Photographers Guide to Visiting The Taj Mahal
Photographing the Taj Mahal, Agra, India
How, Where & When to Photograph the Most Recognisable Destination
Tips, advice & ideas from one photographer to another - after visiting The Taj Mahal in November 2018 I wanted to share some of the things I discovered to help others who want to get the most from their own visit. If you find this post useful please comment below so I know what to write about in future.
Everyone has a bucket list, locations they dream of visiting or places that exist in their subconsciousness for any number of reasons.
For me The Taj Mahal has always been there at the top of my list, architecture, design and visual presence have been interests of mine from a child and nothing else on earth ticks those boxes like Agra’s Taj Mahal.
Whenever a photographer visits any iconic location whether as globally recognisable as The Taj Mahal or well known locally they immediately have a number of challenges. They probably have, at least subconsciously, a shot list in mind - they’ve probably seen hundreds & maybe thousands of images online, have formed a clear expectation, plan or hope for their own phots but still want to discover something new. Of course, they’re also aware that each location comes with it’s own unique difficulties, access restrictions, local rules, weather etc. This is why I always feel a real sense of trepidation when visiting any famous location and try to plan my trips carefully. Below I share my plans, tips and advice with you so you can make the most of your own trip. Some of my advice you can find in travel guides and online but I discovered things that weren’t in any of the guides, things change from day to day, month to month so you may want to further confirm things yourself, my trip was November 2018.
The Plan. We were exploring India’s Golden Triangle of Delhi, Jaipur & Agra but extending it a little to take in Jaisalmer & Jodhpur. Agra was to be our last stop before heading back to Delhi & a flight home - we scheduled 3 nights in Agra, mainly as a precaution if plans went awry but also as a bit of a chill out to recover from the trip. We planned our trip to The Taj Mahal for the first morning, again just in case things changed and I hoped to make a further trip, the following morning to Metah Bagh for another view, more of that later. The Taj Mahal website is a good source of information but see the access details below for what this means in reality.
I strongly recommend buying at least a couple of good, up to date guide books before your trip, we used the Rough Guide to India and Lonely Planet India, as well as researching locations online as we planned the trip. In Agra we stayed at the more upmarket Courtyard by Marriott Hotel just 3-4kms from the Taj Mahal but there are lots of options including some well reviewed home stays & Airbnb’s very close, do your research. In Agra we found the “Ola” app extremely convenient for taxis (a version of Uber who don’t appear to have much of a presence in Agra) - I’d highly recommend it.
Timing - As a photographer you’re going to want to visit The Taj Mahal at sunrise, for us the sun rose at 6:40am, you can find sunrise times for any location on earth at sunrise-sunset.org. Viewing The Taj Mahal from the front as you enter, the sun rises to your right and slightly behind you, sunrise is the best time and it means you can spend as long as you want just watching it transform in the strengthening light, more about that later. Officially the Taj Mahal gates open 30 minutes before sunrise, spot the “officially”, this is India and nothing’s quite that straight forward!
Online Tickets - Each gate has a separate ticket booth to purchase your ticket before you join a queue to access the site. You therefore need to arrive well before sunrise or, and here’s the thing that’s not yet made it into the guide books, you can purchase your tickets in advance, nice and conveniently at Archeological Survey of India. Just print off the PDF and bring it along to join the queues and skip the ticket booths.
Gates - There’s a lot written about which is the best, quickest gate to use, there are three, East, West & South. We’d read that the East gate had the shortest queues but there was a long walk to it from the car park, vehicles are banned from about a kilometre radius of the site. In reality we were dropped off at the car park, jumped on a free battery powered shuttle cart and arrived at the gate 5 minutes later, it was that simple! This is India however so there are loads of cycle-rickshaws touting for business at the car park, my advice is avoid them and jump on the free shuttle - actually it’s not even a long walk, we walked back later. If you haven’t had chance to pre-purchase your tickets there’s a ticket booth right opposite the east gate, a consequence of the online ticketing appears to be that the ticket booths are relatively quiet.
Entering - With ticket in hand you then enter the queue to access the Taj Mahal and so the fun begins! There are two queues, one for ladies & one for men, this is India where you’ll have already noted on your trip that attitudes to women are very different to what you might be used to. We joined our queues at 6:15am at which point they were the same length, relatively short and we were hopeful of a rapid entry. I watched with a little trepidation as the sky lightened and the queues remained stationary, finally at 6:20am we began moving and it was quickly apparent that the men’s queue was moving faster! Immediately before going through security the first reason became clear, the men’s queue split into two streams, the ladie’s remained as one. The men’s then led to five airport style metal detectors before a body search and the ladies had two and finally, ladies are searched only by ladies in India and there doesn’t seem to be many lady security guards, anywhere.
The result of this process was that I entered the site at 6:30am with just a very short walk to my first glimpse of The Taj Mahal, my wife eventually joined through security 20 minutes later! I chose not to go forward and see the Taj Mahal without her, I wanted our first sight of it to be special & together. Tip - decide before hand whether you’re going to wait for each other and proceed together or meet up through the Great Gate, at that first iconic photo location.
Access Restrictions - Again we’d read about all the restrictions on access, no water, food, bags, tripods, video cameras, even guide books! We’d also heard that you needed passports to accompany your tickets and you’d each receive a free bottle of water and a set of shoe covers on entry. The reality was that bags were searched and some were told to leave large bags at the gate (there are lockers available) but we saw people later with food and guide books in the site, we didn’t need to show passports. Only those purchasing tickets on the day in person were given water. Tip - to ensure a relatively painfree entry travel light. Leave your camera bags, tripods etc behind (there’s no way you’ll get to use a tripod even if you manage to get it through security). Carry your possessions in your pockets if you can or a very small bag. By all means take a bottle of water, the worst that can happen is it’ll be confiscated!
Finally, Our First Sight - so at 7:05am we walked together to the central Great Gate (there’s a wall to your right so you can’t see The Taj Mahal until you walk through here) and there, magically appearing in the haze (see notes on sunrise & sunset below) is your first glimpse of the building, beautifully framed by the arch of the gate, shimmering in the early morning light & only slightly obstructed by all the raised camera phones ahead of you - for first time visitors this is a special moment, take your time and make the most of it.
Immediately through the Great Gate is the first of many iconic photo locations, this one the long shot through the gardens with the water features providing a perfect lead-in line. The first thing to note is the water pools are usually empty! don’t sweat it, you can’t change these things so just work with it, at this point The Taj Mahal looks so beautiful anyway they could be filled with dancing hippos and you’d probably not notice.
The choice is yours to include the dry water pool or compose a shot which utilises more sky and avoids the distraction of a slightly shabby, dry water channel. Remember it’s the individual choices we make as photographers that define our images, a photo taken with no decisions made is just a snapshot.
People - So here’s the Elephant in the room. Whatever your planning, time of arrival etc etc there’s going to be A LOT of people around and at all the ‘iconic’ locations each & every person will want their selfie, their family, their individual shot and will want to try that hugely hilarious and oh so original ‘holding the top of the roof’ shot! Oh and there’s the ‘I want to look like Princess Di’ ... Unless you are a member of royalty or can utilise advanced Photoshop techniques you’re going to have some people in your shots. But be patient, courteous (some one will need to be) and employ the occasional elbow/body check and you will get into that perfect spot, be prepared to shoot quickly but also hold your space, don’t be intimidated. Some people just expect you to move out the way so they can get all their unobstructed shots of each of their extended family but be confident, forceful but respectful and there’s no reason you won’t get the shots you want.
In fact I enjoyed watching and photographing the people around The Taj Mahal, as always they add energy, movement & interest to photos. Tip - spend some time watching the people and think about how you can incorporate them into your images. Studying how people move and learning to anticipate them is a great skill for a photographer - keep an eye out for bright colours, ladies in brightly coloured Saris make a great addition to your photos.
To be honest, although the day we visited was busy, I was surpised at how much space there was if you look for it - it’s a big site and once everyone’s through the Main Gate they soon thin out.
Sunrise & Sunset - throughout our three week trip through Rajasthan I discovered that sunrise & sunset as you’d expect as a photographer never really happened, it was the same on a trip to Dubai a year before. Because there is so much dust & pollution in the air in this area a golden lit sunrise/set with shadows and gently growing/fading light doesn’t develop, instead the sun appears/disappears through the ‘haze’ reasonably high in the sky. With little cloud there is also little chance of dramatically illuminated skies as you might expect in Europe’s cumulus cloud laden skies.
Nonetheless the sky took on a subtle pink, peach, orange colour palette that is very well worth exploring.
Moving On - beyond the Great Gate you’ll want to walk down to The Taj Mahal itself, as you do watch as the light changes on it’s facade and don’t forget to look behind you, the Great Gate would stand as a great monument in itself in any other circumstance!
Half way down is another raised platform and maybe an even better chance of getting that beautifully symmetrical shot looking down the garden, again you’ll need to avoid everyone else, there’s a bench here so everyone goes for the sitting, relaxing etc poses - at least you can stand tall and shoot over their heads as they sit down!
Composition - Shah Jahan was a genius, there’s absolutely no argument that he and his architects created a masterpiece without equal. The Taj Mahal is simply proportioned perfectly, from it’s elegant marble base to that graceful curve of the main dome it fills the camera viewfinder and sits comfortably within the frame. Experiment however with framing and you immediately notice how the minarets at each corner of the marble base form a perfect frame within which the main building sits - try zooming in to the main building and then backing off a little to include the minarets, you’ll see what I mean!
As you walk around the gardens you discover there isn’t one bad angle to photograph from and there are lots of opportunity to play with different compositions including the minarets and surrounding buildings.
Detail - We know The Taj Mahal so well from the iconic views we see regularly but there is so much more to it. Viewing it close up you see the detail and the attention to detail that went into it’s construction - the fine pinstripe designs accentuating the recesses and the fine Koranic script which defies perspective due to its expanding size as it rises up and around the arches. We’d read that the interior was something of a anti-climax compared to the exterior but I think this is a little unfair - you may not appreciate being herded around the tomb like cattle but the interior perfectly demonstrates the translucency of the marble and the simple but beautiful design, it’s very peaceful & tranquil. Tip - take a small pocket torch and use it to inspect the marble, nothing to do with photography but it gives you a real insight into how and why the exterior reacts to light. Photography is banned inside.
Exploring the Mosque to the left of The Taj Mahal and the Assembly Hall to the right offers alternative viewpoints and great framing opportunities. There are more chances here to avoid the crowds and grab some unobstructed views too.
Before You Leave - You’ll eventually be ready to leave The Taj Mahal, your ticket is valid for the whole day and apparently you can re-enter on the same day although we couldn’t see where or how that worked. When you do leave take some time to study the view again from the Main Gate and compare how the light has changed.
Equipment - Visiting The Taj Mahal is definitely a time to travel light. Ditch the camera bag, without doubt leave the tripod behind and just carry essentials. I shoot with a Canon 5d (full frame) and when I travel I use just a 28-300mm lens for convenience, all the photos you see here were shot with that combination (apart from the queuing photos shot on my iPhone). The natural light was so good during our trip that shooting handheld even at long focal length wasn’t a problem, only occasionally did I need to raise my ISO to 800. Occasionally at The Taj Mahal I might have wanted a wide angle lens as well, if you take one carry it in your pocket or a small shoulder/hand bag. Other than that just the torch I mentioned earlier and my trusty Black Rapid strap.
Camera Settings - I like to keep things straightforward and not worry about changing settings, preferring to concentrate upon my subject, surroundings and photography opportunities. I therefore shoot a subject like this (city/landscape, little or no movement) in aperture priority mode, for long shots I set aperture at f8 for wide depth and keept my ISO as low as possible (100-400), adjusting to ensure my shutter speed is high enough to handhold. My main tool for control is exposure compensation and I'm looking to ensure that the light I see on my camera screen is as close to that I see in front of me. At The Taj Mahal I used +2/3 exp comp throughout the morning as my camera was under exposing slightly. For some of the detail shots I adjusted aperture to narrow my depth of field.
The Alternative & Free View of The Taj Mahal
From Mehtab Bagh
Immediately opposite The Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River is a public and free to enter garden with an amazing view, Mehtab Bagh. The morning after we'd visited the main site I made the trip to Mehtab Bagh for sunrise, hoping for a repeat of the mist we had seen the morning before which would have rendered The Taj Mahal as "floating" above the cloud. Unfortunately the temperature was a little warmer so there was little in the way of mist but this did nothing to detract from the view and the experience of sitting alone watching the sun rise.
Mehtab Bagh is a good twenty minutes tuk tuk ride from The Taj Mahal, the route is via a bridge north of the City and back down the other side of the river - at any time other than sunrise you'll need to allow more time for traffic. I'd downloaded Google Maps on my mobile phone for the trip and needed to show the tuk tuk driver exactly where I wanted to go. Tip - I use offline maps on the Google Maps app on my phone whenever I'm abroad, it not only saves the cost of data downloads but also ensures speedy operation in areas with poor coverage - it's also handy for directing taxi drivers!
On arrival at Mehtab Bagh I was met by a handful of individuals who appeared to hold some 'official' role, which involved informing me access to the gardens was free and then searching my bag. This was a little disconcerting but I had little choice and my tuk tuk driver was staying to wait for me. Rather bizarrely my Platypus Ultra mini-tripod was confiscated at this point even though the ‘security’ didnt quite know what it was! I did find throughout our trip that tripods are frowned upon almost universally.
Access to the river bank itself is fenced off and on my visit there was a 'security guard' who appeared from nowhere to enforce access limitations. For this photograph I've walked along a wall to get as close to straight on as possible, you can't quite get it perfectly symmetrical at this point but for free what more could you want!
By walking back into the park you can get a perfectly symmetrical view but with some of the surroundings in the foreground. You can see the top of the wall I walked along for the above photo, under the tree on the right hand side.
If you have time on your visit it’s well worth making the trip out to Mehtab Bagh, it not only offers an alternative but still stunning view of The Taj Mahal for free but a very real chance to sit in solitude and take in the world’s most beautiful building. Take a drink & maybe even something to eat and just sit and watch, it’s simply beautiful.
I'm Adam Winfield, a professional photographer who loves to travel & share my thoughts, advice and tips. Please feel free to get in touch here and don't forget to comment on this post, tell me what you want to see it means a lot, thank you.