Photographing the Taj Mahal

india photographing taj mahal first view archway
The first shot of the Taj. The setup shot, if you will. There will be people in all your shots. May as well get used to it.

When I was thinking about what to write about our visit to the Taj Mahal in India, I have to admit I was sort of stumped. What could I possibly say about the iconic tomb that hasn't been said before?

This history is well known. The architecture is well known. It's one of the most visited places on earth.

And, there have been about a trillion photos taken there. So, what could I do that might be a little different? Aye, there's the rub.

I gave it some thought before heading to the Taj. When I got there I spent the first hour before the sun got too high just running around composing in my viewfinder, and trying to find something good, and maybe original.  At the same time, I was simply trying to get a nice shot of the place.

Do some research

I did some homework with Google and just looked at lots of photos of the Taj. Most of them were of the same same ilk. Some were just snapshots taken by total amateurs. Some were similar compositions taken by pros, or talented amateurs, that paid some attention to framing and light. But, what I was looking for, literally, were angles. Where was the shot I liked taken from?

India taj mahal unesco world heritage
Obviously, the iconic Taj Mahal is the most famous site in India. This, if you will, is the “postcard shot.” Also known as an establishing shot.

The Establishing Shot

The above shot is the obvious result of that research. It's a good shot, and I framed it nicely. And, if I were looking to make a calendar or a postcard, this is the necessary starting point.

india taj mahal reflection pool
Another “classic” postcard view–if there had been water in the reflecting pool.

Here's the other “iconic” shot of the Taj. There are a million of them just like this with the tomb reflected in the reflecting pool. That's what the pool is for, right? But, of course, our one day visit to Agra was on the very day they had drained the pool for cleaning and repair. So, just imagine the reflection. Chalk it up to bad luck and move on.

India taj mahal kris under arch
If Kris had been wearing a long flowing dress and gazing wistfully at the Taj, this would have been the “Instagram” shot.

Some other views

From the front, we moved over to the side. The Taj is flanked by two pretty much identical buildings. One is a mosque, the other is something else. (The mosque faces Mecca which, in this case, is west.) We went for the western building because we wanted to look east at the Taj with the rising sun behind it.

When we got to the first arch of the western building–an arch which frames a view of the Taj–we saw, and I swear this is true–three women that I refer to as Instagram Divas waiting their turn to turn their back to their camera man, elongate their bodies as much as possible in their similar long flowing dresses, and gaze pensively at the Taj. Three separate divas taking the same exact shot. This is why I hate Instagram.

So, just for laughs, I put Kris in pretty much the same spot, but in her typical baggy traveling clothes. Reluctantly, she mugged for the very typical tourist “Here I am at the Taj Majal” photo. I used the flash to illuminate her face straight on. Had I wanted, I could have made this photo much more artistic and technically adept. But, I didn't want to. What's the point of doing the same exact shot as everyone else? Believe it or not, I think this one is a lot less trite.

By the way, by the time we were done with this shot, two more divas had lined up for their version of the same shot the first three had just taken.

(If you don't believe me, or for some reason feel like you haven't seen enough young women in flowing dresses in front of tourist attraction photos lately, just go to Instagram and search for the hashtag #tajmahal.)

india taj mahal walkers framed
I just liked this image of the group, all walking away from the Taj.

The story: There a lots of people at the Taj Mahal

Just after immortalizing my own Instagram Diva, I moved down the gallery to another archway, mostly to get away from all the other people lined up to take the exact same shot. As I was looking through the arch at the Taj, a group walked right by on their way to who knows what. Two quick shots, without much time to compose. But I do like this one, especially the sense of motion, and the women's clothing. If I'd had more time to think, I would have done this just a little differently. But, sometimes the snap shot is what you get.

india photographing taj mahal bird
The “detail” shot. In this case, with a bird. I took time standing there to get this one.

So, what's next? I've got my establishing shots, not only of the building but also the top shot of this post that gives you an idea of what visiting the Taj Mahal is like: lots of people.

The Detail Shot

What's next is your detail shot. The Taj Mahal is full of details. Carvings, inlays, coloration of the marble. What is less likely to be the same as everyone else? As I was standing there thinking about it, I noticed that lots of big birds were constantly circling the dome. Looking for dead tourists? Or perhaps waiting for dropped food visitors had smuggled into the Taj site?

I watched the birds for quite a while, and made about 10 exposures. Or maybe more, I can't remember exactly. You have to shoot a lot because the birds are moving and the composition constantly changes. Because I was patient and shot a lot, I got an image I do really like of the bird framed by one of the niches. A striking composition, that includes all the amazing scrolling in the marble, and is given a sense of scale by the silhouette of the bird. It accomplishes the detail imperative, with a little flair.

India taj mahal sunrise
When you find a composition you like, make lots of exposures. Especially if there are things changing. Like the light. And people moving around.

The Conclusion

Now the light was beginning to change. The sun was rising behind the Taj and the view to the east was getting more dramatic.

I should mention that the city of Agra, the home of the Taj Majal, is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Shooting there is difficult because the smog sucks all the color and contrast right out of every scene. If I were making a career out of shooting India and the Taj, I'd visit the site every day for a month, hoping for that one day right after a hard long rain when the air was relatively clear. (And the reflecting pool was full.) That clear day would be an unusual day in India, but at least there would be a chance for the color photographer.

So, you make of it what you can. And, you can even use the smoggy air to diffract the sun, and use some filters and other processing techniques to get a sky and coloring of the Taj that dramatizes the overall effect of, arguably, the world's most beautiful building.

photographing taj mahal agra india
And finally, the Taj Mahal in early morning light. I like this one a lot.

Even early in the day there are lots of people moving around, so you have to again make several exposures to get the people to add to your composition. Getting there early and rushing to this spot helps. There aren't that many people on this section of the grounds yet, so you wait for the moment.

india photographing taj mahal sunrise 2
But this one is my favorite.

You like it when someone is just sitting, admiring the view the same way you are. This is my favorite shot of the day (along with the bird shot.)

Of course, when you walk around and look back at your subject's face, you see that she's not looking at the Taj Mahal at all. She's staring at her phone.

If you're interested in a lot more information of how to construct a travel photo essay, check out The Travel Photo Essay: Describing a Journey Through Images, by my friend Mark Edward Harris.

The Taj Mahal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in India. Click the link to see the complete list, with links to our stories about the ones we've visited.

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12 thoughts on “Photographing the Taj Mahal”

  1. I admire your dedication to your craft. My first problem would be that my delayed phase circadian rhythm means I’m much more likely to catch a sunset than a sunrise. You managed to not have the people in your photos overwhelm them. In fact, while they are nonobtrusive in your photos, they do lend a sense of scale to the photos. And, BTW, if you hadn’t mentioned your disappoint at the lack of water in the reflecting pool, I wouldn’t have known it was missing.

    • It would certainly be possible to get some nice sunset shots at the Taj, too. But I’m afraid there would be even more people. That’s the best thing about dawn patrol: you don’t have as much competition. Or as many people in the shot. But I’m guessing the Taj is pretty crowded all the time. The other thing to keep in mind in a climate like India is that it’s much cooler in the morning. By the time we left the site around 9:30 it was already pretty steamy.

  2. Great post on how to approach a subject if you actually want a shot that is different from everyone else. I wouldn’t mind the Instagram divas so much if they weren’t always blocking everyone else’s shot for so long — and if there weren’t so many would-be divas! (Why do people want to make bad copies of other people’s images and what is it that makes stupid poses so popular?!) And I wonder, do they even take the time to think about where they are and absorb the details and the sense of place? That’s what I love about your shot with the group walking through the image — sure, it would have been nice to have framed it just a bit more cleanly, but it’s alive in a way so many shots of iconic places aren’t. I haven’t gotten to India yet. Someday. This will be a nice reminder to think about when I’m shooting.

    • Cindy, thank you. I do try to put some thought into what I’m shooting. But sometime that thought amounts to just taking the time and spending as much time just looking around as you do looking through the viewfinder. It’s good to go in to a situation with some pre-planned shots, but don’t let that be your entire approach.

  3. Ha! I like your commentary on today’s travel and photo trends (and implied judgement which I totally agree with by the way!) almost as much as your tips and photo advice on shooting the Taj. :)

    • For the most part, Instagram is a wasteland. There are a lot of good people on it, but you have to be selective to find them. And Instagram has to show them to you, which they don’t always do.

  4. Tom, I really appreciate you sharing your research and thoughtful consideration in studying your iconic subject. I wish I had done that before we went. I found myself frustrated with all the people. Plus it was 125 degrees which didn’t help either!

    • Yeah, if you don’t figure out a way to cut some of the people out of your shot…or make them part of the shot, you get a lotta nothing. And, yes, India is godawful hot.

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