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Tom Till, Chichen Itza Mexico
Chichen Itza

#209 Chichen Itza, Mexico

I had wanted to photograph this most beautiful of Mexican Mayan pyramids for decades, but getting a permit to take my 4×5 camera in, or having access to the site during magic hours seemed impossible to accomplish. The Mexican government has always had draconian rules about “professional” photographers entering their archeological sites, and my giant equipment always qualified. Sometimes I could get into smaller ruins with a little extra payment, and sometimes I could sneak into them—both strategies I don’t recommend.  One of my friends rented a plane to fly from the coast and shoot at sunrise, but as soon as he got near enough to the ruins to see the magnificent burning glow of the rising sun and the spectacular pyramid’s shadow, the pilot inexplicably turned around before my buddy could shoot. It seems the language barrier hadn’t revealed that a flight to Chichen Itza was ok, but a flight where you take pictures was not.

I run into this problem around the world, in places like Greece, Italy, Scotland, England, the United States, Australia, and many others.  Some parts of the world seem more immune to the problem, particularly Asia and Africa. People always ask me, “Why do they want to keep you from taking photographs?” There’s no easy, logical answer to this  question. A friend told me that a few years ago Great Britain implemented a policy where all national trust lands (national parks and the entire coastline were off limits without a permit, even if your publication of the image was only on Facebook).  Supposedly the entire region of Tuscany tried to enforce permits for “professional” shooting and gave up at the impossibility of monitoring all photographs taken there.

A lot of times I think it comes down to bureaucratic idiocy.  In the United States, you are free to shoot on any government-owned lands as long as you are in places where visitors are generally allowed to go and you don’t have models and props. In India tripods were allowed in about half the places I went and banned in the other half. I could find no common denominator about one site or the other.

Sometimes I think the rules banning certain kinds of photography are there to stop anyone from making money from the photographs.  In my case, I am still selling images as decor and for use as stock imagery. Years ago I sold almost everything I shot, but that’s not the case for me, or almost anyone anymore. The chances of anything actually selling are much smaller than they were before digital photography made photography easy for almost anyone, and the internet provided a platform for almost anyone to display their work.

This technology has also solved the problem of Chichen Itza and places like it across the globe. With a newer Sony mirrorless camera and its amazing gimbal, I can shoot handheld down to at least 1/8  of a second and get super sharp images. So, with camera in hand, I entered Chichen Itza (I arrived from a cruise ship) in January when the park is open until sunset. The guards paid no attention to my tiny little camera and lens, and I only had to pay a small fee – about $5 – for it and my phone. They collect money from anyone who has a device that can take movies, which it seems to me is a shake down.  The penalty for ignoring this small fee is thousands of dollars, so most people comply, and you have to wear a bright ribbon on your clothing to show the guards you have paid.

There are many great things to shoot at Chichen Itza, but for me the El Castillio is the most beautiful pyramid in the New World, and the front gets great late-day light most of year.  You won’t be alone in the afternoon in winter here, but as the day goes on and shadows deepen, the crowds lessen and it becomes quite easy to get shots of the pyramid without people. Tropical clouds are almost always at play here in the afternoon, and are great additions to any shot of the Castle Pyramid. Sometimes dark clouds combine with direct late-day light for drama and contrast.

My dream would be to shoot a drone shot here, but I would probably be quickly arrested for trying. I didn’t see any specific bans on drone shooting, and it might be possible and most wise to shoot from outside the grounds at sunrise.  There were drone images on postcards and they were spectacular.

Chichen Itza, Mexico, Tom Till

Tom Till, Chichen Itza Mexico


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