A city that sits across two continents, divided only by the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul has had a long and illustrious history. The Old City still boasts landmarks from the many different empires that once ruled these parts. From the Romans to the Egyptians and beyond, Istanbul has been shaped to become one of the most iconic cities in the world. For photographers this means there is no shortage of photography opportunities. Here is a simple guide for photographing Istanbul.
Istanbul is packed full of mosques with incredibly ornate architecture and these mosques should be a priority on any photographers shot list of Istanbul. Besides the usual cityscape photos that can capture the mesmerising minarets against a backdrop of a bustling city, there are ample opportunities for photographing the beautiful architecture, tiles and decoration up close. The most famous of all of these is arguably Sultanahmet or more commonly known as the Blue Mosque (due to the tiles which decorate it’s interior), however Ortaköy Mosque, Süleymaniye and Rüstem Pasha mosques are also a must.
To photograph any of these mosques in their entirety you will need to spend a bit of time researching locations to find one that will give you the photograph that you want. For example, the Blue Mosque can be captured from one of the many rooftop bars that surround it, or if you are after more of a skyline, you’ll need to head towards the river and photograph looking back towards the city. Through research you should be able to get an idea of the kind of locations that you can find, but there is no shortcut. You need to be prepared to go to them and check them out for yourself.
These mosques do allow visitors and photography inside although not during prayer times when the mosques are closed for locals’ use. If you do want to photograph the inside of the mosques, keep in mind that these are religious buildings, so demonstrate respect towards them and their staff. Never take photos of people praying without prior permission.
Istanbul as its known today has been part of human history for around 3,000 years. Colonized by the Greeks in the 7th century BC, it was invaded by the Romans and was eventually renamed Constantinople (previously called Byzantium) and became the capital of the Roman Empire. It rose to become the biggest city of the western hemisphere and was subject to the Muslim conquest in 1453 when it became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. This history is dotted all around the Old City and is an important part of capturing this diverse city. The main highlights of these are:
Hagia Sophia – one of the most iconic and photographed buildings in the world, but no portfolio of Istanbul would be complete without it. To capture Hagia Sofia from the outside, look for one of the many rooftop bars that sit around it. Usually the owners will be more than happy to allow you to even set up a tripod as long as you are not obstructing or disturbing other customers and you are going to be eating or drinking there.
Basilica Cistern – the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. To capture these you either need to have hands as steady as a rock or you need to think more innovatively as tripods are not allowed. You might get away with using small gorilla pods but if they can’t hold the weight of your camera try either resting your camera on the ground and propping the lens up slightly with an object such as a flash, or resting it on top of your bag. You will need to play around with your ISO setting to get the desired result, but keep in mind that the higher your ISO the more noise it will create in the photograph.
Topkapi Palace – the largest palace in Istanbul, this was once where the Ottoman sultans resided. Although photography is not allowed in the exhibition halls, there are still plenty of opportunities to photograph inside and outside the grounds.
One of the best places in any city to get a glimpse of everyday life is its markets, and Istanbul has two of the best for photography – The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is one of the busiest places in Istanbul and is packed full of tourists, but it’s also one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. Simply walking around this gigantic market will make you wish you had more memory cards as the opportunities for photos are endless. The spice bazaar is a great place to capture spices and ingredients. The key is to have your camera on the correct settings and be aware and ready to capture the photo at any moment. Things happen quickly in places like this so make sure you keep your eyes open to moments of interaction between people or between shop keepers and tourists.
Turkish people are incredibly friendly, so taking either portraits or environmental portraits shouldn’t be difficult. The key with any sort of people photography is the connection you build with your subject, so spend time talking to them (if they’re not busy) before asking to take photos. Not only will this relax them but it will make the photo feel more intimate. Make sure you know your settings so that once you are ready to take their portrait they do not have to wait around too long.
Food & Drink
Istanbul is a city that is full of places to eat, snack and drink in, so it is essential that you capture this part of your travel experience as well as all of the main tourist sites. There is everything from kebab shops to expensive eateries to photograph in Istanbul, so the choice is down to you. The best ways to photograph food outside a studio set up is outside using natural light, but avoid direct sunshine, which causes harsh shadows. Instead, try to either find shade or photograph food dishes on cloudy days. The overcast sky diffuses the light and gives an even light across the dish. Don’t forget that the preparation of the food or drink is also an important part of the story, so if possible try to capture this too.
There is something happening in every street that you walk through in Istanbul. Look in any street and you will see everything from people sitting and talking, drinking tea, playing backgammon or simply working. All of these scenarios offer great opportunity for street photography. In fact, one of the best ways to capture unique travel photos is to simply walk the streets keeping your eyes open because you never know what photo opportunities will present themselves.
Whether its whirling dervishes or Turkish baths, every place in the world has some unique experiences that are an essential part of that destination. Photographing these should be on your list but they require effort, prior planning and some skill to achieve.
Whirling dervish – a form of physical meditation, these events are usually held inside restaurants in the evenings so you’ll need to find the right place and speak to the owners to make sure they are happy for you to take photos. You are going to be photographing in low light conditions so you’ll have no choice but to increase your ISO setting. How high you set your ISO will depend on what sort of photo you are hoping to capture (i.e. slower shutter speed to capture movement, or faster to freeze the action). You may also need a flash, but instead of aiming the flash directly at the performers, try to bounce them off a surface such as wall or ceiling. It won’t be easy, but with practice you’ll be able to capture some great photos.
Turkish baths – these are a must for anyone visiting Istanbul whether you are planning to photograph them or not. If you do want to photograph Turkish baths, first and foremost you will need to find one that will let you photograph inside. If you want people in your photos then you will likely need to find models as any bath will only usually let you photograph inside when other customers aren’t around. You are going to be photographing in a humid and steamy environment so you need allow your camera to acclimatize to avoid your lens steaming up. You’ll need a towel and around 20 minutes before you can start photographing. Simply sit and wait whilst wiping the moisture from the outside of your camera with your towel until when you wipe the lens glass it doesn’t steam up immediately. Your camera is then ready.
Istanbul is one of the most iconic cities in the world with its rich and diverse history and culture, and probably nowhere else in the world showcases their old and new ways more than this incredible city. With careful planning and a good shot list you can cover a lot, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself yearning to come back.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. Dreamstime.