Travel & Vacation Images
Tour Photography
(You Can Take Photos Without Tourists in Them)

Travel & Vacation

Fine art photography on tour might to some seem oxymoronic.  After all, tours compress experiences into absurdly brief visits, rushing through each geographic and historic location under pressures of time (and money).  Fine art photography requires attention to multiple factors of which serendipity is least important.  One seeks ideal lighting, ideal location, and a consciously determined subject.  

If like me you frequent the summer art shows, you will have seen several photographers whose work includes colorful shots of Lake Como villages, the Cinque Terre, Italian hill towns, and similar fare taken in France, Switzerland, the Aegean Isles, etc.  Taken from high on hills, opposing bluffs, or predetermined water locations; taken in the rich early morning or evening light; taken in seasons which provide full summer or autumn foliage, or with spring’s blossoms; the photographer plans each exposure to maximum advantage.  (He may also be lugging a large format camera, which clearly is not possible on tour!)  These, of course, are but one category of fine art photography, but they are nearly impossible to replicate when photographing on tour.

Another problem comes with the inevitable crowds.  A tour will visit the most popular sites.  That means that photography of icons such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, or quaint seaside towns of the Cinque Terre becomes nearly impossible without lots of people in the photos.  For example, to photograph Pisa’s Leaning Tower, one must arrive very early on a summer morning (maximizing hours of daylight), and probably employ a small army of assistants to clear any extraneous early-rising tourists from the field of view, before snapping the shutter.  (The digital photographer has an alternative:  to take multiple photographs from tripod and then merge images, erasing the unwanted humanity.)

Finally, when on tour one cannot choose the time during which photography may be pursued.  If in museum or at meals, opportunities may be slim or none.   If being guided around a city in a small group, one strays at one’s peril.  Occasionally, photography before breakfast or after dark is possible, but at other times even those hours are limited by necessity of getting to the bus or after dinner activities.  

So, with several tours behind me when I have tried to pursue my fine art photography, let me offer some observations:

  • Possibly most important, make serendipity your friend.  This means photographing subjects as you find them, or even better as they materialize before you.  Maximize opportunism, but look for Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.”  Even tourists can be worthy subjects, when captured individually in candid moments.

  • Utilize the tight shot.  As will be seen in my photographs from northern Italy, you don’t need to photograph the entirety of Florence’s Duomo; you don’t need to photograph the entire height of Pisa’s Tower.  

  • Carry your camera at the ready, preset for the present conditions (i.e., f-stop, shutter speed and ISO properly set).  I usually work in aperture priority mode at f/8, with an ISO of 200 for most daylight conditions, and underexposed by or even a full stop.  More detail may be rescued from underexposed than from overexposed areas.  Digital photography in 16-bit (RAW) mode permits considerable latitude for conservative photographers.

  • Stay on the fringes of your group.  That permits you to stray slightly, find a shot, aim, and take it, yet move on with the group.  It does mean that you will miss some of a guide’s comments, but if you are concentrating on photography you will be listening with only half your attention anyway.

  • Utilize your free time.  If given two hours one afternoon, wander the alleys and back streets.  You will find subjects.  If there is time after dinner, take a walk with a fast lens and fast film (or set your camera for high ISO).  

  • In a museum or historic location or cathedral, pick and choose.  You may be tempted to photograph the grand edifices or the great art (if the facility permits photography), but if you do so do not use flash.  Discipline yourself to photograph in available light.  The power of Photoshop will correct many lighting deficiencies, and in many cases (especially photographs of statuary or in cathedrals), the drama of natural light can add much to a photo. 

  • If shooting in color, remember that you may wish eventually to convert to black & white for maximum artistic effect.

  • If photographing a popular subject, seek an unusual vantage point, a unique angle, or an irregular composition.

  • Look for contrasts and contradictions:  light and dark; sacred and profane; beauty and ugliness; ancient and modern.

  • Finally, do not weep over spilt milk – i.e., if circumstances do not permit the perfect photograph, take one anyway, and see if something may be made of it; if even a questionable photograph is impossible, forget it and move on.