I recently traveled to a very touristy destination, Egypt, for a week-long photographic cruise. Not being used to sharing locations with others (un-destinations rule my photo life), I struggled to deal with the constant presence of other visitors that stopped everywhere for selfies, or to read a sign or to grab a few shots, just like me. And it was only when reviewing the photographs for PP that inexperience and silly mistakes became painfully obvious. Here are some lessons learnt.
Systematic mistake n°1: shooting too high. The photo above isn’t too bad, and the 16:9 crop hides much of the empty sky that should have provided a clue, had I been open to such input, rather than freaked out by the hords. But it’s not great either.
Luxor temple is one of the most elegant sites I’ve visited, including the best in Rome, Paris and rural Wiltshire. It deserves better than this half-baked composition in which I pointed upwards to see abbove the heads of nearby tourists and leave only smaller ones (visually, that is, they’re not actually tiny) in the frame.
If you look at it, does it feel perfectly balanced to you? If not, is it missing something at the top or at the bottom?
Yup: No, and the bottom.
It might work better as a more elongated pano, because the rhythm of the columns becomes the central subject and the rest of the site no longer matters as much. So better symmetry is achieved and the columns aren’t missing a base, a foundation, any more :
But it would also have worked better had I included more foreground for the lit columns to sit upon. Yes, there’d have been tourist heads and backs but that extra 20% at the bottom would have made for a more solid base.
Recommendation n°1 : when there are tourists around the monument no longer is the subject. The monument and the tourists are. Compose for both.
I don’t have a recommendation n°2 to offer. But let’s work this one on other examples.
This one is slightly better, with more solid ground on which to erect columns. But it’s also slightly worse because the strong converging point created by said columns doesn’t lead to any sort of point of interest. It’s like having an arrow saying “LOOK” and nothing to actually look at. Bad composition. Simply because I tried to avoid the tourists on the left (which could be systematic mistake n°2: shooting too far to the right. But this could get tedious fast).
This one brings balance to the force. Yes, there are tourists. Everywhere. But the photograph is well composed. If you don’t want tourists in your shots here, leave your camera in your bag. A photograph with the temple as subject isn’t possible, that’s it (well multiple pics to average out the people, maybe). But are my columns any less elegant for that ? Is my sunstar any less heroic for that ?
No. This is a photograph I’m not afraid to show. The composition is much better. And the tourists actually make the image that much more interesting. Without them the photograph would actually feel quite dead. Which we’ll pick up later.
Systematic mistake n°2: Impatience. Ironically, what was so difficult for me in Egypt was quite easy in Japan. Japanese temples aren’t exactly empty locations in early November when maples are turning colour. Shots like these simply require a patient photographer (and a super patient spouse). My guess is the more serene surroundings inspired that patience whereas the more hectic visit conditions in a Mediterranean country on a guided tour were more conducive to rash shooting.
Recommendation n°2: Just wait. Not fretting about the delay, but using it to study the place visually, in depth. Some teachers recommend you observe your subject intently for at least 20 minutes before you even touch your pencil or camera. Awaken your eye before you move your hand. Maybe the 5 minutes needed to find a tourist-free opening are a good start?
Systematic mistake n°3 : Thinking tourists are a nuisance. After all, we’re tourists just as much as they are. Some times far more so. In Japan, a lot of friends or couples visit temples all dressed up and contribute to the visual pleasure. Of course, when 3 buses spew out 120 rushed tourists for their 12 minute photo stop and selfie sticks start erecting like lances of a Roman army at the sight of Asterix, the picture isn’t quite as pretty. But they can make a subject in themselves, and I find them far less painful and disturbing than drones, which should be used only as trapshooting targets. Also, maybe you shouldn’t be visiting the sort of hotspot that attracts those in the first place. Just sayin’ 😉
Recommendations n°3: Compose for the tousists. Or any interesting human figure. Such as the Chinese visitor in pink who had ignored the gazillion no no signs and walked accross the bridge below to get a better view of the lake. For the few seconds before outraged locals get her out of there, she became a prime focus point for photographers.
The web has made most interesting locations in the world completely public. From what others have told me, it’s impossible to visit Jokulsarlon and the black sand beach nearby without treading over photographers, for example. Instagram has created a photographic #Meetoo rush unlike any other before and, for some unfathomable reason, everyone seems to want to photograph the same thing as the person before, in the same light, with the same filters. Kill me. Kill me now.
Maybe we should crowdsource our holiday photographs, but that’s another topic 😉 But the fact is that we need to ask ourselves what we want to photograph. Life, reality? Or an idealised, sterile, version of it where there are no humans and the sun is permanently 3,6° below the horizon? Yuk! I’ll take tourists over rigid rules any day of the week. But that’s just me 😉
Of course, there’s a major problem with this: you’re not allowed to take photographs of people, in some countries. Apparently, it steals their souls. And the privacy laws surrounding this are often different from country to country, change in time and so complicated and full of exceptions and derogations that I would never recommend you photograph anyone in a recongnisable manner. At least not in France. If anyone reading this has better experience of those laws and how they apply in practise, I’d love to hear from you for advise on this (subject of a future post too).
At any rate, the only common factor between us all writing, reading and commenting on this article is that we are human beings. Isn’t it incredibly sad that our (public and non commercial) photographs are so devoid of other human beings? That we refrain from including a human presence in our shots, either deliberately for some fantasy vision of what photography should be or because policy makers deny us the joy of photographing life?
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