Get a New Perspective: 7 Ways to Capture Unique Landscape Photos in Popular Locations

In popular locations, like Yosemite’s Tunnel View, it can be nearly impossible to find yourself alone. So, unless you are looking for a social experience, it is often more productive to get the classic “hero” shot out of the way quickly so you are willing to take more risks and explore. All photos © Josh Miller Photography

Have you ever made that bucket list trip to follow in the footsteps of the great masters of landscape photography by visiting places like Yosemite or Yellowstone but wished you came home with photos that didn’t look like those taken by everyone else? While standing in a crowd with 50 other photographers at a viewpoint might be a fun way to make friends and chat about gear, it is unlikely you are going to produce many new or unique photos.

And while it’s fun to test ourselves against those who came before us by shooting the same scenes, it also leads to a bit of a creative dead end. The struggle is how to create something new in these popular landscape locations when it seems like every shot has already been taken.

Try these seven tips to help get your creative juices flowing.

This shot from the valley rim in Yosemite is anything but the typical “classic” shot. Not only did it require me visiting the park in the off-season, it also involved a lot of research to find a potential location. Additionally, there was a 10-mile ski tour to be at the location for the best light and, oh yeah, another 10-mile ski home in the morning.

1. Move Beyond the Classic “Hero” Shot
The first step to creating unique images in well-known locations is to shoot the classic “hero” shot. I know you might be thinking this is exactly the opposite of creating something new, but once this well-known shot has been checked off the list, you are no longer tempted by it or feel like you are missing something. By having the “hero” shot in the bank, you are more willing to take creative risks and walk past the crowd. Many times heading in the opposite direction from the crowd can mean you miss the big show, but by taking this risk you are also in the running for an even bigger show. Imagine shooting the classic Horsetail Fall in Yosemite from a viewpoint no one has ever tried before. Once I had the “hero” shot in the bank I was far more willing to spend the entire day focused on getting to a potential location that was not a guarantee.

Once I had already skied 10 miles out on the Yosemite rim at sunset, I stuck around and shot this unique winter view of Yosemite Falls at sunrise. While it’s a fairly unique angle even during the summer, by shooting it in winter I was able to not only capture bigger flows but also a dusting of snow as well.

2. Go Back Regularly
Another key to going deeper in well-known locations is the ability to return on a regular basis. In my case, Yosemite is just five hours away and I go several times a year, in different seasons. By visiting there regularly, I have the opportunity to capture the classic “hero” shots when they present themselves, but it also gives me the chance to explore new locations or return to favorite ones time and time again. Getting to know the park has allowed me to adapt to changing weather and create images that many photographers drive right past because they are not included in the “guidebook.” This point holds true when you look at my very thin portfolio from parks I have only visited for a limited time. While I have many of the “classic” shots from these parks, the unique images require time and exploration. As I have developed as an artist, I find myself less interested in visiting new locations, but rather wanting to go back and dig deeper into familiar ones.

In 2006 my wife and I spent a week camping at Wonder Lake in Denali National Park hiking and exploring. While I shot several of the “classic” images during sunrise/sunset, I spent the days scouting for new locations. The last night of our trip I happened upon a pond very close to camp that offered up a unique view of Denali with Alaska cotton. It is also good to note that this image was made with an early generation digital camera of only six megapixels yet it still gets published regularly. This proves the point you don’t need the newest fancy camera to be successful, but rather a strong, unique composition.

3. Do Research
The next best thing to returning to a location on a regular basis is good in-depth research. Where have other photographers gone and what have they produced? Do you want to just replicate their work or use their work to inform you of potential new compositions? There are two schools of thought on this in terms of the value of looking at the work of other photographers prior to visiting, but I am firmly in the camp that the more I know about a location the more productive I will be. Looking through a photographer’s website or Instagram feed often gives me ideas of other angles, compositions, and seasons. After my initial research online and in books, I dig deeper into the specifics with paper/digital maps and The Photographer’s Ephemeris app on my iPhone—the app helps me see where the sun and moon will be on any given day at my location. Add in a bit of Google Earth and I have a very good idea of a location before I even leave home. Thus, I spend less time driving around exploring and more time being productive with my camera.

Wanting to create an image of Half Dome lined up behind El Capitan, I left busy Tunnel View and started exploring further up the road with a longer lens. Eventually, after a bit of hiking, I found a location that allowed me to take advantage of the compression ability of a long focal length to bring Half Dome in tight behind El Capitan.

4. Make a Shot List
One of the tried-and-true tools of professional photographers is not which camera they use, but rather the shot list they create prior to a shoot. While landscape photographers may not be going on a professional commercial shoot, the concept still very much applies. If you have done your research and have a good idea of what opportunities exist, creating a list of “goals” will help keep you focused so you can stick to your creative vision. Here are some questions to ask yourself: Do I want my shots to have iconic recognizable landmarks, or are smaller intimate scenes my goal? Is there one particular shot that is my main goal, and everything else can happen if it happens? The more you have an idea before you arrive, the more productive your shooting time will be.

Cameras can handle a lot more rain than we think, so staying out in bad weather is worth the risk. This was the case with my image of a double rainbow in Glacier National Park. While this popular location was crowded with photographers at sunrise, they all went running for their cars as soon as it started raining. I stuck around and while my camera and I were soaked by the time the storm broke, I also had the rainbows all to myself.

5. Walk Past the Crowd
Put on those hiking boots and get away from the road. You don’t need to be a backpacker or mountaineer (though it couldn’t hurt) to get away from the crowd. In most national parks the majority of visitors never walk more than a few hundred yards from the paved road. You don’t have to walk far to leave them all behind and find your own view or your own wildlife. Challenges such as parking or tripod space have even created fistfights or traffic accidents in some popular locations. Once you have that “classic” shot in the bank avoid this chaos and start exploring. In places like Yosemite or Denali National Park, a 10-minute walk off the road can lead to great rewards.

In popular locations, such as Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, most photographers just shoot from the road because there are no designated viewpoints. But a short walk from the road led me to a spot where I could place the iconic peaks of the Yosemite high country against a herd of deer.

6. Use a Different Lens
When you were doing your research did you notice that all the shots were taken with a wide angle? Next time, after taking a couple of wide shots to get it out of your system, put on the telephoto and start isolating parts of the scene. Often you may still want to include recognizable landmarks but by looking for long lens shots at grand viewpoints photographers are able to create more depth and often more drama. Imagine including Half Dome and El Capitan together in a shot, but isolating them into a tight composition that makes Half Dome look right behind El Capitan.

For years I have wanted to create a strong image of Tuolumne Meadows at sunset. While I am far from the first photographer to venture off the road in this location, spending the time to explore along the river prior to sunset helped lead me to a composition that allowed me to tie the dramatic clouds to the meadow ecosystem.

7. Visit in the Off-Season
While many popular locations are packed during peak season, often these locations are nearly empty in the off-season. Sure, the regular tourists want it to be warm and sunny when they visit Yosemite, but for us photographers we want the exact opposite. We want big storms, fresh snow, and the crazy light shows that come with clearing winter storms. Wintertime in most national parks is often less crowded, cheaper, and often offers a greater chance to create something a bit different from the norm. Even classic viewpoints take on a different feel in harsh weather, and lesser-known locations become truly unique. Places like Yosemite still have plenty of untapped scenes if you are willing to work for it and suffer through some weather. Remember that camera is far more weather sealed than you give it credit for and can take way more abuse than you think. Get it wet, risk some scratches, and create something new.

Josh Miller’s images have been featured in publications throughout the world and his work is represented by Aurora Photos. To find out more about his work and his workshops, follow Miller on Facebook and Instagram @joshmillerphotography or check out his website,