Top tips for photographing ancient Egypt: when and where to go and how to get great images

Top tips for photographing ancient Egypt: when and where to go and how to get great images

Hatshepsut Temple in the Valley of the Kings by Maxal Tamor

5 top tips for taking photos of the pyramids, temples of tombs along the Nile

Ancient Egypt has fascinated modern humans for thousands of years, but it’s too often thought of as a place for honeymooners and retired groups to visit on leisurely Nile cruises. In reality, it’s an adventure hotspot like no other for photographers and recent changes to the rules now make it easier than ever to image ancient sights in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and beyond. Here are some of our top tips to get you started … 

1 Respect the rules

Landmarks in Luxor. Photo by Athanasios Doumas - f/16 | ISO 100 | 1/50s

Egypt operates on baksheesh (tips) and if you’re willing to pay a few Egyptian pounds to guards, officials, and staff in temples and tombs you can likely take your camera anywhere. It’s also a country where official permits – particularly for photography – were the norm. However, the country’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities recently announced that taking photographs using any kind of equipment is now permitted and free of charge. That said it’s extremely unwise to photograph the police or army officials or their checkpoints, which are surprisingly numerous. Ditto the famous Aswan Dam or the other smaller dams around that town, which are considered of military importance. It’s illegal to take photographs that may “damage the country’s image, offend its citizens, or violate public morals.” It’s also essential to ask people if they mind having their photo taken before snapping away; officially you need their written consent. 

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Although it’s wise to know the rules and respect the local culture it’s actually now easier than ever to visit Egypt’s top sights with a camera. However, this applies mostly to smartphones, which are now allowed everywhere after being banned in temples, pyramids, and tombs for many years. When photographing outside the light is excellent in Egypt, with blue skies in abundance, while crowds and queues make it impossible (and unwise) to use a tripod anyway, though they are now generally allowed, as are DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. 

2 Don’t ignore Cairo

Cairo. Photo by Timofey Tararin - f/8 | ISO 500 | 1/640s

What do you want to see in ancient Egypt? Where you go will decide whether you will see pyramids, temples or tombs because they’re not all in the same place. Cairo is where your journey will likely begin; only the east bank of the city is actually Cairo while the west bank is called Giza – home to the pyramids. The much-anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum is due to open in spring 2023 are years of delays. Situated close to the pyramids in Giza it essentially places The Egyptian Museum in central Cairo’s El-Tahrir Square. However, the latter – an iconic building built in 1902 – for now remains a fine place for photography despite its gradual emptying. 

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Although most visitors to Egypt want to quickly escape from Cairo the city does play host to some incredible Coptic churches – notably the photogenic Hanging Church – and many beautiful mosques. The most picturesque is Salah Al-Din picturesque, whose balcony gives views of western Giza and, on a clear day, the Pyramids beyond. 

3 Photographing the pyramids

Pyramids of Giza. Photo by Mike Gatt - f/9 | ISO 100 | 1/400s

One of the most difficult places to use a DSLR or mirrorless camera has historically been the Pyramids. You can’t take them into the pyramids themselves, but they are allowed outside. The trip inside the Great Pyramid’s inner tomb and sarcophagus of the pharaoh Khufu takes about 10 minutes each way and is via cramped, steep, and claustrophobic staircases and tunnels. Smartphone photography is permitted throughout, but not video; if you even look like you’re filming a video with the sarcophagus a staff member will immediately manhandle your phone and insist you delete it.

There’s an area a few miles southeast of the Great Pyramid called the ‘panorama point’ where all three large pyramids can be photographed. It’s a place teeming with camels and their drivers trying to convince you to take a short ride. The scene itself is worth photographing even if the camel ride is best avoided. 

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It’s likely you’ll visit the pyramids on a day trip from Cairo along with everyone one else. The site opens at 7:00 a.m. after sunrise and closes at 5:0 p.m. before sunset, so if you want to capture the early morning light on the east-facing Sphinx (and the Pyramid of Khafre behind it) then consider checking in to the Guardian Guest House, which is just outside the compound and has a direct view of the iconic scene from its rooftop restaurant. 

4 Exploring further up the Nile

Columns at Philae temple. Photo by David Henderson - f/20 | ISO 400 | 1/80s

A short flight or 10-hour night train away up the Nile is Luxor, home to the stunning Karnak complex of temples – famously including the colossal columns of its Great Hypostyle Hall – and the almost as dramatic Luxor Temple close by. The two are now joined by a newly opened walkway called the Avenue of the Sphinxes, a 1.7-mile-long ancient road lined with 600 scultpures. Across the Nile to the west is the Valley of the Kings and its tombs as well as many often overlooked mortuary temples, remains of ancient villages, and the beautifully located Hatshepsut Mortuary Temple, all but the latter lightly visited.

Luxor is also a fabulous place to take a hot air balloon ride, with Dream Balloons selling tickets for about US$120. For the most dramatic images be sure to opt for – and confirm – the sunrise tour (and not the one an hour later), which means a hotel pick-up from central Luxor at about 4:30 a.m. However, it’s still wise to keep your DSLR or mirrorless camera safely hidden away in a small backpack before boarding. Once you’re up, up, and away you’ll be surrounded by about 24 other tourists, and nobody will notice or care what you’re doing or what camera you’re using. When you arrive on-sight you will be filmed and told a video will cost US$15 later if you want to download it; the reality is that payment in cash will be demanded as soon as you land … though the video is pretty good. 

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It’s worth venturing south of Luxor to Aswan for three reasons. The first is Aswan and the curious streets of the Nubian villages on Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile. The second is to visit the spectacular Temple of Isis at Philae, which is reached only by boat and appears to lack any kind of restrictions on cameras. The third is to take a trip to Abu Simbel, two rock-cut temples about 180 miles southwest. Most visitors reach the latter in fleets of buses and vans, leaving at 5:00 a.m. and arriving en masse at 9:30 a.m. The savvy photographer gets the 6:00 a.m. flight and misses the crowds altogether. 

5 Going underground

Baboons, West Wall Mural, Tomb of Tutankhamun. Photo by Robert Harding - f/4 | ISO 2000 | 1/80s

A visit to the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor is a must and now much easier to photograph than ever. However, only smartphones are allowed. It’s no longer possible to get a permit for stills cameras, though the freedom of being able to capture everything underground with a smartphone – and all in exquisitely (and subtly) lit environments is not to be underestimated.

The way the ticketing system works is a little frustrating. A standard ticket for the Valley of the Kings costs LE260 (US$10) and allows entry to three tombs. Tutankhamun’s tomb – by far the smallest and quickest to visit (crowds allowing) costs an extra LE300 (US$12). A further LE100 (US$4) buys you a ticket for the impressive shared tomb of Rameses V and VI while a whopping LE1000 (US$40) gets you into the tomb of Seti I. The latter might sound like a lot of extra money, but Seti I’s tomb is by far the most interesting to photograph. Exquisitely colorful carved hieroglyphics and paintings on the walls of its 100-meter corridors and chambers, it belonged to the pharaoh who began one of the most powerful dynasties in ancient Egypt. Bits of the tomb resides in museums in Florence, Berlin, and Paris and it was instrumental in cracking the meaning of the hieroglyphics. Long closed to the public due to damage and excavations, it’s now open and a glorious sight. Get your smartphone’s wide-angle mode ready for the ceilings at the end.

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Everything in ancient Egypt is aligned with the sunrise and sunset. Precision varies, but the pyramids are built to the exact compass directions, with the main entrances pointing north (dead pharaohs were believed to reside in the northern night sky). Temples, such as Karnak in Luxor, are similarly aligned. That has consequences for sunrises and sunsets, moonrises and moonsets. Be sure to study a map before you visit to see from what direction where you’ll enter and exit each location along with rise and set times, remembering that in Egypt – at about 26º North and close to the equator – the sun sets about six o’clock. Consequently ‘golden hour’ comes early. Late afternoon is when to arrive at temples you want to photograph extensively.
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