5 Tips: how to take unique pictures of famous landmarks

Pip
September 07, 2015

When you think about photos of the Taj Mahal, there is a particular image that comes to mind - the all-encompassing face-on shot, with the reflecting pool stretching out in front. The same can be said for the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa - there is a particular angle or position that countless tourists choose to capture these iconic landmarks (often with friends or family posed in front). But for those wanting to be a bit more imaginative with their photography, how do you shoot famous sights with a unique twist, without the the landmark’s identity being lost on the viewer? It doesn’t require fancy gear, expensive tripods or multiple lenses, just a little imagination and an eye for the ‘out-of-the-ordinary’. Here are five tips to help you get creative and produce some compelling images the next time you stumble across a landmark that has been photographed millions of times before.

1. Capture unusual perspectives

Eiffel Tower in rain
A way to create a distinctive image is to frame the landmark. Windows, arches or even tree branches can be used to form interesting compositions.

Most famous landmarks are shot face-on from approximately eye-height, incorporating the entire structure within the image frame. But what about looking for an asymmetrical angle off to one side, or altering the viewer’s perspective. Take the time to get away from the crowds and explore the landmark from all sides and viewpoints. Move to one corner of the landmark and look for interesting lines in its structure or create a composition that draws the eye in a particular direction. You may be surprised how the smallest movement away from a position can result in a vastly different photograph.

Alternatively, get down low and angle your camera back up at the landmark, creating the feeling of it towering above or look for its reflection in a puddle of water at the base. The same goes for finding an elevated position and angling your camera back down at the landmark. Look for accessible hills or tall buildings nearby where you can get away from the crowds for a birds-eye perspective.

Another way to create a distinctive image is to frame the landmark. Windows, arches or even tree branches can be used to form interesting compositions that offer a different take on a commonly photographed sight.

2. Shoot during low light conditions

Angkor Wat Sunrise with reflection
When the sun is high in the sky, colours are often a little washed out. The low light conditions of sunrise and sunset on the other hand can be a photographer’s best friend.

Many famous landmarks see the majority of their traffic during the middle of the day when sights are open to visitors and tourists are at their most active. The result is an abundance of images shot during strong light when the sun is high in the sky and colours are often a little washed out. The low light conditions of sunrise and sunset on the other hand can be a photographer’s best friend, creating not only rich colours, but also rapidly changing tones. If you head out in these early or late hours you will be rewarded with a vast palette of tones to work with during a captivating period known as the ‘golden hour’. You will also avoid the peak periods when other tourists may walk in and out of your image, ruining the shot. While sunset can be a popular time to photograph at a number of famous landmarks, far fewer people pull themselves out of bed for the break of day, so if you really want to get unique shots, set your alarm early!

Most people will leave soon after the magic of sunset has finished, but the dusk (and pre-dawn hours) are equally fascinating, with soft hues in the sky and great opportunities to create silhouetted shots of landmarks. You will need a tripod (or something sturdy to rest your camera on), with the lack of light requiring slower shutter speeds. Remember also that when the dark of night sets in and the stars come out, the photographic potential is far from over. Look for a low position where you can shoot the landmark with the stars twinkling above, or if the structure is lit, take advantage of the artificial light on offer rather than utilising a glary flash.

3. Look for an alternative focal point

Taj Mahal in the background with an indian woman walking
A primary rule of photography is ‘focus on your subject’, but once this is mastered, it’s time to challenge your creativity and focus on something else.

Normally a primary rule of photography is ‘focus on your subject’, but once this is mastered, it’s time to challenge your creativity and focus on something else. Some of the most engaging photographs incorporating famous landmarks position them in the background, providing a setting within which something else is featured. This could be a person, an object or an action taking place.

Surrounding most landmarks there are local people going about their everyday lives and depicting these moments adds an intriguing layer to the image. Perhaps somebody is walking past or standing in a position perfect to capture a focused image of them with the landmark behind. Try to avoid the cliche shot of somebody posing, smiling or waving in front of the landmark, but rather look for candid moments when their focus is elsewhere. Images such as these can create strong stories, drawing the viewer in to know more about the person and their relationship to the landmark.

Focusing on other objects, with the landmark depicted behind or off to one side can also result in beautiful artistic shots. Look for things that are intrinsically part of that environment (for example a street-scape with a red double-decker bus in front of London’s Big Ben) that contribute another element, putting the landmark in the context of its landscape. Remember that world-famous landmarks are often so distinctive that they will make themselves recognisable within an image no matter how much your distract or distort the viewer’s attention.

4. Take advantage of (normally) unfavourable weather

Tower Pisa Sunset
Weather can create a tempestuous mood for fantastic landmark shots.

Clear, sunny days are normally the most conducive to photographing landmarks when there is no chance of getting rained out, electrocuted or swept away by violent winds. But bad weather can create a tempestuous mood for fantastic landmark shots. Many photographers are known to ‘chase the weather’ when it comes to landscape photography, seeking out stormy skies and lightning to dramatise their images, but the same can be true for landmark photography. If there are dark clouds or heavy rain outside, don’t see it as an impediment to go sight seeing, but rather an offering from Mother Nature to capture some atmospheric and highly unique images.

Look for beautiful shafts of light penetrating through heavy clouds, or the soft edges created by snow cover on the landmark to convey tranquility. Alternatively, capture the movement of surrounding trees during blustery gales or a flash of lightning penetrating the sky to reflect powerful forces at play around the landmark. While the conditions you have to photograph in may be challenging, the images which result will stand apart from the rest.

5. Zoom in to highlight the details

Machu Picchu from the Inca Wall
It is rare to find images of landmarks that don’t incorporate all (or nearly all) of the structure, but images such as these often lack impact.

It is rare to find images of landmarks that don’t incorporate all (or nearly all) of the structure, firmly asserting to the viewer that this is what you saw. But images such as these often lack impact, with the landmark’s scale lost when viewed in its entirety. Zooming in on individual sections, however, can create a better sense of the immensity of the structure (if that is what you are trying to achieve), as well as highlight details or aspects of it that you normally wouldn’t notice. The features of famous landmarks are often so recognisable throughout the world that even if you just capture small sections, the image won’t lose its identity. Experiment with compositions that only include part of the structure, or look for close-up details that are strong indicators of the landmark. Remember that all buildings and monuments are the result of smaller elements pieced together, and magnifying these offers an insight into the work that goes in to creating some of the world’s most iconic landmarks.

Thinking outside the box

When you think how many millions of times some landmarks have been photographed, it can seem almost impossible to create a photograph that is truly unique and interesting. But the key is to think outside the box and invest a little time into experimentation. Move around the landmark to get multiple perspectives and look for other points of interest to focus on, come back again at a different time of day to see the effect light (or lack of it) has on the atmosphere surrounding the sight, and don’t be scared to venture out when the skies are threatening and everybody else is running for cover. This doesn’t mean you have to skip the ‘postcard’ shots altogether, but get them out of the way early and then let your creativity run wild. With a little imagination and a touch of obscurity, your holiday snaps will have people looking more than once.

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