Acting as the bridge between the East and the West, Istanbul is home to a host of striking contrasts. It’s the confluence of modern and ancient, a cultural melange stemming from centuries of trade and migration. To say that it’s a place you have to see to believe is an understatement — and the notion that you have to photograph it to remember it is a fallacy. That said, don’t feel discouraged from bringing your camera along with you on your next trip to Turkey’s largest city.
There’s no better introduction to Turkish culture than a trip to Istanbul’s famed Grand Bazaar, where you’ll find a cacophony of smells, sights, and sounds. There, you can spend time browsing nearly 4,000 stalls, which comprise one of the world’s oldest and largest markets. Located within Istanbul’s Walled City in the Fatih district, the market can be easily accessed via tram from either Sultanahmet and Sirkeci.
Because the Grand Bazaar offers so much to see, you might want to opt for a lens with multiple capabilities — one that is wide enough to capture the scope of the market halls, but has a deep enough focus to capture those small details that may go otherwise unnoticed. The Grand Bazaar is a great place to experiment with long-exposure photography, which can capture the movement of the crowds as they make their way through the market’s corridors. In addition, focus on photographing goods and textiles up close for compelling shots, and play with color and light to give your image added intrigue. Note: the market is dimly lit, so avoid blurry shots by steadying your camera body on a tripod or other stable object, using a quick shutter speed, and opening your camera’s aperture to capture all available light. After you’re done shooting, don’t forget to grab a bite to eat or a souvenir at one of the many vendors!
Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Known more commonly by the nickname it earned from its famed cerulean domes, the Blue Mosque is Istanbul’s most beautiful. Constructed from 1609 to 1616, the mosque remains an integral facet of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district. Its interior is covered in hand-painted blue tiles, which are only accentuated by the blue-hued lights that turn on at twilight. Because it’s still a functioning mosque, the building is closed during the five daily prayer periods, so try to plan your visit accordingly, or, if you’re facing a long wait, venture across the street to see the Hagia Sophia.
Regardless of whether you want to photograph this magnificent structure from the inside or outside, you’ll need a wide-angle lens to capture the sprawl of the enormous building. Consider visiting either as the sun rises or during the evening, when the mosque’s lights are turned on for the dreamiest photos. If you’re photographing the stunning interior, be sure to practice your low-light photography prior — you’ll need to expose the image correctly, use a fast shutter speed, and keep your camera body steady to avoid blurry shots. Additionally, if you’re aiming your lens up at the mosque’s intricate ceiling, be sure that you’ve framed the shot meticulously — nothing throws off an architectural image quite like anti-symmetry or a crooked angle. If your camera is struggling to pick up the blue tiles (there is a lot of feedback from the red rug, dim yellow candles, and back-lit windows), adjust your white balance in post processing for a true-to-life effect.
To witness one of Istanbul’s most impressive feats, you’ll have to venture belowground — and as you do, you’ll travel several centuries back in time. The Basilica Cistern is the largest of the hundreds of cisterns that rest just below the bustling streets of the city. Built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century, the Basilica Cistern was constructed to filter water for the Grand Palace of Constantinople. Although you’ll have to purchase a ticket to access the ancient site, it’s well worth the cost.
As with many of the attractions on this list, the Basilica Cistern is dimly lit, so you’ll want to bring along a tripod, a fast lens, a plastic bag to protect your camera from the dripping ceiling, and grippy sneakers. Walkways link different sections of the cistern, so be sure to capture as many different angles as you can. Additionally, set your camera to reflect a fast shutter speed and a wide aperture setting, which will maximize the amount of light on the sensor, or play with the perspective of a wide-angle lens and tilt your camera up to capture the scale of the enormous pillars. And if you can, experiment with the reflections of the structure mirrored in the water below. They won’t disappoint.
Since its construction in 1348, Galata Tower has acted as a North Star of sorts for Istanbul’s residents. Built to replace a preexisting Byzantine structure of the same name that was destroyed during the Crusades of the 1200s, the structure stood as Istanbul’s largest building in the years following its construction. Its (relatively) massive scale allowed watchmen to spot fires, invasions, and other disasters from its observatory windows. It also famously acted as a jumping-off point (literally) for Ottoman aviation enthusiast Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi, who leapt from the tower while wearing handmade wings and sailed (successfully) over the Bosphorus strait to Istanbul’s Asian side — nearly four miles (six kilometers) away.
Today, you can’t legally take a test flight from Galata’s high balconies, but you can do the next best thing — climb to the top of the tower to view the stunning panoramic view of Istanbul. The scene is a must-photograph, so be sure to bring along a wide-angle lens to capture the sprawl. Alternatively, you could use a telephoto or prime lens to hone in on the clusters of buildings and highlight the details of the streets and shops below. For an added challenge, try photographing the tower from the Asian side of the city or from different areas in the Beyoğlu district. If you venture out for sunrise, you’ll be sure to snap an unforgettable photo!
If you’re visiting Istanbul, we hope you have a fondness for felines, because the city is practically run by its street cats. While the term may conjure images of mangy or unfriendly little animals, Turkey’s street cats are well-kempt, cared for, and affectionate. Why, you ask? Istanbul’s predominantly Muslim population is well-versed in the hadith, a collection of tales about the prophet Muhammed in which he openly professes his love for cats. As a result, the city’s residents engage in the collective care of the animals, creating a population of friendly felines in shops, cafés, mosques, roofs, streets, parks, alleyways, and beyond.
To photograph these lovable creatures, use a prime lens with a wide aperture, as it allows an abundance of light in and creates a photo with a shallow depth of field — a style best likened to portrait photography. Additionally, use the largest f-stop value on your lens to capture details in the cat’s eyes and fur, and get low to the ground to snap a unique perspective.
Did we miss any of your favorite spots in Istanbul? Let us know in the comments below!
Header image by Hasan Albari