Photo opportunities in visitor attractions

I've been thinking recently about visitor attractions - museums, theme parks, art galleries and so on - and the ways in which they can, either intentionally or not, create great photo opportunities which help to enhance the visitor experience.

The link between photography and visitor attractions goes back almost as far as the invention of photography itself. Early photo-based postcards, for example, were sold at visitor attractions and tourist spots, with depictions of the nice views or main attractions. The point of these was either to send to someone, as a way of saying 'I was here', or to keep yourself as a souvenir and visual reminder of your visit. It even became possible to have 'personal postcards', in which a photographer would take your picture and instantly develop it into a postcard which you could take home. This novelty added a personal dimension to the photos, and was the start of the infamous tourist snap, where families gather together to be photographed standing in front of well-known landmarks - the ultimate proof of having been somewhere.

Photo by -luz-, shared under a CC-BY-NC-SA licence.

As photography became a less expensive and more accessible hobby, tourists got increasingly snap-happy, and visitor attractions quickly cottoned on to the opportunities that this presented. Selling rolls of film became a key money-spinner, a way of capitalising on visitors who had either forgotten to bring any, or had taken so many photos that they needed more film. Even today, most visitor attractions still sell 35mm film in their shops, and it's usually not too difficult to spot sponsored "Kodak / Fuji / Agfa film sold here" signs, which have been in place for decades.

As a way of encouraging film sales, attractions soon sought to promote photo opportunities with signposted vantage points, often even marked on the map and sponsored by a film manufacturer. The cuddly mascot characters that theme parks are famous for, especially Disney, have always spent much of their day being photographed with young children. Even those boards you see at old seaside resorts - where you poke your head through a head-shaped hole in order to appear within some amusing painted scene - whilst probably pre-dating tourist photography, play heavily into the hand of this kind of photo souveniring.

Kodak are the company most famously associated with tourist photography, and they even have a slogan - 'Kodak moments' - to describe the activity and the resulting photos.

Theme parks have probably done more than any other type of visitor attraction to capitalise on the photography phenomenon. The advent of faster and faster thrill rides made theme parks all about experiencing strong emotions - mostly excitement and fear - emotions which might last fleetingly, but which can be captured on film and kept forever. For this reason, automatic on-ride photographs were developed early, and is now something no major new ride is without.

Digital photography, and cameraphones, have only made amateur photography ever more prevalent. Every news event, rock concert, art installation and celebrity sighting now features a crowd of people with mobile phones held up on outstretched arms, snapping grainy photographs to send to friends.

With visitors now taking digital photos on their own cameras and mobile phones, the possibility of directly making money through selling consumables has pretty much eroded, but there are many reasons why visitor attractions should still encourage photo opportunities. Taking photos adds to the enjoyment for visitors, and gives them an additional activity to occupy their day. Photos taken are a way of later reminding people what a good time they had, increasing the likelihood of their return. Additionally, digital photos are more likely to be shared - by MMS, email or on websites like Flickr - which helps to promote the attraction to a wider group of people, via trusted social networks - the ultimate form of marketing.

Of course, the ubiquity of digital photography also poses a risk to visitor attractions, such as intended surprises being given away, or worse, of potentially exposing mistakes, eyesores and embarrassments to a wide audience. Generally, though, people taking photos should be considered a good sign, and a way for your visitors to promote your attraction for you.

So what does this mean for visitor attractions today?

Well, if you're designing experiences that your visitors actively take part in, you should consider making space for a photo vantage point, and actively promoting it.

For example, the Test Site installation at Tate Modern (more commonly known as 'the slides') was an exciting 'ride' type experience. Whilst it was an impressive sculpture to photograph as a panorama, it was also good fun to take photos of people whizzing out the bottom of the slide. Taking photos of strangers feels a bit weird though, and so the 'money shot' was getting an amusing picture of your friend or family member. Indeed, I remember observing quite a few family groups where the mum or dad would refuse to go on the slide, and so would wait at the bottom with a camera, ready to snap their kids emerging from the slide. Unfortunately, this was more difficult than it could have been, as you could never be sure when the person you were waiting for was about to come down the slide. This could have been solved with a few video monitors at the bottom of the slides which showed you who was getting on.

Other examples of ready-made photo opportunities might include the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum (how good would it be if you could pose right next to a big T-rex?) or the Treetop Walkway at Kew Gardens (where photo spots could offer a good viewpoint from which to photograph your vertigo-suffering friends, 18 metres up in the air).

Madame Tussauds is probably the attraction that's made the most of the desire for visitors to photograph each other. Whilst the waxworks have always made for amusing photos, the real opportunity came with their decision to allow visitors to touch the waxworks (previously they were protected by barriers). This allows people to now pose with their arm around their favorite stars, or even to pinch their bum, stick two fingers up, and so on - all of which can be captured on camera and later shared online. The attraction is even encouraging visitors to upload their photos to their dedicated Flickr group - a pretty clear indication of the value they place on the visitor's photography experience.

Dressing-up can be pretty effective way of encouraging visitor photography too. When I visited Edinburgh Castle a few weekends back, one of the museums inside the castle had a room where you could try on various bits of armour, helmets, swords and so on. As well as teaching you something about what was previously like to be a soldier (the armour was damn heavy), it also encouraged visitors to laugh at each other, and get their (mobile phone) cameras out - it was so popular we sometimes had to wait for a 'go', even though the museum wasn't busy.

As well as making it easier for visitors to take good photos of each other, attractions can do interesting things with visitor's identities. I've seen plenty of exhibits at science museums which take photos of your face and transform it in some way (making you look younger/older/the opposite sex), but few offer an easy way to take the rendered image home with you. Whilst there have been experiments using Bluetooth or the internet to send you the images, a low-fi alternative might be to just project it big on a wall, and let visitors photograph the projection.

In short, taking photographs on your mobile phone camera has become so ubiquitous and such a natural activity, that it should now be playing a part in the design of visitor experiences.