Photo: Storm clouds around ruins of Machu Picchu

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photo: Photographer Jim Richardson

Photograph courtesy Jim Richardson

It's a bit humbling, standing at Machu Picchu where Hiram Bingham stood with his camera nearly a century ago.

Bingham, a Yale professor and adventurer, rediscovered in 1913 the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, perched on a ridge above the Urubamba River. The image of Bingham pushing his way through the overgrowth on the mountains, seeking lost cities (and fame), is the very stuff of Indiana Jones.

Bingham's real fame didn't come until two years later, after he had had returned to Machu Picchu at the behest of National Geographic editor Gilbert Grosvenor. Grosvenor urged Bingham to take a camera and bring back the pictures. He did exactly that, and in 1913, National Geographic devoted a whole edition to Bingham's discoveries—including a spectacular three-panel panorama of the ruins. From that moment, the fame of Machu Picchu (and Hiram Bingham) was achieved.

A hundred years later, I was standing in the same spot that Hiram Bingham had stood in, agog just as he was at the great ruins sprawling before me. It is a sight worth the journey (more on that in a bit) and never fails to electrify the imagination. My sense of wonder never ebbs at Machu Picchu.

Nobody takes a bad picture at Machu Picchu. But then we all take almost the same picture that Hiram Bingham shot with his Kodak 3-A Special all those years ago. Endless intrepid photographers and dogged tourists have been shooting the same picture from the same spot up on the terraces. The ruins spread out like a fan. The craggy Huayna Picchu rises behind the courtyard. The surrounding Andes wrap the scene in splendor. Kodak should have paid Bingham for all the film used to repeat his picture over the last century. While I have seen some pretty spectacular pictures of the place, Bingham set the standard and has seldom been eclipsed.

So, you can wander around all you want, trying to find a new, fresh vantage point, and you'll just be retracing Hiram Bingham's footsteps and those of the millions of other camera-wielding explorers who have followed since. What's a photographer to do? How could you make a different picture in such an iconic location?

Here are a few tips, some specific to Machu Picchu and some that will apply generally to other well-trod locations around the world.

  • Go well armed. Research beforehand so you know what photographs have already been done to death. Nothing deflates a photographer's pride faster than realizing that what was thought to be a great photo is, in fact, an exact copy of the cliché shot. (Machu Picchu is perhaps the cardinal example of this phenomenon.) National Geographic is a good source (naturally) but so is Flickr. More simply, just take a look at the postcard rack at your destination to see standard shots in great light. Whatever you see in the postcard rack, do something else.
  • Hold out for different light. The standard advice of waiting for good light—the golden hours of sunrise and sunset—is not sufficient. Everybody else has done that too. These occasions demand industrial-strength solutions. You'll have to be patient as you wait for the perfect shaft of light to fall on just the right area of the ruins.
  • Take advantage of freak weather. Don't lament when the sun isn't shining—this could be your lucky break. Hope for spectacular clouds, fog sweeping up over the mountains, brooding storms (like I had on that evening in Machu Picchu), misty rain that transforms the scene.
  • Be patient and stay put. Find your vantage point and stick with it. Clouds move quickly and with them the ever-changing light. Beyond that, getting around a site like this takes time. It is generally impossible to see great light falling on another part of the ruins and then try to run over there to photograph it. By the time you get there, the light will be gone. (Look around and you may discover that the light is now great back where you were.) Wait for it.
  • If you are planning on sunrise and sunset, research location logistics. Like many archeological sites, Machu Picchu has limited hours, in its case 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. So if sunrise is at 5 a.m. you are out of luck. Add to that the fact that getting up to the monument involves a bumpy bus ride of some 20 minutes from the town of Aguas Calientes. Your ability to be there at sunrise and sunset can only happen at certain times of the year. Either go then or don't plan on sunrise/sunset light to make your pictures.
  • Machu Picchu just cries out for panoramas. The first time I went there I looked around and said, "This place is surrounded by mountains. Why have I never seen panoramas that would show that?" Perhaps Bingham's iconic image has blinded us to other possibilities.
  • Embrace what is given to you. If the site is overrun by tourists (which can happen in high season), consider doing a picture about how our most popular World Heritage sites are being loved to death. You might actually be able to sell that image. If the resident llamas come walking by, don't shoo them out of the way. That's good luck.
  • Take time to intellectually and emotionally embrace the place. Besides reading the histories, take a moment to get in touch with the ethos of the locale. Time for reflection can lead to insight, making the whole experience richer. Good pictures come from rich experience.

My own good luck at Machu Picchu came with the rains that swept down the mountain valley across the canyon. And brooding clouds. And a fortuitous shaft of light. And the humble knowledge that I was following in great footsteps.

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