Behind the Image: Capturing the Serenity of the Taj Mahal with Gary Arndt
Gary Arndt has been named Travel Photographer of the Year three times, twice by the North American Travel Journalist Association and once by the Society of American Travel Writers. He is also a three-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Award, which is frequently called the Pulitzer of the travel journalism world. Recently, the award-winning travel photographer contributed to the Adobe Stock Premium collection. We caught up with Gary to learn about how to take compelling travel photos, strategies for working with crowds at iconic travel sites, and how working with guides can help you get a unique perspective on locations you’ve never traveled to.
Adobe: Your travel photos are so unique. How do you capture unique images, especially in iconic travel destinations?
Arndt: It’s almost impossible to do. Landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal have been shot hundreds of millions of times from every angle conceivable at every time of day and every point of the year. By and large, you’re pretty much just going to be taking an iconic photo that a lot of people have taken before. You may capture something unique by happenstance, based on the time you’re there. For example, when I shot the Eiffel Tower, I went at night and took photos right from the base. Many people said they hadn’t seen that perspective or that time of day before. What makes the Taj Mahal photo different, if anything, is the fact that there are no people in the photo because I was the first one there in the morning. I ran with my camera as soon as the gate opened so I could take a picture before there was a single person there.
Adobe: Do you plan your photos before you travel, or do you look for opportunities while you’re out there?
Arndt: If you’ve never been somewhere, it’s very difficult to know what’s there. You have to, in some respects, be opportunistic. You have to be on the lookout for things. There certainly are times you need to have a plan, or at least have an idea of what you want to get. When I went to Antarctica, I had a list in my head of the shots I wanted to get: a penguin diving, a whale diving with its tail above the water, things like that. It’s a matter of being on the lookout for those images because you can’t plan them. But if you’re on the lookout, the odds of getting a photo of those are going to be much, much greater.
Adobe: Can you tell us a bit about what was happening when you took the Taj Mahal photo?
Arndt: I wanted to capture the building itself, without it being a tourist attraction. Often, people would like to take photos of places without people there, but it’s almost impossible. You always have a choice to make: either you have to work to be there at a time or in a position such that you can take a picture of something without people, or you need to find a way to turn that crowd into part of the photo.
Adobe: How do you make the crowd part of a photo?
Arndt: I can give you a good example from the Louvre in Paris. 25% of the people who visit the Louvre go to see the Mona Lisa and leave. That’s all they do. So the Mona Lisa’s room is a madhouse. And quite frankly, the Mona Lisa itself is a rather small painting, recessed in glass, with poor lighting, rather far away. Getting a picture of the Mona Lisa is pointless; you can buy a print. However, the people in front of the Mona Lisa, I think, are fascinating because nowadays, 90% of them are going to have a smartphone or a tablet. What I tried to get were pictures of people holding up these devices. I was behind them, so I could get a picture of them with the Mona Lisa on their phone in front of the Mona Lisa, which I thought was just kind of poignant. It caught what it was like to be in that room, and the crowd was a far more interesting photo than the painting itself.
Adobe: Are there tips or strategies you have for either working around or working with crowds?
Arndt: There’s a lot to be said for being patient. Usually, there will be a lull in the flow of people in front of an object. It obviously depends on what it is and the circumstances. But oftentimes, if you’re willing to wait maybe five or ten minutes, you may have a gap of a few seconds when there’s no one standing in front of it. Just because of the randomness of people walking around, there will be a short opening when there’s no one there.
Adobe: You’ve mentioned that working with guides can be helpful. Can you discuss how that was useful in capturing the Taj Mahal photo?
Arndt: I had a guide with me who’s been to the Taj Mahal a hundred times. He knows everybody that works there. He was able to secure my ticket, make sure I had my place in line, and got me through quickly. So getting a private guide if you can, for many of these places, is important. He knew the gates open at 7:00 AM. We were there at 5:45 AM, and I was there probably fifteen to twenty minutes before the next person in line. Being there at that time pretty much guaranteed that I’d be first. Even though he technically wasn’t a photographer, the guide knew where photographers went, where the best shots were.
Adobe: What advice would you have for aspiring travel photographers?
Arndt: As a travel photographer, you can know how your camera works and all the settings and have all the best gear – and that’s important. But at the end of the day, you have to put yourself in front of beautiful things. That’s what’s going to make the photo. You cannot take a photo of the Taj Mahal unless you are in India. You cannot take a photo of the Great Wall of China unless you are in China. If someone gave you a thousand dollars to invest in your photography, the best investment you could make is a plane ticket.