Photographer's Guide to Petra
One of the highlights of visiting the Middle East is a trip to Petra. Inhabited since ancient times, Petra is a complex of rock-carved Nabatean structures nestled among a network of magnificent gorges. As a world heritage sight, the image of Petra's iconic Treasury has travelled the globe and is instantaneously recognized. But like many wonders of the world, it is quite something to behold with your own eyes. Trying to do this much photographed site justice also poses some challenges to the avid photographer, so here are some tips for you!
1. The elements:
One of the biggest challenges of photographing Petra is the sheer distances in combination with the middle eastern climate. The complex is vast and so much more than just the oft photographed treasury.. When temperatures can soar to over 40'c, as it did when I was there in May, this can prove to be a daunting physical task. So brace yourself for the elements: - wear good shoes, bring sunscreen, bring a hat, plenty of water, snacks to keep you going and even an umbrella for some much needed shade. Who would have thought that my little umbrella was probably the best item I brought with me on my trip to the sun drenched middle east? There are locals who will tempt you with horse rides and donkey treks, some of which they say are free. Nothing is free and a generous tip is required. I am not sure on the ethics of using these animals as concerns have been raised with respect to their welfare. So brace yourself for a tough physical day that will be justly rewarded with amazing photography.
The complex opens at 6 am but double check these times as they are known to change throughout the year. I can not stress enough how important it is to get there early. You will be rewarded with an empty world heritage site that is yours to photograph with very few tourists (if any) around to get in your way. Another bonus of this early departure time is that the sun is much gentler. The hiking itself is not the issue, rather it is the mid day heat that can make Petra unbearable. So get there early!
The classic shot of the Treasury faces east so if you want to get direct light on this site, you must do so on the first half of the day. It will take about 45 min from the entrance to hike up to the vantage point where you can photograph the site. Take note that the locals will, for a fee of course, take you on an illegal short cut to another vantage point. This route will take you about 10 minutes to hike up. However remember that it was much much more crowded, not sanctioned by UNESCO, ridden with selfie engrossed instagrammers. You will also miss out on some of the glorious views on the official route including a breathtaking view overlooking the amphitheatre.. Check with a local with respect to the actual time that the sun will hit the treasury. I was there in late May and the sun did not reach the bottom of the Treasury till 930/10 am. I spent a few hours watching and photographing this site as it slowly bathed itself in sunlight and I don't regret a second of this. So slow down and enjoy.
The afternoon light allows time for photographing the Royal Tombs., the amphitheatre, the street facades and if you can make it all the way out to the Monastery.
The Siq can be photographed all day long as it changes colour depending on the angle of the sunlight. I got some great shots during the late afternoon when the crowds started to thin and the local bedouins charged their horse-drawn carriages around beautifully coloured rocks. The Siq was also hauntingly beautiful in the early morning when NO ONE was around.
Closing time for Petra also seems to be a suggestion so I wouldn't rush to leave. Crowds are thinned out and lighting is nice in the late afternoon. Not to mention the relentless heat lets up. In fact, on the nights when Petra has its night tours, take your time leaving the compound. You will get to see the Siq lined up with candle lights for free. as you make your way out.
I had a two day pass for Petra. I could have easily spent another day there..
Given the sheer distances to cover and the need for plenty of hydration, you want to pack smart. I did not bring a tripod as there are plenty of places to prop your camera on for a makeshift tripod. I brought two lenses for the day - my tilt shift and my 24-105 Zoom lens.. I probably should have brought a wide angle lens and maybe a telephoto for shots of the locals. I brought a polarizing filter, back up battery, and an extra memory card. It will be a long trek back to your hotel if you forget anything so double check before you leave. Take note that there are only a few pay toilets and the food selection is not ideal. There is no limit on equipment and no restrictions on use of tripods.
4. Look Around:
Though the sites themselves are spectacular to behold, what I enjoyed photographing far more was all the ad-hoc activities and side hustles from the local bedouin tribe that runs this place.. So look around - look up, look down and look all around. (Also listen for horse hoofs and move aside...). There is so much more to photograph other than the architectural sites. I really enjoyed talking to the locals who were very friendly once they realized it was not your first or even tenth rodeo. Some are incredibly photogenic but always ask first before taking a portrait.
5. Petra Night Tours:
Twice a week, you have to opportunity to visit Petra at night. It is not cheap and after a full day on your feet you have to ask yourself is it worth it. Reviews online were mixed. My travel companions who did go see it at night would argue that it was not the best. Given I did not have a my tripod which would have been imperative, given I generally hate crowds and that my legs were aching from a full day on my feet, I did not do it and I honestly don't regret my decision. From my reading if you do go you have to race to get there ahead of the crowds, time is limited, and they light it up with all sorts of weird colours. You are however out of the scorching sun and are able to take that iconic picture of the candle lit Treasury. However, my best pictures from this trip are not the generic landscape ones. This has been done a thousand times before. I always try to find something new or a different angle when photographing an icon. But then again, you never know where your next great shot will be found so I generally encourage trying anything once.