Tips for Shooting Landscapes in Tourist-Heavy Locations

Tips for Shooting Landscapes in Tourist-Heavy Locations

What do you do if that one location you want to photograph on your trip just happens to be one that hundreds if not thousands of other people also want to photograph? It can be a tricky situation to navigate. Sometimes it can be straight up frustrating. After too many instances where I found myself just being irritated, I found a few different ways to approach my shots of popular destinations that allowed me to capture what I wanted without having to feel like I was fighting crowds just for my shot.

This is simply a short list of what has worked for me in the past. For those of you who have navigated similar situations in a different manner, I'd encourage you to comment below with your strategies for getting that perfect shot in a tourist heavy location.

I live in Southern Utah, a veritable hub to a multiplicity of locations within the southwest region of the United States. A few of the more recognized locations that I often try to hike and photograph include Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Horseshoe Bend, and the Valley of Fire State Park. I haven't once visited any of these places without encountering scores of people all there to view, and photograph, the exact same scenery. Sometimes I'll end up sharing a vantage point with just a couple strangers, other times I have stood with hundreds as we all attempted to capture our own version of what we were seeing. One of the most obvious answers to this photographic challenge is obviously to arrive early. Getting to your location early will give you plenty of time to scope out your shoot spot, wait your turn if necessary, and be in place by the time your light gets to the setting where you want it. That is really all I had to do in order to snag the shot of Horseshoe Bend that is the cover image for this article. Sometimes though, we don't always have the luxury of time required to do that.

The Narrows, Zion National Park | Utilizing a 10-stop neutral density filter
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 28mm • ƒ/8.0 • 30s • ISO 400

The Narrows, Zion National Park | Utilizing a 10-stop neutral density filter
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 35mm • ƒ/5.6 • 30s • ISO 400

As demonstrated in the two images above, one of my favorite tricks for snagging shots amidst crowds of people involves the usage of a neutral density filter. Each of these images was taken roughly a mile upstream within the popular hike, The Narrows inside Zion National Park. This hike is easily one of the most popular inside the park. In each shot there was somewhere between 10 and 20 people that ended up walking straight through my frame during the exposures. The nature of the hikers' movement meant that they barely registered on the frame at all. There were a few scant wisps of motion remaining, but they were so small that I was able to easily remove them in post-processing. Granted, there are several scenarios in which this tactic won't work, specifically ones where you're shooting a darker subject and the people walking into frame would be lighter.

Another thing that usually works for me, as obvious as it may appear to some of you but took some time for me to figure out, is to simply walk up to someone and ask if they would be comfortable with me setting up right next to them. These two shots below were taken in the Hanging Lake recreation area in Colorado. Hanging Lake is an incredibly popular travel stop with more daily visitors than there is parking availability. It's fairly widely understood that chances of actually getting a parking space is very slim during peak hours of the day. Whether you're there early in the morning, middle of the day, late at night, it would be extremely unlikely to have this small destination all to yourself. The space is fairly limited up at the top, most of the walking area around the lake is confined to a wooden dock that circumnavigates about a third of the small lake. 

Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 16mm • ƒ/18 • 1/2s • ISO 50

Spouting Rock Falls in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado
Canon 5D Mark III | Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM | 22mm • ƒ/11 • 1/2s • ISO 50

So many times while I was up there I would simply walk up to someone and ask if I could set up my camera right next to them. This tactic, if you can call it that, is easily the most effective one that I have discovered. I have actually met some really incredible people out there in the field while enjoying these immensely popular views and quite a few people end up staying in touch with me through Facebook or some other social media platform. Walking up to random strangers and sharing views such as these really is a great way to make new friends, especially if you're both sharing similar passions such as hiking, photography, and adventure.

As always, don't violate the guidelines set in place for whatever location you are visiting. Getting that perfect shot is hardly worth the risk of damaging the area, getting ticketed, or even being placed in jail. Sharing beautiful locations such as popular national and state parks can sometimes be frustrating, but it can also be a very easy way to make new friends and maybe even find new potential clients (for those of you who sell landscape prints). You never know who you might have the chance to meet out there. Some of the best advice that I have ever been given as a photographer has come from simply approaching someone out in the field and striking up a conversation. At this point, I've lost count how many times an interaction with another photographer in the field has literally helped me improve my own work. As always, I'm curious to hear any other tips or advice that you who travel and photograph high tourist traffic areas, so make sure to comment.

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31 Comments

Alex Armitage's picture

Rex,

Thanks for the article. I live in Florida but visit family in vegas 2-3 times a year. We always make a trip to Zion/Bryce/etc when I come out. Family actually just got some property in Hurricane and I plan on moving there in a few years. What a beautiful place. Just did Kanarville Falls a month ago which was packed with people. It was a saturday and the weather was damn near perfect. Thankfully I think I came away with a shot.

I find going to Zion in the winter is really great. Not only do you get to see it in a different way than many, theres way less people.

Rex Jones's picture

Hey, Alex! You'll have to shoot me a message the next time you head out here. I'll send you a Google map, pinned with a bunch of locations you'll have to check out!

Alex Armitage's picture

I actually think I'll be heading there for the new year. I think we are going to stay in that Zion Ranch! Speaking of which. I need to make that reservation.

Alex Armitage's picture

Also just followed you on instagram. Easiest way for me to communicate!

Hey Rex, how do I get in on one of those maps?

I'll be in Zion starting next Friday, for 8 days! 2nd trip to Zion. Can't wait!

Rex Jones's picture

So excited for you!! If you ever want any recommendations, feel free to shoot me a message! I’ll point you towards my favorite spots!

Great suggestions- thanks. I need to up my comfort zone for taking to others. Love your region. I'm in Moab now and just left Kanab. There are so many wonderful places to photograph here. My only issue is that I hike with my husband and he's not excited about hanging out while I set up a tripod. Nor is he interested in being out there so I can catch the optimal light early or late. I need to figure out how to work around that.

It's a pain. My wife says she doesn't mind waiting or getting up early but, to be honest, it's not worth the trouble. If I can't go alone, I usually don't bother.

Rex Jones's picture

Barbara, I think you’ll love Moab!! There are so many places to both hike and explore out there! Canyonlands and Arches are the name brand places, but definitely make sure to spend some solid time in Dead Horse Point. That state park is awesome!!

Just don't hike alone.

Simon Patterson's picture

Or, go to a country that is safe to hike alone in.

There are three dangers in hiking alone. In no specific order they would be wildlife, other humans, getting lost and becoming incapacitated due to injury. There is no safe place in the world where you can hike alone.

In America, where Barbara is at, so many people go missing in wilderness areas every year that never even make it to the news. In fact, most don't. I suspect most of those people die due to animal attacks and injuries, which are very easy to sustain.

Simon Patterson's picture

And yet, thousands of people do it very safely every year. Everything in life has risks, but just because the risks of hiking alone are dangerously high in your part of the world does not mean they are dangerously high everywhere.

Please spare me the everything in life has risks speech. I did a very dangerous job everyday for most of my adult life and fought against excessive safety concerns. The fact is people die from hiking alone all around the world and all it takes is getting injured. While some places are obviously safer than others due to more benign topography, few or no dangerous animals or less crime, getting injured in a place where no one is likely to find you in time can and does happen frequently all throughout the world. Getting into the habit of hiking alone is a bad habit. That many people do it everyday with no problems doesn't change that fact.

Your response to my post to Barbara was also ridiculous. She's in America and I was addressing her situation.

Great shot of Horseshoe Bend! I was there last week and had a great spot. Then, people decided to sit down and hang their legs over the edge. I had to move. 4 years ago, Oct 2013, my son and I spent 2 hours virtually alone in Lower Antelope Canyon. Last week, it was a zoo. Hour wait after reserved time. Packed. The massive number of Chinese tour groups in the national parks is starting to ruin the experience for me.

Rex Jones's picture

I know exactly what you are talking about. In addition, from what I have experienced, it seems like most of the people on those big tours have very little respect for where they are at or those who are around them. It can make for a frustrating experience sometimes. It’s also why I tend to get up earlier than them and stay out later. 😉

I've always been able to deal with the crowds - until last year (or two years ago?) in Zion when I encountered a hiker coming up the Angel's Landing trail when I was heading back down post sunrise. I love technology, but I do NOT love bluetooth speakers in national parks. Even if it's music I love. I can handle people sounds ok, but music in the park just sends me over the edge. grrrrrrr.

They need to start limiting such foreign groups. A lottery system would be a good idea.

Rex Jones's picture

I totally agree, Bob. I know Peru has such a system for navigating Machu Picchu, because we had to plan ahead in order to get our park entrance tickets. It's much more open for their locals, but foreign opportunities are managed much more. I don't see why that couldn't work for the United States' parks.

No doubt it is because some jackasses will claim it is xenophobic. At the very least such restrictions or limitations should be put in place for crowded times of the year.

Zion National Park is considering a reservation system for next year.

Great, but it should favor Americans.

Yevgeniy Sapozhnikov's picture

Great Article!, I am heading to the Canyon Village in AZ in December, can't wait to see the big bend and Antelope Canyon.

Rex Jones's picture

I am excited for you! You are going to LOVE it!

Shawk Parson's picture

i know this may sound silly to most if not all nature loving photogs out there but the best way to avoid overly crowded tourist attraction sites is either go there out of season (not possible for many and well, it also means losing best 'warm' season natural lighting as well ...) or simply avoid such locations! for serious photography at least ... i mean come on: why do we think we have to go shoot the very same subjects at the very same locations and spots and even camera angels that hundreds if not thousands or millions of other photographers have been to?

Why? Because we love photography. What's wrong with wanting to have my own personal photo of an iconic landscape? That is the joy of photography. To visit some of the most beautiful places on earth and capture a moment in time. Some people collect baseball cards, I collect iconic landscape photos.

Shawn wasn't saying you shouldn't have your own photos of the place, only that they don't have to be in the exact same location.

I second what Bob has to say. Because iconic locations are almost cliche now I've found it much more gratifying to create incredible images in lesser known places. Take a look at Guy Tal's work - he's always creating incredibly beautiful images of non-iconic spots in the Colorado Plateau.
Which, to echo Bob, doesn't mean you shouldn't shoot those spots - but if your aim is to avoid crowds...