How to ruin your photos

ruins in jordan with sun setting behind

We seem drawn to them, like a bunch of archaeological lemmings, yet for so many of us visiting the ruins of once great civilisations can be a disappointing experience if your photos don’t turn out right. The whole experience can be, well, ruinous, if your photographic skills let you down, so that’s where renowned travel photographer Steve Davey steps in to share his professional tips…

“The biggest problem with so many ruins is the light! Photographers bang on endlessly about catching the soft, warm light at the beginning and end of the day, but whether you are photographing or just walking around ruined sites, this could not be more vital. The early morning light is warm, soft and coming from a low angle, giving a glorious interplay of shadow and light that picks out details of stone buildings and facades. Later on in the day and the light will be coming from overhead: it will be flat and featureless in some places; and cast deep impenetrable shadows in others. Many ruins are pretty bland in colour, either grey or yellow stone. If the lighting is flat and uninteresting they can just loose all of their three-dimensionality and detail.

Petra Jordan by Steve DaveyIn the heat of the day just walking around can be unpleasant: getting up early in the morning can help even non-photographers to have a better time when exploring ruins. After all, there is a reason why many sites are open at sunrise, even if many travellers are still asleep or enjoying their breakfast!

The few hours before sunset are also a great time to take pictures, as the light can be just as atmospheric, although at this time of day there are going to be more people around to get in the way of your pictures!

Don’t stay in your hotel room if the weather is truly bad though. Sometimes pictures of ruins in the rain might be unique enough to really stand out, especially if the ruins are often associated with extreme weather, like Angkor Wat with the rainy season in Cambodia. Extreme weather might be a chance to photograph something that no one will have seen before!

The thing about ruins is they have often been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Many people, certainly those who travel compulsively, will be very familiar with them. They might have seen them on TV, caught Indiana Jones running out of them or Angelina Jolie exploring them in a movie, or even visited themselves. The key to trying to take inspiring pictures of ruins is to try to make them original and make them your own.

Petra Jordan by Steve Davey

An effective way to do this is to combine the ruins with something more contemporary. People are the obvious choice, and not necessarily other travellers, but locals. Think close-up portraits with ruins in the background or environmental shots. If you are lucky you might get a local riding a camel through an otherwise dull shot or even a sleeping vendor in your picture. Other things to look out for could be animals, characteristic vehicles or even the odd flower! Each of these will add a touch of interest that people looking at the picture might not be expecting – especially if you only have a suggestion of the ruins in the background.

You should also try to look for angles that fewer people choose to take their pictures. This often involves a little bit of effort, and generally a touch of sweat. Some places are such obvious angles that you can all but see the footprints worn into the ground where generations of photographers have stood! Look out for other angles. This might be a mere glimps of the Treasury down the siq at Petra, or an aerial view achieved by climbing a nearby hill. Sometimes it is not just your creativity that you need to challenge, it can be your physical fitness in the quest to shot a truly outstanding photograph.

Steve is running a photography tour of Jordan in April, 2014, with all land arrangements provided by Intrepid Travel, which will be a perfect opportunity to improve your photography at the ruined city of Petra. For more info visit

Steve Davey will also be providing his unique mix of encouragement and photography tuition on our special Spitsbergen Explorer departure on 9 June, 2014. This is your opportunity to experience the Arctic with the experts and enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime photography adventure!

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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