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Dealing with crowds: 8 Tips

Photographing in large cities and popular tourist areas can cause frustrations – people wandering in front of you, too many people in a scene, the “action” not occurring when/where you would like, etc. In many ways, it’s like the urban equivalent of wildlife photography!

So how do you embrace such challenges? Read on for 8 strategies to overcome crowds.

1. Embrace it. Ok, this sounds like a cop-out, I know. But cities and tourist attractions have people so sometimes it’s just best to embrace it. Not that people are bad, either. They give the photo scale, add context, and create a human connection to the scene.

Nepal

The biker gives a sense of life in this small village in Nepal.

 

2. Patience. Want a scene without people? You’ll often have to wait. Want a scene with just the right pattern of people? You’ll often have to wait. Stop and watch for patterns in traffic and use it to predict when the ideal scene may unfold.  

Kyoto

This entrance way was very crowded, but I hung back for a time and waited for just a few people to be walking in to give some action to the scene, while not overwhelming it with a large crowd.

Don’t want any people? Then…

3. Use a telephoto lens. With a longer focal length you can zoom past the people (or extra people) and isolate the subject, excluding the extraneous elements.

NYC

With so many people and structures around, to really focus on the Brooklyn Bridge, I chose my 70-200mm lens, stood back further, and shot through a tree to frame the bridge, provide some depth, and exclude everything else in the foreground.

 

4. Aim high. Similar to using a telephone lens – and perhaps while using a telephoto lens – you can shoot above the craziness. Too many people on the path in front of you? Tilt the camera upward.

Kyoto

Just below this picture is a very crowded walkway, despite the early morning and the rain. So, I got as high as I could on the path, then aimed the camera even higher, to show the peaceful forest.

 

5. Shoot a long exposure. All of those people moving about in your frame? Take advantage of it by shooting a long exposure. This can work in one of two ways: First, if the exposure is long enough, and the people few enough (and they’re moving), then they may just disappear altogether as the camera will fail to pick them up. Second, if there are people moving, you can use them to your advantage by have them be blurs of motion moving through your photo.

This does require a tripod (or something to rest your camera on), lower light or a neutral density (ND) filter to increase your shutter speed, and ideally a remote to trigger the camera without touching it.

With all the people walking the famous Ninenzaka path, an empty shot would have been about impossible. So, with the benefit of dusk and a longer exposure, I was able to capture the commotion of the path.

 

6. Go further. Sometimes you just have to go a little further to escape the masses. In Rocky Mountain National Park, near my home, I call this the tourist mile. You just have to walk more than a mile down a trail, or past the first lake, and all of a sudden the landscape often opens up. Similarly, if you’re on the main street in a city, walking one block over can be a different experience.

The entrance to Fushimi-Inari is crazy. In fact, it’s the number one tourist attraction in Kyoto and the crowds prove it. However, keep walking further back in the temple and you’ll suddenly find that you have the place to yourself.

 

7. Go early. Cities, especially, have a different feel to them early in the morning: calmer, fewer people, softer light. Whenever I travel I try to get up early to go explore.

This shore can be packed with people during the day, but first thing in the morning it was completely empty. The calm lake and soft light made for great photographs, and the local woman going out to her boat provided the perfect subject.

 

8. Blend multiple frames. This one is a little more advanced, but only involves basic Photoshop skills (i.e. layer masks). The basic idea is that you take the exact same photo multiple times while people move about (they have to be moving to make this work). Then, you layer the photos, unveiling the part of each photo with no person (because they hopefully moved between frames).

To accomplish this, having the camera on a tripod to ensure you get the same shot each time is very helpful. Similarly, shooting in manual so your exposure doesn’t shift will also make the blending easier, assuming the overall lighting isn’t changing quickly as well.

For editing, make the same adjustments to each photo, import into Photoshop as layers (if you aren’t already there), align the layers, then add a layer mask to each one, painting out the persons in each photo unveiling the clean background of the layer below.

Skógafoss waterfall in Iceland is very popular and there are often people wandering all about. So, I took multiple photos (2 in this case) and layered them together, unveiling the part of each photo that had no person in it.

 

 

What other challenges or tips do you have when shooting in crowded locations?

One Comment

  • Todd on Jun 27, 2018

    Great blog, love the practical tips ranging from less technical to more technical.

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