The Taj Mahal is one of the most photographed places on earth. No wonder – it’s a truly impressive monument, and one of the world’s most famous tourist sites.
But it’s not an easy place to photograph. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, it gets crowded. It’s hard to get into the place, let alone find a clear vantage point to take a picture. Second, the tripods aren’t allowed inside. Apparently they damage the ground and contribute to congestion. Can’t argue with that. Third, being one of the most photographed places in the world, the challenge of getting that unique picture – the one no-one else has gotten, the money shot that every photographer worth his or her salt tries to get at any famous location – is even more difficult.
So what’s a photographer to do?
Well, the good news is that the Taj looks good in just about any picture – it’s that impressive. Also, there are ample opportunities to get that special shot if you know what you’re doing and where to look. That’s where I step in. What follows are my tips on how to approach the Taj with the aim of getting a beautiful photo or two – an essential bookend to any serious Indian photographic journey. Here it goes -
1. Go at dawn. You get a ticket that is valid all day, so you can always go back at dusk for a second helping. Also, and perhaps most importantly, dawn is when the crowds are smallest, meaning you’ll be able to get into the grounds with the minimal amount of people about, and less chance of getting your photos spoiled by teeming throngs of tourists.
2. Be prepared. No bags, no tripods, or you’re going to have to go to another line to check them in. That means an extra half and hour wait – at a bare minimum. Just bring what you need – some water, your camera, and your favourite lens, ideally. (And make sure that lens is wide enough. The taj is big!)
3. Understand the System. You have to line up twice – once to buy your ticket, and again to line up outside the gate. Opinion is divided on which gate is best to line up at. The west gate is closest to the ticket counter, but has the most tourists. The south gate is closer to Taj Ganj, where most people have accommodation, while the east gate is furthest from the ticket gate, but is supposed to have the smallest crowds.
There’s no hard and fast rules here, for a number of reasons. Often, one or several gates are shut. When I went, only the west gate was open. This simplified things quite a bit, but increased the waiting time. I lined up for tickets at 5.45am, got my ticket by 6.25am, lined up at the entrance at 6.30am (the west gate is about 100m from the ticket counter), and got inside at about 7.30am. By then the gloriously soft dawn light had sharpened somewhat, but there were few enough people in front of me, so I was able to get some pretty clean shots.
Once you’re inside, move forward quickly. The gate to the Taj, the darwaza, is pretty impressive, and lots of people mill about here, marveling. Let them marvel, and walk past. You can always return later.
Just inside the grounds is the first view of the Taj Mahal, across the vast expanse of grounds. This is impressive, and it’s tempting to dawdle here, to try and get your shot from the steps. There will be dozens of other desperate photogs here, just like you. Often, informal lines form, as people take turns to shoot the view unobstructed by their fellows.
Ignore them all, and keep walking – the best shot is further ahead, half way up the grounds, where the four long pools of water that cross the grounds intersect. You want to get there as quickly as possible. Once at this spot you can take a photo towards the Taj, over a beautiful pool of water. This is your meat-and-potatoes photo, the one you’ve seen a hundred times. If there are tourists here ahead of you (and there probably will be), you can climb down in front of the stone platform, on a narrow ledge above the water (it’s very shallow), and you’re guaranteed to get an unobstructed view (though there may be people wandering the paths that flank the pools). This spot is also great for those happy-snaps, with your friend/husband/wife standing in the foreground, the Taj behind them.
Once you’ve got this shot, move ahead to the Taj complex itself. If you’ve moved as quickly as I’ve suggested, you might just be one of the first people here.
The Taj is impressive from every angle. Only from the south are there manicured lawns and pools to frame your shots, but to the east and west there are imposing structures – the Jawab and the Mosque, respectively. From inside these buildings, you can get some magical shots of the Taj Mausoleum, framed by the teardrop doorways. But remember, you must get here early. If you try to get these shots later in the day, you’ll be one frustrated compadro – the mobs will be everywhere.
(Tip: use the Indian groundskeepers to help you shoo tourists away. All you have to do is call there attention, motion to the offending party, and these guys will whistle and wave them away. The tourists may not even realize the groundskeeper was acting on request. Works wonders!)
By now you should have got some nice shots, though I’d be surprised if you have managed anything exceptional. After all, these shots have been done a million times before. Which is why you should read tip number…
5. Think outside the box. And when I say outside the box, I mean outside the Taj Mahal.
As I mentioned earlier, the Taj looks good from every angle. It also backs onto the river, which provides that extra element for that extra special photo.
There are a number of different options here. You can hire a rickshaw driver and go around the other side of the river, to a place called Mahtab Bagh, which provides a view over the river to the Taj. This was originally my plan, until I discovered a much better option.
When you’ve finished wandering the inside of the grounds, leave by the east gate. Wander down the side of the Taj Mahal’s eastern wall to the river. Here you’ll find a few slouching guards and a man who owns a river-boat. Ask him or a ride out onto the river. He shouldn’t charge you more than 150 rupees ($5), and you shouldn’t really ask for less. It’s a good deal. The boat looks ancient, but it floats. Trust me.
This old guy will then row you out over the river behind the Taj, and you’ll get a magical view, across the back of the water, all to yourself. If you want to disembark on the far bank, just ask him. It’s muddy, but sometimes there are interesting things on the bank, which would look great in the foreground of a photo – kids playing, buffalo, flocks of birds etc.
I did this in the morning, after I’d wandered about in the Taj for several hours. This trip would be even better at dusk or at dawn, when the light is soft and the mist is up. If I had my time again (I was only there for one day), I’d go at dusk and dawn. The potential for a great shot here is very high.
You might even consider walking east of the taj, along the bank and into the tangled maze of shanties and fields. I saw a shot once of a game of cricket, with the Taj in the background, that took my breath away.
So there you have it. My tips for getting some nice snaps of the Taj. Oh, I forgot to mention one last thing:
6. Go to Fatehpur Sikri, preferably at dusk. It’s one of the most under-rated sites in India, and well worth the visit. The market is also amazing.
For more photos of India, check out my India gallery.