Mexico Photography and Travel Guide

| May 27, 2013 | 0 Comments
Mexico (Yucatan peninsula) is one of the dream getaways during the winter period. Photographically, it’s a treasure trove. It has got it all: culture, architecture, ancient ruins, sandy beaches, breathtaking sunsets and much more. You can spend your entire vacation behind the camera and still not run out of fantastic photography subjects. Just do not forget to enjoy yourself while there.


I have visited Mexico in winter 2011/2012. We stayed at a beautiful resort called Ocean Maya Royale near Playa Del Carmen on the east coast of Yucatan Peninsula. It is one of the all inclusive resorts in Mexico, and we were impressed with pretty much everything.

Ocean Maya Royale by H10

Ocean Maya Royale resort in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

The rooms were clean and spacious, the swimming pool area was very nice, and there are 2 beaches nearby. The staff was very nice and helpful and food was delicious. I believe it is one of the Blue Couples resorts, so if you are a couple looking for some peace and quiet, yet near all attractions in Yucatan I warmly recommend it.

Speaking of resort, it is also one of great places to get the feel for the country. Not to mention that some mexican resorts are really gorgeous. Which brings us to the first photography subject you will encounter.

1. Mexican Resorts

Ok, you might not be interesting to go around and shoot other resorts, but that should not stop you to shoot your own. After all a good portion of your stay will be spent there. I used time between day trips, to chill and relax, and shoot a photo or two in the meantime.

Evening at a pool area at Ocean Maya Royale

A quiet poolside evening at our resort. Shot from massage tower, with 30s exposure.

This evening photo of the pool I shot from a massage tower near the pool area. I found that the combination of tripod, wide-angle lens and a higher vantage point gave me a chance to get an interesting photo. The next morning I was greeted by a visitor, which brings me to the second subject…

2. Mexican Wildlife & Biosphere Reserves

Coati - Mexican Racoon

A good morning welcome by a Coati (Mexican Racoon)

This Coati, a cute Mexican raccoon like animal, has popped by, probably lured by the smell of my morning coffee on the room balcony. He politely asked me if he could get some. Yucatan has many great photo opportunities for wildlife. The resort animals were pretty shy and elusive, but when we visited parks like Xel-Ha and Xcaret we saw many animals like:

Red Ara

Red Ara in Xcaret Park

Flamingo

Flamingos in Xcaret Park

…among others. In Xel-Ha you will have a chance to book swimming with the dolphins, a rather unique experience and a rare chance to admire these magnificent animals.

Best and most convenient way to ensure your ticket for Xcaret and Xel-Ha parks is via Experiencias Xcaret website. It saved us a lot of time we would normally spent waiting in long queues.

Some animals we have encountered on the island of Cozumel, in the natural reserve. Those mostly consisted of vultures and alligators. However if you are really a fan of wildlife I warmly recommend that you visit Sian-Ka’an biosphere reserve. That is an experience I will never forget. After a long drive through Caribbean jungle in our very own Jeep.

Jeep expedition to Sian-Ka'an

Jeep expedition to to Sian-Ka’an

…. we came by a nice beach in Punta Allen…..

Punta Allen Beach

Punta Allen Beach

….from which we went bird-watching. Just be sure to take your telephoto lens, and fire away.

Pelican

Pelican, up close and personal

We even managed to see a couple of dolphins and a sea turtle. However, the best place to see a sea turtle is in Akumal. On Akumal there is a sandy beach where you can take your snorkeling gear, and swim, and snorkel together with the sea turtles. This is where i managed to get this shot.

Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle at its natural habitat

In Mexico, having an underwater camera is priceless, which brings me to the next photography subject.

3. Underwater

Mexico is a home to one of the largest and the most beautiful coral reefs on the world (save for the great barrier reef of course), and as such is a great subject for underwater photography. I have bought a small point-and-shoot for this purpose since the dslr underwater kit is very expensive and hard to find. This shot was taken on a reef between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Best way to get there is via catamaran excursions from Cancun to Isla Mujeres.

Serenity at Coral Reef

Serenity at Coral Reef

Underwater photography presents its own challenges:

  • direction of light that comes in
  • everything is in constant motion
  • it is hard to aim the camera

Few tips would be: grab a rock on the bottom to help you stabilize, and use continuous focus, burst shooting mode, and fast shutter speed. Those will help you greatly by increasing your chances for a good and sharp image. Also some bait helps, as you can see on the feeding frenzy photo below:

Feeding Frenzy at Coral

Feeding Frenzy at a Coral

4. Mexico beaches

Mexico has some of the nicest beaches that I have seen yet (next to Croatia, and Maldives, of course). White sand, and palm trees set a wonderful image of tropical paradise. Here are some photos of Mexico beaches:

Cozumel Beach

Cozumel Beach at wide angle

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach – Swimming just below ancient Mayan ruins

Tulum beach is particularly interesting, as this is one of the few beaches where you get a chance to bathe just below an ancient Mayan Temple, which brings us to…

5. Mayan Ruins

Mayan ruins are one of Mexico’s biggest tourist attractions. Two ruin sites that we had the time to visit were Tulum and Chichen Itza. In Tulum, the most impressive structure is El Castilio, the main temple in the center of the complex, overlooking the beach (see photo above)

However, right below El Castillo to the North there is the Templo Dios del Viento The Temple of the God of the Wind, a small, single-roomed structure, standing on a round stone platform. It is believed to have been dedicated to Ehecatl, the god of wind.

Temple of the Winds

Temple of the Winds, Tulum, Mexico

This incredible sight of the temple against the turquoise waters of the Caribbean is perhaps the most photographed site of the ruins. It’s simply breath-taking. Don’t go overboard on trying to catch El Castilio, as you might miss an opportunity to shoot this one.

Chichen Itza and it’s famous stepped pyramid (also called El Castillio) is one of the most famous structures in the world, and when seen in real life it is every bit so impressive as in photos. However if you are a photographer, It’s a nightmare to shoot, due to millions of tourists found on site. I knew it would not be an easy task getting a structure as famous as this without people in it, but it was actually hard to shoot the pyramid without at least 100 people in front of it.

The stepped pyramid of Chichen Itza

The stepped pyramid of Chichen Itza. A break in the clouds has provided me with an opportunity to take this lucky shot.

Here are some tips that might help:

  • Shoot multiple exposures (HDR) – this is the one structure you do want to have a full HDR spread, for several reasons like removing people, better dynamic range, etc.
  • Focus on temple details, or clip the bottom of the structure, in order to exclude people from the shot.
  • If there are only few people in the shot, consider including them in the shot to provide a sense of scale.

If you are interested to visit the amazing Chichen Itza check out Experiencias Xcaret website. They offer Ancient Mayan City in Deluxe All Inclusive Guided Tour 10% Off Online. We booked through them and were very happy with the service.

Speaking of shooting architectural details…brings us to next photo subject in Mexico…

6. Colonial Architecture

On our way to Chichen Itza, we have stopped in Valladolid, a small colonial town, where we had a short lunch break. I have taken this opportunity to get a couple of shots of colonial architecture. Given I did not have much time, I decided to focus on the Cathedral of San Gervasio and it’s surroundings

Valladolid Cathedral of San Gervasio

Valladolid Cathedral of San Gervasio – a prime example of colonial architecture.

The best piece of advice I can give you in this regard is focus on the details, rather then an obvious snapshot. In my mind both of the following two photos are better than the previous one.

San Gervasio Cathedral bell towers

San Gervasio Cathedral bell towers. Note how removing most of the clutter from the previous shot simplifies the composition.

…due to the unconventional angle, and less cluttered composition. Focuses viewer’s attention on architecture and palms help frame it.

Gateway of San Gervasio Cathedral

Gateway of San Gervasio Cathedral in Valladolid. Note how the addition of a boy gives the context to the photo.

…in my view, the little boy in the corner makes the shot.

Apparently, when shooting colonial architecture, the devil is in the details. You just need to find it.

7. Cenotes

In the suburb of Valladolid, there lies another popular tourist and photographer attraction: Cenote. Cenotes are basically deep natural pits, sinkholes, a characteristic of Mexico, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath.

Yucatan is full of cenotes, and their blend of water, limestone, and vegetation makes them an interesting subject.

Cenote Zaci

Cenote Zaci in the suburbs of Valladolid.

Cenotes can be exposed, partially or fully covered, which can create very tricky lighting conditions and strong contrasts between light and dark areas. Experiment until you find a setting that works for you. In my case it was a wide-angle (18mm) lens, f/4 and 1/6 sec exposure on tripod, with natural light coming from the side.

8. Cultural Shows / Traditions

Many civilizations and cultures have left their mark in Yucatan, from the ancient Maya, Spanish conquistadors, Spanish Main, Catholic Church, and trade. A friend of ours gave us a tip to attend a culture show, showing off Mexico’s rich history and culture. The show is a part of exhibition in Xcaret park, and I cannot recommend it enough both touristically and photographically. However for this show, a telephoto lens and a tripod is a must.

From the inevitable mariachi….

Mariachi

Mariachi.

…to the colorful dancers..

Xcaret dancers

Xcaret dancers.

9. Mexican Food

Mexican food is well known around the world, however, I am not necessarily talking Mexican cuisine here. When shooting mexican food, I am referring to the food at your local resort. Most are five star resorts, and arranging food is an art in itself, and our resort had that nailed to perfection. I tried to be not so obvious with my camera at dinner, so i took my point and shoot.

Cheese Banquet 2012

Cheese Banquet,


Ham Banquet 2012

Ham Banquet,


Chocolate fondue

…and chocolate fondue for celebrating New Year 2012.

I can assure you that the food was equally delicious as it appeared on these photos. So both my camera and I have gotten a treat. Needless to say, I came home with few extra kilos.

10. The flowers of Mexico

During our 2 week stay in Mexico, I was always on the lookout for flowers. Flowers are one of my favorite photography subjects as they come in infinite range of colors and patterns. The flowers of Mexico are no exception. Given the warm climate, there are many sorts of colorful flowers at every step.

My favorites were orchids in Xcaret ….

Pink White Cattleya Orchid

Pink White Cattleya Orchid in Xcaret.


Pink Cattleya Orchid

Pink Cattleya Orchid.

…and hibiscus flowers around our resort

Yellow Hibiscus

Yellow Hibiscus Flower.

For shooting flowers I strongly recommend taking a macro lens. This photo above was shot with Sigma 70-300mm 1:2 macro lens at 1/250 f/6.7 ISO 400. To avoid blowing out the colors in mid-day shoot in shade, and crank up your ISO slightly to avoid blur.

11. Mexican Sunsets

Finally, to round up the list of interesting subjects to photograph in Mexico, I have chosen sunsets.

Mexican Sunset

Sun sets over Ocean Maya Royale.

When it comes to shooting sunsets, there are few things to consider:

  1. The subject – it will most likely be silhouette, so make sure it is distinct
  2. The water – depends on the mood, but I typically use small aperture and long exposure to make water dreamy
  3. The sky – Hope for some clouds to bounce off light, and use ND grad filters to even out the exposure. Longer exposures make for brighter colors, so consider it while shooting
Cozumel Lighthouse at sunset

Cozumel Lighthouse at sunset. The perfect end of a perfect day. Shot with a tripod, and remote release.

A lighthouse is also a great subject for sunset photos….

Sunset in Sian Kaan

A gentle caress of the sun.

…or if you feel more creative, include people in your sunset photos, as I have included my beautiful wife, holding a sun on her palm in this shot.

So, if you are considering spending your (photo) vacation in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, go for it. I expected a lot, but was still amazed. It exceeded my expectations in every way.

If you have any more suggestions, or tips for great locations / photography subjects, please leave them in the comments below.


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Category: Beginners Photography, Photo Locations, Travel Photography

About the Author (Author Profile)

Alan Graf is the editor and founder of Digital Photography Student. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and is also editor of CRO-Wallpapers.com – a Croatian wallpaper archive, and his own photo gallery at http://www.alangraf.com.

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