went: “wow!”. Not Sosussvlei, but Wow! nonetheless. Very, very Wow!. And no hundreds of ‘togs there. And, because the place isn’t so well-known through prior art, we wouldn’t “have to” do anything other than shoot it the way we felt it. Real photography rather than destination photography.



So that is how un-destination was conceived. It needs to meet four criteria

  • not an iconic shot of an iconic place, but a picture from a lesser well-know -but by no means necessarily inferior- place
  • not a postcard, but a more personal expression. Nothing wrong with postcards, except they all look the same. If you like them, best buy them, ’cause you re likely not going to out-perform a pro, and it’ll cost you a sight less money..:-)
  • not a shot of brilliant creativity. A place of no photographic value unless you happen to be a genius who can make lemons into caviar is not un-destination. Yes, I’m talking to you, Pascal!
  • not an expensive trip, ’cause why go far, when you’ve not yet explored what is close by. Your personal contribution to global warming will be that much less as well, and you’ll be able to save that much more money for important stuff. No, not your spouse, or getting your kids through college, more gear! 🙂



So, as of next week, Pascal and I take our first stab at un-destination photography. Not the snaps that he manages when on a family trip. Not what I collect as I carry my bag with me evey day. A proper photo trip, with pre-dawn outings, tripods, the works. Just, fairly inexpensively, and fairly close by. Let’s see if we can produce Wow! shots, and, even more importantly, have fun!



PS: in case you wonder about my choice of pictures, they are all un-destination. All from places that aren’t that well-known, or lesser known relative to others. All from places where no other photographer will crowd your space and cramp your style. All from places that are easy and inexpensive to get to. More of that soon, watch this space!



PPS: Pascal raised an interesting point. Are less-than-obvious pictures from iconic places “un-destination”? My answer is: “no”. They are a sorry excuse for having all the troubles of such iconic destinations (overcrowding, overpricing, blasé viewers), plus the requirement to come up with something at least mildly original, and avoiding the obvious. Meaning, you have all the disadvantages, and none of the good sides, Because, to be honest, there are reasons why iconic shots are iconic…:-)



Come to think of it, if some of us take stunning shots of destinations, and circulate via DS, such spots might well become destination, and chase us ‘togs who prize their freedom of movement even further afield. Yes, indeed. But the world is such a large place, full on un-destinations, right ?


Email: subscribed: 4
  • Marc Baillargeon says:


    I completely agree with your introduction premise and love your concept. Looking forward to the future postings!

    It is a little bit like good wine. Easy to pay the big price and buy only magazine recommended wines. The true victory is to find an unbeatable value “unknown” wine – so much more satisfying.

    Thanks for the column!


  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    ROTFLMHO – come to Oz – we have endless landscapes that I can practically guarantee will be empty and rarely (if ever) previously photographed. Most of the continent is pretty well uninhabited !!

    You have zillions of places that are worth photographing. Drive a couple of kilometres and BAM!!! Right there in front of you. As with any tourist drenched country, there are so many places to “do” and “see” that the tourists cherry pick – subject them to an exit quiz at Charles de Gaulle, while they are waiting to board, and they’ll list (as you have) Versailles – the Louvre, perhaps (some of them have no interest in art) – Notre-Dame – the Eiffel Tower.

    A fraction of them make it to Mont Saint-Michel (but as you discovered, they’re still wolfing down their cornflakes or hashbrowns or whatever disgusting things they swallow at that hour) they’re still in their hotels if you get up early and catch the warm light of the early morning. And some of the more discerning tourists, or more energetic backpackers, will “do” the places that are “off the beaten track” – but not hordes of them.

    You can also still do iconic places by standing still while a tourist group goes through – is it nervousness or what? – they seem to flock together, and a flock passing through often sweeps up the “bits & pieces” that aren’t part of the tour group. That trick served me well, when I “did” the Loire Valley a couple of years back.

    Or a different lens – one of my all-time favorite photos is a shot of my wife, when we were on our honeymoon (we married in Paris 🙂 ), at the top of the Eiffel Tower, with a lovely smile on her face, and half of Paris as the slightly-out-of-focus background. Not a prize winner, but nevertheless, a shot that I treasure.

    You can’t wipe out the whole of Paris & claim it has no “un-destination” places, either. What is perhaps better is to follow the pros’ advice on the proper way to use a zoom – move your feet, and not the lens. You will find all sorts of things to photograph, all over Paris, and the only tourists in sight will be lost in the general flow of pedestrians.

    Or watch what the tourists shoot – and shoot something different – if they all shoot the front of Notre Dame, buzz down a side street and catch a glimpse of it instead – the sort of “view of Notre Dame” that countless Parisians see each day on their way to or from work, or whatever, without any thought of photographing it.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Oops – forgot. You can also use a tripod and a strong ND, to shoot long exposure shots of iconic places. The pros do that too, and it can be used to “disappear” the tourists. Or join the enemy and fly over them with a drone – latest piece of evil is a kind of “smartphone drone” just launched by AirSelfie. Or stretch the envelope and follow the lead of this kid:


    He’s apparently still “in college” (as they say on the other side of the pond) and making a name for himself with “real” drones & drone photography.

    I have a motive for all this – if enough people read it, there will be a flutter of wings and a stampede of fat tourists, and I’ll have some of these places all to myself 🙂

    • Adrian says:

      Sony have a multi exposure app for E mount cameras called “smooth reflections” which can be configured to shoot hundred of exposures and merges them into a single raw – with the happy result that moving objects disappear. The app costs a few dollars, which some people complain about whilst forgetting it negates the need for expensive ND stopped filters

  • Boris says:

    I see your point Philippe, but you can image I can’t really agree since I’m big fan of ‘places you NEED to go to take that perfect shot’.
    I really hate crowded places and on my last two trips to Iceland I was shocked how places like the Geysir, Seljalandsfoss or Jökulsarlon look nowadays. compared to our trip there are now about ten times as many people.

    But I found a strategy to avoid overcrowding:

    1. Just switch to places that can’t easily be reached (but are still spectacular and iconic). If you have to hike two days to reach a spot nearly nobody is shooting there. If you have to use a serious 4WD car and need to cross several 1m deep rivers only few people will do this. On my last trip to Iceland the (difficult to access) highlands were still a paradise. I could shoot there at extremely spectacular places for hours without meeting any other people.

    2. Visit the iconic places during bad weather. Shooting during a snow storm can lead to great images. And 99% of all tourists just move to the next hotel or restaurant in this kind of situation. You are alone even at the most iconic places.

    3. Shoot at a different time. If most people visit a place in summer go in winter. Or get up very early or stay there long enough. About half an hour before sunset the Sossusvlei in Namibia was completely empty and I was shooting there alone.

    It’s still possible. You just need a different strategy.


    • Adrian says:

      I’m curious why you are a fan of “places you NEED to go”? I find the whole experience demoralising and rathe pointless as for most of is the exercise just becomes a process of trying to relocate what someone has done before. I can think of nothing that kills creativity more.

      Your suggestion of going to different locations or viewpoints somewhat contradicts the “places you need to go”.

      • Boris says:

        Adrian, you forgot the most important part in your citation:”to take that perfect shot”.
        I would rather get one really perfect landscape shot of a really spectacular place than 1000 good shots of nice places. I don’t want to shoot what everybody else is shooting, contrary I try to get shots that nobody else has done before.
        To give you some examples: there is a lovely waterfall in Iceland which is visited by thousands of people every day. To get a really good view/perspective of the most interesting part of this waterfall you have to cross a river and climb down into a very steep canyon. On the whole internet I’ve found so far just one other image shot at this spot and this one was shot handheld without a tripod and ND filter.
        Another example: my favorite place on my trip to Patogonia together with Philippe was a viewpoint at Cerro Castillo. Thousand of people are probably stopping at this viewpoint every year and you can find several images shot at this viewpoint on the web, but none on these images were shot just before sunrise as Philippe and I did twice (although I have to admit on the first time as an unplanned accident ;-).
        This is what I mean by “places you need to go to get that perfect shot”. Go to well known iconic places but shoot them in a different way.


    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      I imagine Piazza San Marco in Venice, during August, would be like strap-hanging on a crowded commuter bus in Tokyo. And I’ve seen places in other centers, like Paris, Rome, London, filled so full of people (mostly tourists) that the easiest solution was probably a drone with camera attached.

      But I’ve also been in these places when I virtually had the whole place to myself. From just after Christmas to mid-January in Paris, for example. Or May/June in north-east Italy – the place was inhabited mainly by locals, the tourists were still packing to catch their planes – and the weather was perfect.

      Perhaps just choosing a different season, or a different hour of the day, is all it takes.

  • adrian says:

    I have said for some time that the internet is a source for anti-creativity, since too much advice centres around “doing research” to find the best spots for photos. Not only does the internet encourage the “must see” destinations you write about, but also everyone following the same advice to go to the same spots to take exactly the same photographs. There’s or much creativity at work, and everyone’s photos broadly look the same (depending on how good they are at photo shopping them into some hyper reality version of the photographic truth).

  • philberphoto says:

    Sorry for not responding earlier to all of your interesting comments. Let me adress some of them.
    – Boris: you are right, of course, I did not expect you to agree. And, yes, there are still ways, if you are Boris-like in your determination and talent. But if you will remember our trip to Patagonia, your favorite spot ended up being an un-destination one (Cerro Castillo) rather than an iconic one, “discovered”, or rather uncovered by my mistake.
    – Adrian, Pete,I tried your idea of ND filters to “filter out people” and bought a very expensive,very dark filter beforeI went to India, with the intent to use it at the Taj Mahal, an iconic place among iconic places. Problem was, you are not allowed to deploy a tripod. No tripod, no long exposure. No long exposure, no filtering out of people.
    – Adrian, regarding anti-creativity, I agree with you, the Internet doesn’t help, andI am putting it mildly. That said, when you do see a gorgeous place, nothing says you must abstain from taking the most beautiful shot, otherwise you are not creative enough…:-)
    – Pete, regarding Oz. Maybe we Europeans can offer a spot in European Union that will be vacated shortly, and, thus, Australia can become more accessible to us? Because, basically, you are right, there are huge numbers of wonderful places that aren’t yet mobbed. To some extent that goes for South Africa too.

  • Dallas says:

    Philippe, it was a pleasure to meet and speak with you briefly last evening at the Meet Up, I have enjoyed reading the 2 posts I have read so far. Hope to meet again before my return down under.

  • >