For many people, a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, is a once-in-a-lifetime trip and that means photos. Lots of photos. For the casual traveler a standard “Me In Front Of It” photo will work.
But if you are more serious about your photography and want to bring back stellar images of the Taj Mahal, I have tips to help bank the odds in your favor.
Go Across The River, Especially If It Is Friday
First order of business is to scout your location. I suggest heading across the Yamuna River to the Moonlight Garden, or Mahtab Bagh, for a different point of view. Chances are you will be in town for a couple of days and it is easy to catch a cab and drive to the gardens.
The gardens themselves are okay, but the real view is across the river to the back of the Taj Mahal complex. What is even better, if you happen to arrive to Agra on a Friday, the complex is closed (but not the Mahtab Bagh) and you can capture images of the Taj with no humans present. Be warned that you may not be able to go down on the beach for a closer look and tripods are not allowed in the Mahtab Bagh (I tried to smuggle them in twice, with no luck). There is an entrance fee.
Bring A Wide Angle
When on the grounds of the Taj Mahal, a wide-angle lens will do you well. The structure itself is entirely approachable and you will be up close and personal most of the time. A wide-angle lens will help capture the whole structure.
Once-in-a-lifetime trips often mean getting up before sunrise and visiting the Taj Mahal is no different. Arriving early means less people. I don’t mind people in my photos, especially at a location like this, but it’s nice to have some elbowroom.
There will be a line when you arrive and security checks. Be warned, the women’s line is slower than the men’s and you will be restricted in what you can bring with you. If you bring a tripod, it can get confiscated or you may be charged a ‘professional’ fee. Leave the tripod behind.
Bring A Polarizing Filter And Haze Filter
A polarizing filter will help cut down on glare and haze which are almost always present in one form or another. Remember that such a filter is most effective when used at 90 degrees to the light source and in the morning or evening that is perfect for the straight on shot from the pools.
That “One Shot” You Want? Yeah, It’s Crowded
The ‘classic’ shot looking over the reflecting pools is crowded. Have patience. And be nice. Everyone walking up to that spot wants the same photo you want and you’ll get it if you are patient.
This is also another reason to arrive early. It has been my experience on two occasions to see that pool’s reflective qualities ruined by wind later in the morning or during the day. Arriving early helps your chances of getting a nice reflection. And don’t use a polarizing filter here as it will remove the reflection (unless that is what you want).
Go Against The Grain
The natural flow, once inside the grounds, is to enter through the main Southern gate and then gawk. By all means, gawk. That first view, through the arches, is incredible.
Once you’re done gawking, head forward but then against the grain. Each year is a little different, but last year they had ropes funneling foreign visitors to the left and then up steps to the dais and a separate entrance for Indians on the right. The fact is, the best photos are on the right side in the morning (right = East) so make a beeline for that other entrance on the right.
Once there, you will either have to don covers for your shoes or leave them behind, as they are not allowed on the dais. Up on the dais, head more to the right, away from the structure, to start capturing the morning light.
Wait For The Sun
If you do arrive early, you might be so excited to have elbowroom that you start snapping away. By the time the sun has fully illuminated the structure, you might be snapped out (this can take 1-2 hours). But it is important to wait for the right light.
For instance, take a look at the two images below. The first was taken when I first arrived and the second was taken right before I left. Both images are edited the same, but sometimes the sun needs time to burn through the Indian haze. As a matter of fact, you can still see some shadows from the trees and buildings on the lower part of the walls. I should have waited longer!
Zoom In For The Details
Don’t forget to bring a zoom lens too! There is a lot of detail in the architecture as well as scrollwork and stones.
There’s More Than The Taj Itself
Besides the glamorous main building itself, there are two other main structures beside the Taj Mahal. One is a mosque and the other is an open building thought to have been built to balance out the architectural display. Explore these structures as they offer contrast to the white of the Taj and have different architectural aspects.
If you are shooting on Program, Aperture or Shutter Priority modes with your DSLR or point and shoot and the Taj is filling most of your frame (or is smack-dab in the middle), over exposure your shots by about one stop. If you need help on finding the exposure compensation/bias feature on your camera, or how it works, I have a post here that should help. This will ensure the Taj comes out as white as you see it, otherwise your camera’s automatic features will darken it.
Now that you have the shot from the pool like everyone else, get creative! Most of your friends won’t have been to the Taj Mahal and would like to see something new, something different. Use a different way of framing the building and don’t forget to wander the grounds and see the other sites. Chances are you will only visit once, so make the most of it!
Take Shots From Other Vantage Points
I mentioned the vantage point across the river, but there are other locations for unique images. For instance, from the top of the Agra Fort the Taj is clearly visible by the onyx throne. And there is a park to the East of the Taj grounds, which also affords a unique view. It’s not all about that one shot from the pool.
Explore and have fun!
Note: The image of the Taj Mahal with the reflecting pool was shot with an iPhone 4S. You need not buy an expensive DSLR to capture great images of this icon.