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Taking Photographs (or not) in Marrakech

Taking Photographs (or not) in Marrakech

Marrakech has the kind of light quality photographers dream of. Rarely do we have overcast days and typically I can shoot pictures using my camera in full automatic because it captures so well. There are also amazing sites to take in – things you don’t want to forget. It’s so tempting to have your camera at the ready at all times and snap away. But, taking pictures in Marrakech isn’t always easy.

When I first came to Morocco I always used my bigger DSLR camera to take pictures (I have the Canon Rebel included here). Now, I only use it if I know I need to capture high resolution images. Are you surprised to know that a lot of the pictures I use on here are really from my iPhone? I learned rather quickly most people don’t care for your camera in their face or on their products. It’s not because they’re rude or dislike you personally (so please don’t take it that way!) it’s that with tens of thousands of tourists in the city on any given day it gets old, fast. I’ve never lived somewhere that was this touristic so I didn’t get it, but I do now.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use your camera and take pictures, it just means you need to consider a few things before snapping away.

This is Not a Zoo

This city is not a zoo and the people are not on display. I know the bright colored djallabas of women are so wonderful you want to snap those pictures. You might think the foods we’re eating are new and strange. Those cute kids are just begging to be recorded on film aren’t they? Before you click, think. If this were your home and it was you or your children on the other side of the camera would you want conceivably hundreds or even thousands of people a year taking pictures for their personal use? One way to get pictures of things you’d like to capture is to have someone else in the shot, perhaps your traveling partner. Take it from a different angle so that people aren’t caught off guard. But always mind your manners.

Interactive Shots Marrakech

Get Out from Behind the Camera

Whether it’s a video or still camera, if you’ve got it up to your eye the entire time you’re in Morocco you’re going to miss out on a lot of things. Resist the urge to capture every small detail on film and instead live the experience of Morocco. Trust me, your memories will be much more meaningful. Not everything needs to be captured in images.

Ask Permission

I really waver on this point. In some instances it makes no difference whether you ask or not. Someone likely isn’t going to care if you photograph something mundane. But you do find that people at times don’t want their products photographed (so that someone else can’t copy them), or they just don’t want it photographed. If you’re wanting to take a picture of a person’s face, always ask permission. If you want to photograph a child, always ask their parents. If there is no parent around, then don’t take the picture. Instead of shooting a straight on image you can also take a picture of the scene. Most people are alright with this. Most importantly, if someone doesn’t want to be photographed don’t be rude or act “fed up.”

Landscape picture High Atlas Mountains

Landscapes

You’ll be able to get the best, high quality images of landscapes for a few reasons. First, they aren’t going anywhere. You can take your time, set up your camera and take many shots to make sure you’ve got it right. Try it from different angles and focal points. Even different times of the day can create a totally new image.

The Golden Hours

Sunrise and sunset provide amazing lighting for photography. Get up early and take advantage of not only fewer crowds but beautiful natural lights. By using these early morning and late afternoon hours you’ll capture some great shots and leave time in between to do other things.

Marrakech Sunset

Portraits

Here’s the thing. Most Moroccans don’t like their photograph to be taken. Whether it’s because they’re religiously conservative or simply don’t care for it, you’re going to find these kinds of pictures difficult to take. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you befriend or form some rapport with Moroccans you can usually ask for a picture. Whatever you do, don’t just throw up your camera and take a picture, nor should you use a long lens and try to do it sneakily from a distance. You can always ask someone, and while many may be more than happy you probably will find several that say no. Don’t let it get to you, simply say ok and walk away. Many people discover that taking pictures in Marrakech is harder than anywhere else in Morocco. My own opinion on why this is, is due to saturation. There are so many tourists that it can be very overwhelming to be photographed multiple times a day.

Bread Oven in Marrakech

Get Help

If you’re a photographer or you just really want to take some nice pictures while on vacation in Morocco, hiring a guide to show you around also can mean they can assist with getting pictures. This is also a great tip if you’re a serious photographer. Morocco is  a large country and if you want to visit many places in a short time you’ll need some help. If there’s something that you really want to photograph, having a guide can ensure that it happens. Many times you’ll be able to communicate to a guide what you’re trying to capture. Is it etched calligraphy? Street scenes? A guide will know the area more intimately than you will and can save you a lot of time.

MarocBaba almost always is with me when I’m taking high resolution images. Not because I couldn’t ask or speak with the subjects but because he knows many of them and knows exactly what to say. Because they trust him, they trust that the images will not be used in a bad way.

Hire a Guide to Help Get Photographs

Sit and Wait

I’ve taken some of my favorite pictures simply by having my camera ready while sitting in a cafe, or pulling over on the side of the road. People watching is interesting in and of itself but as you watch scenes unfold you may find the right time to take a picture that tells that story. I took a series of photos of people walking down the street in the medina one day. I just liked how the tile, feet, and patterns all fell together. Check out my walk a mile post to see what I mean.

Old Man in Djem al Fna

Take multiple shots

Rarely is your first photograph going to be the best. Take many, many images and then narrow them down to the ones you like the best. I never edit on my camera because when I load the pictures on my computer they look so different. A picture that looked beautiful on my camera screen suddenly is a blurry mess on my computer. This is why it’s helpful to have many options to choose from. Zoom lenses and digital cameras with a good zoom can help you go unnoticed and take several pictures. Try standing on a rooftop or to the side of a street and zooming on subjects further away. You’ll be able to take several images of natural interactions without being invasive.

Animals in the Square

Carry Change

You might not be asked but sometimes people request money in exchange for an image. 5-10 dirham should be more than enough, though you may find they badger for more. Never give more than 20 dirham. Don’t automatically give money because some people don’t care but it’s always good to have just in case. If you want to take pictures of or with any of the animals or actors in Djem al Fna you should be prepared to give some money in exchange. You’ll also want to weigh whether or not you want the picture. Typically they’re posed shots similar to the one above. It might be just what you’re looking for, or it could be the exact opposite.

Smaller is Better

As I mentioned earlier most of the pictures I take (and share on my blog and Instagram) I take using my iPhone camera. Why? There’s a few reasons. I can often snap a picture very quickly and it just looks like I’m checking my messages. I am able to get more candid scenes this way. A favorite trick I use is to turn off the sound of my phone and use the volume button to take pictures while I walk. Likewise if I have headphones in, I will put one in my ear and hold the other, stabilizing the phone in one hand and using the ear piece toggle button in the other hand as a remote. It’s complete innocuous and no one really knows what I’m doing.

Many people use DSLR cameras while visiting Morocco and the majority are not professional photographers. If this is you, then explaining to people that you’re not publishing the images may help them to be more open and willing to be photographed. Once you’ve taken a picture it can be a nice gesture to show the subject so that they can “sign off” on it. If you’re using 35mm film then explain to them that it’s not digital so they won’t be able to see.

Participate in Activities

Get Involved with Different Activities

Walking around any place will provide for some great photos but getting involved with other activities can give you a completely different perspective. Cooking classes provide some amazing food shots. Touring a ceramics factory or artisnal shop could provide portraits, action shots and a glimpse into culture. These activities also can provide a controlled environment to work in. A guide and/or instructor can help you understand the photographic etiquette and better understanding of the environment beyond what your eye sees.

My friend Chris Griffiths (an amazingly talented young photographer) shared some of these tips with me, while others I’ve come up with from my own experience. If you’re looking for more technical tips and how-to’s I loved this video from Zack Arias on street photography. Several of his tips I’ve used to grab great pictures.

The biggest thing to keep in mind is really to mind your manners. Put yourself on the other side of the camera before you take pictures and trust your instincts.

I hope these tips help you when you’re visiting Marrakech and wanting to capture the magic!

Taking Photos Or Not in Marrakech

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Steve

Wednesday 18th of December 2019

I think we all know what manners are and I'm sure no one thinks Marrakesh is a zoo, but a stall keeper ran up to me and punched me in the ribs in Marrakesh this evening because I'd just taken a 20 second video shot with my mobile phone of the busy street scene. He ran up to me shouting "no photo", so I think that message is pretty clear. Btw I'm 62 years old and he was clearly less than half my age. What I took was a panning shot along the street featuring no one in particular. I've been to lots of places around the world and never been told "no photos" by a member of the public before, so I'd say think twice before coming here if you want to take photos. On the subject of bad manners, some of the traders in Marrakesh could take a few lessons. They target vulnerable people and have plenty of scams (best to Google those elsewhere), but they don't mind if they get in your face and demand to know why you won't eat at their restaurant, buy their products, etc. There are some lovely people here who go out of their way to show you real Moroccan culture, but don't imagine everything you see in Jemaa El Fna square is Moroccan culture! It's just what you imagined you wanted to see, so they made it for you - providing you give them your money. When I'm back home in London it would never cross my mind to tell any of the many tourists they can't take photos! London's not a zoo either but it's an interesting city, and people should be able to show friends their memories of their visit!

Amanda Mouttaki

Monday 23rd of December 2019

Hi Steve- Im very sorry for your experience - it's not acceptable and I hope you alerted the police. While I'd like to think that all tourists are so thoughtful but I've seen otherwise over the years. People do take pictures and act in ways they would never act at home. I have traveled a lot and find the taking pictures is not accepted everywhere and I do my best to be respectful and ask permission. People are living their lives and while it might be exotic or different to visitors, it's their lives and they haven't asked to be photographic subjects.

Susan

Sunday 9th of December 2018

Thanks for the in-depth article on photography while in Marrakech. Very useful tips! I will keep them in mind when visiting, next year.

april

Wednesday 19th of September 2018

I just moved to Marrakech and would love to buy a canon rebel, can u recommend a good camera store herein town?

Amanda Mouttaki

Wednesday 26th of September 2018

Good question. I'm honestly not sure of any shops that sell them brand new. The only place I can think of is Virgin Megastore in the al - Mazar Mall. They have new cameras for sure.

John Cotter

Thursday 14th of June 2018

I am in Morocco at the moment (June 2018) and agree with everything on this blog! At some tourist hotspots there are performers or water sellers dressed in very colourful outfits. They openly ask for cash - one even refused the 10 dirham I offered, only accepting 20 ! One tip I can add: if you must take your mega SLR + long lens, be very careful if visiting an old medina or souk - they can be very narrow and crowded, and the camera can easily get a knock or banged against a wall when avoiding a cart being wheeled along. The sellers don't like anyone stopping or composing shots either - they just want buyers, and buyers to have a clear sight of their produce.

10 Mistakes People Make When They Visit Morocco - MarocMama

Friday 30th of September 2016

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