What goes into photographing endangered historical sites? Explore seven UNESCO World Heritage sites as these professional travel photographers share their tips for shooting these fragile locations.

The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List was first set down on paper back in 1972. In nearly a half-century since, it has recognized and protected more than one thousand extraordinary sites around the world, from natural wonders to examples of human ingenuity. According to the 193 nations who have signed the treaty, they are all of “outstanding universal value” and cannot be replaced. If lost, they will be gone forever. Fifty-four of them are classified as in danger.

Through photographs, we can all understand the importance of safeguarding these historic places for generations to come. Every UNESCO World Heritage Site is one-of-a-kind, but they all speak to something larger about what it means to be part of this planet. We set foot on any one of these sites with the knowledge that countless footsteps have come before, often dating back thousands of years. The best pictures of these locations capture details that are both unique and universal.

We asked seven photographers to take us on a journey to some of their favorite UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the globe. Below, they share their most powerful memories from the road and offer tips to anyone hoping to make the trip themselves.

1. “It’s worth sending an email to most UNESCO sites before visiting to ask about the rules.”

Brendan van Son

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites —Ask About the Rules

Image by Brendan van Son. Gear: Canon 6D camera, 16-35mm lens. Settings: Focal length 35mm; exposure 1/80 sec; f5.0; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

The Galapagos Islands are incredible. As someone who travels as often as I do, one thing I notice is that most places remind me of somewhere else. The Galapagos Islands don’t remind me of anywhere else on the planet. They are totally unique. Since the islands are filled with endemic animals and flora, much of the life you find here doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. And, to make it even more special, the wildlife has no fear of people, as there aren’t that many natural predators on the islands.

I was shooting a documentary on The Galapagos Islands, so we had special access to some of the beaches just as the sun was setting. Normally, people are only allowed on the islands from thirty minutes after sunrise until thirty minutes before sunset, so this was special.

Pictured: [1] Brendan van Son [2] Brendan van Son

Pro Tip

In the Galapagos, listen to the guides. The wildlife isn’t scared of you, but don’t take that as a license to get really close to them. Follow the instructions of the guides. They will tell you what the law is regarding the distance you need to keep from the animals.

With any World Heritage Site, be sure that you’re allowed to take your camera gear in. Also, be wary of the commercial photography rules. At a place like the Alamo, for example, you can’t shoot commercially without a permit. Many UNESCO sites also have “no tripod” rules. It’s worth sending an email to most UNESCO sites before visiting to ask about the rules. Some UNESCO sites will actually offer photographers the chance to get in early or stay a bit late if they ask as well.

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2. “Soak up the atmosphere, and get to know the feel of the place before you start taking photographs.”

Jeremy Richards

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Get to Know the Atmosphere

Image by Jeremy Richards. Gear: Konica Minolta 7D camera, 10-20mm lens. Settings: Focal length 10mm; exposure 1/100 sec; f8.0; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I was living in India at the time I visited Rani-ki-Vav. I had heard tales about the huge and ornate step-wells built centuries ago across India, particularly in the more arid part of western India in what is now Rajasthan and Gujarat. The Rani-ki-Vav step-well in a remote part of Gujarat was reputed to be among the most magnificent in size, structure, and significance.

It was too remote to visit easily, so I planned a trip across the remote part of Gujarat, starting in Ahmadabad, the state capital, to Mount Abu in Rajasthan, taking in the Sun Temple at Modhera, the Rani-ki-Vav step-well, and the marble mines that supplied the marble for the Jain Temples at Mount Abu.

Arriving at Patan, the location of the Rani-ki-Vav step-well, I could easily have thought I had come to the wrong place. There was no sign of what I had heard was a magnificent architectural structure. A dusty arid field with a slot cut in the ground was all that was visible of the Rani-ki-Vav step-well from ground level. As I approached, I could see there were ancient stone steps leading down. Going down into the ground, I was immediately transported into a different world.

The air was notably cooler, and there was a sense of tranquility. The walls and internal structures were covered in ornate Hindu sculptures dating back many centuries. Most incredible was the scale of the structure, some 28 meters deep, and at the bottom, a large pool of cool water. All this had been built in the 11th Century AD.

Pictured: [1] Jeremy Richards [2] Jeremy Richards [3] Jeremy Richards

Pro Tip

My approach to photographing historic sites such as Rani-ki-Vav is to take the time to plan your visit, particularly if you’re in a remote area. Read up on the history. I prefer to go alone, which means I take as much time as I like. Be patient. Soak up the atmosphere, and get to know the feel of the place before you start taking photographs. Allow time for more than one visit to the site at different times of the day. Always be considerate of others, particularly if the site has religious significance. Take only photographs, and stick to the permitted areas.

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3. “Blend in and become invisible when looking for storytelling moments.”

Emily Marie Wilson

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Look for Storytelling Moments

Image by Emily Marie Wilson. Gear: Canon EOS 70D camera, Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5–5.6 IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 29mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f9.0; ISO 400.

What’s the story behind this photo?

When I travel, I search for photos that tell both visually interesting and unusual stories about history, lifestyle, and culture. Something I have said about myself is, “Travel is like a date with my own soul, revealing my inner self, even as I absorb the outer world.” UNESCO World Heritage Sites always provide me with just those types of storytelling occasions. They transport me back in time; I am able to lose myself through the lens of both the camera and my imagination.

This is Pamukkale, a natural site of hot springs and travertine terraces in Denizli Province in Turkey. I understand academically that Pammukale was created centuries ago by carbonate material left behind as hot, calcium-laden waters cascaded over the cliffs, but I am still mesmerized each time I return to visit and photograph. Pamukkale, meaning “the Cotton Castles” in Turkish, never seems to lose its sacred essence.

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Blend In

Image by Emily Marie Wilson

Pro Tip

Prepare, prepare, and then prepare more. Access all potential information about the places you’ll be traveling to, especially photographic rules and regulations. Learn what types of photography are allowed and figure out any potential releases that might be needed. Then activate your imagination.

Above all, respect the cultural norms of the country, and don’t intrude. Blend in and become invisible when looking for storytelling moments. A photographer’s profession is to capture the visual story, not to change or destroy a historical location by altering the environment. Part of the world-wide leave no trace philosophy is the saying, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

Rather than shying away from the opportunity to photograph someone you don’t know or whom you may have just met, consider it a privilege to learn something about them. A connection is made between you, the camera, and your subject when you engage people in conversation. Ask their names, and ask whether they are they okay with you photographing them. Interact, and be sincere. Everyone has an interesting story to tell. Take the time to listen.

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4. “When visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Latin America, you can request permission to take professional photos…”

Alberto Loyo

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Request Permission First

Image by Alberto Loyo. Gear: Nikon D90 camera, Nikon 18-200 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f11; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

Two reasons led me to visit Easter Island. The first one was the movie Rapa Nui, and the second was the challenge of visiting the place farthest from Spain where Spanish is still spoken. On Easter Island, people live with a kind of tranquility that I had never lived myself. I remember New Year’s Eve 2009, when I was there, with love. Although the statues (moais) are the best-known part of the island, Rapa Nui National Park covers 40% of the island, so I recommend visiting for at least four days.

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Give Yourself Time to Explore

Image by Alberto Loyo. Gear: Nikon D90 camera, Nikon 18-200 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/80 sec; f5.6; ISO 250.

Pro Tip

If you visit Easter Island, you should watch the sunrise at Ahu Tongariki and the sunset at Ahu Tahai. There are also some picturesque shows of native dances. When visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Latin America, you can request permission to take professional photos, even inside a building with a tripod. People are friendly, and they usually allow it.

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5. “Try not to copy other photographers; remain creative, and have respect for history.”

Fokke Baarssen

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Keep Up Your Creativity

Image by Fokke Baarssen. Gear: Samsung NX500 camera, Samsung 16 / 50MM F2.2 lens. Settings: Focal length 50mm; exposure 1/500 sec; f5.6; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

In December, my wife and I visited the island of Malta. I was looking for a destination with a lot of culture and history where it was still somewhat warm during the Christmas holidays. Valletta was the European Capital of Culture this year, together with Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, so I thought maybe this could give me an extra boost in my photo sales. Valletta, the capital of Malta, is full of history with colorful balconies, great streets, and old city walls to explore. You literally walk through the city gates and you’re in a living museum.

After a day of walking around, I looked for a beautiful point from which I could watch the sunset. I searched Google and used the PhotoPills app to see where the sun would go down and where I had to drive to photograph the skyline during this time. We drove to the tourist town of Sliema, where there is a long boulevard with a view of the Valetta skyline. The advantage of visiting in winter is that the sun is already low early in the afternoon so you don’t have to wait until later in the evening for everything to get a nice glow.

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Have Respect for History

Image by Fokke Baarssen. Gear: Samsung NX500 camera, Samsung 16 / 50MM F2.2 lens. Settings: Focal length 60mm; exposure 1/250 sec; f5.6; ISO 100.

Pro Tip

I always try to be in a nice place around sunset or sunrise with a view of the skyline or other points of interest in my chosen area. I usually use apps to prepare and determine a location. There are also good compositions on Instagram, where you can get some inspiration. Try not to copy other photographers; remain creative, and have respect for history. Try to go to the same place at different times to shoot under various lighting conditions, and try out different compositions if you have the time.

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6. “An added bonus of an early arrival is that there are significantly fewer visitors at this time.”

Valery Bocman

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Do Your Work Early

Image by Valery Bocman. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/25 sec; f22.0; ISO 50.

What’s the story behind this photo?

In order to see Borobudur, I specifically planned to visit the city of Yogyakarta for three days. This place is in all the handbooks and guidebooks, and I wanted to see it in real life. My photos were taken at dawn. We left when it was still nighttime in order to catch the sunrise.

First, we went up to the observation platform on Punthuk Setumbu, taking photos of the whole valley. The first rays of sun lit up Mount Merapi and Borobudur Temple. After that, we quickly headed directly to Borobudur. This place has incredible energy. I just took out a camera and tripod and tried to convey the power of this place against the backdrop of the rising sun.

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Shoot During Tourist Off-Hours

Image by Valery Bocman. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Settings: Exposure 15 sec; f22.0; ISO 50.

Pro Tip

Be sure to come here at dawn. Yes, I understand that it’s hard physically, but it’s worth it. An added bonus of an early arrival is that there are significantly fewer visitors at this time.

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7. “The most important thing is to be in tune with the place and the people.”

Vladimir Melnik

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Be in Tune with the Place and People

Image by Vladimir Melnik. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Canon EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/80 sec; f6.3; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I’ve photographed different UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Ait Benhaddou, the Medina of Marrakesh, and Essaouira in Morocco; the clay skyscrapers of Shibam and the old city of Sana’a in Yemen; the Great Pyramids in Egypt; the Rock-Hewn Churches in Ethiopia; the Meteora in Greece; the Qutb Minar in Delhi; the historic centre of Guimares and the Alto Douro region in Portugal; Persepolis and the historic city of Yazd in Iran; Lena Pillars Nature Park in Russia; and Cappadocia in Turkey.

But my favorite is the Socotra Archipelago. In my Shutterstock portfolio, you can find a lot of images from these unique islands. I’ve visited about a hundred countries and many more unique places, but Socotra is very special to me and beyond compare.

I’ve visited Socotra eleven times, and I want to go back. But right now, due to the war and bloodshed unleashed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, access to the island is extremely difficult. It is still absolutely safe on Socotra, and the people are just as friendly and hospitable, but getting there is the problem. Two years ago, I tried to reach the island by sea, but we were attacked on the way, near the Bab-el-Mandeb strait.

7 Photographers on Shooting UNESCO World Heritage Sites — Follow the Light

Image by Vladimir Melnik. Gear: Canon EOS 5D camera, Canon EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f10; ISO 100.

Pro Tip

My criteria for a good image is quite simple: it should touch your heart, awake your emotions, and motivate thinking and action. For me, photography is a tool for communication and self-discovery. I do not want indifferent spectators. I want my pictures to spark emotions in people and make them think and act. For good images, just follow the light. The most important thing is to be in tune with the place and the people. If you can feel it as a kind of vibration, you can experience a union and togetherness with the world.

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Top Image by Vladimir Melnik.