Photography lovers are incredibly passionate about looking for new ways of recording the world around them, so it can seem like a real challenge to create a unique image of a famed travel landmark.
After all, millions of tourists with selfie sticks descend upon these same sites year after year. But there are plenty of ways to have fun creating new images of the most well-known travel hotspots.
Although the tips we will cover are quite specific, they are certainly not prescriptive. They are not meant to lead to a certain style of stock image. Instead, they are best approached as creative jumping points that can be used to explore the visual possibilities of a familiar subject with fresh eyes.
So, let’s explore eight different ways to photograph landmarks and learn to break free from the usual visual cliches.
01. Explore your surroundings for an alternative focus
Most people instinctively reach for their camera when they happen upon an iconic vantage point. But for a more creative result, it really helps to explore the surroundings thoroughly. This will not just unearth alternative vantage points, it will also make for a more interesting travel experience.
Here, observe how the photographer has chanced upon a pair of birds that unintentionally illustrate the romantic atmosphere of Paris. The iconic silhouette of the Eiffel Tower just happens to be the pair's powerful backdrop.
In this photo, the photographer has elegantly shifted the focus to include just a sliver of the distinctive glass Louvre Pyramid. The main focus is actually the clouds and the play of light on the water. Ephemeral or transient elements often present good opportunities like this.
Most people instinctively place the famed Taj Mahal smack in the center of their picture frame, but the entire Taj Mahal complex is filled with intricate carvings that are worth shooting on their own. Note how the focus is on the intricate details of the entrance way. The main building is still distinctive even in its faint form.
Few landmarks are more frequently photographed than Britain’s Big Ben, but shooting it from a distant location under the curve of an overhead bridge reveals a unique take on a classic shot.
02. Find a frame for your chosen landmark
A thorough exploration of a landmark’s surroundings—both near and far—can open up a whole new world for a photographer, but this also means that you can easily end up with a heavily cluttered shot. This is why it helps to look for strong, bold outlines that can act as a visual frame for your landmark.
The Sydney Opera House is almost always photographed isolated from the city and surrounded by water. However, this photographer has discovered that the great sails of the building can also be seen peeking between the tall lines of the dense inner-city neighborhoods.
The Golden Gate Bridge is usually photographed to highlight the golden colors of the bridge and create a breezy, light-filled mood. Yet here it is presented from a far more gritty point-of-view, shot in the distance through a chain link fence.
Greenery can often be used to form a very pretty, picturesque frame. The foliage will usually be in shadow and this helps form a kind of dark and natural vignette around the center of the image.
03. Use shadows to create dramatic compositions
Strong shadows are a photographer’s friend—particularly when visiting a landmark surrounded by lots of visual clutter. All that clutter will disappear into elegant blocks of black when the image is exposed for the strongest highlights or brightest parts of the image. This can be a really exciting approach to shooting, particularly when considering the fact that shadows shift and change throughout the day. This is a great way to create a moody, mysterious look that is a perfect antithesis to standard travel imagery.
A distinctive porthole window of Rome’s Colosseum provides a lovely symmetrical effect here. This approach draws attention to the lines and curves of a building.
Underexposing the shadows can help simplify a composition and tie eclectic elements together. Here, we have a good example of how the improbable lines of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum and the Maman spider sculpture can work beautifully together in shadows.
Strong shadows can also highlight unusual features, isolate certain elements and avoid a generic look.
The various shadows here really emphasize the strong diagonal lines of Munich’s Jewish Museum building. Note how the choice of black and white helps draw attention to the various textures on the walls.
04. Photograph a landmark from the inside out
Most of us are more than familiar with the external facade of famous monuments, but what about using the internal structure as a framing device to explore the view outside? In this kind of situation, it usually helps to expose for the bright exterior so the architectural lines of the building fall into the shadows.
The highly reflective facade of Barcelona’s Natural History Museum usually draws the most attention, but here we have an equally stunning image created from inside the structure itself.
Photographing a landmark from the inside out doesn’t need to be particularly complicated. Here we have a view of the Eiffel Tower’s internal structure. The simple geometry makes for a slightly different image.
Yet another example of effective inside-out photography can be seen here with the Munich Church.
05. Experiment with long exposures
Some photographers complain that long exposures are a cliche. But no one can deny that light trails can be incredibly beautiful and unpredictable. Most major landmarks are also visited in daylight hours, so this is a sure-fire way to get something a little different. In daylight hours, long exposures can also be used to declutter an image and blur out distracting crowds.
Most people photograph major landmarks in isolation to avoid unsightly surroundings, but a long exposure can help blur out the moving elements to create a fascinating focal point.
Aerial views with long exposures of city-lights are definitely common, but they are still definitely worth the effort because there are so many variables at play.
Long exposure images work particularly well in this image of the Rockefeller Centre with a cluster of New York’s iconic yellow cabs.
06. Step away from the hustle and bustle
The quietest time of the day or year can offer some interesting possibilities for photographers. Stormy clouds can make for atmospheric images and it is simply unusual to see many major sites with few visitors.
Grundtvig’s Church in Copenhagen is stunning with its empty chairs and soaring columns. Note how the lack of people helps limit the color palette too.
This aerial photographer hustled when he heard of a rare snowfall on the Great Wall of China. This image was shot in the moonlight and beautifully captures the allure of shooting in the offseason.
Brooklyn Bridge is definitely one of the busiest pedestrian thoroughfares in the world. The lack of crowds alone makes this image stand out.
07. Be on the lookout for cool reflections
As sunlight moves throughout the day, it creates an ever-shifting series of reflections that can be used to create dazzling photographic effects. This tip is particularly useful when used in combination with other approaches listed above.
It’s unusual to see Sagrada Familia from the vantage point of the neighboring park. What makes this image even more striking is that the reflections in the pond highlight the building’s most famous element—its quirky spires.
A renaissance building in the Italian city of Ferrara is beautifully reflected in the highly polished tiles of a floor.
Singapore’s famous Marina Bay Sands is reflected in the waters here to great effect. Note how the slightly off-center reflections are used to strengthen the grandiose height of the towers.
A simple rain puddle has been used to create this striking image of the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid. This kind of composition works best when shot from a very low angle.
Modern buildings covered in vast, unbroken planes of glass provide a good opportunity for interesting reflections.
08. Get used to people-watching
Shooting people can provide your work with an endless variety of quirky photo subjects, but large crowds can easily make an image look really messy. One way to avoid this is to use a very wide angle or fisheye lens that will help cluster together large crowds of people and emphasize the structural elements of the site. Another, more interesting approach is to compose the perfect background and simply wait for the right person to come along.
People are usually unaware of their surroundings while absorbed by an interesting detail or taking photos. This kind of situation can result in a very natural and deeply personal record of the tourist experience.
A single figure can be a great focal point in an image. It is also easy to set up if you are traveling with a friend. Here we have a strong wash of golden sunlight gently linking the outline of the person to a view of Prague.
A man in work attire hurries through the spectacular Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Dubai. His presence emphasizes the scale of the site and records an ephemeral moment that will never be repeated in exactly the same way.
Many artists find that strict conditions and limitations push them into new creative realms. So when it comes to photographing the most well-known landmarks, just move away from the main thoroughfares, explore the surroundings, play with shadows, reflections, visit at the quieter times of day, and maybe do a little people watching.
This kind of approach doesn’t just make traveling more interesting, it’s also an excellent training assignment for those looking to get more creative with their image making.