Petra, situated in the southern region of Jordan, is an iconic destination and a once-in-a-lifetime location to visit. It is the great Nabatean capital city. At it’s zenith, it was home to over 100,000 people. Made internationally renowned by the film Indian Jones and the Last Cruise, Petra lives up to the hype and excitement. It’s buildings tower high overhead, carved directly into the rock face of a narrow canyon. Photographing the site of Petra is on my travel photographer’s bucket lists, as I’m sure it’s on yours.
Below are my top 10 tips for photographing the ancient city of Petra. Hopefully this will help you come away with some amazing photos of this incredible site. This article also contains a video where I go in-depth on my tips for photography Petra.
Tip # 1 : Visit the Site Early
Arrive to Petra before the site opens to be one of the very first people into the site. Petra is a popular destination – particularly amongst photographers and instagramers. As a result, many people arrive right when the gates open so they an get to Petra when the light is good and before the crowds. I recommend arriving before the site opens to get in line, so you can be one of the first people to reach the Treasury. Also, the famous Treasury receives the soft morning light for only a very short window of time – and then light starts to shine quite harshly. Arriving early also lets you maximize your time with the few crowds.
Later afternoon is also a good time to photograph the Treasury. The afternoon light bounces off the far call and illuminates the Treasury facade with soft light. The quality if light is different in the morning and later afternoon, so I recommend photographing the Treasury at both times to get the best conditions and to also see which time has the fewest crowds.
Tip # 2 : Hike The Trails Around Petra
There is much more to see beyond the main stretch of buildings at Petra. After photographing the Treasury at sunrise, use the remainder of the morning light and fewer crowds to explore the hiking trails around Petra. Many of these routes offer unique views of some Petra’s most iconic buildings – such as the Treasury, the amphitheater, the Royal Tombs, as well as the Monastery. Due to its geographical location and desert climate the light can get quite harsh pretty quick in Jordan, so it’s important to maximize the morning hours for photography.
Tip # 3 : Take Time to Enjoy Petra
From mid-day until the afternoon the light in Petra is quite harsh. This is a great time take a deep breath and enjoy exploring the site. Go inside builds to see how the Nabateans carved their buildings into the cliff faces. Location scout for good late in the day places to photograph. Visit the open-air museum with well preserved mosaics. And spend a few hours marveling that you are at the incredible ancient city of Petra. Sometimes as photographers we can get so busy with taking photographs that we don’t always stop and absorb where we are. This couple hour window when the light is harsh is a great time to metaphorically stop, smell the roses, and explore Petra as a traveler.
Video: 10 Tips For Photographing Petray
Tip # 4 : Photograph the Royal Tombs and the Monastery in the Late Afternoon
The best time to photograph the Monastery and Royal Tombs is late in the afternoon when these buildings are cast in a nice pre-sunset glow. I recommend hiking up to the Monastery (which takes about an hour each way from the Royal Tombs), photographing as long as you can there late in the afternoon, and the photographing the Royal Tombs as you’re heading out. You will need to time this just right so that you can exit before the site closes – that will depend on the time of year. Some of the best light for photographing both these sites is right before sunset. That last afternoon glow brings out the oranges and red colors in the rock.
Tip # 5 : Photograph Petra By Night
Photograph Petra By Night – an event taking place 3 nights a week where the entry to Petra along the Siq as well as the Treasury is illuminated with hundreds of candles. Staff light the entrance through the main Siq and the gorge floor in front of the Treasure with hundreds of candles. It’s spectacular to photograph the twisting canyon and the iconic facade of the Treasury under a blanket of stars. During the show lights and colors are projected onto the Treasury, the best photos are before the show starts and right when it ends. Don’t forget to bring a tripod and a fast lens if you have one. The canyon is pretty narrow so ideally a 24mm or wider lens is best to use.
Tip # 6 : Spend At Least 2 Days At Petra
There is more to see and photograph at Petra beyond the main set of buildings. Add at least one more day to capitalize on two sunrises and sunsets, as well as to have more time to get off the beaten path and get great photos. Petra isn’t limited to the Treasury, Royal Tombs and Monastery, in fact it is a sprawling city which stretches for miles through numerous siqs and canyons. Visit the site of Petra – beautiful carved Nabatean buildings like Petra with the added bonus of hardly any visitors. Hire a local guides and spend a day hiking through other Nabatean ruins outside of the main site. They are just as beautiful for sunrise and sunset photos and it will help your travel photos stand apart. Multi-day entry passes are available and make it affordable to spend a few days photographing many aspects of Petra.
Tip # 7 : Show Scale
Utilize people, donkeys, camels, horses and any other ground level elements to show the scale of the massive buildings in Petra. Because the buildings are cut right into the rock wall of a network of canyons how tall the buildings are can get lost in the height of the cliff faces. To show this scale utilize the tourists who are visiting to the site to show the scale. Instead of waiting for all the people to clear away (which can often feel like an exercise in futility given the number of people who visit Petra each day), instead put those tourists to work as scale models. Photograph people in your frame to show how tall and immense the buildings are at Petra.
Tip # 8 : Visit Little Petra
Just as spectacular as it’s big brother, Little Petra is part of the once great Nabatean capital city. It’s a series of Nabatean buildings carved into a near by siq. Located about a 20 minute drive from Petra, the hike between the two sites is a must-do if you enjoy hiking or are looking to make beautiful landscape photos of the terrain around Petra. The hike begins at Little Petra – start right at sunrise to have the best light for most of the hike. It takes around 3-4 hours to complete the journey on foot from Little Petra to Petra. The hike ends at the Monastery.
Tip # 9 : Photograph the Bedouin at Petra
Whether you focus on portraiture or prefer to photograph a variety of travel photography topics, I recommend spending time with the local Bedouin. They are warm, friendly people, many of whom grew up in the caves of Petra before the government required them to move to a town near Wadi Musa. They have a strong connection to the land and many of the Bedouin now work as guides at Petra. The best way connect with the Bedouin is to hire a local guide for the day who knows the people in the community and can help translate your photography goals as well as the language (though most of the Bedouin speak pretty good English). And remember to always as before taking someone’s photograph.
Tip # 10 : Pack Your Sense of Adventure
And this is the most important tip – pack your sense of adventure! Travel photography can be challenging with many of the best laid plans going awry. Do your homework. Research well in advance. Plan as much as you can. And then be prepared for plans to change. This can be a great opportunity to make unique photographs that other people don’t have the opportunity to make. To make the most of any travel adventure – pack your sense of adventure, humor and flexibility. You’ll end up with great photos no matter what curve balls are thrown your way and you’ll come away with great stories to tell too.
Genevieve Hathaway is a travel and documentary photographer and filmmaker. She is passionate about telling stories that empower women, local communities and conservation. Genevieve is the founder and storyteller-at-large for ArchaeoAdventures.