Embracing the Crowds

Sunbeam Girl Antelope Canyon Page, Arizona
Sunbeam Girl
Antelope Canyon
Page, Arizona

May 17, 2013

Enough talk about Adobe and technology…  Let’s talk photography.

I recently saw a spectacular photo by Trey Ratcliff of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. It was a rare and glorious morning in Beijing without pollution. It was also a rare and glorious morning for him in that he was granted access before the site opened to the public. I was in Beijing about the same time he took his photo, and all I saw was gray, polluted skies and big crowds. I don’t know how he negotiated this solitary time at one of the most popular sites in Beijing, but I definitely envy his industriousness to gain access. So what does that story have to do with the photo above?  Today, I’m going to talk about embracing crowds in iconic locations rather than avoiding them. It’s really the only way to approach photography at some of these landmark locations for the rest of us.

The above photo was obviously taken in Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona and it is one of my favorites from that day. No, I didn’t take a model with me — I was by myself. I was there around the summer solstice when the sun is high enough in the sky to produce these great light beams throughout the slot canyon. It’s one of those rare landscape locations where shooting at noon is preferred.

Unfortunately (at least I thought that at the time), the place was crawling with tourists. If you’ve been to Antelope Canyon, you’ll know that the crowds tend to create problems at bottleneck points like where this picture was taken. In this case I was on one side of the “room” with my tripod trying to take my best sunbeam picture, while a tour group was on the other side of the room. The tourists were running into the middle of the room and standing in the light beam (most look up toward the sun) and then their family members would take snapshots of them. This wasn’t the first group that had come through and I knew that if they weren’t quick, there would be another group right behind them. I waited dutifully while groups of tourists ran into the middle for their literal “moment in the sun.”  Nevertheless, I was getting frustrated. These darn tourists were ruining my opportunity and I was running out of time at the canyon.

I was tempted to zone out and sit down until the mayhem was over. I’m glad I didn’t. Suddenly a girl ran out in to the middle of the room and struck the perfect model pose for her family on the other side.  I held the shutter button down and got three bracketed shots before the magic pose was over.  She even had the nice consideration to stand on the “rule of thirds” line for my composition. 🙂

Unlike Trey Ratcliff, I’ve never been granted special access to an iconic location.  I suspect my photography will never rise to the level where I get that access. The only time I’ve had solitude at a great location was when I got there well before sunrise. Even then, normally by 15 minutes before sunrise the crowds will start (think Mesa Arch).

The moral of this story though is to not lament the crowds, embrace them. If you pay attention at these locations, the crowds can add an element of scale and spontaneity to your composition that you can’t get otherwise. You just have to watch and wait!

Next: Embracing the Crowds Part 2, Isolation and Gesture

Buy a print of this photo