Last Updated on 02/14/21 by quiltripping
Petra was at the top of my travel bucket list for a long time so I was thrilled when I finally had the chance to visit this world famous sight in Jordan. After spending two days in Petra, I am sharing my Petra photography tips so that you too can have memorable images of your once in a lifetime experience regardless of whether you are using a fancy camera or your smart phone.
Photography is a big part of my personal travel experience and before my trip I spent quite a bit of time learning everything I could about Petra so that I could take the best photos possible. I read lots of content and watched numerous documentaries, so by the time I reached Petra, I had a very good idea of what I would be seeing.
I visited Petra on my own rather than on a tour because I wanted to spend two days there. I wrote a very detailed post with lots of photos describing this 2 day Petra itinerary. Here I just want to share with you some of the tips I used to get my memorable Petra photos.
Petra is most famous for its Treasury building which was featured in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But there is so much more to Petra than just this one structure. Petra was the capitol city of the Nabatean Kingdom and set the heart beat of their extensive trading empire. They built this city 2000 years ago both to impress and to showcase their wealth and power.
Taking good photos is very much about light and nowhere is that truer than at Petra. The colorful sandstone from which the city was carved takes on different hues throughout the day. Early morning and late in the day, the stone takes on a bluish-pink cast while the late afternoon sun turns the stone into a burnished gold.
As you walk around Petra and explore its mysteries, remember to focus your lens on all the different aspects that make this such a unique archeological site. And remember to also take the time to look beyond the camera lens and let yourself be awed by what this ancient civilization had achieved.
Petra Photography Tips
1. Getting photos without the crowds
Petra is Jordan’s most famous and most popular tourist sight with about 1 million visitors annually. The spring and fall months are the most popular when both the daytime and night time temperatures are pleasant.
But even if you are visiting during high season, you can still get photos of the famous Treasury without the crowds with a little planning. I visited in November and was able to get the scenic photos I wanted.
Start early before the tour groups arrive. Petra opens at 6 AM which may be a little too early for good light in the Siq or at the Treasury. I was walking through the Siq by 8 AM on my second day there and when I reached the Treasury 30 minutes later, I had it to myself other than the local Bedouins getting ready for the day and was able to get the classic shots.
Alternately, go in the early afternoon after the tour groups have passed through. On my first day in Petra I entered after lunch and again had the Siq practically to myself.
Another trick is to stay late and be one of the last ones to leave. You will have to work with the available light, but you will be able to get that uncrowded landscape photo.
2. Include people to get a sense of scale
I don’t normally like to have people in my landscape photos, and I have to constantly remind myself to add them to communicate a sense of scale. At Petra, the structures are so large that without a point of reference, it can be very hard to demonstrate that size in a photo.
I actually prefer this photo of my husband walking through the Siq better than the empty Siq photo because it shows how tall and narrow the passage really is.
I also like this photo that shows the scale of the Treasury and also because it gives the feeling of the hidden perspective that you get as you approach the Treasury.
The same holds true for this photo of the Qasr-Al Bint temple. At first, I was upset that the woman in the pink shirt was sitting there and not leaving. But once I took the photo, I realized that without her presence it would have been very hard to get a true sense of the real size of that building.
Finally, getting a photo of my husband as he peeks into one of the tombs makes it very clear just how large these tombs really are.
3. Photograph the Treasury in the mid morning sun
Petra’s Treasury is in a box canyon and only gets lit by the sun for about 2 hours in the morning from about 9-11 AM. If you want to photograph it in sunshine, you’ll want to plan to be there at that time, though don’t expect to have the view to yourself. Alternately, you can take the hike to the high viewpoint to get a different perspective of the Treasury at that time of day.
4. Hike to the high viewpoint of the Treasury
You’ve probably seen the photos that show people looking down onto the Treasury from a high overlook. To get there, you start climbing the trail next to the Palace Tomb which is part of the Royal Tomb complex – look for signs that that say Al-Kubtha trail.
Initially you’ll be climbing stairs for about 20 minutes and then once you reach the top, it’s another 15 minutes of hiking to get to the viewpoint. It takes a little effort, but this view is definitely worth the climb.
Do this hike in the morning so you catch the midmorning sun on the Treasury façade when you are at the top. When I was there, a Bedouin had set up an awning at the overlook which made a nice frame for the view.
5. Include foreground details to add perspective
The landscape at Petra is so vast and expansive it is tempting to try and just get it all in in one frame. But just like with a written story, a good photo needs a beginning, middle and end – or in this case, a front, a middle and a back. By adding elements on different planes within a photo, it provides the viewer with perspective as well as making the photo more interesting.
6. Midday photography options
Photographing landscapes in the bright sunlight in the middle of the day is always a challenge, and even more so in the desert. Between the bright sun and the reflective sand, the colors get washed out and the contrasts between light and shadow become very harsh.
One of the best things to photograph midday at Petra are the mosaics in the Byzantine church. This archeological site is protected under a covered roof which means it is shaded and evenly lit. The shade can also be a nice midday relief for people as well.
7. Photograph the Royal Tombs in the afternoon
The Royal Tombs are another one of Petra’s major sights. They look particularly good in the long wavelengths of the late afternoon sun before it sets. The stone which already has a rose tint to it, gets a glowing golden-pink color at that time of day.
8. Photograph the Monastery in the afternoon
Like the Royal Tombs, the Monastery also faces west and looks best in the late afternoon sun. It’s a long 40 minute uphill hike with over 800 steps to get there but it is well worth the effort. As impressive as the Treasury is, the Monastery temple represents the pinnacle of Nabatean stone carving.
There is a small café with views of the Monastery which make it a nice place to take a break and enjoy a cup of tea.
9. Zoom in on the details
With everything built on a gigantic scale at Petra, it is tempting to use nothing but a very wide angle lens to take it all in. But zooming in on the details of the carvings makes the Nabatean structures all that much more impressive.
Zooming in on the other aspects of life in Petra also adds to your visual story. Get up close to the camels or take close ups of the multicolored rock striations in the sandstone.
10. Include the locals in the photos
For me, travel photography is about capturing the essence of a location and that includes its people. I try to do this without being annoying or invading their privacy. If my photo includes a close up then I ask if it is ok to photograph.
In Petra, the local Bedouin with their donkeys, horses and camels are part of the experiential fabric that makes a visit there unique. Try to include them in your photos to capture the current living essence of Petra beyond the monuments.
11. Photograph the colorful wares
All throughout Petra, the local Bedouin have set up kiosks and tents to sell souvenirs. This too is part of the experience and can present a beautiful and colorful contrast to the sandstone background.
12. Photographing Petra at night
Getting good photos of the candlelit Petra at night event is tough. To get the photos that look like what you see with your eyes, you will need a DSLR (or equivalent) and a tripod so that you can make a long exposure.
The event is crowded, and they let everyone in at one time. So if you want a photo of the Treasury all lit up without people you will need to be at the front of the line and then you will have to walk fast through the Siq to be one of the first ones at the Treasury.
Decide ahead of time where you will position yourself for the photos because you will only get a very short window to shoot before it fills up and before the show starts. Use Google to look at how others have photographed this and then decide what perspective you want to use (I wish I had done this). Once you reach the Treasury, go immediately to your location and get set up to take your photos as quickly as you can.
It will help to have your camera all set up on the tripod, your exposure set to manual and your f stop set to the widest aperture for your lens before you get there. Choose your ISO setting ahead of time also and decide what length exposure you want to start with (which will depend on your ISO and your camera sensor). This is where it is important to know what your camera can do under low light conditions. You may only be able to get off a few shots, so you need to make them count.
To photograph the candle lit Siq without people, you have two choices. Be one of the last ones in line and linger behind everyone and then take the photos when they are out of your line of sight. Alternately, you can leave before the show ends and get photos of the Siq while everyone else is still at the Treasury.
If you are focusing on getting photos then I think it will be hard to enjoy and appreciate this special event, and vice versa. I am not particularly happy with my night time Petra photos (which is why I turned it into a black and white photo) but I did try to focus more on the experience than the photography.
13. Post process your photos
Post processing your photos is not cheating. Your photo is only as good as the software inside your smartphone or DSLR. Under perfect lighting conditions, the software takes the digital information and turns it into a pretty good photo.
You have the power to turn a pretty good photo into a good or even great photo, especially if the lighting is not ideal. This is why pro photographers shoot in RAW mode so that they have the maximum control of what the final photo looks like.
What your camera sees and what that software interprets may not be what you see with your eyes, especially in poor or high contrast lighting conditions. Don’t be shy about editing a photo so that it looks like what you saw. Every photo can benefit from a little adjustment, even if it is just the simplest editing program in your smart phone.
I use Lightroom to process my DSLR photos and the built in editing program on my Android phone to improve my cell phone photos. The key is to edit so that the photo looks natural and represents what you saw when you were there. Editing also allows you to crop out those non essential elements that do not tell the story you want to convey with your image.
Also, do not discount turning a photo into a black and white image like I did with my nighttime Treasury photo above. What starts out as a boring monochromatic photo can become a dramatic photo that accentuates line and shape.
My visit to Petra was a bucket list trip for me and I came home with great memories and photos. Hope these Petra photography tips help you get the best photos you want from your special trip.
For information on visiting Petra visit the official Petra Visitor info page.
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