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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Travel Special: Egypt, The Giza Plateau

The world fears time, but time
fears the Pyramids.
This is probably the most awesome sight in the world. The Great Sphinx with the pyramid of Chefren behind it.

You have not been to Egypt if you have not been to the pyramids. The pyramids of Giza, along with the Sphinx, are some of the oldest monuments in the world. The largest, the pyramid of Cheops, is the last surviving 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Let me borrow a line from the lights and sounds show; "The world fears time, but time fears The Pyramids."


Laser light on the Sphinx and creative lights on the pyramid of Chefren.

The lights and sounds show was the first time we saw the pyramids. I cannot find the right words to describe how I felt but I was in awe. It was like going back in time to the dawn of human history.

Musicians entertain the guests as they exit after the show.

There's really nothing much to the show. It's more of a dramatized tour narration describing the pyramids and a little history. The voice of the narrator & even his style of speaking sounds like a movie from the 1950's then the pyramids, the Sphinx, & ancient walls are used to project images & laser figures.
A souvenir shot right after the lights and sounds show.

Photography Notes

Some souvenirs available for sale at the entrance. The vendors did not mind when I took pictures even if I did not bought anything.

Ideally, I would have a tripod for this kind of shots, however, vacation is the main purpose of the trip & traveling light was of utmost priority. It would not be straight photoshoot all the time. In fact, I expected plenty of walking & souvenir shopping on the side so I decided to leave the tripod at home. I've seen light shows before and basically the techniques you can use is not that much different from shooting fireworks. But since I did not had a tripod, I resorted to using handheld shots, high ISO settings, a little under exposure, & holding my breath to minimize movement as much as I can. I did not take too many shots considering my predicament but I did manage to get a few decent shots.

For an additional fee of Egyptian Pounds (LE) 35, you may bring your video camera & record the entire show.


Fellow tourists at the base of Chefren's pyramid. This should give a pretty good idea of how huge these pyramids are.

The following morning was when we had our closer look. The weather that day was not very good. It was windy and naturally, dusty. A sandstorm looms in the horizon.

Nevertheless, we decided to proceed to the foot of Cheops' pyramid. This is the largest of the 3 in the Giza plateau. It was such an immense structure. Each block weighs between 2.5 to 3 tons. A brief explanation was given by our tour guide & then we went on to climb up to a certain level where the general public is allowed. Normal sized steps are carved out of some 1 meter high blocks to make access safer & more convenient. Entry is allowed for a fee of 100 Egyptian Pounds. We would have gone in but our tour guide advised that for only 25 Egyptian Pounds, we could go inside the pyramid of Chefren and be able to see the same thing. So we took some video & some photos & went on to the pyramid of Chefren.

The triangular entrance is the entrance to the king's chamber in the pyramid of Cheops. Just below it is the entrance opened by the Arabs in the 6th century is now being used as tourists entrance. For LE 100, you can go inside the great pyramid.

After taking a few shots outside, we went inside as planned. The passageway was very long, very narrow, very low & very steeply sloped and is the only way to go in & out. This is probably the main reason why cameras (photo or video) are not allowed inside. There's really nothing inside worth protecting from pictures - there's only an empty passage & small empty room in the end, both with plain stone walls. When we reached the burial chamber (I suppose that was the queen's chamber if I remember correctly from lessons learned in college) we discovered that not much air goes in there so we decided not to stay for very long.

Tourists with cameras have the tendency to linger & take as many souvenir photos as they can. However there are a considerable number of people who arrive every minute. With everyone having the same idea, people will be seriously in danger of suffocating & getting trapped inside. You would really want traffic to be in constant movement. Nevertheless, a trip inside any of these pyramids is not recommended for anyone who is claustrophobic, and
has heart & back problems.

The Giza plateau. From left to right: the pyramids of Cheops, Chefren and Mycerinus.

Afterwards, we went farther back into the desert for a panoramic view of the pyramids. We took a good look did a few pictures and proceeded to the Great Sphinx. Emil suggested a camel ride before going to the Sphinx but with the weather condition not improving, we decided not to.

Because of the Sphinx deteriorating condition, tourists are allowed only at a certain distance from it. It's good enough for most type of photos. In fact, the designated areas for viewing the Sphinx are the ideal distances for photographing it. Far enough for wide-angle but close enough for close-ups.

The Great Sphinx is made of limestone and stands guard in front of the pyramid of Chefren.

After we've satisfied ourselves with lots of photos & video, we decided it was time to go to our next destination for that day and walked towards our transport. By that time, the wind started to blow harder. With only a few steps before reaching the van, I turned around to have a last look at the Sphinx & the pyramids. The sandstorm has now made the Sphinx hardly visible. The Great Pyramids? They're totally gone.

I was thankful that we did not take that camel ride. We would have been stranded in the desert instead of being comfortably protected inside the air-conditioned van as we went on with our tour.

We would have been stranded in the middle of this desert had we taken that camel ride. A strong sand storm blew full blast just after we finished our tour of the Giza plateau.

The rest of the day's destinations are indoor sites (the Museum & local handicrafts shops) so the whole day turned out quite lovely despite the sand storm.

Photography Notes

When we got there, Emil, our tour guide offered to take a picture of me & my wife together. Since my wife & I almost always travel by ourselves, pictures of us together are rare. I was worried that the picture would come out bad and, in fact, I felt that he pressed the shutter button rather too quickly, without using AF and not taking care with composition. Amazingly, the pictures turned out just fine - well composed & well focused. As a well seasoned tour guide, he must have learned a thing or two from the many other tourists he has given service to. From experience he probably knows now what kind of pictures most tourists are looking for.

It was not an ideal day to take pictures with the sand & all but hell, my trusty EOS 20D has gone thru worse conditions & those did not stop me from shooting. So sandstorm or not, I will not be stopped from photographing the most ancient of ancient monuments.

Because of the sand storm, the usually blue sky has become white. This provided natural diffusion of daylight. While this is pleasant for portrait shots this is not good for photographing architecture & landscapes especially when the whole scene is dominated by sand, grayish white colors & beige. Not only is contrast significantly reduced, such condition also plays a lot of tricks on your camera's metering & focusing. The resulting photos tend to have washed out colors.

To overcome the problems, I did the following. First, I fiddled with my parameter settings & increased saturation & contrast. I left the sharpness to its default setting. Second, I always used fill flash when photographing people to brighten up colors & skin tones. Third, I did majority of my shots with the lens stopped down to f/8 to f/11. I avoided wide apertures to maximize sharp results. Fourth, I used a polarizer filter to squeeze out some contrast from the dull colors of the scenery. I also thought of using either a gray, blue or tobacco grad filters to control some of the glare from the grayish white sky but I didn't had any. So, I avoided taking exposure readings from the sky & composed the photos with the idea of digitally adding those filter effects later on in post-processing.

Also in this series

1. Travel Special: Egypt, Land of the Pharaohs

2. Travel Sepcial: Photography in Egypt




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