the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

Photographing Ancient Ruins – Knossos

180418_Crete_4608The Palace of Knossos is the capital of ancient Minoan Crete. It is reportedly Crete’s most popular tourist attraction. Ancient ruins, particularly popular ones, present a photographic challenge, at least to me. We see photographs of the ruins in guidebooks and on postcards and want to get similar shots. Yet, often the sites are only have limited hours that do not correspond with the best light and are usually overrun by tourists. How to get a few decent shots without obtaining special access (like the photographers whose images you see on the postcard)?

Knossos is the perfect example. When Tanya and I were there, the last admittance of the day was at 3 p.m. We got there about 2:30 p.m., and I was hoping the crowds would be a bit less. However, as it turned out, we picked International Monuments Day (April 18th) to visit – the good news, free admission; the bad news, more people. It wasn’t overrun with tourists, but there we weren’t alone either. Further, 2:30 p.m. is not a prime time for photography, the light is harsh and contrast can be a big problem.

And you can forget about using a tripod. Even if it would not cause a problem with the crowds, tripods (and large professional cameras – whatever the definition of that is) are not allowed. This is a common policy at many historical sites and museums (occasionally I’m surprised and they are allowed, such at the Met in New York and in the Notre Dame Basilca in Montreal).

So what is your average photographer to do? Here are a few tips I’ve discovered that help me photograph at ancient ruins (and other popular sites).

1. Use a telephoto zoom lens – if you don’t want people in your shots, you will need to zoom in to crop them out. A wide-angle lens is good for providing a big scene, but it is almost impossible to use one and not have people in your image.

2. Shoot details – sure shoot an image with the whole building, but if you want to not have people in the shot, shoot details.

3. Don’t crop too tightly in camera – often you will not have the best vantage point to take a shot. If you think you might be making perspective adjustments Lightroom or Photoshop, don’t crop too tightly in-camera. Leave some room to crop after the perspective adjustment is made.

4. Avoid sky when shooting into the sun – we often don’t have much choice about time of day when visiting a historical site, and that scene you’ve been dreaming about shooting is toward the sun. Cut out the sky to avoid the contrast. For example, one of the most common shots you will see of Knossos is similar to the featured shot above, except that it usually shows some sky as well. Here, shooting toward that sun, I cut out the sky to avoid bad contrast and a totally white sky.

5. Shoot in the shade – again, not having much choice about time of day, shooting in mid-day can cause lots of contrast problems. Look for compositions that are in shade and avoid the contrast of partial sunlight.

6. Up your ISO – often you will be shooting not out in the sun, but in a dimly lit rooms or grottoes. Without a tripod, remember to increase your ISO.

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The Throne Room at Knossos is dimly lit. I used a high ISO in order to capture the image.

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To shoot the Queen’s Room, I had to shoot a bit from the side rather than straight on. I purposely did not crop tightly in-camera, giving me plenty of room to make a perspective correction in Lightroom.

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This mural at the South Portico is another example of shooting wide, and in this case, also upward to avoid a distracting plastic barrier, and then making a perspective correction.

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These old large pots were in the shade, allowing me to more easily control contrast.

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Another set of large clay pots – details like this are easy to photograph without other tourists in the shot.

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This room next the Queen’s Room was closed and only visible from a small window. No other tourists to worry about and in the shade solving contrast issues.

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8 responses

  1. Lovely images and superb information Joe. That must have been quite the vacation. Thank you very much for sharing my friend!

    May 6, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    • It was a wonderful vacation. Thanks for stopping by Ernie.

      May 6, 2018 at 6:21 pm

  2. That’s wonderful. The restorations beautifully show what it could be from his past.

    May 6, 2018 at 11:06 pm

    • Yes, the restorations are somewhat controversial, but they do make good photographic subjects and make you wonder what it was like in its glory days.

      May 8, 2018 at 8:44 am

  3. Heide

    FANTASTIC tips, Joe! And fantastic photos to accompany them, too. What a privilege it was to see Knossos through your eyes.

    May 7, 2018 at 3:54 pm

  4. bookheathen

    Fascinating place! I still have a couple of photos I took years ago.

    May 8, 2018 at 12:47 am

    • It is fascinating. Probably looks the same, just perhaps fewer people when you were there 🙂

      May 8, 2018 at 8:42 am

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