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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Avoiding travel photo cliches takes research


We've all seen the iconic travel destinations photographed from the same angle, with the same focal length lens a million times. Hell there's probably tripod pock marks in the spot where a plethora of travel photographers have set up to take a photo before us.

Take this shot above. It's the eyes of Buddha at the Swayambunath Stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal and it is decidedly a cliche. The exact same eyes have been photographed from the exact same angle countless times before, and surely will continue to be for as long as it is beautiful. And how do I know? Just do an internet search for Swayambunath Stupa and see how often this picture comes up. No wonder it's never been licensed!

So before you go somewhere on holiday (or on assignment) you need to find out what has been done before. The internet makes this easier than ever. Just type in a famous location from your upcoming holiday destination into your favourite search engine and you'll come up with pictures galore. If you don't find out what else is out there the chances are the cliche shot is the first one you yourself would grab. Why? Because we're all so unoriginal? No, because often the cliche shot is taken from the best angle so we naturally fall into that trap. Unless we get on the internet and see a trillion examples of what not to photograph.

Firstly take a walk around and see if there is another angle you can shoot it from. Whether it's a better angle or not is kind of irrelevant in this particular mission. Remember you're looking for something different. Chances are that the cliche shot is taken from the best angle but it ceases to be your best option when everybody else has photographed it before.

So walk around and see what you can see. In the case of Swayambunath the cliche shot is the one which is closely focussed on the eyes so I switched to a wide angle and then to a vertical format to show the surroundings of the stupa.

By including the shadow of a pagoda in the foreground I wanted to show that there are other buildings around it. The quintessential Asian pagoda style also gives a feeling for the Buddhist culture that is represented in this Tibetan enclave.

After I tried the vertical I then switched back to a horizontal format. Again this is similar to the shot at the top but I have gone a little wider to show that the eyes of Buddha are not just on the one side but all four sides of the golden, square part of the stupa.

Also by coming around to the side and getting some side light I have brought out the texture of the surface, as opposed to just the golden colours.

Are these images better than the cliche? Depends on your taste I guess but whether they're better per se or not the main thing is that they present a different view of a popular place. They're the shots where people will say to you 'oh I always wondered what it was like on the other side of that monument' or 'I've never seen it photographed from that angle before.'

In a world where millions of people with millions of cameras travel everywhere on the planet and photograph the hell out of it standing out is a hard task. One way to do it is to find out what everybody else is photographing and still photograph the same thing but in a totally unique way. To be able to do that you firstly need to find out how everybody else has photographed it and then do something unique and interesting. When you start doing that you'll become known as the go-to person for unique images of popular destinations.

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