Over-photographed: the Eiffel Tower

In part four of our on-going series exploring how to think differently and create something unique in popular photography spots, it’s the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

This year’s TPOTY competition category ‘Icons’ is all about how to think differently when creating images of the world’s most famous places. And what could be more familiar than the Eiffel Tower in Paris? This week we’re looking at  fresh and unusual ways you can compose shots of this marvel of architectural engineering.

Where is it?

In Paris, France’s capital city, at the end of the Champs de Mars gardens and on the banks of the river Seine.

What is it?

It’s a 300-metre high iron structure of latticed grid work that rises gracefully from four pedestal bases up into a definitive point (including a broadcast transmitter at the top), with several viewing decks visitors can climb (or get the lift!) to on the way.

How did it rise to stardom?

In 1887, a competition was launched in the Journal Officiel to design and build a monument for the 1889 World’s Fair to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the French Revolution. The winner of the competition was Gustave Eiffel, a civil engineer who’d made his name designing bridges and viaducts for the French railway network.

Stardom didn’t come immediately, however. Early detractors called the tower a “truly tragic street lamp”, a “ mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed” and “a carcass waiting to be fleshed out with freestone or brick”.

What do typical pictures look like?

Most photographers focus on the grand scale of the structure. And why not? It’s an incredible feat of engineering and it’s awe-inspiring from every angle; from far away, down below, as a landscape-shaped panorama, as portrait framing just its height, from the air with a drone. With the liquid gold of sunrise or sunset the alloys in the iron come alive and contrast piercingly with a blue sky, while images shot in or converted to black and white highlight the drama of its latticework and industrial design.

What’s the problem?

If France could be reduced to one visual icon, it would surely be the Eiffel Tower. It’s been shot in every conceivable light, from every angle and it has been extracted from its location and made into keyrings, magnets or even a souvenir for your mantelpiece. Its grandiosity and familiar shape seems to dictate the focus of your shot.

But highlighting its large scale often leads to an otherwise empty composition with lots of sky surrounding the tower. It’s easy to get sucked into shooting from an all-too-familiar viewpoint in an attempt to show as much of the structure as possible, which ends up with a very literal rendering of it. Like any architectural wonder, it was designed to look great from every conceivable angle and, having been around so long, many photographers have already experimented with different light and times of day.

Are there winning shots of the Eiffel Tower?

Yes! A straight-on shot of the tower is just a picture postcard shot and is highly unlikely to win you any awards. However, Craig Easton won Travel Photographer of the Year in 2012 with a portfolio which included a set of monochrome images incorporating the people milling around near the tower as well as a crop of the tower.

He included enough of the tower to tell you where in the world you are but subverted it by making it more of a bit-part rather than the subject. The real subject of these images is human nature and how the tower looks on, year after year, as tourists, business folk, kids, the fashion conscious and many others either use it as a backdrop to their stories or even ignore it completely. The character of the tower is shown in a completely different way. 

Chris Coe, TPOTY co-founder and chief judge says: “The judges liked the feel of the portfolio. It was about people in a public space but it was also about Paris and the tower, with even a hint of Paris’s association fashion in one of the images. It is a delightfully playful set.”

Peter Hendrie also won the TPOTY Iconic category in 2006 with an image shot with a panoramic film camera at night and horizontally. To achieve this, he went almost underneath the structure and looked up. The night sky and viewpoint removed all other distractions of surrounding buildings and other lights.

What can we learn from this?

Chris Coe, TPOTY co-founder and chief judge says “One of the most fascinating things about such iconic structures is that our familiarity with its shape allows our brain to make up the bits which are missing or excluded from an image, but that same image still unmistakably says it’s the Eiffel Tower. This gives us much more flexibility than we realise when trying to photograph it. 

“As Craig Easton’s set shows, a glimpse can just as easily say ‘Eiffel Tower’ or even ‘Paris’ or ‘France’ and, in turn, this affords us more creativity in how we choose to photograph it.”

Taking a straight-up portrait shot of a high, thin structure like the Eiffel Tower is the most logical thing to do but, taking a counter-intuitive approach, like Peter Hendre did when choosing to shoot horizontally, led to a much more intriguing and unusual depiction. 

Where else could you shoot nearby?

Paris has a long history of welcoming cutting-edge designs into its arrondissements, many of which have courted just as much distaste and outrage when initially built as the Eiffel Tower did. 

Another national design competition in 1982 led to the building of La Grande Arche de la Défense in the business district of La Défense. It was designed as a late-twentieth century nod to one of Paris’s other great architectural icons – the Arc de Triomphe – but built as a monument to human ideals and humanity rather than military victories. Essentially it’s a see-through cube made of concrete and glass. 

In Parc de la Villette you’ll find the swirling, shiny, organic structures of the Philharmonie de Paris . It’s a series of concert halls designed by Jean Nouvel and its exterior is constructed of basket-weave aluminium interspersed with matte panels in different shades of grey etched with depictions of 340,000 birds.


By Diana Jarvis

Diana is a writer at Eye for the Light. She has a BA in History of Art and an MSc in Environment and Sustainability and has worked in travel publishing for 20 years as a photographer, book designer and writer for a wide range of publications. She’s also the Sustainbility Lead at the British Guild of Travel Writers.