These days incredible photographs of beautiful places or of iconic buildings seem to be pretty much ten a penny. Instagram, Facebook, magazines, Brochures, and more are full of them, they tempt us, inspire us, and keep us looking to distant faraway places, an escape from the humdrum of everyday life.
When we get there, the places don’t always look like they did in the photograph: it’s not as colourful; there are crowds of people; the weather is poor; or god forbid the building is covered in scaffolds (I’m looking at you Sagrada Familia). For some of us that’s OK, to have been there is enough, we’ve seen and enjoyed that place in our own way and thats good enough. For some of us though we want to see it like the photographer did, without other people’s heads in the way, in that crazy pink light, at it’s very best… And some of us want to emulate or even better that photograph we saw.
If that’s what you want to do, then you must have a plan. There is no point, for example in turning up in Iceland in mid July expecting to photograph the northern lights over Goðafoss. the odds will be stacked against you to put it mildly. Some places need to photographed at certain times of year for various reasons, so it’s vital that you do some research.
- Use photo sharing sites like 500Px, or apps like Instagram to sus out pleasing angles and compositions- use Google Maps, or 500Px maps to figure out where the photographer was standing when he took the photo.
- Use websites like locationscout.net, or scoutt.com. Local photographers and Travel photographers alike upload their favourite spots to photograph on these sites, and add some local knowledge for potential good places to shoot from, or potential dangers. Here you will find that if you want to go to Aldeyarfoss you’ll need a 4×4 to get there, or if you want to photograph the sun going down over Vernazza from the Corniglia trail, then you should bring some beers and maybe even some of that great Foccacia Pizza from the village square below! More to the point you’ll also see that if you want to photograph Osaka Castle surrounded by Cherry Blossoms in Japan you need to be there at the end of April/ start of May to do it.
- The sun is all important. Use apps like The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or Photopills to work out where the sun will be in the sky at any given time of year. In Yosemite early in February each year the sun hits Horsetail Falls in such a way at sunset that it looks almost like a trail of fire or lava flowing down the face of a cliff. You can’t photograph that at any other time of year. Equally, in the days leading up to when you plan to shoot these apps are all important as they will tell you when the sun will rise and fall- and the times of day when Golden hour and twilight will happen.
Don’t want all those crowds in your picture of the Brandenburg Gate? Want to get a clean picture of the Colosseum without that huge Queue?
Want to photograph Manarola against a beautiful dark blue sky? See the lights of Manhattan against a crazy pink sky from Top of The Rock?
Seeing a pattern here? Sunlight is at its softest and most colourful in the period just before and after sunrise and sunset. Blue Hour and then Twilight come in the period immediately before the sun rises in the morning, and are replaced by Golden hour when the sun breaks the horizon. In the evening it’s the opposite- Golden Hour Gives way to Twilight and then Blue Hour after the sun has sunk below the horizon.
Blue hour* light will give you deep blue skies- great to photograph a city against, think the southern tip of Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Twilight light is that period of orange/ pink light before the sunrises, or after it sets, this is particularly great if there is high wispy cloud in the sky to catch all that colourful light.
Golden hour* light is the beautiful golden light from a sun low in the sky. you want to cath this on the face of a building, or on a mountain, maybe catching on a frame full of early morning mists rolling across a Tuscan valley.
(*yes, i know it says “hour” in the name but these periods rarely if ever last an actual hour it can change depending on time of year and where in the world you are)
If you want to see these places as the photographer sees them then rise early, get up and get out- be at the place you want to shoot an hour to 45 minutes before the sun rises. the bonus will be that you’ll be ready by the end of your shoot to attack a great breakfast and enjoy the rest of the day. Alternatively, skip the fancy dinner the odd evening- go and watch the sunset instead, there are places in the world where that’s as good as any meal. Get there early-an hour and a half to an hour early to catch Golden Hour- there will be more people thinking in the same way, and you’ll want a good spot!
Of course, a wide range of photographic skills are a help also, there are many sources of education out there covering those. These skills are widely known and copied, and anyone can put them to use in the right place and time, having done their research.
There is one thing however, that is unique to you. Nobody else can experience any place or any view in the same way as you. Every time I look at the photo of Vernazza above I think of my girlfriend bringing a couple of beers up the trail- badly needed on a balmy night. I can see the little terrace sticking out just below and to the left of the tower where about an hour and a half before we sipped on wine and looked out over the Med. I think I can see the tour boat we took the day before moored in the harbour.
Even the most beautiful and technically perfect photographs should hope to remind people who have experienced that view of some of the things they experienced, and they should hopefully provide some inspiration to others to experience that place in their own unique way.
I try to use all of the advice above- you can see my work on my website: