A concise city guide for photographers – updated!

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Updated from the 2012 version: my concise city guide for photographers. I’ve added many cities to the list since the first edition, and things have of course changed. This guide is a shortlist of places I’ve been to personally that I think are worth visiting as a photographer, places to be avoided, and places if you like a challenge… It’s organized by city, in alphabetical order. Name links lead you to any other posts tagged from that location – usually photoessays – to help you get a better idea of what to expect. Certain destinations also have a vicarious travel/photographic guide in the form of a How To See episode – links for those are included, too. MT

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A concise city travel guide for photographers

I’ve been to a lot of places both in the course of my previous life as a wandering professional, as well as more recently as a photographer and occasionally as a tourist. I’ve visited most as a business traveller first, but with a constantly vigilant eye for photographic opportunities. On the whole, some places are more photo-friendly than others; however, every city has its interesting places. What follows is a very brief photography travel guide to some of the more interesting places I’ve been to. It’s organized by city, in alphabetical order. MT

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Auckland. Sony NEX-5, 18-55 OSS

Auckland, New Zealand
Photo friendliness – 8/10
Photo opportunities – 4/10

Most of the activity in Auckland centers around the waterfront; be it related to boats, life, the harbor, watersports, or the sea itself. Kiwis are extremely friendly people, and generally don’t mind having their photo taken; however, note that everything downtown goes dead after about 6pm as businesses close and people retreat to the suburbs, so there isn’t a lot to photograph. There is some interesting architecture and light provided by lots of modern glass buildings around Quay Street and Queen Street. The North Shore is also an interesting area of pavement/ sidewalk cafe life, as well as being a good place to spend a sunny afternoon. Needless to say, one of the biggest events is when the America’s Cup visits the city; great for photographic opportunities, bad for the wallet.

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Bangkok. Leica M9-P, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE

Bangkok, Thailand
Photo friendliness – 6/10
Photo opportunities – 8/10

Bangkok is so different to most other places – even within Asia, to some extent – that there’s bound to be something different for the traveller to capture. Within Bangkok there are plenty of districts; avoid the places with multi-lane avenues and low pedestrian-friendliness like Rama V, Sukhumvit and Wireless; it’s difficult to capture anything there. Far more interesting is the temple area by the river, around Wat Arun and Wat Pho; there’s also a warren of small streets and bustling city life around Thanon Yowarat in Chinatown. You could easily spend days walking around there and not manage to see everything. Note that whilst most Thais are friendly, a lot do not like having their photograph taken, so please remember to respect cultural sensitivities. The outskirts of the city are likely to provide more photographic opportunities of the rural sort. Note that Bangkok’s famous floating market is not actually in the city, but around two hours’ drive north.

Barcelona, Spain
Photo friendliness – 8/10
Photo opportunities – 7/10

Architecture, culture and people are the three things that stand out in Barcelona. Visit in spring or summer; winter is depressing and can be cold (I actually got stranded at the top of a hill in a snowstorm once). The Barri Gotic, or Old Quarter, is the best place to go exploring on foot; the seaside promenade near the Hotel Arts is also full of interesting characters and is a great place for street photography. I actually don’t like Parc Guell much; yes, it’s interesting from an art point of view, but for photography the space is too open and full of tourists. You might get some interesting detail shots of Gaudi’s handiwork, but the Sagrada Familia is much, much better for that. There are plenty of tourists roaming the streets, so another photographer mostly goes unnoticed; some Catalonians don’t like being photographed, though. If you have extra time, the monastery of Montserrat is worth visiting for its architecture. Sadly no photography is allowed inside the cathedral, though.

Cambridge, England
Photo friendliness – 8/10
Photo opportunities – 7/10

It’s often said that the difference between Cambridge and Oxford is that the former is a city inside a university, and the latter is a university inside a city – the reason being that Oxford town came before Oxford University, and both came before Cambridge. The difference is felt in size: Cambridge feels much roomier and more spread out than Oxford; a lot of the colleges are far away enough that you need at least a bicycle, and might even want to consider taking the bus. Still, there’s plenty of interesting architecture and mediaeval alleyways to explore, as well as the river Cam; don’t forget to pick up some Fudge at the Fudge Kitchen.

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Canterbury. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

Canterbury, England
Photo friendliness – 7/10
Photo opportunities – 6/10

Most people visit Canterbury for one reason only: the cathedral. A masterpiece of Gothic engineering, it’ll keep any architectural photography fan engaged. Photography inside is allowed. There’s a small network of old streets around the cathedral that can be an interesting backdrop for street photography, but note that most of the old shops have been replaced by modern chains – though some of the frontages etc remain the same. There are some interesting Roman ruins – the city wall – and a Norman castle, though these do not make for particularly arresting photography, unless you bring your own subject – I suppose one could probably do a fashion shoot there.

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Geneva. Nikon D800E, 28/1.8

Geneva, Switzerland
Photo friendliness – 5-8/10
Photo opportunities – 5/10

I find the personality of Geneva depends very much on what time of the year you visit: I went once during winter, and it was both miserably weathered and full of surly, unfriendly folk; however, during the summer, everybody seems to be in a good mood the moment the sun shows. The city itself transforms, too; the old quarter, on the opposite side of the lake to the train station and behind the main drag of Rue du Rhone, is full of charming buildings and streets, that create interesting pockets of light as the sun starts to drop. Watch fans will also find the Patek Philippe museum of particular interest. Several years ago, they allowed photography of the exhibits, but I’m not sure if that’s changed in the intervening period. Outside Geneva are plenty of opportunities for landscape photography – the Vallee de Joux and the Alps are obvious choices.

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Hanoi. Nikon D3, 70-300VR

Hanoi, Vietnam
Photo friendliness – 8/10
Photo opportunities – 9/10

Hanoi’s photographic friendliness is reduced a couple of notches solely because of personal risk: you really need to watch out for the city’s thousands of motorbikes. Chimping while crossing the street is a sure way to get run over. That aside, the city itself has various quarters that each have a distinct feel; post-Soviet communist concrete block, French, and Asian. And in between those, there’s a temple on an island in the middle of the lake. In the Old Quarter, all of those elements come together (though with much less concrete block) to create a very unique atmosphere – think French cafe, but with the chaos of Asian wiring, street stalls, and just a little bit of decay to add texture. It’s a photographers’ paradise – and the Vietnamese don’t mind being in your frame, either. Cheap and good pho noodles and banh mi are icing on the cake.

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Hong Kong. Olympus OM-D, 45/1.8

Hong Kong, China
Photo friendliness – 6/10
Photo opportunities – 8/10

To me, Hong Kong has always been divided up into districts with distinct photographic personalities: Central, for architecture and some light people-watching; the Peak, for that one evening shot across the harbor; Tsim Tsa Shui for neon, glitz and a little bit of transitional Hong Kong; finally, Mong Kok for absolute chaos and the grittier old city. It’s almost as though things get less developed as you head further north and into China proper. If I’m to be honest, the locals aren’t the most friendly bunch, though this is changing with the younger generation. Be careful where you point your camera. Acting like a tourist will usually let you get away with a sneaked-in street shot. Though I’ve been several times on my own, or with non-residents, the best way to see the hidden parts of the city is definitely with a local – there are some hidden photographic gems to be had.

Kamakura, Japan
Photo friendliness – 10/10
Photo opportunities – 8/10

If you can’t take a photograph in Japan, then the chances are if that same situation arose anywhere else in the world, you probably wouldn’t be able to, either. Kamakura is full of more Japanese tourists trying to find their cultural heritage than international ones; everybody has at least one camera. It’s not a very big town, and there are many cultural heritage things of interest here: the big Buddha statue, or daibutsu, multiple temples, including the famous Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū and the seaside portion of the town; many of these places are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Come here on any festival day – if you can find a place on the train – and you’re assured of plenty of photojournalism material.

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Kathmandu. Nikon D700, 85/1.4G

Kathmandu, Nepal
Photo friendliness – 8/10
Photo opportunities – 8/10

It’s clear from the moment you step out of the airport that visiting Nepal is going to be completely unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Not only is there nothing resembling a highway leading into town, the road itself doesn’t really much resemble a road, either. Thanks to fuel shortages, there are long blackouts during the day (make sure your hotel has a generator, and carry plenty of spare batteries) and few streetlights; I’d say that Kathmandu is very much a daytime photography place. Try not to go during a martial law strike, either; you can’t go out on the streets without a permit, and the place is crawling with heavily armed police. That said, the Nepalis are some of the friendliest people around, even if their country is firmly in the ‘developing’ category; like most photographically interesting cities, it has a characterful old quarter – Thamel and plenty of cultural heritage sites (Bodhanarth, Swayambhunath, Patan Durba, Singa Durba, the Narayanthi Museum etc.). It’s also a very cheap place, which explains its popularity with backpackers. Travel a bit outside the city to Nagarkot, and on a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent view of the Himalayas.

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Kuala Lumpur. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Photo friendliness – 8/10?
Photo opportunities – 7/10?

It’s very difficult to be objective about your own home city; I can’t say how inspired a foreigner might find the place because it’s always been familiar territory to me. I know exactly where I’d go to shoot what, what kinds of people probably aren’t a good idea to photograph, and what I can get away with. For a visitor, there are a few things worth seeing – Chinatown/ Petaling Street, before the government tears it down for a mass transit station (ironically, to serve the part of the city which will no longer be there after the station is in place); Bukit Bintang, to shop and people-watch; Brickfields, or little India; the Batu Caves, especially during the Thaipusam Festival in late Jan/ early Feb; Merdeka Square, and some of the more interesting architecture. KLCC and the Petronas Twin Towers. If you’re feeling particularly bored, or want to see a whole load of artificial trees, then there’s i-City in Shah Alam by night. For the most part, the residents are friendly, the food is good, and the beer is cold. Although prices are rising, we’re still not as expensive as say Geneva or Hong Kong (and I really feel it in those cities). What’s not to like?

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Old Kyoto. Nikon D200, 17-55/2.8

Kyoto, Japan
Photo friendliness – 9/10
Photo opportunities – 8/10

If you like temples and architecture, then Kyoto is your city. I couldn’t help feel that the atmosphere was a lot colder and more reserved than Tokyo, however; there are also a lot of broad, featureless expanses of urban sprawl between attractions that are pretty much photographic deserts. There are a few must-see places on the list – the big temples like Kinkaku-ji, Kyomizudera and slightly outside, Fushima-Inarii; Gion, the Geisha District; and the portion of the town down by the river, which I believe is called Ponto-Cho. There’s also the Imperial Palace, but aside from some extremely open gardens, there isn’t a lot of interest here. Curiously, Kyoto station itself is a very interesting piece of abstract modern architecture; in some ways it’s at odds to the rest of the historical city. The best way to get around is either by subway, or the tourist buses that run in loops from outside the station.

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London. Ricoh GR-Digital III

London, England
Photo friendliness – 5/10
Photo opportunities- 7/10

Thanks to overzealous police, one has to be a bit careful when photographing on the streets of London – sad to say, especially if you look a bit ‘ethnic’. Smaller cameras are definitely the order of the day, and be careful where you choose to set up a tripod. The locals in general aren’t particularly camera-friendly, either. That said, there are a number of good places for people watching – the courtyard of the British Museum is one of my favourites, along with the Piccadilly Circus to St. James and Jermyn Street stretch, Trafalgar Square and the surrounding areas. The City can be interesting but also harried; Canary Wharf was good for some architectural abstracts, though on my last visit security tended to eye every camera with suspicion. The area around City Hall on the south side of London Bridge has a nice open plaza and plenty of human activity, especially if it’s sunny. There are still a number of museums which allow photography inside – this is interesting not so much for the exhibits as the spaces and people – the British Museum is by far the best, though Maritime Greenwich, The Tower of London, the Science Museum’s hangar floor and the Tate Modern are also excellent. Aside from photography, there are plenty of other things to do, so don’t feel as though you have to get postcard shots of all the sights – that’s what postcards are for.

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Macau. Olympus OM-D, 45/1.8

Macau, China
Photo friendliness – 7/10
Photo opportunities – 9/10

Thanks to a densely-packed warren of streets, Macau seems a lot larger on foot than it does on a map; the area around the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral are especially rich with photographic opportunities. And the locals seem so immune to tourists that it’s also a very safe environment to pratice street photography. The casinos are a different story, however – external photography is fine, but I’m pretty sure if you pull out a camera inside, you’ll have a bunch of armed guards on you in no time. Oh, and don’t forget to try the famous egg custard tarts.

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Malacca night market. Sony NEX-5, 18-55 OSS

Malacca, Malaysia
Photo friendliness – 8/10
Photo opportunities – 7/10

There are two areas of interest in Malacca – the stretch leading from St. Paul’s church to the fort ruins on the hill during the day, and the area across the river known as Jonker Street – especially on a Saturday night when the market is in full swing. There are also a number of old clan houses that feature traditional decoration and architecture; some are still inhabited by their respective clans and offer historical tours. Most allow photography. Like the rest of Malaysia, Malacca is fairly photo friendly; unlike the major cities, it’s also fairly pedestrian friendly. Local specialities include the cendol with gula melaka and chicken rice balls; pass on the latter, but the former can be a life saver during a hot afternoon.

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Nara. Nikon D3, 24-70/2.8

Nara, Japan
Photo friendliness – 10/10
Photo opportunities – 9/10

A bastion of old Japan, and a daytrip out of Kyoto, Nara is home to a large number of temples – in fact, so much so that one wonders where the residents actually live, and perhaps even if there are any permanent residents to the city at all. There are also a surprising number of inquisitive deer, and stalls lining the avenues between temples serving some of the best takoyaki I’ve eaten. It’s one of the few cities in which I felt I could freely photograph everything I wanted, and I did so; however, once you get tired of temples, there’s not much else and it’s time to get back on the train to head back to base.

New York, USA
Photo friendliness – 5/10?
Photo opportunities – 8/10?

I’m guessing somewhat at these numbers, because it’s been a very, very long time since I was last in New York, and that was in the days before I had a camera surgically attached to me. But I definitely felt like it wasn’t a particularly open or friendly place; it probably didn’t help at all that I was there in the middle of winter. However, it is one of the spiritual homes of street photography, and home to numerous galleries and art collections, plus no end of skyscraper architecture. At least if you feel too intimidated to shoot people, there are buildings, or other inspirations to be had from other artists. I really need to get out here again at some point in the near future.

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Nikko. Nikon D3, 24-70/2.8

Nikko, Japan
Photo friendliness – 10/10
Photo opportunities – 8/10

Nikko is a cultural heritage city much in the same vein as Nara and Kamakura; there are lots of temples, plenty of scenic things buried in dark, damp forests, and curiously little life outside that. And once again, like the other two cities, feel free to shoot away at anything and everything; but you will get bored of temples eventually. Once again, a day trip from Tokyo will suffice for most.

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Niseko. Nikon D700, Zeiss 2/28 Distagon

Niseko, Japan
Photo friendliness – 10/10
Photo opportunities – 6/10

Niseko is a place for skiiers during the winter and outdoorspeople during the summer; photography is almost entirely of the landscape variety. You’ll probably get bored of views of Mt. Yotei, but there are plenty of other interesting vignettes around – the trouble is, you’ll have to find them, and without a car or bicycle (not recommended because the place is a lot hillier than it looks) it’s difficult because things are fairly spread out. Hokkaido is probably the only place in Japan that actually has space. Personal pick – the onsen at the Hilton Niseko is outdoors and offers a fantastic view of the perfectly-conical Mount Yotei; it’s a great place to relax at the end of the day.

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Oxford. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

Oxford, England
Photo friendliness – 8/10
Photo opportunities – 7/10

Another one of my familiar hunting grounds (I spent several years here as a student). Curiously, I didn’t shoot that much at the time; mostly to do with the fact that film was expensive, and consumer digital was still some years out. Nevertheless, I returned later on, better armed and photographically somewhat wiser. Much like Cambridge, Oxford is about history, architecture, and drunken students. (I would say learning, but the public really doesn’t see much of that going on; it’s behind closed doors). The city’s main attractions are small; you could get off the bus from London at High Street, walk past the Radcliffe Camera, around Radcliffe Square, through Broad Street, and down towards St. Giles and cover most of the interesting bits. There are a number of good museums – the Pitt Rivers is probably the most interesting of the lot – which allow photography, but they’re rather dark to preserve the artefacts. Good high ISO and fast lenses are a must. Note that most colleges allow entry during the day with a fee, or for free if you have somebody on the inside to take you around. The river Cherwell is worth punting down during summer, but beware drunken students in other punts colliding with yours…

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Paris. Leica M8, 21/1.4 ASPH

Paris, France
Photo friendliness – 5/10
Photo opportunities – 8/10

Another spiritual home of street photography, Paris’ grand avenues and boulevards provide a fantastic backdrop to the lives of its inhabitants. Sadly, those inhabitants aren’t usually that friendly, and I’ve received my fair share of abuse and rude gestures when trying to photograph them. (Curiously, I’ve also had a guy on a bicycle yell out ‘Nice Leica!’ from about 30 yards away). Aside from the huge number of museums – it’s a great place to see both traditional art masterpieces, for inspiration – there are also a lot of small galleries and bookstores dotted around the city, many of which specialize in Photography. There’s plenty of old architecture, and a concentration of newer stuff at La Defense; the Ille de la Cite during summertime is a particularly nice place to shoot street, as are the artificial beaches along the Seine (Paris Plage). I’m told there’s also an excellent aviation museum out at Le Bourget, but I’ve never gotten around to visiting it. Particularly interesting districts are the left bank, and Montmartre.

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Penang. Nikon D3, 24-70

Penang, Malaysia
Photo friendliness – 8/10
Photo opportunities – 5/10

I personally didn’t find that much inspiration in Penang; it’s a pleasant city, but in many ways somewhat provincial and small. There’s some interesting street life – especially along Gurney Drive as the sun sets, near the food stalls – but for the most part, people come here to relax (though curiously not when driving. If you had to choose between Penang and Malacca for a day trip from Kuala Lumpur, there are far more photographic opportunities in the latter city. Penangites are perhaps the most aggressive drivers in the country). There are reasonably nice beaches further north near Batu Ferringhi and beyond. The western side of the island is mostly undeveloped and covered in rainforest. Personal favorite – afternoon tea at the E&O hotel.

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Prague. Olympus Pen Mini, 45/1.8

Prague, Czech Republic
Photo friendliness – 7/10
Photo opportunities – 9/10

I came not expecting very much. I left wanting to go back – Prague is perhaps one of the richest cities in Europe for street and urban photography opportunities. The city is divided by the river Vltava; on the western shore, you’ve got the Malostranska, Prague Castle complex, St George’s Basilica and a network of narrow old streets; the other side of the Charles Bridge is the new, commercial center of town, with broad avenues and the old town square, which contains the famous astronomical clock, several churches, a few excellent cafes, the sex machines museum, and a tower which you can climb for excellent sunset views of the city. It’s also one of the cheaper places in Europe to visit; this must have something to do with the fact that the currency isn’t the Euro. In fact, it didn’t feel much more expensive than staying home in Kuala Lumpur. There’s something about the atmosphere here that just makes it an extremely pleasant city to walk around with a camera. We spent four days here, and I feel like I barely scratched the surface. The illuminated buildings and well-lit streets are great for night photography, too.

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Sapporo. Nikon D700, Zeiss 2/28 Distagon

Sapporo, Japan
Photo friendliness – 10/10
Photo opportunities – 5/10

Sapporo may be the capital of Hokkaido, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it felt a lot like midtown New York – with its broad, grid-like streets, modern buildings, and odd combination of density and open green spaces. The issue here is that it just doens’t feel very conducive to photography; the place somehow lacks character. However, the food is especially good because a lot of it is locally grown – seafood and corn come highly recommended. But don’t come expecting it to be like Tokyo; it’s a lot more laid back.

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Singapore. Panasonic TZ3

Singapore, Singapore
Photo friendliness – 8/10
Photo opportunities – 7/10

Singapore is another city with distinct districts where one can go to shoot certain things; unlike many places in the world, people don’t mind you taking photographs inside shops; I suppose they’re savvy enough to realize that any offshoot internet publicity is good for free PR. I actually like shooting in Singapore because of the rich variety of modern architecture; there’s a few good pickings around Orchard Road, especially Ion; more downtown near Raffles Quay, and even more at Marina Bay. There’s also the new Botanic Gardens building, which promises to be interesting. On the other hand, more traditional scenes can be found around Chinatown, Club Street and the Mustafa complex; there’s a beach out at Sentosa if you like wildlife. Oh, and the Jurong Bird Park has a large and extremely well-stocked aviary – it’s a good place to practice birding. Much like Malaysia, people here think it’s normal to slip an SLR around your neck before heading out of the house. Snap away.

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Tokyo. Nikon D3, 24-70

Tokyo, Japan
Photo friendliness – 10/10
Photo opportunities – 10/10

Tokyo remains my number one place for photography. It’s a combination of a few things – the huge cultural differences between Japan and the rest of the world; the sheer size of the city, meaning that there are plenty of districts of distinctly different ages and characters; and the fact that it’s possibly the most photography-friendly city on earth. After all, most of the world’s cameras are designed in Japan…Nikon, Olympus, Ricoh, Canon and Leica all have flagship stores around Ginza, some of the most expensive real estate anywhere. In fact, that portion of Tokyo is so well lit that you can shoot ISO 200 at night and still get enough shutter speed to handhold. Aside from the usual places – Harajuku’s Takeshitadori, the Meiji Shrine, Akihabara, Omotesando, Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tsukiji – there are hidden pockets of photographic opportunity anywhere and everywhere you care to look. And the chances are you’re going to feel more inspired about being here than anywhere else, because everything is so different you feel you have to capture it. The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography out at Ebisu is worth a visit; they often have great exhibitions on. There are also a large number of small, one-room galleries all over the city which offer a good introduction to local Japanese photography. Totem Pole Gallery is a good example. Note that Kamakura, Nikko, Odawara (castle) and Hakone (Fuji) are all day-trippable from Tokyo thanks to their fast train network – though I happened to be there in December 2008 when a computer glitch somehow brought the whole thing grinding to a halt. Tokyo is one of the few places I can go to now and actually feel like I’m in a completely different world; I’m very much looking forward to going back in a couple of months for the October Workshop. (There’s still one place left, if any readers would like to join).

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Venice. Nikon D70, 24-120/3.5-5.6

Venice, Italy
Photo friendliness – 7/10
Photo opportunities – 9/10

Like Tokyo, Venice is one of the few cities left on earth that’s a true unique place unto itself – this providing a never-ending series of photographic opportunities, though you might get a bit sick of canals and museums after a while. Murano is worth a visit to see the glassmaking factories, and photograph a slower pace of life; though the Campanile is going to be crowded, ascending at sunset is recommended. Don’t go in winter, it floods and the locals are miserable – spring is probably the best time of year to visit; it isn’t oppresively hot, the locals aren’t sick of the tourists, and the place isn’t as crowded as during the peak travel season. Carnivale is of course another great time to go, from a photographic standpoint – but already expensive accommodation and food (everything comes in by boat) gets even more exorbitant.

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Vienna. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

Vienna, Austria
Photo friendliness – 7/10
Photo opportunities – 7/10

Vienna is a pleasant city. It has its historical landmarks – Stefansdom, for one – and plenty of newer, more modern, post-war concrete blocks. It’s a much smaller city than it appears on the map; everything is walkable. The Stilwerk building (designed by Jean Novel) is quite an interesting piece in its own right, especially the view from the top floor (and its seemingly frameless windows). Vienna’s highlights for the photographer are its museums and galleries: aside from the painters and artists (great permanent collections at the Belvedere and Kunsthaus; Schonnbrunn is worth a visit too), there’s the Westlicht Gallery, which has year-round photographic installations (a Weegee retrospective was on when I was there). It also happens to be neighbours with the Leica Store – the second hand equipment selection there is mind-boggling. Food is also one of Vienna’s strong points: the Nachtmarkt has great fresh produce, and a few simple eateries that make the most of that; there’s also a good selection of high end, with the two-Michelin star Steirereck being one of my favorite restaurants anywhere.

Remember to travel safe – don’t go out of your way to attract attention, and keep copies of important documents back at the hotel. Figure out the bare minimum of equipment and carry no more; the less gear you have, the more you’ll experience the city rather than worry about which lens to use, and in turn, the better images you’ll capture. Oh, and don’t forget a good pair of walking shoes. MT

For travel equipment suggestions for 2012, have a look at this article.


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