Monday, 6 November 2017

Taj Mahal by Moonlight: A Magical Experience

Had it not been for my friend Krishnendu Kes of Maavalan Travels, I would never have gone for the moonlight viewing of the Taj Mahal. India’s number one tourist attraction, its most famous monument is open every day of the week, except Fridays, from sunrise to sunset. But on nights when there is a full moon, and two nights before and after, a special nighttime viewing of the Taj is permitted, for a very limited number of people. But the reviews of this seemed mostly to be negative and there was not a single decent photograph of this on the entire internet. This blog even mentioned that getting a decent photograph of the Taj Mahal by moonlight was almost impossible. So, in spite of being in Agra for the full moon, I had decided to drop my plans for the moonlight viewing until I had a word with Krishnendu, who assured me that not only was the experience magical, but also that he strongly recommended it to all his foreign clients. But, it was already late, the number of tickets were limited, and the tickets could only be obtained from the ASI office on Mall Road in Agra. I did not have the time to get the tickets and wasn’t even sure they were available, but Krishnendu arranged for tickets for the following night’s viewing to be delivered to my hotel! And just like that, I was off for an experience that few people will ever have.

The Taj Mahal by moonlight. Canon 5D Mark IV + 24-105 IS II L @ 55mm. f/8, ISO 100, 80-second exposure.






 
THE NIGHT VIEWING

For the moonlight viewing of the Taj Mahal, you are supposed to show up at the Shilpgram parking lot 30 minutes before your allotted time. Only two groups of 50 visitors each are allowed into the Taj for this special event and there are a multitude of restrictions. You are pretty much expected to carry only your camera and your photo ID and wallet. Nothing else is allowed in. Bags, even large camera bags must be left in the cloak room. If your excuse is extra lenses, you will be curtly told to put said lenses in your pocket. Cigarettes and matches are out of the question even during daytime. Not even car keys are allowed. Visitors are not allowed into the lawns, but are only permitted to go as far as the first platform, that is, through the main gateway complex and up to the first step. But the thing that bugs photographers the most is that tripods are an absolute no-no. Tripods aren’t allowed on any ASI property anyway and the rule comes from the 1800’s when tripods had spiked feet which would damage stone surfaces. But how does one get a decent photograph at night without a tripod and long exposure? I had a plan.

My ability to get the shot would depend on my being able to get into position before anyone else, and therefore I made sure I was at the end of the queue when boarding the battery-powered bus that would take us from Shilpgram to the Taj Mahal’s eastern gate. I took the seat closest to the exit and jumped out the moment the bus stopped. My camera was scanned to make sure that it was indeed a camera, it was tagged and we were again asked to queue up. This time I was at the front of the queue, making small talk with the CISF guys who are responsible for the Taj’s security and would escort us in. Mahendra Singh with a magnificent moustache was the CISF man in charge of our little group, and I kept pace with him as he marched in with is. The compound was almost pitch dark, there were strange noises coming from all corners and the sole light inside was on the main gateway complex. I rushed in and took my position and then at a signal from Mahendra Singh, the light went off. The crowd let out a collective gasp! There in the distance, shimmering in the moonlight was that monument to love, that epitome of symmetry, that pinnacle of Mughal architecture and it was every bit as stunning as they said it was.

HOW I GOT THE PHOTOGRAPH

Anyone who knows me knows that I have serious performance anxiety issues. If I have something important to do, I can’t sit still until it is done. I had thought about how I would get this shot for 48 hours straight, and I had a plan. As a matter of fact, I had 2 plans.

Step 1 – sit down. I got this idea by observing Jason and Emily Kan shooting long exposures using ND filters. It makes perfect sense. You are on the first platform, which means you are in a slightly elevated position, and if you put your camera on the floor and poke the lens through the barricade, you can shoot a long exposure, without a tripod.

Step 2 – manual focus. Your camera’s autofocus system is not designed for moonlight. With the little light and Agra’s notorious smog, the whole scene is very low contrast as well, making it even more difficult. Focus manually, and if you’re using a DSLR, use the rear screen and live view mode, instead of the optical viewfinder. Use the 10X magnification to get a close view of the pinnacle, which should present an area of high contrast, which should be easy to manually focus on even in the dark.

Step 3 – low ISO. If you’ve got your camera on the floor, there is no need to push up the ISO anymore. You can keep your camera at its base ISO and push the exposure time up. However, this will be easier with a camera that had a built-in bulb timer, like my Canon 5D Mark IV. Unless you have that, you’ll be stuck at a max exposure time of 30 seconds. Camera remotes are not allowed. In my experience, an exposure time of 80-90 seconds works best.

Step 4 – delay timer. This is crucial to getting a sharp shot. Make sure you put a delay on your shutter, so it goes off a few seconds after you press the button. The very act of depressing the shutter button can cause camera shake and can make your image blurry.

Step 5 – turn off image stabilization. Seriously, if your camera is on the floor, you don’t need stabilization. The way image stabilization works is by shaking the camera/lens in the opposite direction that the human hands tend to shake. If your camera is on the floor or on a tripod, keeping IS on will actually introduce shake into your images, making them blurry.

The same shot in the morning. What a dramatic difference!

Another important thing to keep in mind is shooting in RAW. Even if you don’t use photoshop, shoot jpeg and RAW and keep the raw file. That way, someone can always work with your RAW file later and get it to look better. My plan B was to shoot in high ISO and the use image averaging to eliminate the noise and make a decent photo. Tony Northrup has a great tutorial on how you can do that.


I am sure I ruined a bunch of people’s shots by staying in that position for almost 20 minutes, but I just had to do it. Jason and Emily got yelled at by an American tourist for sitting down and shooting long exposures, but it’s the Taj Mahal! You don’t see it every day, and you’re not going to get this chance often. I shot the Taj from various vantage points at various times of the day. Watch out for more Taj Mahal photography tips and tricks next week!

by Deepanjan Ghosh
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