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Photographing Iconic Places

Frances Atkins shares a few tips on photographing iconic places while you're away on your summer holidays.

|  Landscape and Travel
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Article by Frances Atkins.

colesseum sunrise

How to take photos of iconic places
Most would agree that photo opportunities are endless; with the right technique and feeling behind an image, most subjects make worthwhile pieces. However, when it comes to immortalising already iconic places, the pressure is on.

Whilst travelling, you naturally document your journey and sights to share with others. This is imperative to improve your skill and safeguard your memories, but there’s something different about capturing say, the pyramids of Giza, as so many photographers have come before, and so many will follow.

To relieve the stress and inspire creativity, here are some tips on how to take photos of iconic places that will impress your audience and keep a personal edge.


  • DSLR – Probably the best option for taking clear, quality photos that will stand the test of time. The zoom lens also means you’ll be able to control your focal lengths without having to carry multiple lenses (if you don’t have a DSLR take a compact to save space).
  • Smartphone – As you’re travelling, you may well be going solo with friends and family back home wanting updates while you’re away. A photo from a smartphone can easily be shared and you’ll be able to edit it using apps, such as Instagram, for quick effects.
  • Micro-fibre camera bag – Might seem obvious, but these lightweight bags really help ease the strain of carrying potentially heavy equipment, which is essential in hot conditions. Look out for cross-shoulder straps to spread the weight.

Choose your time of day
While you should definitely experiment with your images, think about the final effect you want and aim to shoot at a time of day to achieve it. If you’re a morning person, sunrise will give beautiful skin tones and an ethereal presence for you and your subject. This time of day is also your best chance to see busy sights without the crowds – tourists in modern clothes can work against the power of an image, especially if it’s an ancient structure, like Rome’s Colosseum. Noon should be avoided if possible; direct light creates heavy contrasts and shadows will distract from your iconic location, dampening its importance within the image which could work against your efforts. However, if you want to subvert the status of the icon, this could be the ideal time to test out some ideas.

Another thing to consider is your own comfort; check temperatures wherever you are and if possible, gain some insight into how large the expected crowds are so you don’t have to fight for your perfect photo capturing spot.

Tower of Pisa

Familiar subjects instantly draw an audience’s eye, so you don’t have to worry about giving them centre stage. Perhaps there’s something surrounding that might be of interest, such as plants or wildlife native to the area? If you off-centre your main subject with something smaller in the rest of the frame, you place it within real-world terms and its distinctiveness – whether age, size or artistry – will by contrast seem even more important. Essentially, this is the key to gain dynamic shots even if it does go against instinct.

Another good effect is using a shooting angle from below; you don’t even need a tripod as you can lie on the ground and point the camera up. This results in greater detail at the base of your image and as this decreases along to the top of the subject (which will appear comparatively farther away), you inject the structure with a sense of movement and energy. As well as looking interesting, it’ll also help your viewer connect with an icon, which may have seemed irrelevant or ‘old hat’ before.

To cliché or not to cliché?
Definitely not. Standard photos of famous buildings and places have become clichéd, perhaps even ironic and often embarrassing after a couple of years. You may want to go to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, set up a tripod and timer, and take a perfectly positioned snap of yourself propping it up but this does little to showcase the site. Instead, save these shots for your smartphone and take a photo from an interesting angle; looking up the main cylinder will make the bell tower look like it’s merging with the sky, perhaps even the heavens. This would add meaning to your image and instead of documenting, you’d be making a statement as the tower was built for Monks at the Baptistery to get closer to God. Any photographer would do well to look into the history of iconic subjects to be informed enough to put their own stamp on it.

All too often it’s tempting to try and get everything into a frame (especially for large structures) as it all seems important to include. Well, don’t be afraid of getting close. Pick out important details like decoration, colour and even deterioration – cracks and chips - if you’re keen to highlight a landmark’s age, and focus in on them. In a way, they work as unique selling points as you feel like you’re homing in on something precious, potentially something others haven’t noticed. A picture may speak a thousand words, but interacting with your subject on this level can speak a million.

Pyramids off centre

Case study: Egypt
Here are some iconic places in Egypt and examples of how to shoot them to great effect.

The Pyramids of Giza
These ancient wonders dominate the desert and there are several ways to shoot them; you can include Cairo’s cityscape in the background to contrast the past with modern times, focus on camels in the foreground and, of course, go for a close-up. All have merit, but one of the best options is to let them dominate the centre of the frame with a medium shot that includes some of the desert in the foreground. Situating them highlights their scale and the colours work well together as they appear to be extensions of the landscape.

The Sphinx
Many images of the Sphinx show the entire body and usually feature a pyramid in the background. Instead, take a direct shot peering into the Sphinx’s eyes. It’ll showcase the broken-off nose and weather worn qualities that make you appreciate its age. To capture the rather regal posture and expression, go in for a close-up; viewers will find themselves staring in fascination.

Sphinx head on

Luxor Temple
There’s a lot going on with monuments, pillars and other structures, so any image is in danger of looking too busy and just like any other tourist snap. Choose to go at sunrise or sunset and get a photo of the pillars bathed in the golden glow. Off-centre them to decorate the rest of the frame with sky. Shadows formed at the base increase the vibrancy of the other colours, making the image more dramatic.

So taking images of iconic places focuses your skills and challenges you to be really attentive to your subject and with your photography goals. Regardless of how your photos end up, remember you can always edit them once you return and as long as you’ve taken the time to capture the essence of your subject, you’ll have an image to treasure.

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