How to find unusual and off-the-beaten-track sites for photography

How to find unusual and off-the-beaten-track sites for photography

First published:
August 18, 2022
July 28, 2023

Shipwreck in Reykjavík by Carlos M. Almagro

6 top tips for finding photogenic places like shipwrecks, industrial relics and ancient sites that aren’t already all over Instagram

Do you love photographing abandoned buildings? How about shipwrecks, rusting machinery and deserted industrial landscapes? Finding a unique and photogenic site that isn't already crawling with tourists is not easy, but just a little research can get you and your camera away from the crowds and in front of something truly special. From useful online resources and apps to valuable reference books and maps, looking for unusual subjects to photograph will get you inspired as well as informed.

Here are some of our top tips to get you started…

1 Searching online

Ghost City in Namib Desert, Namibia. Photo by Olli Carstens - f/14 | ISO 100 | 1/3s

The Internet is crammed full of information that any patient photographer can locate and use for their own purposes. In some of the most unlikely places it is possible to find resources such as a map of shipwrecks around the UK, ghost towns in the US you can visit and the exhaustive information in Web Urbanist’s Ultimate 33-Part Urbanist Guide to Abandoned Places, to name just three. Your initial research will likely find dozens of magazine style articles, which are a great place to start but don't necessarily give you the information you need.

Google Maps is an incredible resource for finding and verifying unusual historic sites. Simply enter into the search bar phrases like ‘shipwreck’, ‘neolithic’ or ‘castle’ and you will find their exact location as well as some basic photographs.

Author tip:

Another classic website if you’re going on a road trip around the US or Canada is Roadside America, a quirky guide to 15,000 offbeat tourist attractions such as monuments, odd architecture, caves, mines and tiny museums. It’s also available as an app for Apple devices. 

2 Atlas Obscura

The World. Photo by Derek Viars

Perhaps the best online resource for researching potential photographic locations is Atlas Obscura, a virtual tour guide to the world’s extraordinary sights, many of which would never make it into the average travel guide or tour itinerary. Packed with bizarre and unexpected curios such technicolor rocks, a geyser in Pennsylvania and a Shinto shrine filled with bunnies, you can search by city, by your location or using a world map. You can even go random.

Author tip:

Each entry on Atlas Obscura comes not only with information on the curio itself, but a grid reference and a link to Google Maps. You'll also get information on what other entries in the vast database are nearby, so you can plan a shoot that takes in two or three different sites.

3 Explore offline sources

A good read. Photo by Philip Gassor - f/1.6 | ISO 560 | 1/250s

It's so easy to research online any subject you care to, but most people overlook valuable off-line sources that may have not made it into the digital world yet. We're talking here, of course, about books. There are hundreds of well researched books packed with little known information on finding photogenic places, from books about shipwrecks and aviation landmarks to ghost towns and neolithic sites.

Some excellent reference resources include Julian Cope’s ‘The Modern Antiquarian’ and the ‘The Megalithic European’, Mathew Growcoot’s ‘Abandoned: The most beautiful & forgotten places from around the world’ and Travis Elborough’s ‘Atlas of the Unexpected’ and ‘Atlas of Forgotten Places’.

Author tip:

You can obviously buy reference books by experts online, and even read some of them on Google Books. However, if you can find some books that are out of print that will probably ensure that most of the information inside will be relatively less well known.

4 Go walking

Ben Nevis and the Corpach shipwreck. Photo by Andrew Briggs - f/11 | ISO 50 | 1/60s

There are few better ways of finding unusual things to photograph than going for a walk. Whether you do a walking tour around a city or new venture into the countryside, you're sure to tread in the footprints of previous generations. For example, you can find the UK's top walks with ancient sights, explore America's Greatest National Historic Trails or choose from Historical Walks of the World.

You can even find niche interest walks such as the Peak District Aircraft Wrecks Walk Route in the UK. Coastal villages and the spaces in-between are often a hotbed for shipwrecks, ruins and abandoned relics of industry.

Author tip:

A good example of a coastal landscape of immense variety and plenty of surprises is the Wales Coast Path, which is dotted with everything from industrial heritage to mediaeval churches to Bronze and Iron Age sites. 

5 Search the hinterlands

Face towers at Angkor Thom. Photo by Laszlo Konya - f/8 | ISO 100 | 1/100s

World-famous places attracting thousands of tourists each day are usually unpleasant places for photographers to work. However, it doesn't mean you have to abandon them completely. Tourists who are in town for just one or two days almost always head to the exact same location, typically the place that's ranked top in guidebooks. That can leave plenty of room at the lower ranked locations.

A good example of this is Siem Reap in Cambodia, home to the Angkor Wat complex of temples. Sunrise at the main temple is a complete nonstarter if you want to be on your own, but it's such a fixture on tourist itineraries that sunrise at almost any other temple in the area is a delight.

What's more, there are literally dozens of temples that most tourists never get anywhere near, such as Banteay Srei – a day trip from Siem Reap – and the more distant Prasat Krahom and Prasat Thom in Koh Ker. Similarly, you could visit dozens of Prehistoric sites in Pembrokeshire, Wales instead of visiting Stonehenge and even discover Rome off the beaten track.

Author tip:

Somewhere you definitely don't want to go when researching off the beaten track photographic opportunities is social media. Anything you see on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook has obviously already been discovered and, very likely, over-exploited on these platforms. However, you can use these platforms to make sure that anything you think might be top-secret and little-known actually is.

6 Visit an unusual country

Ancient Theater in Butrint, Albania. Photo by Jess Kraft - f/8 | ISO 200 | 1/500s

What’s the most unusual country you’ve visited? We're all tired of seeing the same photographs taken from the same vantage points in Rome, Paris and London. Of course there are plenty of little known sites within these cities that have yet to be discovered, but you'll spend a lot of time looking for them.

An easy way to make sure your photography is going to look fresh on social media is to head to a country that few other photographers visit. For example, head to Albania and you can visit the fascinating Butrint, site of a Greek colony, a Roman city and a Byzantine town. Or you could go to Ghana to photographthe last material remains of the great Asante civilization. Or how about a week in Laos capturing its mysterious megalithic Plain of Jars? If you go to all the same places as everyone else you'll end up with the same pictures.

Author tip:

The UNESCO World Heritage Sites website is an excellent resource and surprisingly varied. A total of 1,155 places in 167 countries are listed including new locations such as Peru’s Chankillo Archaeoastronomical Complex, the remote Ramappa Temple, Telangana in Telangana and the Trans-Iranian Railway.
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