Top tips for taking photos at some of the world’s greatest ancient sites
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Historic Photographer of the Year calls on photographers to explore and capture the best historic places that the world has to offer.
Whether it’s a ruined medieval fortress, a secluded religious sanctuary or an Iron Age earthwork, historic sites are among the most stunning and provocative places to photograph on Earth.
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There are ancient monuments in our world that are irresistibly special places to photograph. Most of them are incredibly popular, so much so that they’re also very difficult places to capture because of tourists and bureaucracy, such as limited tickets and restricted opening hours. However, you ignore the likes of Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu at your peril.
Just remember to be original and, most of all, be early! Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, U.K.
This 4,500-year-old neolithic ruin on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire is the world's most iconic prehistoric monument. If you want to shoot amid other visitors then know that it’s open 09:30 through 19:00 each day, with the quietest times being before the 10:00 a.m. tour buses (avoid July to mid-September.. If you’re after a sunset then shoot it from outside the perimeter to the monument’s north or east.
Stonehenge is famous for being aligned with the sunrise on the summer solstice and the sunset on the winter solstice, when about 6,000 people gather to watch. To photograph these unique events you’ll need to check out the arrangements a few weeks before, though they’re always free of charge.
2 Taj Mahal, Agra, India
It’s hugely important to get to the Taj Mahal in Agra when it opens at sunrise simply to avoid the huge crowds, so get there half an hour before. You’ll need to buy your tickets the day before. Even if you’re first in the queue and you make a dash for the reflective pool you’re unlikely to have it to yourself for more than a few seconds. A better idea can be to abandon that cliched shot altogether and head straight for the temple – you’ll be the first there!
Since the Taj Mahal and the buildings around it are arranged symmetrically you can experiment with all kinds of angles. Don’t ignore the incredible detail in the marble and lookout for tradesmen fixing-up parts of the structure, which can make for unusual photos.
3 Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
The main temple at sunrise is not what it looks like in photos. It’s a mess of tripods, selfie sticks and thousands of tourists jostling for a cliche image of the five towers in silhouette. Other overdone shots include monks in orange robes. Swerve all that by going to one of the other fabulous temples nearby such as ‘jungle temple’ Ta Prohm, which is famous for a tree growing through it and is often extremely busy, though not so at sunrise.
A fantastic place for a telephoto lens is Bayon Temple. Inside the walls of Angkor Thom, its easily accessible roof hosts 200 serene faces with closed eyes.
4 Acropolis, Athens, Greece
An ancient fortress on a ledge above the Greek capital, the Acropolis is an ancient citadel where you van visit the remains of several temples, the most popular of which is the Parthenon. The site is open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., at its busiest from 11:00 a.m. through 2:00 p.m. and at its quietest between October and April.
Sadly the Acropolis is one of many ancient monuments that is lit-up at night, which makes nightscapes difficult. However, sunset shots are possible by getting yourself to an observation deck on Lycabettus Hill, which looks down on the Acropolis. There’s a cable car. Expect crowds.
5 Pyramids of Giza, Cairo, Egypt
The last of the seven wonders of the ancient world still standing, the Giza pyramid complex in Greater Cairo. There are actually nine pyramids here of varying sizes, with the largest being the Great Pyramid of Giza. If you want to shoot the Sphinx then go as early as you can after the site opens at 08:00 a.m. while the best place to stand to get as many pyramids as possible into one shot is from the sand dunes south of the Pyramid of Menkaure (you can go inside, but they don’t allow DSLR cameras, only smartphones).
A successful photo shoot around Giza requires careful planning and good timing. You’ll need to buy a permit for your tripod as you enter Giza Plateau and be prepared to show it regularly. Taking a tour guide will help you avoid being hassled.
6 Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Peru
Peru’s famous 15th-century Inca citadel is one of those honeypot tourist sites that has long been distilled in the global consciousness for one solitary postcard view. You know the one; the view across the ridge covered in ruins with the Huayna Picchu peak in the background. The platform is at the start of the path to the Sun Gate and completely rammed with smartphone-wielding tourists. It’s best avoided completely because the site has so many other opportunities for fabulous photographs.
If you take wide-angle photos it will be impossible to avoid people. However, take a prime lens to the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows and the Temple of the Condor and you’ll find some wonderful opportunities for closeups of the fabulous stonework.
7 Easter Island, South Pacific
One of the most isolated places in the world, Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean – a Chilean possession – is on a lot of photographers’ bucket lists for 1,000 reasons. Famous for its monolithic figures called ‘moai’ built by the Rapa Nui people between 1250-1500, each one is between 5m and 10m in height. You can capture them in various locations, from stone platforms called ‘ahu’ that often look out to sea as well as at a quarry. If you don’t mind crowds then the annual Tapati Rapa Nui festival in early February is a great time to visit.
Don’t miss Rano Raraku, a quarry for moai where busts can be found scattered all over the ground. It’s closed at sunrise, but get there as soon as you can afterwards for relative quiet.
8 Great Wall of China, Northern China
The world’s longest wall is not the kind of place you can just turn up and photograph. Best visited on a hike and not on a group tour, the most photogenic sections are north and east of Beijing, including Jinshanling, Jiankou and Mutianyu. Badaling is the closest section to Beijing so worth avoiding altogether if you want to stay away from crowds.
The best time to visit the Great Wall of China is September to November, when it tends to be dry and clear, though avoid weekends and Chinese holidays when it gets crowded.
9 Pantheon, Rome, Italy
It’s one of the most photographed places in the world, but this temple dedicated to the Roman Gods is famously difficult to photograph. The only way to avoid the huge crowds of tourists and the cafes surrounding the square right in front of the monument is to come early in the morning. However, you’ll only get exterior shots since the Pantheon opens at 8:30 a.m.
Very close to the Pantheon is Trevi Fountain, which not surprisingly is almost as well documented on social media immortalised in gazillions of terrible selfies. So it makes sense to capture both sites on the same early morning shoot.
10 Petra, Jordan
Often called the ‘Rose City’, Petra in southern Jordan is what remains of the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom from 300 B.C. Entered through a narrow canyon called Siq, most of the one million+ visitors per year come here to photograph Al Khazneh, a temple carved into the rock that’s also known as The Treasury. If you want to capture it in soft light and in relative quiet then arrive before the gates open at 06:00 am and go straight there. It’s also worth revisiting in the late afternoon.
There are dozens of other wonderful sights to capture, such as the incredible 40 tombs carved into a hillside called The Street of Facades. There is also a Roman amphitheatre and many colourful caves.