#859. Dealing with Tourists in Photographic Composition

By pascaljappy | How-To

May 17

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.

 
Wot, no foundations?
 

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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  • Adrian says:

    Pascal, I agree with your suggestions, having suffered the same problems and come to similar conclusions myself.

    Patience is most definitely required. To get a clean shot outside the Ion Orchard mall in Singapore, I had to wait about 25 minutes for a pair of women to finish taking selfies with their brand name shopping bags. At the royal palace in Seoul, I had to wait for perhaps 30-40 minutes for a 30 second break in your groups. You have to find your zen.

    However, there is one thing you didn’t mention. Ultra long exposures are your friend, particularly at night. I’ve got perfectly clean shots of the boardwalk along Singapore Bayside and the Design and Culture Museum in Seoul using the Sony multiple exposure app, which simulates exposures of many minutes by taking many frames and recombining them into one resulant photo. One of those very dark neutral density filters has the same result. People vanish like ghosts… It’s brilliant!

    Alas in the daytime you are stuck with the selfie stick toting hoards, who depending on cultural background may have no issue in barging right in front of you as you try to take a picture, so that they can get their selfie.

    So I have one last suggestion, involving selfie sticks, but I can’t repeat it here…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hmm, my hunch is that your idea involves anatomic descriptions … got it 😉

      Yes, long exposures or multiple exposures will blur the tourists and leave only the immobile stone. A ND filter might be worth experimenting with, not necessarily to remove tourists but to blur their lines, for an interesting effect.

      40 minutes is a long long way. Imagine if you waited that long then someone stepped in front of you for a selfie during the 20 second clear zone 😀

      Cheerrs

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    On the subject of people photography, my cyber-friend Philippe is a past master at street photography in France. His flickr site is https://www.flickr.com/photos/90447998@N03/

    As far as I’m aware he has had no issues.

    If you’re not a fan of selfie sticks (and who is?) avoid Venice like the plague. Not only are there tourists everywhere making sure that they are the centre of attention and not the city they paid so much to get to but vendors constantly shove them under one’s nose. Reminiscent of traffic lights in JOhannesburg!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Peter. Great link and some great photos in that gallery. I guess the secret is not getting “caught”. Few people actually mind being photographed so the odds of being challenged by someone who does and has found of him/herself a photo online are probably slim.

      Selfie sticks don’t bother me as much as others because they rarely turn up at my favourite haunts. When they do, it’s again a game of patience … Drones, on the other hand, make me really angry. Particularly in wild places where eagles and other endagered wildlife struggle to avoid extinction. I would shoot them on sight but apparently there are more laws protecting those machines than the living things they drive out of their natural habitat. Go figure.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Pascal,
        you remind me of a week’s visit to Paris in the 1970s, we enjoyed Jeu de Paume and a lot of other things. On the last day we did our duty and walked past the Eiffel tower and visited the Louvre. We did find Mona Lisa and entered a small room full of visitors flashing away with their P&S cameras – young readers, this was way before pocket phones – not realizing that they ruined the result with reflections from the safety glass.
        I finally understood her smile – it was a slightly ironic smile directed at the viewers!

        • pascaljappy says:

          You know what, it really wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case. If Leonardo was the genius everyone says he is, he may well have become jaded at some point and could have “planted” that smile as a form of irony. A bit like Banksy shreading his art at auction (if that’s not a marketing ploy)

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    If we’re allowed to take a shot gun to drones, when can we start on selfie sticks?
    I recently wanted a shot which was being promoted as best at 12:30pm – rocked up at 12:45, as the sheep started to leave – waited another 20 minutes, and finally had the place to myself.
    Another approach I commonly employ and will NOT apologise for, with tourists from one specific country, is “do unto others as they do unto you!” When they try to shove me out of the way, I simply give as good as – or better than – they do. Hasn’t failed yet.
    Otherwise, shooting at a different time. The “canaglia” (notoriously) sleep in and take breakfast at their hotel before descending on your photoshoot. Or night time, while they are dreaming up fresh ways to annoy you.
    Or Adrian’s methods of filtering them out.
    And if all else fails, try my current super tele project – cellphones are no problem, they simply can’t compete.

    • pascaljappy says:

      There’s also this, if you’re in a bad mood 😉 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcLXfow2jEk

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        ROTFLMHAO! Unfortunately I’ll have to leave that to the younger generation – I can’t run for anything. Tempting, though – very tempting!

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Two further options.
      1 – If they stand in front of you, go and stand in front of them. When they point their phone or whatever at you, hold your arm across your face to indicate they cannot take their photo.
      2 – (I love this one – just dreamed it up this afternoon – after all, everyone else has a breaking point, so why shouldn’t I?) Learn to swear in Chinese!
      One I commonly use is to find something else to shoot – something over their heads, for example. Or if it’s a bridge, go upstream to the next bridge – even if there are thousands of them, they won’t look like tourists any more – it’ll just look like market day. Or a protest rally. Or something.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Another victory! The Eiffel Tower from my bedroom window, and not one single tourist – not one single pieton – not one single human being, in the frame!
        Actually that might not be quite correct – I’ĺ have to check in post – there might be someone up at the top.

        • pascaljappy says:

          You’ll have to write a book about all your tactics 😀

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            LMHAO – you’ll clout me over the head, when I show you that shot! But I have taken some lately where I quite frankly didn’t give a stuff about the tourists milling around in the foreground of what I was trying to photograph. One example was quite common – to get the top of the subject in, raise the angle of view slightly and the pietons all vanish from the viewfinder. Another was a bridge – taken from the next one downstream; bridges carry traffic – so what if it was mostly pedestrians? – you can certainly see them on the bridge which forms the subject matter of the photograph, but whether they were tourists or farmers taking produce to market or school kids on an outing or anything else is completely irrelevant.
            None of these ideas solve EVERYTHING – but some of them solve quite a lot of these problems.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Eternal topic 🙂
    And forgive me if I like again so much the pics from Japan…

    The interdiction to photograph people (and the hysteria – I experienced it too – when they are children, as if every photog was a pervert), that’s mostly in western countries. I never had issues in China and in South-East Asia; quite opposite, you often get smiles…

    About monuments, yes it is sometimes impossible… already in 1980 (!), while visiting Agamemnon’s tomb, I remember being carried away by the herd… my feet barely touched the ground!
    But a trick that sometimes served me well was to find a small location, mysteriously ignored by the pack… doing this, I took pics without visitors in the Forbidden City in Beijing!
    In Venise, St-Marc is hell, yes, but I was surprised to see the Ghetto and the Academia so devoid of visitors… pics with the locals are enjoyable 🙂
    We often joke about Venise: look at the street signs telling visitors where to go, and chose a perpendicular little street… done.
    And of course *don’t* go during the Carnival 😀

    • pascaljappy says:

      Interesting Pascal. That must say a lot about our respective outlook towards life. When some smile at a camera and other want to sue, it’s not difficult to guess who’s having a shitty life and who’s enjoying … ahem …

      For some reason, I’ve never had an issue with tourists in Venice. Maybe it wasn’t the right time of year, maybe we were lucky. But it was never that crowded. So a morning walk would be quite quiet and, as you say, leaving the postcard sites saw us quite isolated.

      In a way, we should be greatful that so many people congregate at the same hotspots, it leaves a whole lot of planet for us to explore more freely 😉 😉

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Found a new use for selfie sticks – tour guide using one, heavily wrapped in bright plastic, as the “flag” his group was supposed to follow.

  • Tim Ball says:

    As Adrian said, long exposures using strong ND filters, (from a tripod of course), can either remove all the people, if they are continually moving, or give a very interesting effect of “ghosts”, depending on the ND strength, shutter speed used and the amount of movement. It can turn a nuisance into an art form.

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