A Photographer’s Guide To Istanbul

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Travelling during the pandemic is hard, but not impossible. With a little planning and some basic safety precautions, it is perfectly viable. 

One country that has remained relatively open is Turkey. The Turkish people are diligently applying social distancing, wear masks inside and out and sanitize frequently. That’s a good thing, because one of the most photogenic cities on the planet is in Turkey. We are of course talking about Istanbul and today we will give your our photographer’s guide to this incredible city.

blue hour at hagia sophia, Istanbul
Blue Hour In Istanbul never disappoints. By Jason Row Photography

Getting There/Around

In 2019 Turkey opened a new airport, Istanbul Havalimani. This vast hub serves flights from all over the planet making Istanbul a very easy place to get to. What’s not quite so easy is getting from the airport to the city. Havalimani is some 50km from the center of the city and there is no metro service. The two main options are express bus and taxi. A taxi should cost around $20-25 to the city.

Things get a lot easier in the city. Istanbul has an extensive public transport system consisting of trams, buses, ferries and metro. The service is cheap and frequent and there is a contactless payment card, Istabulkart that makes travelling easy. 

Taxis are also cheap but Istanbul’s drivers have a notorious reputation for ripping tourists off. Insist that the meter is on at the beginning of the journey or use one of the Turkish taxi apps such as BiTaksi. You might want to avoid taxis whenever possible as the traffic in Istanbul is among the most congested in the world. Public transport is quicker, cheaper and the locals practice good social distancing onboard. 

Istanbul new airport interior
The new airport is both huge and a long way from the city. By Jason Row Photography

The Old City – Faith/Sultanamet

The old city is dominated by two of the greatest mosques on the planet, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Between them lies Sultanamet Park, the perfect location to shoot both of these impressive structures. In the morning the light falls best on the Blue Mosque, while evening light illuminates Hagia Sophia beautifully. 

Heading into the twilight, the lighting on both mosques is amazing and it can make for stunning blue hour images. The park is a heaven for locals and tourists and it can be a great place for the street photographers too.  

Hagia Sophia from a beautiful side street
The Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet is one of the world's most iconic buildings. By Jason Row Photography

Topkapı Palace

Just north of Sultanamet is the Topkapı Palace, the former residence of the sultans. Entrance is around $12 but the palace and its grounds are incredibly photogenic. Ornate architecture and manicured gardens make this a great place to spend a few hours shooting. 

The stunning view over the Golden Horn and Bosporus from the terraces at the end of the palace is also worth photographing! Take a decent telephoto to capture some great long shots of the frenetic activity in the bay. 

Eminonu

If you want to get up close and personal with that frenetic activity, Eminonu is the right place! Here, ferries of all different shapes and sizes head out across the Bosporus. It’s a great place to shoot both at dawn or sunset, silhouetting the ships against the sun, getting beautiful backlit long shots of the passengers. It’s also a great place for photographing the famous Galata Tower on the opposite side of the Golden Horn.

The Golden Horn and Galata Tower Istanbul
Galata Tower, The Golden Horn and Karakoy shot from Eminonu. By Jason Row Photography

Galata Bridge And Karakoy

The Galata Bridge is connecting two sides of the Golden Horn. This bridge is chock full of locals fishing! It’s an incredibly photogenic place for street photographers. Look out for the fishermen feeding the well informed local cats for some great candid shots.

The north side of the Galata Bridge is Karakoy, the main port area of the city. Closest to the bridge is another ferry port but the main photographic attraction here is the view of the mosques in the old city.

At sunset the light is quite magical! Combine the timeless skyline of Old Istanbul with the plethora of ferries heading out into the Bosporus and you will find yourself returning to this amazing location many times.

The sun usually sets behind the Galata Bridge, giving you the opportunity to capture silhouettes of the fishermen on the bridge. The light is beautiful on the Suleymaniye Mosque especially during the twilight. 

Silhouette of man on Galata Bridge at sunset
Touching the Sun on Galata Bridge. By Jason Row Photography

The steep streets of Karakoy lead up to the Galata Tower. These cobblestone streets leading up to the tower are very photogenic! They are also a great place to capture Istanbul’s famous residents, stray cats

In non-Covid times, the view from the Galata Tower is incredible, especially at sunset. Sadly the tower is closed now due to the pandemic. 

Old Istanbul at twilight
The old city as seen from Karakoy. By Jason Row Photography

The Bazaars

If there is a part of Istanbul that makes you feel you are in a truly exotic location, it’s bazaars. The two main ones are the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar. Both are pretty well lit and accessible for photography. For general shots a decent wide, fast wide angle will be best. For more detail shots a nifty fifty or similar will be good.

Both markets can be very busy and crowded. I have found the best way to photograph them is to shoot on a good smartphone with a gimbal. This way you can raise the camera well above your head to get some good top down shots.

Another tip is to buy some product. That makes the vendors much more amenable to letting you shoot their wares. Not only do you get some great shots of exotic spices but also some fresh pistachio or Turkish Delight to nibble on the way home. 

Asia And The Maiden’s Tower

Your hotel will probably have all sorts of leaflets promoting Bosporus cruises. Unless you really want a live narration, there is a much cheaper alternative. Take a ferry! For a fraction of a dollar you can jump on a ferry and visit multiple locations around the city. It’s a great way to get fantastic shots of various parts of the city skyline. Best of all you can use your Istanbulkart. Shooting from a ferry at dawn or dusk affords spectacular shots. 

One place to head to is Uskudar on the Asian side of the Bosporus. A short walk from the ferry port is the Maiden’s Tower, a picturesque edifice on a small island in the Bosporus. Behind the tower is a great view of Old Istanbul and Galata. The tower is surprisingly close to shore and a standard lens is good enough to frame it. James Bond aficionados will recognize the location from The World Is Not Enough.

Maidens Tower in Istanbul
The Maiden's Tower on a stormy day in the Bosporous. By Jason Row Photography

As far as photogenic cities go, Istanbul is truly rich in great locations! This brief article cannot mention all of them but others would include the Ortakoy Mosque with spectacular views of the Bosporus Bridge behind, Dolmabahce Palace and Istiklal Avenue, the main shopping street with its historic trams. 

More than anything else, the thing that makes Istanbul special is the light. There is a magical clarity to the light in this city that makes photography a joy, especially in the golden and blue hour. 

Istanbul is a magical city for photographers, especially in the blue hour. By Jason Row Photography

Despite Covid, Istanbul is a city that has remained open. Its residents diligently adhere to the basic rules of Covid avoidance and international connects remain open and frequent. If you are looking for a photographic trip that is a bit special, why not look at Istanbul!

Further Reading:

  1. The Life And Career Of A Cruise Ship Photographer
  2. Here’s Your Guide To Photography In The Tropics
  3. 5 Ways to Spice Up Your Travel Photography
  4. A Photographer’s Guide To Vienna
  5. How Photographing Locals Can Give A Sense Of Place In Your Travel Photography

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here

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