Sunday, 1 April 2018

How to Photograph the Taj Mahal: Tips, Tricks and Vantage Points

The Taj Mahal is India’s biggest tourist attraction, one of the seven wonders of the world, and one of the world’s most photographed monuments. For professional photographers and photography enthusiasts, getting that perfect photo of the Taj Mahal can be a daunting task. What gear should you use? What time of the year should you visit? Where can you get the best shots from? And are there any angles or vantage points from where you can get a Taj photo that no one else has? I visited Agra in October of 2017 and stayed in the city for 7 days. In this blog, I’ll share with you my experiences and tips about photographing the Taj Mahal.

View from across the river. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM, f/8, 70 seconds, ISO 100


Not summer! The Taj Mahal is located in a dry and arid part of India. Agra is only a short distance away from the Thar Desert. As such, temperatures in summer can soar to a scorching 48 degrees. In general, Indian tourists think of winter as the best season to travel, since the Indian winter is mostly mild and pleasant. But Agra has spectacular levels of pollution and in winter the city is enveloped in a thick blanket of smog, which only completely clears for a few hours during midday. I visited in October and found the fog not only prevented sharp photos but also made the light look really “blah”. For the best photographs, based on my conversations with professional photographers, I’d say the monsoon months, June to September, would be the best time. The rain clears up the atmosphere making the light look great and clouds in the sky make for dramatic images. Take a look at the awesome morning photo here, for example. But, of course, there is no such thing as bad light, and every season brings a unique look to the Taj. Summer has the advantage of lesser crowds, which will give you cleaner, tourist-free images. Foggy winter photos can also look magical. But if you want clean, sharp, images with saturated colour, it has to be the monsoons. However, given that the weather is somewhat unpredictable in monsoon, you should plan on spending a few days in the city, to ensure you have the best chance of getting your shots.

The watercourse shot, morning. 50mm, f/8, 1/60, ISO 100


The good news is that the Taj Mahal faces south, which means there is always some light on the frontage. At sunrise and sunset, the warm sunlight hitting the Taj makes it look magical. However, since everyone knows this, everyone also visits at these times. If you’re going to go at sunrise, or sunset, be prepared to battle with massive crowds. If you’re patient and persistent, you will get your shot, but it will involve waiting around for quite a bit of time.

From Agra Fort, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM @ 200mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 100


This is the biggest worry for enthusiasts, such as myself. You don’t want to go all the way to the Taj Mahal and then find that you don’t have the right lenses, or that your gear doesn’t permit the kind of shot you had in mind, do you? Relax. You don’t need specialist equipment to get photos of the Taj. Most normal cameras or even mobile phones are good enough. You want that famous Taj Mahal shot, right? With the entire monument reflected in the water? If you’re wondering if you need a wide-angle lens for that, you don’t. For those shooting with crop sensor cameras (i.e., most affordable DSLRs), your default 18-55 or 18-135 kit lens is more than wide enough. For those shooting full frame (such as my Canon 5D Mark IV, for example), the 24-70 or 24-105 lenses are wide enough. In fact, a full frame camera at 24mm or a crop sensor camera at 18mm may just be a bit too wide, especially if you’re shooting from the southern gateway complex. Even if you only have a 50mm (on full frame), you can get that shot with the full reflection. That is because the garden to the south of the Taj Mahal, allows you to back away almost 300 metres. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that shouldn’t bring other lenses. For close-ups of the details of the calligraphy of the Taj Mahal, you’ll need a longer lens, like the 55-250, 70-300 or 70-200. An ultra-wide lens will allow you to get creative shots as well. But I find travelling light to always be a good thing. Don’t bother with circular polarisers. You won’t need them.

From Mehtab Bagh, 85mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 100


That’s a tough one. One thing all websites mention is to be at the Taj gates before they open, but this is easier said than done. It takes a bit of luck and a bit of planning. Remember, Taj Mahal tickets are not available at the gates. Tickets are available at the Shilp Gram parking lot, which is near the East Gate and near Saheli Burj near the West Gate. The Taj is open from sunrise to sunset. Ticket counters open an hour before sunrise. I would advise you to use the East Gate, since it is less crowded. Get your tickets as soon as the counters open and rush to the gate and queue up. I was there at the East Gate 30 minutes before sunrise and waited behind 50 people! Indians and foreigners stand in separate queues though, and the Indian queue has far fewer people. There is also talk of “high-value tickets” for the Taj, but I could never really figure out where to get these from. I also cannot really figure out how online tickets work. You could ask your tour organiser to arrange the tickets for you, so you don’t have to rush around too much. I recommend Maavalan Travels who really made life easy for me in Agra. Even if you get in, you’ll have only a few seconds to get your shot before someone wanders into the frame.

From Atulya Taj rooftop, 150mm, f/8, 70 seconds, ISO 100
There is a bit of photoshop trickery you can employ to get the desired effect though, it’s called image averaging. Simply frame your shot and keep taking the same shot over and over again, 10-15 seconds apart. Get 25-30 shots this way, and then you can come back home and stack them all in photoshop and the software will magically remove all the people for you. Learn how to do this here. If, however, you are happy with a shot of the Taj without people from outside, then the best day to do this is Friday. Remember, the Taj, like many other Muslim monuments, is shut on Fridays. So, how do you get that photo if it’s shut? Simple, get on a terrace!

The silhouette shot, 41mm, f/8, 1/80, ISO 100


There are two hotels in Tajgunj, the area surrounding the Taj Mahal, which have great views of the Taj Mahal. One is Shanti Lodge and the other is Saniya Palace. Both are very close to the Taj and both allow tourists to climb to the roof and take photos, even if they aren’t staying there. The use of tripods is permitted as well. There are a number of other hotels and buildings around Agra which have decent views of the Taj. I stayed in Hotel Atulya Taj, on the Taj East Gate Road, which offers an unusual rooftop view of the Taj. Explore, ask around. Most people in Agra know the vantage points, since tourists have been visiting the city forever!

Shanti Lodge rooftop, 169mm, f/8, 75 seconds, ISO 100


NO!!! In fact, you cannot carry a tripod into any ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) site. The rule comes from the 1800’s, when tripods had spiked feet that could damage flooring. At the Taj, the CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) is extremely strict. There are a variety of things you simply cannot go in with, including, but not limited to, cigarettes, matches, lighters, spare batteries, guns, knives or any sharp tools, books, etc. To keep it simple, just go in with your camera, your mobile phone, and your wallet. You can carry your camera in a small camera bag, but back packs are not allowed. Things sort of depend on the mood of the security guys as well – Jason and Emily Kan managed to get it with their filter holders and ND filters, allowing them to do long exposures inside the Taj by placing their cameras on the ground. Remember, the more stuff you carry, the longer it’ll take you to get in, because the security guys are going to go through every little thing.

Mehtab Bagh sunset, 35mm, f/4.5, 1/250, ISO 250


Now that is s tricky one. The Taj isn’t illuminated at night, which means your night shots are going to be mostly silhouettes or low contrast. If you want a night photo of the Taj from inside the garden, the only way to do it is during the moonlight viewing of the Taj. I managed to get a pretty decent photo this way, and I explain in detail how to do this in this post here. But if you’re shooting from outside the Taj, you can use a tripod, and if you can find some good vantage points, you can get some interesting photos, which brings me to my next point.

Shanti Lodge rooftop, 85mm, f/8, 1/500, ISO 100


Apart from the hotel rooftops in Tajgunj, the Taj can also be viewed from Mehtab Bagh, across the river and most people do the sunset shot of the Taj from here. You can also get a very nice shot from the Agra Fort, provided you bring at least a 200mm lens. Apart from this, you can also try the banks of the Yamuna. The opposite bank of the Taj has several villages and the villagers commonly graze their cattle on the riverbanks. However, the banks are part of the Taj “exclusion zone” set up by the CISF, where tourists aren’t normally allowed. I did take a few shots from the opposite bank, and you should explore as well. Just be prepared for run-ins with the law. Take an experienced chauffeur with you, who knows his way around the place, and can talk to villagers for you. Another good option is to take a boat ride, which can give you a great photo of the Taj Mahal reflected in the Yamuna’s waters.

Don't forget to look the other way! 42mm, f/8, 1/60, ISO 100


Yes, something my friend Pramod Reddy told me before I visited the Taj - "The trouble with the Taj is people look at it as a standalone structure, which is it was never meant to be. It was always meant to be part of a complex. When you look at it along with the mosque and the mehmaan khana, and the char bagh and perhaps even Mehtab Bagh across the river, then it makes sense". Spend time inside the complex, especially in the mosque and mehmaan khana, the two domed sandstone structures on either side of the Taj, which are extremely beautiful. Take in the whole thing, and you'll find you have a new appreciation for the Taj Mahal.

The mehman khana, poetry in sandstone. 58mm, f/4, 1/50, ISO 100
One final bit of advice – don’t forget to have fun. Unless you make a living off your photos, you’re in Agra to have fun, first and foremost, so do that. Don’t get tense about whether you’ll get great photos or not. Relax, enjoy your trip, take in the Taj and you’ll find the photos happen on their own.

-  by Deepanjan Ghosh (Edited by Jessica Dennis)

1 comment:

Tharakesh said...

Lovely write up Deepanjan Ghosh. Hats off!!! Thanks a lot.