News & Reviews News How do I photograph hotels?

The most frequent question I am asked is: what camera are you using?  Ok, that only happened once – when some guy tried to mug me in Cambodia.  All the same, I will tell you.

Warning: in the spirit of disclosure, I make absolutely no money from anything you buy, as I cannot be bothered to setup affiliate links.  You’re welcome.  `

What credentials do I have?

None.  Let me be clear: I am not an expert; I do not pretend to be one, not even when trying to wrangle freebies from hotels.  What I am, is someone who spends an abnormal amount of time in hotels, that for some reason decides to photograph them and does it to a standard slightly better than your average TripAdvisor reviewer.  Plus this blog is free, so suck it up and stop questioning me.

My camera equipment

Fact: my fiancée loves nothing more than our luggage consisting of 95% camera gear.  I think all women do.  Gone are the days where we would have luxuries like underwear, toothbrushes and life-saving medicine.  There’s only so much room in our luggage and those malaria tablets ain’t gonna make that sunset look any better.

  • Canon 5D Mark IV
  • Canon BG-E20 Battery Grip
  • Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM
  • Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
  • Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM
  • Canon 1.4x EF Extender III
  • Really Right Stuff BH-55 PCLR
  • Gitzo GT2545T Traveler Tripod Series 2
  • LEE Filters ND Filters and Polariser

I will only carry the 100-400 and Extender on a wildlife trip, otherwise everything else will be stapled to me.  Note:  leaving the tripod behind would be more severe than losing my passport.

Why bother?

I really have no idea.  It feels like the worlds loneliest competition, which is to say it’s one I have with myself.  It’s gone from wanting to capture memories, to wishing to show the true reality of the hotel, to trying to recreate the hotels own photos, to trying to create the most perfect photos I’m capable of.

When I started traveling back in 2013 it seemed a waste not to capture the memories.  Plus, Facebook.  I was in my mid-20’s and probably cared what other people thought.  This was back in an era when you could make money selling digital cameras online (ask your grandparents about it), and one of my clients from my software company was doing just that.  At his advice, I got a Canon 60D.  In 2015 that was upgraded to a 5D Mark III and then the current Mark IV.  It was not until I got the Mark III that I bothered to learn how anything worked, beyond turning the camera on and changing it to Automatic.  Those were halcyon days.

I then started to find it interesting to compare the hotels websites pictures vs my own.  The best was seeing the sheer scale of Photoshopping, which even included adding in mountains that simply weren’t there.  When I finish reading this Photoshop book, I hope to randomly add 18 hot air balloons into every single picture.  I’ll throw in 4 or 5 tigers too, just because.

I am not taking pictures to sell the property, I am taking them for my own desire to make something look great.  If I have stayed in the worst hotel in the world, told you it’s rubbish, but the pictures still make you want to go, then I have done a wonderful job.

The worst photographer

I am one of the strangest photographers you will come across.  I have less than 200 photos on my iPhone, never take pictures at home, and now don’t even carry my camera around with me when outside of a hotel (except safari).  I went to Machu Picchu and took more photos of the Belmond Hiram Bingham train than of the monument.  The idea of taking thousands, even hundreds, of photos each day and having to edit them and delete the duds fills me with dread.  Plus I expect everywhere to evacuate the buildings if I’m coming with my camera – heaven forbid other people get in the way of my art project.

Do the hotels mind?

Definitely not.  It initially felt weird and intrusive having so much camera equipment on me, no matter the scenario.  Romantic meal?  Tripod and camera.  Walk along the beach?  There’s Mr. Tripod, holding our hands.  Horse riding?  Mounting a tripod on a horse.  Ok, maybe not that far.  Turns out no one ever cares, as long as you weren’t raised by animals and have manners.  Everyone is an “influencer” these days, so they are probably used to it.  In fact, most are more than happy for you to do it.  Even Cape Kidnappers, who allowed me to photograph another room, but then sent someone to stand near me the entire time.  I’m not sure what they thought they were preventing, but I’m glad that everyone walked away without any blood being spilt.

How long does it take?

This has dramatically changed over the years.  Initially I’d just snap a few pictures and Bob’s your Uncle.  Then I would carry my camera around most of the time and snap some more without any consideration for anything, least of which it being a good photo.

When I started writing this blog, I was slowly moving into hobbyist territory.  I think the key moment came when first booking North Island.  There were no reliable reviews of the property, so it felt a good time to put some effort in to change that.  As fortunate would have it, the Hotel Manager on North Island was very much into his photography.  I think I learnt more in a few hours with him vs prior years of randomly pushing buttons, no better than a monkey with a typewriter.

Now, it can take anywhere from a few hours to an entire day, but spread out of a few days.  There are some important considerations:

  • I never want any guest in the shot.  This is a matter of politeness, and that you’re probably not very attractive so will ruin my perfectly good photo
  • I want the sun out.  The sun makes everything better, yet it doesn’t always play by my rules
  • Sometimes I want sunset and sunrise as the hotels were awkward (I think deliberately) and couldn’t just build every facility facing the same direction
  • How much free time I have before the crowds descend

I will take pictures every day, but try and get it out of the way almost immediately if the weather is good.  That sun can be a right ol’ swine.  If we’re only there for a day, I will rarely bother taking any pictures at all.  I do not have the desire to travel significant distances, photograph the room and then go and do all the facilities.

Let me give you a breakdown of what I do.

Stage 1: don’t even breath 

Most hotels involve some large degree of travel to get to.  That means I’m tired, hungry and hate everything, including the person showing us around.  Send me to my room, leave me in peace and stop offering me newspapers.  We then have to sit there for 20 odd minutes, waiting for all the luggage to arrive, at which point breathing is prohibited.  Nothing can be touched.  The entire room must be perfect.  I do not want our luggage and any other distractions within the photos.  So we sit there in absolute silence, just in case the sound waves accidentally knocks one of the mosquito nets, which trips it onto a candle, sets the entire building on fire and kills a local politician, which then gets blamed on North Korea and WW3 breaks out.

If the travel to the hotel was too significant, this step will not happen.  I will either have to tidy the room up or ask the hotel for another room purely for the use of photographing.  As I now care about the lighting conditions, I may also wait until later in the trip.  Depending how I feel about the hotel, I will either not take any pictures at all or do the best I can, whilst waiting for it better light.  There is always the possibility that it’s just going to get worse.

Stage 2: scope out the joint

If I had enough time, I would do this before.  But I’m in a hotel every few days, plus you scoundrels want me to write about it too.  And then I have an actual job.  And there’s also Netflix to contend with.

Let’s pretend I do some actual prep before though and it’s simply not good enough, so I have to go look around.  This is often a site tour by reception or just wandering around aimlessly.  I’ll review their own website, Google Images, 500px.com, and, whilst I almost never remember, browse Flickr.  I never bother with Instagram, as I’m not going to get inspired by someone’s lunch or what they look like in underwear.

Stage 3: Immediately review

The ideal scenario is I will shoot everything on the first day, review it that evening, edit it in Lightroom and note down anything anything I screwed up to reshoot.  Chances are that if I have 5 days, I will appreciate the huge amount of time afforded to me and do nothing until the 4th day, find its raining and then promise never to do that again.

Stage 4:  Reshoot

Like Groundhog Day, I will then do it all over again, whilst learning from my mistakes.  I’ll wait for the right conditions, see what went wrong and remove all those pigeons from my Indian photos.  Normal stuff like that.

Stage 5:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance

These pictures are great.  I hate these pictures.  If only I knew Photoshop.  I will never be good enough.  I’m better than hotels4life69urmumma on Instagram.

Stage 6:  Publish

For every 10 pictures I take, only 1 will make it.  From those remaining I go and favourite them.  Then I review what is missing and add those in too – as I’m not exactly going to favourite a picture of a bathroom.  Then it’s time to put it on Flickr and my blog, so lots of bots can come along and tell me how great viagra is.

Have you improved?

Anything prior to 2016 is awful.  Most of 2016 is dreadful.  2017 starts to improve.  2018 passes as acceptable.

Let me show you some images from the same hotel but over different visits.

Iniala 2015:  An absolute disgrace.  I couldn’t even be bothered for the guy to get out of the picture. Lazy AND poor manners.

Iniala 2017:  I already want to reshoot this, but at least you can see it.

Aman-i-Khas 2015: Even I have no idea what this is.  It could be Hitler’s bunker.

Aman-i-Khas 2019: I may have an idea of what this is.  Probably a room.  Maybe HItler’s bunker?

Aman Tokyo 2015: Stretch Armstrong wants his picture back

Aman Tokyo 2017: Someone forgot their wide angel lens.

Biggest regret

Villa Honegg.  I love those photos, but they give you the impression of a decent property.  My apologies.

Conclusion

So the next time you see one of my photos and it sucks, just realise it took a lot of effort to make it that awful.

Why Travel With Us?

  • We Get You

    As members of the same privileged communities we serve, we know what it takes to deliver extraordinary experiences.

  • Connections Count

    Dorsia Travel is always up to speed on the best places to go - and the agency’s clients are always assured the warmest of VIP welcomes.

  • Hands-on and Honest

    We deliver expert recommendations and guidance with unwavering honesty so you can enjoy the best experience with your friends and family.

Your Journey Begins Here

While every trip is fully bespoke and completely unique, Dorsia Travel doesn’t charge its clients fees; trips typically start at US$2,500 per person per day.

Contact Us

Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 10th Feb '19

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

More About Tom