Why Do My Photos of Famous Places Look Bad?

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River at sunset near Page, Arizona, USA.

As part of its long-running “Notes and queries” segment, The Guardian asked its readers why photographs of beautiful scenery “never do it justice?” The following week, reader responses were published, offering great practical advice for amateur shutterbugs seeking to improve their travel photos.

“I’ve just been looking at my photos from a recent trip to the Grand Canyon and I’m thoroughly unimpressed. Why do photographs of beautiful scenery never do it justice?” asked Alex Robinson from Suffolk, England in the original “Notes and queries” post.

“Because all the best viewpoints are blocked by hordes of narcissists taking selfies,” responded a user called ShrinkProof. Not all replies were so glib.

“You can take a great landscape photograph if you know how to compose the image. Most people just point the camera at what they are gazing at and press the button. Painters don’t just paint what is in front if them; they compose a picture. The answer is composition,” said Toomuchrose. They haven’t had too much rose to know their way around photography, clearly.

“Beautiful scenery gives me (and maybe you) a tremendous sense of light, space, colour and freedom, a feeling that life is worth living, that I’m on top of the world ([especially] if I’m on a hilltop), of harmony and wellbeing and balance, if only for a moment. And I have a sense of movement and being in nature, too,” writes LetsJustLookAtThis.

“That’s a lot to ask of a photograph, especially if it only manages a limited range of color and brightness, is taken near midday, with none of the golden tones of sunrise or sunset, and has a limited depth of focus. A photo compresses space and depth and panorama into a flat rectangle. What’s remarkable is that photos can impress and be beautiful, given all the constraints. But they can, just like paintings.”

That lengthy response touches on something vital, and a significant culprit behind underwhelming photos of amazing scenery. Many travelers are at beautiful locations when the light is less than optimal. While it is possible to take good photos at any time, it is undoubtedly more challenging to do so during the middle of the day, when light is flatter and duller and shadows are at their worst.

“Choosing a viewpoint well in advance and a time of day with dramatic light can make a huge difference. Go for early mornings or evenings, when the shadows are longer and colors glow; avoid harsh, direct midday sun,” adds James1000, who also notes that famed artists like photographer Ansel Adams and painter David Hockney didn’t create their best work in bad light.

Even with the right technique, lens selection, and ideal conditions, not every respondent thinks photographs can capture the beauty of nature.

“Neither photographs nor paintings do a scene justice. The smells, the sounds, the breezes, the changing of the light and the effect of the viewer’s movements are all included in the appreciation of the scene,” replies RollyW. “That said, a good landscape picture can evoke memories of a visit and with it recall the emotional effect on the viewer. It can also be an artistic expression in its own right, conveying the visual components in a manner that invokes an emotional response entirely without context.”

Randomusername222 adds, “Photography is a skill and an art form. Most of us are not skilled artists, as is evident from our holiday snaps. We wouldn’t expect to match the artistry of a Michelin chef or an old master portrait painter, who have built on their talent with years of study. Why do we all expect to be able to take fantastic photographs?”

It can be very disappointing for someone to travel across the world, be amazed by beautiful locations, and then return home with underwhelming photos that do not capture the scene as they remember it. Fortunately, this failure is not inevitable, no matter what camera equipment or experience someone has. There are plenty of ways for someone to improve their travel and landscape photography.

Following a few simple steps will help photographers of all experience and skill levels capture better photos of iconic locations. Photographers should get up early, stay out late, simplify their compositions, and understand how to use their camera equipment. It can be so tempting to try and capture everything that makes a scene beautiful in person in a single photograph, but it is very rarely the best approach to making a good image. Less is almost always more.

Looking at the work of other photographers, like Max Foster, and perhaps even joining a workshop at famous locations is also a great way to get inspired and learn the best ways to capture the beauty of the world’s most spectacular and iconic places.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.