Wild Weekend: Marrakech Photography Guide
Marrakech, a walled city full of history and colour is located in the west of Morocco. As an UNESCO heritage city the Medina, Kasbah, mosques and palaces all provide an amazing opportunity for photography. Nothing can be done quickly in this frenetic place. Mint tea is needed before deals are made and it almost always accompanies a handshake and an introduction. Wandering around the narrow streets opens up a wealth of photographic opportunities. Colour is everywhere, intriguing corners emerge from the entrance to an alleyway and personalities radiate from the sellers and hustlers.
It would be unfair to make a top five listicle for this amazing city. There are so many small places to explore and little things to look out for and in some ways these little finds are far more exciting than the grand palaces and Instagram hot spots. The main attractions are always busy but taking the slow journey, sitting, watching people and following the ever changing light while drinking mint tea can bring special moments to your photography. Care does need to be taken in Marrakech to ensure your own safety and respect the privacy and beliefs of the local residents.
Photography Ideas for Marrakech
All over the city there are small alleyways. Some are dead ends leading nowhere, others take you on an adventure deeper into the back streets and dark corners. You will always find a way out and if you get lost there will always be someone willing to show you the way for a small payment. The alleyways are a maze of doorways, feral cats and surprises. Take time to watch the light. Some of the wider alleys have palm leaf covers and the light filtering through these during the day leads to beautiful shafts of golden light and magical shadows.
Doors and Windows
The doors and windows in the city are ornate and bold. Behind every door is a secret and hidden life. Most doors are flush to the front of the building. A narrow entranceway leads to a second door and beyond this the magical calm of the home with its open courtyard design. The doors and windows are an enticing exterior to a private interior. Hours can be wasted wandering the streets of the Medina and Kasbah looking at doors and imagining the stories behind them. On the main roads the doors and windows are more functional, but the further into the medina you adventure the more personal and ornate they become. The door knockers are also very personal. Many have the Khomisa (Hamsa) symbol or the 'Hand of Fatima'. A symbol of good luck or protection from evil. These intricate designs, welcome visitors and at the same time protect all from evil with the central eye.
The buildings in Marrakech range from ornate palaces with intricate details and amazing plasterwork to small homes with a shop on the ground floor and living space above. What they all have in common is a deep red finish to the plaster. Marrakech is known as the "Red or Rose" City and as the light changes through the day the plaster of the buildings will glow in a deep and earthy red. In days gone by each medina and kasbah would be known for its colour. Standing out against the desert landscape the Red City would be seen from miles along the ancient Salt Road. The high walls and large ornate gates would protect the city and its inhabitants and also guide travellers and merchants.
All of the mosques within the city are ornate and beautiful. Entry is strictly for Muslims but the exteriors are still worth admiring. There are mosques all over the city but some of the easiest to find are..
Koutoubia Mosque is seen from Jemaa El-Fenaa and is the largest mosque in Marrakech. With a green minaret and intricate designs it is beautiful in silhouette as the sun sets. Next to it are lush gardens and the remains of the old ablutions house. Originally surrounded by booksellers its name means "the book-seller's" mosque. The daily call to prayer starts from the minaret at this mosque and is echoed across the city. An ancient and mesmerising sound.
El Mansour Mosque in the kasbah has sky blue designs to the minaret and the adjacent Saadian Tombs are stunning and worth exploring. The tombs provide an insight into the design and detail that is found in the adjacent mosque.
The Ben Youssef Medrasa is located adjacent to the dominant Ben Youssef Mosque. This Islamic college was founded in the 14th Century and despite being closed in 1960 it remains the largest medrasa in Morocco. It is beautiful but closed until 2020 for vital renovation work.
As well as the mosques, the synagogues in Marrakech are unique. Lazama Synagogue is blue with mosaics. Situated down a narrow street behind Palais Bahia in the Old Jewish Mellah it is worth finding and exploring.
Marrakech Menara Airport is also an amazing piece of architecture. With an ornate exterior that is designed to look like a lantern it has high ceilings and massive sweeping supports. Well worth looking up when you arrive and depart.
The palaces in Marrakech are even more ornate than the mosques, tombs and city walls. Situated within the Medina, Palais Bahia, El Badii Palace, Dar Si Said Palace, Dar Menebhi Palace and Dar El Bachi Palace all provide a calm oasis within the bustle of the walled city. The plasterwork on the walls are detailed and the gardens and quiet spaces within these palaces are perfect for photography and exploring. Small details as well as larger details work well especially when the palaces are busy with tourists at every turn.
Whilst the squares within Marrakech are just open spaces, Jemaa El-Fenaa and the nearby and smaller Place des Ferblantiers are the perfect place to sit and watch the world go by whilst drinking mint tea. Photography is easy, espeically if you set your camera up on the table and let it record the events as they unfold.
Jemaa El-Fenaa is busy throughout the day. During daylight hours it is busy with tourists and street sellers. A starting point for exploring the souks it really is the place to start exploring the Medina. During the day snake charmers and monkey owners are about, try to avoid these as conditions for the animals are harsh.
As the sun sets find a cafe with a balcony and watch the square transform into a busy street market with a massive food market. From nowhere food sellers appear, enticing people in with their offers of everything from sheep brains to tagine. Any of the cafes with terraces are perfect for the sunset, but they can become busy and many request a purchase to admire the view.
The souk is magical with twisting alleyways, salesmen at every shop and light filtering through the narrow streets from high above. As day turns into night the colours change and the atmosphere calms. Deals are being made, but the mad bartering and tourist draw dissipates.
Photography within the souk is better with a small camera. Ask before photographing anything. Take time to find out about the stall holder, their goods and their lives. Finding the story behind the shop always adds to the picture. Getting lost in the souk is normal. There will always be someone who can help you find your way out for a small "gift".
Food is big in Marrakech. The night market in Jemaa El-Fenaa is all about food. The colours and aromas are fantastic. Tangia, tajine and kebabs are everywhere. Photographing food is easy especially if you eat the photograph. The stall holders love to share their menu, show their giant grills and even take your camera to get the shot of their stall that they know works.
All over the city are orange juice sellers, spice sellers, mint stands, the list is endless. Talking to the sellers and finding out more is the perfect introduction before a few photographs are taken.
Everyone knows about the colours of Marrakech. It is intense and everywhere. Contrast is bright and can initially seem over whelming. Take time to observe and calm your senses before indulging in a rainbow of photography.
This may seem like a mad comment in a busy African city, but there is wildlife to be found. The most noticeable are the street cats. Feral but friendly they sleep and lurk around restaurants and doorways. Easy to photograph as they are mainly sleeping. Most appear to be young although there are some big old toms to be found!
Marrakech also has a large number of resident storks. These reside high up on the walls of El Badii Palace and Palais Bahia. Their nests are scruffy but functional. If you want eye level shots a number of restaurants have terraces overlooking key nests. One of these is at the top of Rue de La Kasbah by El Mansour Mosque.
Sitting in the palaces, gardens and even the riad courtyards will ensure birds are seen. Small house buntings potter around indifferent to humans, picking up small scraps of food that is left out for them.
Heading out of the city and into the High Atlas Mountains brings an abundance of wildlife including macaque monkeys, Barbary sheep and Barbary stags as well as fields of poppies and other wild flowers.
Flowers and Gardens
As well as the palaces which have gardens within their walls there are some beautiful hidden gardens in Marrakech. Many of the riads have beautiful gardens hidden behind their huge ornate doors, an oasis of calm from the heat and mayhem on the street.
The Agdal is the oldest and most important garden in Marrakech. Designed over 800 years ago it is open for limit periods of time but is known for its huge carp in the ancient water basin and the spectacular views to the High Atlas mountains.
Smaller and more intimate is The Menara. Built to compliment the Agdal it has calm olive groves and a cooling irrigation tank.
Majorelle Gardens are a large complex with smaller gardens within. The colours of flowers and buildings collide in a frenzy. Bold and soft all at once.
Finally Le Jardin Secret really does live up to its name. With small courtyards and beautiful mosaics which compliment the plants it is a beautiful and calm oasis.
Photography Inspiration for Marrakech
Things to Consider While Taking Photos in Marrakech
Marrakech is an amazing city to visit with great light and a myriad of subjects to photograph. Like any city you need to think about safety. Whilst in Marrakech I never felt unsafe. The people are lovely and the majority are proud to show you their country. However, I do feel that it is important that you think about your safety and peoples attitude to photography before you arrive.
The light in Marrakech is stunning. Early in the morning and just before sunset, the red walls of the city glow. It is a warm light that just makes the colours pop from the lens. During the afternoon the light is harsh. Cloudy days are rare and so photography really needs to happen at either end of the day.
Sunset is magical. The sky will turn every shade of red, orange and yellow. Even after the sun has dipped below the horizon the sky will morph through a range of colours.
As with any city there is a small chance of theft. Keeping your own safety at the forefront of your mind is good practice. Keeping to busy areas whilst safer also brings about a higher chance of pickpockets and thefts. This is especially the case in the busy Jemma El-Fnaa and the bustling streets of the souk. Keeping your camera secure and out of sight when it isn't needed will prevent you becoming an easy target. On the whole Marrakech is safe, but common sense is needed.
Government buildings and security
In Morocco it is an offence to photograph government buildings and service personnel. If you aren't sure what a building is, move on and don't take the risk. You also need to make sure that you avoid getting any soldiers or police in your photographs. Even if they are tucked away having tea in a corner, make sure you don't include them.
Attitudes to photography
Despite having a large Museum of Photography, Marrakech is one of the less tolerant cities for photographers. People really don't like having their photographs taken. Even street scenes and stalls need careful consideration. It is always polite to check if you can take a photograph but don't be surprised if they say no. Just move on. Some people will become quite animated and even aggressive if you try to take a photograph and they see you. Again, just apologise and move on.
Marrakech: the city that distrusts photographers gives an insight into the problems encountered by even the professional photographers in this city.
Snake charmers, macaque monkeys and dancers
Jemma El-Fnaa has a number of street entertainers. They are there for the tourists and to make some money. However a number of ethical issues arise and thought should be given to ethical and responsible tourism in Marrakech and Morocco.
The snakes are not dancing to the music. They are starved, have their jaws tied and have been trained to associate the music with food. The charmers will place the snakes around tourists necks, help with photographs before requesting a gift. Sometimes as much as 100 dihrams.
Similarly the monkeys are kept chained in tiny cages before being dragged around the square by the neck to find an unsuspecting tourist to perch with for a photograph. If this is something you are comfortable with then feel free to take photographs but just be aware of the conditions and lives that these once wild animals are subjected to.
The dancers and entertainers, sometimes in Berber dress will come and play at tables or within the square. Again they will perform without asking and then expect payment. If the amount given is not high enough then they are not afraid to ask for more leading to uncomfortable moments.
Have small change available and if you do want to take a photograph be prepared to pay 5-10 dihrams. Not everyone expects payment but a large majority are working the square to make money.
Everywhere you go in Marrakech there will be someone wanting to help you. The city is friendly and most people do genuinely want to help. However there are a large number of people who expect payment for their help however brief it may be. Even giving a direction will result in a request for a monetary gift from some. There are also a number of hustlers who will offer to show you how to get somewhere, but on the way take you to their fathers shop, brothers cafe, you get the idea. You need to be firm that you do not wish to see the market that is 'only on today', the 'best spices in Marrakech' or the 'doctor who is known all over the world'. It can be hard work and sometimes the only way to extract yourself is to slip quietly down an alleyway. Some of the hustlers and guides are fantastic and earn their payment but some really do take the tourists for a ride.
Whilst many believe the tanneries are worth visiting they are one example of the massive disparity between the rich and the poor in Marrakech. They are also part of a massive scam. You may be told that the street ahead is closed, they can show you the way (despite not knowing where you are going) or they will help you to get 'un-lost'. This is all a way to get you to go with the young man who will take you to a shop that is part of their scam, usually paying to be protected and guaranteed visitors by the gang. The easiest way to avoid the scam is to stay firm and keep walking. If you really are lost, go into a restaurant and ask for directions rather than asking people on the the street. The prime areas for this is between Ben Youssef Medrassa and Maison de Photographie where the gangs work in tandem trying to catch you repeatedly as you walk along the narrow streets. If they are persistent, threatening to call the police will easily solve the problem. If you realise that they are taking you to the tanneries when it is too late, again be firm and just say you have changed your mind and walk away. If you end up in a shop or tannery, be polite let them finish their spiel before being firm and saying you need to leave. Some may want payment for taking you and at this point it is easier to give them some money. Never give more than 20 dirhams before being firm and walking away. If they become difficult explain clearly that that is your maximum payment and you did not ask to be brought to the location and that you will get the police involved if needed (their number is 190 or 112).
Cameras and Kit for Photography in Marrakech
Given the difficulties of photography in Marrakech small and discrete is the best way to be. Getting a large DSLR and long lens out is guaranteed to make yourself obvious and less likely to get the shot you want. I used my Canon DSLR and a 24-70 zoom lens with no problems at all along with my iphone for the more discreet moments. Inside the paid ‘tourist’ places the DSLR was out all the time, less so in the souk.
If you do use a DSLR camera, a 24-70 zoom lens or a 50mm prime lens is ideal. Spaces are tight and sometimes it is easier to use the zoom. Having a large aperture is also good. The souks and alleyways are dark and being able to let more light reach the sensor (small 'f' number is best) without increasing your shutter speed or ISO means the image has less chance of movement or noise. However if you do need to increase the light with the aperture wide open then increasing the ISO is the next best option.
In some areas even with the most fancy DSLR camera it is quicker and easier to put the camera into auto mode and let it do what it wants. Quick and discrete is essential and auto mode makes this possible.
Some of the best shots of Marrakech are taken on phones. Photographs can be taken in the moment and no-one pays much attention to a phone. Photographs can be taken from the hip without much notice being taken.
For many of the souk and night time shots at the market a tripod would be ideal but again for quick natural shots and safety it is far better to work without a tripod. Walls, tables and even bins can be used to support a camera and instead of a remote exposure button using the cameras inbuilt timer can reduce camera shake from pressing the shutter.
Practical Information about Marrakech
How to get to Marrakech
Marrakech has its own modern and large airport which is located just outside the city walls. Marrakech Menara Airport is served by a number of airlines including Ryanair and Easyjet. Passport control is a long and slow process but there is free wifi within arrivals so time can be passed easily.
From the airport it is just 10 minutes by taxi to the centre of the city. It is much better to pre-book your transfer and know they will be waiting for you with the fare agreed and paid. All of the taxi companies have to wait outside the terminal building so be prepared to have peace until you step outside the actual building.
A taxi to or from the airport should cost about 100 dirhams but prices can be extortionate and you should keep your wits about you and be prepared to haggle if you have not pre-booked.
Where to stay in Marrakech
Marrakech has every option for accommodation from the massive international hotel to the more private boutique riad. With hostel style riads and more basic but functional riads filling the lower end of the market. Most provide breakfast and lots of rooms are en-suite even if it is just an alcove with a curtain for privacy.
It is always better to stay within the Medina or Kasbah as you save yourself the hassle of getting to the city. It is lovely to be able to hide in your room when the stupid heat of the day hits at about 3pm. If you are staying in an all-inclusive out of town then you have no option but to survive the heat or end your day early.
The riads will try to sell tours and excursions but do accept your own plans if you have an itinerary before you arrive.
Getting around the city is easy. Most of it can be done on foot but the yellow taxis are everywhere. In the evening after a day of exploring and a meal it is easier to jump in a taxi back to your riad than navigate the alleyways and hustlers in the dark.
The taxi drivers will negotiate a price before starting the journey. They will always start really high. Usually a price can be agreed 50% below their starting price. Once you have done one journey back to your riad you get an idea for a price. Always make sure you have the card of your riad to give to the driver. This will ensure you end up in the right place!
The currency of Morocco is the dirham. The easiest way to obtain currency is from the large exchanges in the baggage reclaim hall or the ATM machines near Bahia Palace or within Jamma El-Fnaa Square.
Always make sure you have some coins to tip the self imposed guides while wandering the streets. Taxis, shop owners and waiting staff always appreciate an addition to the price that has been agreed although it is not always expected.
The food in Marrakech is beautiful if you find the smaller restaurants and street stalls. Don't be afraid to be nosey. The street vendors will always show you what they have and will be more than happy to let you taste a small sample if you are unsure.
The night market at Jemaa El-Fnaa is the ideal place for eating in the evening. With over 50 different stalls all cooking in the open air and trying to entice you to dine with them it is an experience. The hustlers will approach you with menus and phrases to entice you in. We were offered Yorkshire puddings at a luverly jubberly place on numerous occasions! As with everything in Marrakech, being firm and saying no before walking on is the easiest way. If you do like the menu then they will welcome you in and make you feel like royalty for choosing their establishment!
Most meals come with beautiful fresh salads and a selection of fried vegetables. Couscous, slow cooked tangia, tagine and kebabs can be found everywhere and are cooked to order on open grills in many places.
Bread is fresh and warm and the hacha flatbread is a local treat for breakfast (as well as any other time!!).
Water is bottled but easily available and Moroccan wine is up and coming and really good. Be careful with ice in fruit juices, it may seem like the perfect combination but the ice may not have been made with bottled water.
The main language is Arabic. However most people speak French to some level. English is spoken but not always. Brushing up on school french and being prepared to mix languages is the best form of communication.
What to take
Marrakech really doesn't need anything special.
An adaptor is needed if you are travelling from the UK. Sockets fit the European design of plug. It is also worthwhile taking an multi-socket plug. Some rooms only have one socket and trying to charge phones, cameras and everything else becomes a juggling act. With a multi-socket plug everything can be charged from the one socket.
For female travellers a covering for when you are in the mosques is needed. Given the intensity of the sun and the heat, keeping legs and arms covered isn't really a hardship. Many female tourists walk around in shorts and sun tops and whilst this is accepted it should be remembered that this is a Muslim country with different thoughts on dress.
If you are exploring the city there is a lot of walking involved and comfortable shoes make a big difference. Flip flops really won't survive the tens of thousands of steps that will be made each day.
Finally sun cream, sun hats and plenty of bottled water will prevent sun and heat related illness.