The Ugly Truth About Iconic Places in Landscape Photography

There is nothing better than being out in nature, inhaling all the mood out there, deciding on the best possible camera position, and enjoying landscape photography. But what if there are 25 other photographers beside you so that it becomes difficult to move just 20 inches to the left or right without disturbing another photographer?
In my latest video on YouTube, I take you with me on a road trip through gorgeous Tuscany in Italy. It is a well-known area that was already painted by the world’s greatest artists of the Renaissance. Today, it is visited by landscape photographers from all over the world. This is not surprising, as the landscapes are indescribably impressive there.

You can try to find your own intimate spots there, but you are dependent on the parking possibilities if you don’t want to hike far distances to a spot in the dark before sunrise. I have been to Tuscany with my camper van, which is much bigger than a usual car, so the majority of parking possibilities besides the road didn’t work in so many cases. This is why my main focus was on some well-known photo spots, while I kept my eyes open for intimate places as well.

Having Luck With the Light

It is quite interesting that a lot of landscape photographers think it is all about luck for getting the right light and weather for a particular spot and that the photographer who has the most luck will return with the best photograph. But this is simply not the case. You can predict the weather using weather maps, which leads to fantastic results in my experience. Of course, when you are in an area for just a few days, you could also have bad luck with getting the totally wrong weather for a specific composition. The trick is to not be fixated on single photo spots or even on single compositions. I plan a couple of different places that work for different weather and light situations so that I am prepared for each case. And important to consider is that not only light and weather make a masterpiece, but you also have to nail the composition.

The Missing Intimate Connection

I have to say; I love to work on my own intimate spots in landscape photography. There is a lot of exploration work necessary in front, and sometimes, I decide to return there weeks, months, or even years later when conditions are perfect. I often return multiple times to understand the place and, most importantly, to get an emotional connection to the spot. The more you know your subject, the more you can fall in love with it and the deeper you can work a composition. To achieve that, I have to be focused and undisturbed. The ugly truth is that exactly this is missing at an iconic place. When you arrive at the photo spot and there are 20 or 30 other photographers around, talking, laughing, and limiting you in your ability to walk around and try for the best possible perspective, your results will maybe not be the quality that you are used to.

But there is a simple trick to get rid of that, and to be honest, I don’t know why this is not done by the majority of landscape photographers who photograph at iconic places. I visit the photo spot the day before or at least some hours before when fewer people are around, where I can move around wherever I want, where I can feel the landscape and scene, where I maybe see even a specific story because I am absolutely focused on my photography. I can think about how the light will change at the time of my planned shooting. And very important is to return there early enough, so that I can set up exactly where I decided already was my best possible camera position. And so, when other photographers frantically stumble into the field, looking for the last possible camera positions, you are already ready and just enjoy the rising sun and the hustle and bustle of the eager photographers beside you.

The truth about iconic places is that these places are proven. The subjects are well known, and copying a composition doesn’t lead to something new. Frame up your own composition instead, consider the light and weather, get intimate with the scene, and arrive early to savor a fantastic photography adventure.

To enjoy the entire adventure and to get a lot more tips about landscape photography, watch the above-linked video. And leave us a comment below on how you manage to get fantastic photographs at iconic places.

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19 Comments
dean wilson's picture

This video reminded me of the YouTube video made by Thomas Heaton and I have taken his advice to heart.

Jon Kellett's picture

RE: Getting there early and scouting around - I can't stress the importance of this enough!
I only take landscape photos of opportunity, generally it doesn't get my juices flowing, but this is something that is essential when shooting wildlife.

Joe Stermitz's picture

Another tip: don’t go to the same places everyone else goes to. Do we really need one more image of that lavender field in Provence with that one tree dead center? Or the sun star on that arch in Moab? Or Cinqueterra during the blue hour? Or the dead tree with Namibian dunes in the backdrop? Or the sun glinting off a wispy cloud of sand in Antelope Canyon (conveniently created by the paid-for guide standing just outside the frame)? If your aim is to achieve the same image as thousands before you to prove to yourself you too are capable, then by all means! But don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re being creative or adding something unique to the craft. Why not put the effort into creating something fresh and new in a place no one has ever heard of?

David Pavlich's picture

Do we really need another shot of a jumping spider? Do we really need another shot of a great horned owl? Do we really need a shot of another Sunset? Do we really need another B&W architecture shot? Not everyone has a budget to go somewhere to shoot a unique landscape. We shoot what we have the time and where with all to shoot. I went to Churchill to photograph polar bears....just like tens of thousands of other photographers. I really don't care what others shoot and nobody should give a rat's behind what I shoot. If one shoots what makes one happy (or your client) then the rest is background noise.

Daniel Simon's picture

I refer to this as karaoke photography. And like karaoke, it can be fun and satisfying for the individual but, as you say, don't kid yourself that you're being particularly creative

dean wilson's picture

We need more shots of tourist holding up the Tower of Pisa.

Charles Mercier's picture

Yes. Yes we do!

Stuart C's picture

Martin Parr got that one just about right:)

dean wilson's picture

Oh! How clever...

Leon Kolenda's picture

The very cool landscape spots that have become seriously overcrowded, have become that way because of GPS and Instagram. I personally paid for a guide to shoot Landscape and some Astro work. We had 10 people that were along not counting the guides, it was ok, but even with ten photographers, it wasn't easy. Some in the back did not want photographers setting up in the front. Personally, I don't like people in my landscape shots, especially with lights or headlamps on.

So, along came Covid, and I decided to invest in some Studio equipment, get rid of a lot of junk in my garage, and set up a nice well equipped small studio. Best thing I have done in a lot of years for my Photography. Shooting mostly Still-Life, food, and product shots. What I really like is I have complete control over the whole setup. I have not given up on Landscape, but it's definitely on the back-burner for a while, especially now with the gas prices so crazy! That would get pretty costly going back and forth to get a position and the right weather for a shot.
Sad times we live in now!

Charles Mercier's picture

At an overlook, I wanted a tourist to take a shot of myself. I described what I wanted....4 times. He got kinda close, even after I showed him the shot I took! Since then, I'm not in the least interested or worried about anyone taking the same shot as I would, even standing on the same spot.

The exact same thing happened with my portrait shot here.

dean wilson's picture

I love shooting tourist with a Canon!

Mack Colwell's picture

As a motorsports photographer I often find myself wishing I was good at landscape photography too - I go to rural areas for stage rally, so I see a lot of gorgeous landscapes that I'm not sure how to really capture. One thing I've noticed in particular is that the rural area east of Portland both north and south of the Columbia River has very similar vibes to Tuscany. Sure, if you incorporate structures there's a big difference in architecture but wow, the land looks very similar otherwise. But another more general observation: areas of very low population and industry are usually photogenic, at least some of the time (of day and of the year.)

John Perhach's picture

The area east of the Dalles is super awesome in the spring time!! Id assume you probably been to the race track out there right?

Christian Lainesse's picture

Whenever I visit a touristy location, I view the other tourists as photography subjects of opportunity.

John Perhach's picture

About the light part, I actually had a big time pro I tried to befriend a while back actually dismiss the whole idea of the ability use various tools to predict if the chances of getting good conditions that you were looking for.

Years back when I went to Glacier National Park for the first time I watched the weather for weeks, the week prior, and right through the whole trip to ensure it was worth driving the 10 hours to get there to shoot for 4 days. This big time pro straight up told me it was all pure luck that the conditions I got were amazing and it had nothing to do with my weather watching and abilities with using all the tools at hand to give myself the highest chances of success. In all honesty it really hurt my feelings to have my abilities dismissed like that. Needless to say this person is definitely not my friend for that plus other reasons based on other crappy experiences dealing with them.

Jon Kellett's picture

I wonder if he was insecure at the idea that you knew something that he didn't and that was the cause of his ego.

I've encountered similar before myself. It's been a good learning experience and I personally see everybody as a chance to learn.

Good on you for doing the hard yards and getting a good result!

John Perhach's picture

Thank you!! Putting in the work definitely pays off normally and also adds greatly to the feeling of accomplishment of what one is able to capture and wittiness.

I think you’re correct about this person. He seemed to be very dismissive of lots of other people and very much is or was fixated on talking endless shit on other photographers constantly. All and all it was super toxic talking to him and it taught me a lot about the types of people to stay away from after the experience.

J Barber's picture

I think the word 'iconic' should be a bit of a red flag. If a shot has reached that status, and if there are crowds of people trying to get essentially the same shot.... it's time to break away from the herd and find a shot no one is seeing yet.

The world does not need more shots or El Capitan or Washington monument.