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Travel to Machu Picchu

Monday September 14th, 2015 en

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How to Photograph Machu Picchu

In April 2011, my family and I took a trip to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley in Peru. Before we left, I searched for information on taking pictures of Machu Picchu. While I found many photographs of the ancient Incan ruins, I found few tips on how to photograph the site. What follows are things I learned which will help you shoot the best possible photos there. I’m an amateur but dedicated photo enthusiast. The following tips are for serious photographers but also for beginners wanting to capture better images of Machu Picchu. For the advanced photographer, you’ll find specific details about Machu Picchu itself – timing, light, restrictions, filters, etc. For others, you’ll find additional tips for taking great travel photos… anywhere of Machupicchu.

Tips for taking better photos of Machu Picchu: site-specific pointers:

Know the rules. I had a vague idea of restrictions before arriving. And once there, however, what I had read and what I experienced there weren’t the same. Here’s what I learned:

  • Day Packs/Camera Bags: Officially, you can’t carry in a pack bigger than a day pack (20L maximum) into the ruins. Backpacks must be stored at the entrance. I saw some good size day packs there and no one seemed to care.daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru
  • Tripods: You can’t use a large tripod. I have no idea what constitutes “large” but the general rule seems to be that if you appear to be a professional, they will charge you a steep fee. Thus, while I think a tripod is normally very helpful for the reasons noted later on, I didn’t use one while at Machu Picchu just to be safe.daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru
  • Recommendation: Get a small gorilla or table-top tripod you can easily slip in and out of your pack. Set it up on the ground, a wall, a bench or any available surface and, if your camera has it, use the live-view mode to see your subject.daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru
  • Lenses: You’re not supposed to bring in a lens over 200 mm. I shot mostly with my travel lens, an 18mm-200mm zoom (27mm-300mm in 35mm equivalent on my DX DSLR) but I spent much more time at the wide-angle end trying to capture the vistas or close-quarter areas like the Temple of the Condor. So personally, I wouldn’t risk the longer lens because you likely won’t need it anyway.daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru

Prepare for the light Machupicchu. A common reason you might want to use a tripod is to shoot in low light conditions or to steady increased depth of field shots. Regarding low light, I found four Web sites with four different times listed for the open hours at Machu Picchu. So it is best to ask for sure when you buy your entry tickets (which you cannot do on site).daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru

The site is open from either 6:00 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. and stays open until 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. with the last entry allowed at 4:00 p.m. depending on which website you believe! Use the Magic Hours. Sunrise will be a challenge without a tripod but at other times you should get by with a handheld camera, especially if you have vibration reduction. (One trick I use is to set the shutter release to continuous then on low light shots, I hold it down to get a burst of two to three shots. Most times, the first will be blurry due to pushing down on the shutter release but the second or third aren’t. Try it.) daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru

If you stay until late afternoon, you may not get the full “Magic Hours” (dawn and dusk) for workable light (they will likely escort you out before twilight), but you’ll at least have time on site without the midday glare. Rethink your midday shots: I heard that Machu Picchu has two types of weather: rainy/misty/cool and blazing hot/bright. We were blessed to have an initially misty but then bright morning until around 11:00 when it got drizzly. Some mornings the whole place will be fogged in. Other times the light will be so harsh that every shot looks as if it was taken at high noon. So try to do most of your shooting early or late and use the middle of the day for scouting shots, resting, taking a tour or hiking. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru

Most of all, stay flexible and bring an umbrella or waterproof kit so that even if it is rainy, you can still take some shots. In fact, at Ollantaytambo (another set of ruins second only to Machu Picchu), my best photos were when it was raining because everyone else cleared out. Also, keep in mind we were there in early April – late summer in Peru and the tail end of the rainy season. Going then meant everything was much greener than during their winter, but also rather moist for part of each day. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru

the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. If you do the latter, you’ll arrive at the Sun Gate for sunrise then have an hour hike after that to get to Machu Picchu proper where you’ll either need to check your pack in order to explore the ruins or, depending on your tour, you may get a general overview and come back later. In our case, we had planned on getting in line for the busses from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu at 5:00 a.m. to be there when it opened at 6:00 a.m. for both the light and also to register to climb WaynaPicchu (also spelled Huayna Picchu, the peak you see in the background of all those postcard shots of Machu Pichhu). They cut off access to WaynaPicchu after 500 people register in two waves, 250 for the 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. slot and another 250 for the 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. slot. There’s also an additional fee. However, the owner of our hotel in Aguas Calientes was very helpful and gave us this advice:

  • First, don’t go on the first busses. Everyone nowadays does and you end up being more tired (from getting up early) and standing in long lines to get the bus and then more long lines to enter Machu Picchu (and make sure you have your entry tickets before you get on the bus). Moreover, many mornings (and ours was one of those), Machu Picchu is fogged in until later in the morning anyway, so getting there early doesn’t help for photography purposes. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru
  • Second, don’t worry about missing WaynaPicchu. Instead, climb Machu Picchu Mountain. It takes a bit longer since it is higher, but you don’t have the crowds, you don’t have to register and pay and you’ll get a more unique view of the ruins looking down at the front of them rather than from the rear as with WaynaPicchu. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru

We followed our host’s advice for the first part and arrived at Machu Picchu about 7:00 a.m. with no lines for the bus (get your bus tickets the evening before to expedite things). Once at Machu Picchu, we got our main overview photos while WaynaPicchu was still enveloped in the clouds, then made our way to the entrance of WaynaPicchu around 9:15 a.m. Just out of curiosity, I asked when they filled up that morning…and they hadn’t yet! So we were able to get some extra sleep, get some good light and still climb WaynaPicchu. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru

It took us about two hours round trip with a stop at the top for photos and to explore. Personally, while I liked the big picture perspective that climbing the mountain provided, I didn’t find it as valuable for photography. That’s just me. If I had a limited amount of time and wanted great shots of Machu Picchu, I would spend more time at the site itself and not climb either of the mountains. You can get good elevated shots at the ruins themselves. But if you have the time, it’s worth it more for the adventure than the images. Just remember that without a long telephoto, your best shots of Machu Picchu itself will be as you are on the way up WaynaPicchu. The summit is great for context but not details of the ruins. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru

Schedule two days there. You can basically see all of the ruins in a half day or about six hours if you climb WaynaPicchu or seven or so for Machu Picchu Mountain. But you’re not here just to see it, are you? You’ll want more time to shoot and to wait for the warmer light of late afternoon daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru. So if I had to do it again and was coming here specifically to photograph Machu Picchu rather than to just take pictures while on a family vacation, I would do this:

  • Take two days or rather, a day and a half. Arrive at Machu Picchu the afternoon of the first, scope out the place in a leisurely manner then get some late afternoon shots when the light isn’t so harsh. Stay until closing for those sunset (or close to it) shots. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru
  • The next morning, get up as early as you can to be one of the first people there. As I noted above, we lucked out by going slightly later, but unless you know from reports down in Aguas Caleintes (at the base of Machu Picchu though the ruins are not visible from the town) that the weather is horrible (and they likely won’t know first thing in the morning anyway), I would still get there no later than 7:00 a.m. – earlier if you do want to climb WaynaPicchu especially from June through September when more people are there (though remember the advice above about Machu Picchu Mountain as an alternative). Even if the weather is bad – unless it is horrible – still get up there in the morning and use the time to scout out more shots. Plus, be aware that the weather can change rapidly, so it is best to be there, ready. Review your shot list from the day before (you did make one, didn’t you?). Shoot close-ups. Then get your postcard shots when it clears up. Otherwise, if the weather is good, start with the big shots (since they will look different in the morning light than in the afternoon), the expected ones before the crowds come, then spend the rest of the day getting the shots you didn’t the day before. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru
  • If you find you’ve shot all you can there, consider hiking out to the Sun Gate or the Inca bridge. In any case, stay until mid or late afternoon the second day. Yes, you have to pay for two days worth of entrance fees coming back the second day, but you’ve come all this way, so get the most out of it. You could go sunrise to sunset in one day, but you’ll be very tired. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru
  • Finally, consider hiring a guide if you don’t already have one arranged. You can hire them at the entrance. Especially if you arrive in the afternoon and have most of the next day, it is worth the US$10 or so per hour for a guide who can provide insights, background, context, possible hidden gem shot ideas and even the names of the stones and buildings for your records (write them down or dictate them to tie to your EXIF data if your camera allows). I’m told that the quality of the guides there varies, so ask questions first to determine their language skills and knowledge of the place and history. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru

Take your time. Machu Picchu looks much bigger in photos than it actually is. As noted, you can see most things in three to four hours if you don’t doddle. If you arrive in the early morning, capture that postcard shot from up near the Watchman’s Hut (go left when you arrive inside) or just go straight in for an another view. Then, see as much as you can before the crowds arrive. After that, go back and really get to know the place daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru. If it is crowded – and it will be by 10:30 a.m. or so – just pause in some places to wait for people to get out of your shot. Taking your time also allows you to appreciate what you’re seeing. Find an interesting subject like the Inti-Huatana or the “sacred rock” or even better, some lesser known corner of the site, then think through how many ways you can shoot it. daily Travel to Machu Picchu, machupicchu travel peru