Protected Places

Photographing UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Pinnacles above Huangshi, Wulingyuan National Park, China

The light had traveled for endless miles across the world’s most fearsome desert to reach me. The clarified rays were a color of crimson I had never experienced. I was alone in the Nubian deserts of Egypt photographing the monumental and ancient Abu Simbel statues at dawn. Though I knew some of the history of this otherworldly ancient edifice, I didn’t know that it had been preserved as the first gem on what would become the UNESCO World Heritage Site list—recognizing places both natural and man-made worldwide, that because of their power, beauty and history, hold importance to all of mankind.

Without really paying much attention, I learned I had been on a mission to photograph such places for years, selling the images as stock photography or as prints in my gallery to cover the costs. Almost every spot I determined as “world class” was on the list, which now totals over 1,000 places. Eventually, my images would become a traveling exhibit, which opened at the UN Office in Geneva. Other professionals, including David Muench, also have made photographing these stellar locations an important part of their careers.

Travelers, especially those from Europe and Asia, often plan their trips with visiting UNESCO areas in mind, and some countries vigorously lobby to get as many candidates as possible on the list. You can find information about the process and the program online in many places, including whc.unesco.org, but the most important thing you’ll take away is that even with this protection, many UNESCO locales are in danger from development: air and water pollution, neglect, war, lack of funding and, ironically, visitation. Another thing you might take away is that the time to visit and photograph these amazing wonders is now.

You may even end up, like me, inadvertently creating images of places and things that no longer exist. Rock art in Libya, for example, which I photographed, has been destroyed in the aftermath of the fighting there. One of the program’s most important goals is to protect Earth’s precious places from the ravages of war, but that hasn’t always been possible.


Giraffe petroglyphs, Jebel Acacus, Libya

My Favorite Lesser-Known UNESCO World Heritage Sites

In looking at the list of UNESCO sites, many will jump out as obvious photography bucket-list spots, but I’ve visited a few that are truly world class, but not so well known. (I’ve left out American sites, which are familiar to all.) They may have less infrastructure, but they’re among the best photo destinations in the world and, I predict, all will be welcoming hordes of photographers in 10 years. Once again, the message is to go now.

1 Wulingyuan National Park, China
Right up there with Bryce Canyon and other great geology parks of the world, Wulingyuan already has been discovered by Asian photographers, and some American tour companies operate here. Weather changes frequently, providing a constant tableau of light and scene. This is a big park, with many facets, and going in the off-season is wise.


Hardy Reef Marine Park, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia

2 Lord Howe Island, Australia
This small island off the Australian East Coast is one of the world’s most scenic islands. Though not part of the Barrier Reef, the beaches stand below a gigantic mountain that towers over this photographer’s paradise. In season, you can do aerial photos of the island and its environs, including Ball’s Pyramid, the world’s highest seastack, rising abruptly out of the ocean to over 1,800 feet high.

3 San Agustín Archaeological Park, Colombia
Colombia is so close and its wonders so many, I think photographers will be drawn to this site, featuring ancient Easter Island-like statues in verdant and cool mountains. Thousands of years old, these statues are enigmatic and highly photogenic. Caño Cristales, the amazing river of many colors, isn’t yet a UNESCO site, but should be.

4 Kizhi Pogost, Russian Federation
A main stop on the river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow, this island is the home of a number of stunning wooden Russian Orthodox churches and is one of Russia’s best photography locales. It takes some time (the cruise was great), but it’s well worth the trip to photograph these psychedelic-looking, wooden onion-studded marvels from the 18th century.


Ait-Ben-Haddou, Morocco

5 Ait-Ben-Haddou, Morocco
I first became aware of this fabulous ancient desert city, the most amazing of its kind, from the movie, Gladiator. It actually has been used in practically every movie about the Middle East you’ve ever seen, going back to Lawrence of Arabia, and it’s easy to get to. Tucked along the side of a Saharan mesa, I used all my planning skills to make sure I was there when there was a chance of clouds (September), when temperatures were moderate and the best views were lit by a 90º sun angle.


Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

6 Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
The lakes here are nice, but it’s the blue-green waterfalls that people come to see and photograph. When I visited, I was struck by the helpfulness and welcoming quality of the park personnel to photographers. The rangers went out of their way to help me and gave great advice about where to go when. Visit this park in spring, when the waterfalls will be most vigorous and the lush greenery is coming alive. I’ve also seen published images of Plitvice in winter that looked magical.

Any photographer who surveys the UNESCO World Heritage Site list will discover intriguing names and places that translate into great photos. If it’s on the list, it’s something very special, and any photography trip will benefit by visiting at least some of these treasures of human and natural creation.

Tom Till has been photographing landscape, nature and travel images for over 40 years. His latest book, Photographing the World, was recently published, and he continues an active shooting schedule in the field from his home in Moab, Utah. He’s a frequent contributor to OP. Visit tomtillphotography.com.


Iguazu Falls, Iguazu Falls National Park, Brazil

Tips For Photographing UNESCO World Heritage Sites

1. Prepare diligently before visiting a new location of any kind. A world-class photo of a world-class place requires homework. Look at images others have shot, study climate data to determine the best time of year to visit, and review Internet chatter and website info. The Photographer’s Ephemeris (photoephemeris.com) can help you with the very important sun position data at places you’ll be working. My book, Photographing the World, is a great resource, covering 201 of the world’s greatest landscape photography locations. Other guidebooks will help, too. In looking at my office library, I see several hundred such tomes, with Lonely Planet, DK and Fodor’s represented the most.

2. Give World Heritage subjects enough time. At Iguazu Falls, I spent a week with only a three-kilometer trail to hike, and I got new and great image opportunities every day. On day three, I discovered the drop-dead gorgeous rainbow I had missed up to that point. At the world’s most remarkable natural gestures, change comes on a moment-to-moment basis. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have it all in the bag—something new will always come. Mountain photography can take much longer than any other kind, so give it extra time. I don’t know how many days I’ve waited for storms to clear off the peaks around the globe, but it seems like a lifetime.

3. Guides can be indispensable. At many places with good infrastructure, low crime and few language issues, I don’t hire guides. I operate like I do at home, traveling independently on my own schedule and with my own agenda. I’ve been to Australia 14 times and have only hired guides twice, both times just for specific areas. Conversely, I'd never go to China or Brazil unguided. You can hire the guides yourself from travel companies, as I’ve done many times, with mostly excellent results. Sometimes I’ve had to be both good cop and bad cop, and remind my guide that I’m in charge, but usually, if you’re assertive and single-minded, your guide will abide. Many companies advertise in this magazine, offering trips to UNESCO sites that would be difficult to manage on your own. I’ve been on a few of these and find that sometimes they have special privileges that I could never get myself. I also found that though I was part of a group, I had some freedom to approach subjects the way I wanted and branch out a little on my own. I’ve also found subjects on tours that I’ve returned to shoot later on my own under conditions of weather or lighting I thought was better. So, you might consider a tour as a scouting trip for certain UNESCO sites you want to photograph in more depth on your own.

4. Try to get something different. World Heritage locations have been photographed a lot, obviously—the Grand Canyon is one big example. The Japanese have done an awfully good job of shooting Mount Fuji, but I found a reflecting pond that I don’t think anyone had ever used before. Located in the suburbs below the mountain and about a two-mile walk from my bed and breakfast, maybe it was just accidentally overlooked. I waited five days (becoming a convert to sake) for a foggy morning when the peak played hide-and-seek and the water was glassy. I also was there in the spring when snow on the mountain was at its maximum. The very grandeur of these places makes them hard to shoot sometimes when you think of all the photographers who have come before. Remember, though, that nature gives us all those lucky breaks if we put in the time, and that waiting for a photo op in one of the world’s most beautiful places is hardly punishment.

5. Reconsider equipment strategies. After 35 years of 4x5 photography in over 100 countries, I’ve learned to be wary about approaching photography at World Heritage Sites. Rules about backpacks and tripods vary greatly in their existence and enforcement. Generally, you can expect human-created places to have more restrictive rules for photography than natural areas—but not always. Countries that are hard on photographers include Italy (I’ve been kicked out of Trevi Fountain four times), Greece, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada and many others. Asian countries seem the most lenient, with the exception of some
places in Japan, and India, where about half the sites I visited banned tripods and half did not. The best solution I’ve found is the new Sony a7R II with its small size, high resolution and state-of-the-art, tripod-not-needed SteadyShot feature. No backpacks, no tripods, no big cameras—no problem.

6. Remember, the site is always more important than your photograph. We’re all tempted to do whatever it takes to come home with the goods—a great image. After all, we’ve spent a great deal of time, money and energy on this pursuit, and we want to succeed. We all need to keep this simple mantra above in mind. As I saw on a web post today: “Don’t even leave footprints.”

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