Whether heading up the winding hill on the bus or trekking for days over high mountain passes, you have finally made it to Machu Picchu! It’s time to explore and, of course, take some photos. While you might be traveling with a guide or by yourself, let me help with a few photography tips.
For That ‘Me And Machu Picchu’ Shot, Head Up The Hill
You’ll have to head uphill a little ways for the classic “Me and Machu Picchu” photo after entering the grounds. I would suggest doing this first because 1) it’s less crowded and 2) you’re less sweaty at the start of exploring.
There is more than one way to get to the spot(s), but for a good variety of options, head uphill at the first chance after in the main gate – it’s about 100-200 yards after the entrance. This won’t be the last hill you climb this day. Most tours start on the fairly level path toward the heart of the city before heading slightly uphill to the main entrance gate. Ignore that path and hit the upper view point, winding to the left a little and then back down to the main entrance to the city.
Climb Wayna Picchu Early
Wayna Picchu is that rather steep hill behind Machu Picchu, and yes, you can hike up it. “Hike” is not the right term, though, as there are times when the path is nearly vertical with a rope to help keep you close to the slippery vegetation. Do I make it sound daunting? It can be, so don’t carry a lot up with you.
You will want to start early as there are a limited number of people allowed to climb each day. Look for the hut at the far end of the city – that is the entrance to the climb. The views from the top are rewarding but it can also be crowded. While the view of the city is not the ‘classic’ view, you will come back with a unique image most travelers never get the chance to take.
No matter the time of year, Machu Picchu has a crowd. Most of that crowd shows up later in the day (except for the trekkers that come barreling over the hill through the Sun Gate early in the morning). Being patient can land you quality photos if you are willing to wait. For instance, people like to get their photo taken at the main stone gate to Machu Picchu, and this produces a queue at times. Be patient and let other tourists have their fun, then snap your photo when the wave has passed.
Most areas you will want to photograph (the alter, Sun Gate, etc.) will have visitors arriving in waves with their tour group. Let the waves come and go and realize that there usually isn’t a lasting, non-stop line for any particular feature.
Even with that stated, don’t expect to take a photo absent of any humans. If you want that look, take several images from the exact same location and stitch them together in a computer later, choosing the areas with no tourists from each frame.
The same goes for the weather. Clouds pass through regularly and there may be times when the backdrop is not ‘perfect’. Sit and admire what you do see while waiting for your shot. It may not come, but at least you’ll have a great view while you wait.
Find A Llama
You know you want to take a photo of a llama. Llamas abound at Machu Picchu, wandering wherever they wish for the most part. The key to a good llama photo is to shoot with the sun at your back and, if possible, the city in the background.
Wide angle shots abound at Machu Picchu and sometimes not where you would expect them. There are many small rooms throughout the city and this is where a wide angle lens can help show the space better. An 18mm lens will be okay for most consumer cameras, but a 10mm will do you better if you can borrow or rent one.
While Machu Picchu looks like a lot of old rock from a distance, the devil is in the details. The joint work in many areas is amazing. You will also notice a difference between the stone work in the royal areas of the city compared to other, more civilian areas.
Best Time Of Day
For my money, nothing beats early morning for great photos of the city. Sometimes there is fog though (see “Be Patient” above) but that usually burns off soon after the sun starts warming the valley. As with most locations on this planet, the middle of the day has the harshest sun, although I will admit it is not that bad, all things considered. In the morning the rock walls will give nice shadows and contrast to the town, and it won’t seem as stark as midday.
That being stated, don’t completely discount the middle of the day depending on the time of year. For instance, the image below was shot at 18 minutes until noon and the colors and contrast are decent. Also, the backside of the hill, away from the entrance, will be fully lit later in the day.
Before The Sun Gate
Speaking from my experiences with two visits to Machu Picchu (one with G Adventures), I can tell you the photos of the city from the trail below the Sun Gate look better than the views up at the Sun Gate. For those that don’t know, the Sun Gate (Intipunku) is a small structure in the notch of the hills to the Southeast of the town. It is a long, uphill walk to reach the gate ,and before you get there – at about the halfway mark – is a small structure. This is the last, good, ‘classic’ shot of the city with Wayna Picchu in the background. While the walk up to the Sun Gate is worth it, don’t expect better photos.
Yes, this is a photography tip. Be prepared for a long day at the ruins. There is a place near the entrance to buy water, but there is not another opportunity once inside the complex. Bringing ample water and snacks will make the trip enjoyable, and that goes for photographers or any tourist.
Can I Bring A Tripod?
That depends. It’s hard to garner an official response. If you look professional, you will likely be stopped at the gate and asked to pay an additional fee. If you carry a small tripod that fits in your pack, this will be less likely to happen.
Why is this important? I was able to shoot some fun time-lapse videos with the aid of a tripod on my last trip. Also, shooting HDR style images, especially when the sun is out and the clouds are bright white, is greatly aided with a tripod.
As with any antiquity, be cautious about where you set your tripod. Keep out of the way of traffic (drop-offs are many in Machu Picchu and trails are narrow) and don’t bring spikes that may scratch rocks. Consider a smaller tripod, like the GorillaPods by Joby, to be unobtrusive.
I hope your visit to Machu Picchu is as rewarding as you want it to be!