There was a time when I used to carry my big DSLR camera with me everywhere I went in the course of my day-to-day life. For two years, I participated in a photo project over on Flickr called “365 Days”, during which, I attempted to take a self portrait every day. You read that right – not just a photo a day, but a photo of myself (or at least part of myself). Every. Single. Day. You can check out my two sets of photos here and here.
During those two years of using my camera every single day, I learned how to shoot in manual and became a much better photographer. I also learned to have patience when trying to take the “perfect” shot. That patience has come in very handy during my travels, especially since I’m one of those people who doesn’t like to have random strangers in my shots. My mother and sister used to pick on me for this and have been known to leave me behind when touring new locations as I stubbornly waited for the right moment to take the shot I had in my mind, but I think the photos below prove that the wait can definitely be worth it.
Drum Bridge (San Francisco, CA)
The Drum Bridge in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is a popular subject for photographers, but getting a photo of it without any people standing near the base (or climbing over it) can be tricky. I waited in one spot for probably close to ten minutes to get this shot, while my mother and sister went ahead without me, but they both agreed the wait was worth it when they saw this shot.
Whitewater Preserve (Whitewater, CA)
My friend Bethanne took me to Whitewater Preserve when I visited her in Yucca Valley several years ago. When we first started walking along the trails, I felt like I was in Jurassic Park – it felt so wild and prehistoric, almost. For the shot above, I laid in the grass and waited until all of the paths nearby were totally empty. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long to get this one.
Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia, PA)
Eastern State Penitentiary is an old prison in the Fairmount section of Philly that features a central rotunda with seven cellblocks branching off from it. It was the first prison in America to keep prisoners in solitary confinement. Each cell had its own private “exercise yard” and a very small skylight and inmates were required to wear hoods when leaving their cells to discourage interaction with the guards and knowledge of the building.
Today, Eastern State is a popular tourist attraction in Philly. During the Halloween season, it’s turned into a giant haunted attraction, but you can visit it during the day all throughout the year. Some of the cellblocks are two stories high and you can go up onto the second story in certain areas. If you’re willing to hang around and wait for the cellblock to clear of visitors, you can get some pretty awesome (and creepy!) shots.
Fremont Troll (Seattle, WA)
If you’ve ever visited the Fremont Troll in Seattle, then you probably know that people like to climb up on top of him to have their picture taken. (A lot.) When I was there with my sister and our friend Kara, they patiently waited with me while we watched family after family send their children up onto the troll’s hands, shoulders, and even head. We watched kids pretend to pick his nose and poke his eyes (I wish I were making this up) until finally, I was able to take a photo of him without anyone in it.
Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado)
When I went on my guided tour of Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, I noticed that they would hold each group until the previous group had completely vacated the other side. Later in the day, I drove up to the spot that overlooks Cliff Palace and used my time there as a water/snack break while I watched other tour groups move through the dwelling. With a little patience and some quick timing, I was able to take this photo completely free of people.
Utah State Capitol (Salt Lake City, UT)
When I was in Salt Lake City, I visited the very impressive (and beautiful) state capitol building. In the center of the building, there is a gorgeous rotunda featuring a high domed ceiling filled with paintings, large staircases, columns, and arches, stunning symmetry, and natural light. It’s the kind of place people wander about with their heads tilted up toward the ceiling and really, I can’t blame them. But it did make me feel a little bit like a ninja when I was able to grab the shot above with no people in it!
Here are some of my tips for taking people-free photos:
Have Patience! (And Be Polite!)
Remember that you’re the one being picky and people have every right to walk around attractions and natural areas when they are visiting them. However, if you’re trying to take a photo of something and people have completely camped themselves out in front of it (or ON TOP of it) and are showing no signs of moving at all, I do think it’s okay to politely ask them if they would be willing to quickly move while you take a photo. I’ve actually done this once or twice before (see above re: Fremont Troll) and the people were very willing to do so.
Make Sure Your Camera is Ready.
While people are milling about, take a few test shots and check your settings. When you finally have a clear view of your subject, your camera should be ready to go so that you can quickly press the shutter button and capture the moment while you have the chance.
Offer to Take Photos for Other People.
If people are in front of the subject you want to take photos of and are struggling to take their own photos (usually, “selfies”), politely ask them if they would like you to take their photo for them. If they say yes, you can use your awesome photo skills to take their photo quickly (and send them on their way a little sooner).
Be the “First One In” or the “Last One Out”.
If you’re on a tour, try to maneuver yourself to the very front of very back of the group. You can either take a few quick shots right when you get to a new location, or you can turn around as the group leaves and take a shot of the spot you just visited as you are leaving.
Explore First, THEN Worry About Your Getting Your Shot.
If you’re not careful, you can end up spending way too much of your time in a new place worrying about getting the perfect photos and viewing too much of the scene through your viewfinder. When you first arrive somewhere new, give yourself some time to take it all in before deciding what shots you really want to take.
Take Advantage of an “Almost Perfect” Moment.
Sometimes, you might not have a chance to take a photo totally free of people. In situations like that, getting creative with the timing of your shot might help you create the illusion of a people-free photo. In the photo below, taken at Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik, there is actually a person standing right in front of the door to the church. It was cold and I was tired of waiting for the area to be totally clear, so I waited until he (or she?) was right in front of the door before pressing my shutter button and then headed inside the church.
Know When to Move On.
Sometimes, there will be people in your photo and it’s not worth stressing about, especially when you’re traveling and supposed to be having fun! When I was at Arches National Park, it was a hot and crowded summer day. When I got to The Windows section, there were people everywhere and I knew that my chances of getting a photo without any of them in it was going to be pretty close to impossible. Instead of spending a chunk of my time in the park sitting there waiting, I took the shot below and moved on to continue exploring. (I actually kind of like having people in this shot, because it shows the scale of the arch.)
*Your turn! Do you have any photo tricks when you’re traveling? Do you care if there are people in your shots?