A one week trip to Morocco, with half being spent in the hustle & bustle of Marrakesh and the second half up in the calm of the Ourika valley - in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains.
On arrival in the city, you’re met with an assault on all the senses. The bright vivid colours, the cacophony of noise (from the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer through to the trumpets of the snake-charmers) and people desperate for your business all vye for your attention. Assuming that you're staying in the Medina / old city, you'll probably need someone to show you the way through the narrow streets and souks through to your 'riad' or lodging.
Everyone is very friendly, just be aware, however that some are just looking to show you the way, either for some dirhams at the end or to their family's shop where you'll be expected to buy something. Look as though you know where you’re going, and you’ll be fine however hesitate, or consult a map, and there’ll be someone by your side offering to guide you to where either you want to go - or, occasionally, where they want you to go!
There are two main parts to Marrakesh’s ‘Medina’, the main square - the Jemaa el Fna - and the souks. The former really only comes to life in the late afternoon and evening, once all the food stalls have been set up and people gather to eat supper. It is, generally, easy to find, either by looking out for the tower of Koutoubia mosque or following the signs around the souks which direct you there. If all else fails, it's better to ask a shopkeeper, rather than a passer-by!
The souks, and there are a number, are generally covered, connected by little alley-ways through which men in bicycles and mopeds thread their way through the throng of people, and others push their carts of produce and merchandise, replenishing their stalls. Both the range and the quality of the merchandise on offer varies significantly
Photography in Marrakesh
The souks, markets and the main square (Jemaa el Fna) are all crying out to be photographed, as are the individuals that make up this lovely city.
Be aware, however, that many of the locals prefer not to be photographed – and they’re not shying away looking for a tip either. While the tourists flock to the old markets, there are many locals who live and work here, and they understandably don’t appreciate a camera in the face.
Many people discover that taking pictures in Marrakech is harder than anywhere else in Morocco. My own opinion on why this is, is due to saturation. There are so many tourists that it can be very overwhelming to be photographed multiple times a day.
So, if you do still want to capture some of the life here, set the camera to silent mode (if it has one), use a wider angle lens, zone focus at 2 metres, set your aperture to f8 and shutter speed to 1/250 (or 1/125 if your inside the souks) and you should be able to get some good photographs.
I did get 'caught', once, the stall holders in the souk very carefully watch anyone who's obviously a tourist - and one (a young guy, and more alert that the older ones) saw me surreptitiously taking a photo of him and his stall as I walked past him. He asked to look at the photo, which I showed him - then that I delete it, which I did, out of respect to him. I then walked on, no damage done to either party.
Another word of warning - don’t take photos of the monkeys on chains or the snakes being charmed in the main square unless you’re willing to pay a hefty sum for the privilege. Even if you do so surreptitiously, the owners have people mingling in the crowd and, as happened, to a friend, call them out, asking for money.
On this note also be careful of taking obvious photos of the stores as the owner may try and make you pay or buy something for doing so.
One one occasion, we were taken into the fabrics / wool dyeing area of the souk, rather reluctantly, however, my wife did end of with a couple of lovely scarves, for a perfectly reasonable price, after she held her ground on what she was prepared to pay, and I had free rein to photograph the dyeing process - which made for some good photos albeit the working conditions were pretty grim!
After we left Marrakech, I discovered that a local tour company, Travel Link, runs half day ‘Photography in Marrakesh’ tours. Looked to be a good way of getting photographs without all the usual hassle and particularly useful if you've limuied time in the city.
2. The High Atlas Mountains
The Ourika Valley is just 90 mins drive from the centre of Marrakech and a totally different experience - quiet, calm and peaceful with stunning scenery -Africa’s second highest mountain, Mt / Jebel Toubkal, (4,816 metres high) is located here, and friendly Berber villagers.
Despite the fact that we were there in the second half of February, the weather was surprisingly warm (definitely t-shirt weather) in the sunshine however the temperatures dropped rapidly when it clouded over. When it rained, and it did a couple of times during our trip, it rained heavily and persistently.
Up here, we did a couple of guided walks. One the first, through the National Park, I discovered that there was a problem with my SD card - when trying to show a Berber villager his photo. I should have been making use of the second card slot of my X-T2 as a back-up fortunately I had been backing up my cards each evening on a WD My Passport Wireless drive (via its SD slot) and so was able to recover the images I'd taken previously.
During the walk, we had lunch in a Berber village, the owner and his wife were happy for us to photograph them - indeed, 10 years ago, they’d featured in a book on the area. Such a different experience to that in Marrakesh. At the end of our lunch, we left Madame with a pack of pens to be given to the village school for the benefit of the children, something that the adults appreciate.
On another walk, this time through villages up the valley and back along the river, we encountered a few people. Generally speaking, it’s OK to photograph the men if you ask for permission however less so the women and children. There have, apparently, been instances of Moroccan men photographing women and/or children and then for these images to appear in the shops and souks of Marrakesh.
3. Summary / Conclusions
Morocco is a wonderful place to visit, everyone is very friendly, it’s easily accessible from Europe and there’s a wealth of material to photograph. However, the countrywide concern, which is particularly prevalent in Marrakesh, about photographing people, makes it very difficult to get good ‘travel' or 'street' images. That said, it's not impossible, it just requires a little more thought, and care, that it would do in most other cities.
Gear: After some consideration, I decided to take the following:
During the week and across both locations, I used the following lenses:
I hope that this has been helpful - any queries or comments, please let contact me here - or via the Contact page.