The sun was just inching up behind the Eiffel Tower. There was a cold wind blowing across the platform, whipping Dannie’s hair around, and forcing us to remind each other why we were even there. If you’re going to travel across an ocean for a photo, you have to follow through by getting up early for the best shot. Lisa’s still too young to understand why we drag her all over the place. Luckily for us, she doesn’t seem to mind. On this particular morning, up in the Trocadéro Gardens, she seemed to be more interested in the pigeons. Dannie urged me to work quickly since she and Lisa had both taken off their coats. Opening the shutter for a great photo didn’t wind up taking long, but only because of the work we’d already done.
Early Planning: Location, Location, Location
Even before we left the States, our top priority was a great Eiffel Tower photo for our family album. We wanted a family travel photo that would be immediately recognizable as Paris. Of course, we also wanted something a bit more dramatic than standing and smiling on a crowded lawn. We’ve talked before about how we scout locations that we can’t visit in person, and how we like to see what other photographers have done, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. We did a lot of that for this shoot, knowing that we wouldn’t have time to explore the entire city for the best angles.
The Trocadéro Gardens quickly stood out. The best part of the gardens is the tiled esplanade. Lined with statues, and centered directly across from the city’s most famous landmark, it gives photographers a chance to get above the crowds and souvenir shops. They are also far enough away that it’s possible to get the entire Eiffel Tower in the frame without using an unflattering wide-angle lens. We saw what other photographers had done there, and using maps and our own experience, we were able to figure out where they had been standing and when. I was also able to guess what kind of lenses they’d used, and how they’d exposed their images. Of course, there’s only so much you can learn this way. One of the most exciting aspects of travel photography is not knowing exactly what you’re going to encounter.
Putting the Photo Together
In popular cities like Paris, other people can feel like an obstacle to photography (We found this to be especially true on our trip to China). But other people can also be a valuable tool. The key is to show up early. In the evening, Trocadéro was packed with people, many of them intoxicated, taking in the view and enjoying street performers. But in the early morning, the esplanade was nearly empty, except for ourselves and a few other photographers.
We were hardly the only professional photographers exploiting the scenery in Paris. The city is home to many local pros who know all the angles, and you can see them any day of the week capturing landscapes, families and, especially, happy couples. Here’s a travel photography hint: if you see someone in a wedding dress with a photographer, watch where they go. You don’t have to copy them exactly, but odds are the photographer has already done a lot of your scouting for you. In the Trocadéro Gardens, we found this to be especially true. Here’s an example:
On our first visit to the gardens, we were somewhat annoyed by men who stood around hawking Eiffel Tower statues. These vendors are everywhere in Paris, and they can be a little intrusive. We’d gotten up early, but not as early as one man, who stood with his figurines, right in the center of one of the best views, photobombing anyone who might want to get a shot (You can find him in the B&W photo above). Dannie grumbled about how she would have to photoshop him out, but we dealt with it. It turned out that there was more going on than we realized. As we left that morning we saw something that made us realize we’d be coming back again. After we’d finished, we saw a photographer snapping pictures of a family crouched down among dozens of pigeons.
That same photobomber was standing to the side tossing out feed, then waving his bag to scare the birds into flight. We finally realized that the man wasn’t trying to ruin our photos. He was hoping we’d pay him to make them better. Even though you’re not supposed to feed wild animals, we knew it was going to happen again the next morning.
Making the Eiffel Tower Our Own
So that’s how we found ourselves there on the esplanade du Trocadéro a second time. We brought a stale brioche that we’d saved from the night before. I tossed out crumbs while Dannie and Lisa posed. The hard part was making the birds fly and taking a photo at the same time. After watching me struggle for a while, that same man approached with his bag of goods and pulled out a box of feed. He tossed out some food, attracting still more pigeons, and helped me get the shot. I asked him afterward how much he wanted for his assistance, but in the end, he only accepted payment in the form of a purchase; I bought a statue that’s sitting beside the computer on our desk right now.
It was worth the effort and the ten euros I paid for the statue. At the end of the day, photography is all about memories for us. Of course our Eiffel Tower photos from the Trocadéro Gardens will help us remember our time there, but it goes beyond that. In the process of creating those photos, we did more than point a camera. We walked the streets of Paris before dawn. We visited dozens of locations with stunning views (these weren’t the only photos we took, after all). And we spent a lot of time together as a family. Photography forces you to go out and really explore, seeking out the best that a city has to offer. And in a city as beautiful as Paris, the best was even better than we’d hoped!
Note from Dannie: Walking around Paris we saw so much beautiful artwork. There were paintings in museums and prints for sale on the street. When I was editing the photos from this shoot I was inspired by the beautiful, larger than life colors of some of the oil paintings we saw.
Have you ever returned to a site just to take another photo? Where was it and what inspired you to come back?