Some years ago I had to spend a few days photographing the fantastic ruins of the Temple of Karnak in Egypt. I would be the first at the site when it opened at 6am, have the place to myself in perfect light and then head across the car park to a café that opened at 10am. As I sat down drinking coffee and having breakfast I would watch the lines of tourists make their way across, as the heat of the day built and the sun moved directly overhead.
The early bird…
The single most effective thing you can do to enjoy the experience of exploring ruins, and come away with better pictures, is to skip breakfast and get there as early as possible. In the middle of the day, light tends to come from directly overhead and makes things flat and uninteresting. During the so-called golden hours, at the beginning and end of the day, the light will tend to be warmer, softer and more directional.
As the light will be directional, it won’t always be coming from the right direction, but then you won’t always want it shining directly on your subject. This can lead to very flat pictures, especially if you’re photographing carvings or bas-reliefs in rock. With pale yellow sandstone, shooting with the light directly behind you in the golden hours can give dull, yellow pictures. Directional light and shadows will make your pictures more pleasing and interesting. You can also shoot into the light, giving dynamic images with silhouettes and deep shadows and highlights.
Crowds and context
Getting up early also means that there will be fewer people in your shots than during peak times in the middle of the day and at sunset. This will make a site look less touristy and crowded. You don’t have to cut everyone from your pictures though: a few local people or objects can give a great idea of the scale of the ruins.
Try to get some context for your visit. I tend to research in advance to get a feel for the place, its history and the most important and photogenic places. Don’t try to see and photograph everything though – you’ll tire yourself out and end up with a lot of uncreative pictures.
Try to take more complex pictures. Don’t just photograph something from the front, where you get a ‘record shot’, simply showing what it looks like. Try to shoot from an angle so you can combine different elements of the ruins. Also try to get an overview of the ruins; if there’s a nearby hill or vantage point, climb it so you can look down on the whole site.
Final technical note: a polarising filter can sometimes help to make a pale sky more intense and striking. A deep blue sky will make light coloured ruins stand out more.
Steve has his own range of unique travel photography tours to some of the most exotic and photogenic parts of the world. More details on http://www.bettertravelphotography.com/phototours