Artificial environments and ‘tourist’ photography

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A couple of months ago, I spent some time in a theme park – not because I particularly wanted to go on any of the rides or because I felt like I needed a little escapism, but because I was teaching a workshop as part of the Maybank Photo Awards 2013, and Universal Studios Singapore was a sponsor. Being there made me realize a number of things.

1. It’s a good environment for a beginner workshop.
2. It’s not a good environment for a more advanced workshop.
3. There’s a lot of visual engineering involved, and this is the reason for both 1 and 2.

There’s no question the entire environment is artificial; the park is divided up into theme zones that follow hit movies or pop culture – New York, Hollywood, Shrek, Transformers, Battlestar Galactica, Madagascar, Sesame Street etc. This means that all prop placement, lighting, sight lines etc must have been consciously designed at some point – much like a movie set. Nothing is left to chance or coincidence. But unlike a movie set, the viewing angles are not fixed, so if you pay the scene anything more than superficial attention, then you’ll start to notice what I like to think of as ‘discontinuities in reality’ – places where utilities/ ancillaries are hidden, finishing that isn’t quite up to par, obviously fake bits etc.

For beginners, this is an ideal environment because it largely removes the thinking process; one doesn’t really have to hunt for subject matter. If anything, there’s almost too much to shoot; it’s a visual overload – because it was designed to be that way to keep non-photographic visitors entertained. Practically, it’s ‘just add light’ – the biggest challenge is an overcast day, or the school holidays due to crowding and not being able to get a clear frame; actually, the former isn’t even a problem if you stay til sunset – the controlled lighting is very convincing and photographable indeed. Fortunately, the sun did come out at times and we were able to at least demonstrate the importance of shadows.

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For a more advanced photographer, the artificiality of the environment becomes constraining: you almost have to view (and photograph) certain areas from one fixed angle because if you try any other angle, you’ll soon find that there are visual inconsistencies that ruin the authenticity of the shot to a large degree; things missing, things out of place, things that shouldn’t be there. Not surprising given that a) it’s a fake environment and b) in a movie, there’s only one camera angle, so the sets are never properly finished anyway – if anything, I suspect the theme park is actually more complete than a movie set simply because the public can pretty much go anywhere and everywhere.

Of course, it’s possible to set yourself various little exercises in which you either try to make the whole thing believable, or you try to reveal the fakeness of it all. This gets boring fast, however, since there’s only so much realistic subject matter to work with in the first place – transformers and dinosaurs are never going to look real simply because of the subject. Personally, I found the New York area fairly authentic, though only one or two street corners; the rest of it was spoiled by out of period/ situation props in the center of the good sight lines.  Unlike ‘real’ travel photography, there are no surprises, no spontaneity, nothing to really discover and figure out how to capture the essence of – in essence, everything is fixed rather than being just slightly ephemeral – and that ephemerality is what keeps things challenging and fresh for the skilled photographer.

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It occurs to me that although these places are designed with the obvious intention of making them both visually attractive, at some point soon, tourist attraction operators are going to have to pay increasingly more attention to also making them photograph well for the average visitor. I’m not saying this because of personal interest or merely even to make the experience better for the visitor to encourage returns; it’s a bit more strategic than that. There’s no better form of marketing and promotion than word of mouth and social media; if your friends say something is good and come back posting great photos of the place, you’re more likely to want to go than if you just see the same commercial/ commissioned promo images all the time.

The “photographability” of a constructed environment is going to matter, especially for the average punter – think cameraphone, compact. What does this mean? A few things: solid and obvious vantage points picked out; preferably with some obvious cues that people should take a photo there. Interesting lighting design, both for controlling ambient and constructing artificial. Where there is artificial lighting, make it brighter than a ‘natural’ situation: I’m not saying that it should be uniform, but maintain the atmosphere and turn it up by a few stops – more light always helps smaller sensors. Places/ objects/ sets/ facades that photograph well with wide angles – cameraphones don’t zoom; most compact users don’t use the zoom even if they have it. Somebody actually has to go try it – better yet, get a bunch of average visitors to do so and see what falls out, then adjust as required.*

*A good photographer should be able to find an image anywhere, with any camera. It’s as much about having the ability to see as the technical chops to execute.

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The upshot of this would be an increase in quality of the images coming out of your theme park or tourist location – not only would they be of better technical quality, but you would also gain some measure of control over what specific aspects or locations would be shown; preferably those you want to feature, of course. Not only do you get more coverage and reach, but you also make your attraction look…well, more attractive. No doubt there are a lot of images already being shared online; but how many of these are good enough to provide motivation to visit (and spend money)? Very few, I think. Think of those extra light bulbs as part of the marketing budget.

None of this is anything new, of course – the better something or somewhere looks, the better it sells. Think travel photography: an ugly destination doesn’t usually get a lot of tourism dollars. The difference here is that it should be the buyer doing the selling, instead of the seller – all the seller does is make the conditions a little more conducive. Perhaps I should go be a visual consultant for tourist destinations…

The next post will be a photoessay from the theme park – I admit I was more interested in the set design and still life aspects of the thing than the tourists or the attractions…MT


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  1. Many thanks Ming, thanks to this article I figured out why I am never possible to take interesting (in my view) shots from these kind of environments, and always have loads of good (and better) shots from “uncontrolled” environments. By the way, what equipment did you use for these shots?
    Best regards,

  2. It’s funny MT, I have been thinking that, with the proliferation of digital photography, smart phones, social media etc, that tourist attractions need to get much cannier about catering specifically to photographers on some level. Its incredibly frustrating for me going places where there are potentially fabulous images to be had, if only you didn’t have to shoot through grimy glass, or there was enough light to work by (handheld), or why the heck does that sign have to be RIGHT there??!! As you say, the establishments themselves have (or at least should have) a vested interest in the quality of the snaps coming out of their place – all it needs are a few showing up in the top of a Google Image search to sway people one way or the other. As always, I point to Disney as a “how to do it”. Animal Kingdom in Orlando is one of their smaller parks, but I could spend days there photographing the tigers (and will have to…my previous batch of images from our last trip got lost – but they were pre-me-taking-up-photography anyway and taken with a consumer video camera). They give you an elevated vantage point so there is no need for glass or big ugly ditches in the way. The environment is large and lush, and made like a set from The Jungle Book, and the tigers have plenty to do and are healthy and seem very happy, always playing. There is a field of gazelles, or something similar, behind them, with a grassy ditch separating them with a fence in it…you don’t see any of that though, it works like an infinity pool…I had a shot of a tiger with a gazelle behind it in the background, but it looked like the tiger was eyeing up the gazelle. Here in the UK we have The National Trust and English Heritage that buy and maintain historical buildings/sites for public enjoyment, and they do a fantastic job. But, given the incredible photographic potential of their sites, it amazes me when they limit or even restrict photography, or have so set out to confound any attempts at quality image-making with silly things like sign placement, or the dreaded “no flash” (always coupled with the obligatory “no tripods”). Also, opening hours are never conducive to getting the best light. As a large organisation, I would imagine there is potential for extra income by marketing to photographers – premium events outside normal hours, expensive enough to keep it low in numbers and likely self-restricting to the truly motivated. I would quite happily work for them as a “Director of Photographic Experience Enhancement”, or even in a consultating capacity! Anywhere new being created in this day and age, or anywhere renovating, should really take this into consideration when designing their facilities. I read somewhere recently a statistic that something like 20% of all the images ever made, have been made in the last few years. I can’t verify this, but it makes logical sense. Admittedly a disproportionate quantity of those will be utter crap, and probably never really trouble the high-visibility public domain, but still. And I can’t imagine my “finding” photography in the last few years, since digital image making has matured and lowered the bar for entry with gear capable of your much-loved “Sufficiency”, is in any way an isolated case. I am convinced there are plenty of other folk like me, in a similar demographic, who would tap into photography-aware events.

    • Absolutely – I can’t think of any better marketing than making your [insert location/ attraction/ store] photographable: it’s not just free PR, but you might land up having somebody good visit and shoot, and publish better images than you’d have gotten by hiring somebody. Of course, the reverse is also true, but I feel you’ve got to have some level of confidence in your product.

      Unless you’re going to use off-camera flash, natural or exhibition lighting should be sufficiently well designed anyway. It’s probably to stop degradation of pigments from the UV blasts. No tripods, though inconvenient, is probably to avoid damaging things or blocking views – and I have to admit makes sense.

      As for photography-aware events: it’ll happen. Once they figure they can’t sell us any more cameras, or charge premiums for other things. But the motivators will be purely commercial, not artistic.

  3. Hmmm, maybe candids of staff at casual moments or less-than-thrilled visitors would be a little more interesting … reality positioned against a backdrop of the unreal.

  4. buyfromvegasnv says:
  5. randomesquephoto says:

    There are some good abandoned amusement parks in the world too. And it’s interesting to see the difference of what someone wants you to see compared to what things become.

  6. During summer this year I went to a local theme park too attempting to get some shots, for sure I thought there’d be nice images to make given all the lights, colors, food, people, but the artificial environment completely extinguished whatever photographic creativity I had, so I ended up with nothing. Instead I spent more time eating all the vendor foods, getting grease all over the equipment, very bad 😛

  7. Jesper Olsen says:

    Just my thought Wien i visiter Legoland and trues to mage good use of my camera…

  8. I think that’s why I like to shoot in museums. The lighting and the composition, it’s all there for you. It’s easy 🙂

    • That’s very true: in ‘good’ exhibitions, you can only see it the way the curators want you to. But that’s somewhat stifling of creativity.

  9. randomesquephoto says:

    Awesome consideration Ming. 🙂 looking forward to your photo essay.

    maybe unfortunate for some marketers… I personally look for those “uglier” places.

  10. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Ming, these places can produce great photos or drive a photographer nuts. It is all in the attitude of the photographer. This brings to mind that photography is a process of exclusion, and a lot has to be excluded. Back in February I visited Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando. I managed a few keepers, but less than I grabbed this Monday in Austin where there was no admission charge. The reality is capturing really good images is hard, and the more we learn the higher the bar gets. If it wasn’t that way I would sell my gear and take up golf.

    • I’m not sure I’d go so far as to take up golf, but perhaps I’d spend a lot more time indulging my recently rediscovered passion for headphones…

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        Headphones are nice. I happen to know a log of golfers.

      • Try Sennheiser PX-100 III when traveling.
        They sound good enough, music is clear and natural and almost neutral – base is slightly emphasized though.
        They fold into a shirt pocket.
        They work as handsfree for Iphone, with an adapter exchanging mike and earth for others.
        ( Avoid the PX-100 model which has compensation for outside noice – but badly implemented.)
        – – –
        I do like your analysis!
        ( How about an abandoned and rusting site… )

        • I’m either using B&W P5s or a first-edition set of UE Triple.Fis with custom copper cables 🙂

          • You should try Fitear. They make the best IEMs.

          • Mmm (happy smile) …
            I’m sure they go really well with the Hasselblad,
            but with the Canon ELPH 520 HS maybe the shirt-pocket-folding Sennheisers go better
            (although they sound as good as the best compacts)…? 🙂
            – – –
            ( If I have no close neighbors… , I prefer loudspeakers for longer listening,
            like a pair of Manger travelling wave transducers – well installed. )

            • Actually, the UE Triples are IEMs, so they’re even better for travelling…

              • And smaller and lighter, too. Do you drive them directly from your iPhone or iPad? I used to carry a whole audio rig with me, but simplifying has been the best thing I’ve done. Now it’s just the Apple IEMs (not the ear buds) with Comply foam tips from an iPhone or iPad. Though I did just get a Centrance HiFi-M8 that may tempt me to complicate my setup again …

                • Yes, I’m driving them from an iDevice – but I find some are better than others. The little square nano (last gen) is actually pretty good, as is the previous generation shuffle with no buttons. IEMs are much easier to drive.

                  • Yes, they’re indeed easy to drive. But for high-end inear like JH resonance, the power from 3.5mm of iDevices just isn’t enough to make the most of the headphone. But the sound without the external DAC/amp is still good though…

                    • The trouble with CIEMs is that you have no idea how they’ll sound until you buy a pair…there appears to be no way to demo these things.

                    • Sebastian Espinas says:

                      Hello Ming. Long time follower, first time poster. even though I have nothing to add to the original topic, I felt compelled to join the discussion concerning headphones. Congratulations, you managed to get drawn in by another hobby that is equally as expensive and frustratingly polarizing as photography.
                      2 thoughts:
                      1) Custom iems, though cost-prohibitive and not for the impatient, can and will elevate your music experience to a whole other level. The lack of demo time may be a turn-off, but with a source like Head-Fi.Org containing hundreds if not thousands of user accounts and reviews of certain customs, sound signatures are rarely a mystery. My suggestions for CIEMs are Unique Melody and 1964 Ears (Their quads are my current favorite!).

                      2) Street shooting whilst using musical ear paraphernalia may not only create a disconnect with your subject matter, but may also pose as a hazard since common warning cues such as car horns or irate bike rider expletives are now lost on you. My solution to this dilemma are a pair of earHeros available from

                      Anyways. Big fan of your work (both image and print). My wife and I frequent Kuala Lumpur and Singapore on a yearly basis so hopefully one of your workshops will coincide with my visit sometime in the future.


                    • Thanks for the compliments and suggestion, Sebastian!

                      I’ve been considering the JH Roxannes; the current bunch of comparisons between the UMs and JH13/16s seem to favor the JHs – and it also doesn’t do any harm that the JHs are frequently described as ‘mature’ versions of the TF10P, whose sound signature I love – and coincidentally was also designed by Jerry Harvey. But seriously, the lack of experience in my country at fitting and delivering these things gives me pause; and I really can’t imagine how the sound would change between CIEMs and universals; it’s so subjective it’s difficult to describe/ explain to somebody else without hearing it yourself.

                      I definitely don’t use headphones while out, unless on a plane or bus; I want to preserve my situational awareness and also fully ‘feel’ the environment – sometimes the most interesting cues are nonvisual ones…

                    • @ming just come to your southerly neighbour Singapore. I’ve tried JH Dragon a few years back at Jaben, Adelphi.

                    • There’s a Jaben in KL too now 🙂

      • I love the sound of the beyer dynamic DT990, if it’s good enough for some mastering studio. ^^

      • “Perhaps I should go be a visual consultant for tourist destinations…”
        As a veteran reader of your blog, I must say I often get the feeling that this photography blog is somewhat transient, because probably you seem to have so many options in regards to what to do with your life.

        I can only conclude that you named your blog aptly and open-endedly, meaning you might soon abandon the world of photography and create something else just as worthwhile to read about.

        More power to you.


  1. […] A continuation of the previous article on tourist location photographability. […]

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