From stunning landscape shots of the Andes to shameless Llama selfies, it’s not hard to see why the hike to Machu Picchu had been on our bucket list for years before we finally made the journey in 2015. But even more than the hike itself, as a photographer, it was THAT postcard shot of these famous ruins that I wanted most.
Yes, it’s a shot that thousands of photographers have taken before. But no two landscape photos are ever exactly the same and there’s something about having your very own to match an unforgettable travel experience. And so, after hiking 43km over 3 days, we arrived through the Sun Gate just in time to watch the last light hit the peak of Huayna Picchu and to get our very own postcard shot.
Note that the rules about visiting Machu Picchu have recently changed (as of the July 1, 2017) which may have an impact on photographing the site. From the entrance times and defined circuits, to the use of tripods and other equipment, I’ve tried to incorporate what I know of the changes but until they’ve had some time to implement them, it’s likely going to be a bit chaotic. This blog post is the most helpful resource I’ve found on what’s changing, so check it out if you’re visiting soon.
But with that said, having had an entire day at the site, including both sunrise and sunset, here’s what I learnt about getting THAT postcard shot and a few other angles as well.
The Best Vantage Points at Machu Picchu
# 1The ‘classic’ postcard shot (pictured above)
I don’t think it has a name but you’ll recognise it because of the long line of tourists with selfie-sticks as you first head up the hill, and also because there is a little hut with a thatched roof above there. It’s also the start of the path that leads to the Sun Gate. It has a nice little rock overhang which is perfect for uninterrupted landscapes (as well as selfies). Keep in mind that you may have to wait your turn, so have your settings sorted so you can walk up to the ledge and take a few shots before being harassed by some impatient tourists. If Google Streetview is anything to go by, it looks like they have attempted to rope-off this ledge so you either need long arms or to be quick with the shutter! Check out the area here: Google Streetview
#2The terraces near the Watchman’s Hut (House of the Guardians)
Consider using a wide-angle lens to capture the terraces as nice curved leading lines and even a glimpse of the Urubamba River. My shot below is a good example of the inevitable line of tourists you will encounter in most shots. Check out the area here: Google Streetview
#3 Half-way to the Sun Gate
Whether you’re hiking the Inca Trail or not, a view over Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate is a must. Just note that the best photos aren’t from the gate itself, but at different points along the way. My favourite is spot is about half-way to the Sun Gate at a small set of ruins that most likely acted as a lookout centuries ago. Check out the area here: Google Streetview
When to Capture The Best Light
As with most locations when travelling, sunrise and sunset are your best options for two reasons: 1. the light is nicer and 2. it’s less crowded. These are, however, difficult times of day to balance the dark valley with the brighter sky. Consider using a graduated filter or bracketing your exposure and blending in photo-editing software when you get home. For this reason, mid-morning and mid-afternoon shots are going to be a lot easier options and not to be totally discounted.
Also note that at certain times of the year, the whole place is in cloud first thing in the morning, which means you may not be able to see the ruins from the Sun Gate but could get some eerie looking shots at the spots mentioned above. With the new rules, you’ll now need to choose either the morning (6 am – 12 pm) or the afternoon (12 pm – 5:30 pm) period with your entrance ticket. It’s a tough call but you could always consider doing an afternoon one day and the morning the next day, like us.
Avoiding the Crowds at Machu Picchu
Most tour groups arrive around mid-morning so if you’re on one of the first buses up the mountain, or are hiking through the Sun Gate at sunrise, you’ll likely avoid the masses. Having said that, on our second day, we waited in a long line for around 30 minutes in the dark to be up the top for sunrise, so you’re unlikely to ever have no-one in your shot.
We were extremely fortunate to arrive through the Sun Gate just before the site closed for the day – mudslides at our final campsite prevented us staying the night and hiking through at sunrise. I say ‘fortunate’ because by the time we got to our postcard spot, only a handful of other visitors remained in the site. So, in our experience it’s probably easier to be the last ones to leave than the first to enter, so keep that in mind.
Other Tips for Photographing Machu Picchu
Know your circuit – the new rules that come into effect from July 01, 2017 define three circuits to choose from when purchasing your ticket. From my reading of the circuit maps, it looks like Circuit 1 will incorporate all of the vantage points listed below. But the official maps are pretty rough and I’m not known for my orienteering skills so best to do some research before making a decision.
Look for a Llama – Alpacas and Llamas have free rein of the place and make for the perfect addition to any Machu Picchu shot. You might just need a little bit of luck and a lot of patience to find one in a ‘postcard’ type spot.
Don’t look too professional – I’ve read that if you look like a pro, they’ll charge you a steep permit fee. Historically a ‘large’ tripod, lens or camera bag could get you flagged. For this reason, and because I was doing the hike, I only took a small GorillaPod and never had any issues. The new rules state that no tripods of any kind are permitted, so proceed with caution.
Make the most of the conditions – Whether it’s sun or mist, embrace the unique weather this magical place has to offer and don’t go in with too many expectations, weather-wise.
If you’re fit and able, the Inca Trail hike will make your trip to Machu Picchu even more memorable and give you lots of extra photo ops along the way.
Please be a responsible traveler and follow the marked paths to avoid causing any further damage to what is already a vulnerable site.
Contributor Bio:Jesse Lindemann is a professional photographer from Australia and one half of the world’s healthiest travel blog – meandmytravelbugs.com. You can also follow more of his adventures on Instagram @photobohemian and read more about his Inca Trail adventure here.
Jesse is a professional photographer from Australia and one half of the world’s healthiest travel blog - meandmytravelbugs.com. You can also follow more of his adventures on Instagram @photobohemian and read more about his Inca Trail adventure here.
I'm Lisa Michele Burns, a professional photographer and founder of The Wandering Lens from Australia. Welcome to your guide to photographing the world, improving your photography and scouting unique and inspiring places to experience with your camera. After three years online, The Wandering Lens has turned into the leading publisher of photography focused travel guides and I'm always so excited to hear from readers as they're travelling and improving their photos!