My Experience Photographing Versailles

Striking light illuminates statues and the golden gate at the Palace of Versailles, France

The Palace of Versailles is a beautiful and highly touristed site on the outskirts of Paris. Photographing Versailles would be a relatively straightforward experience except for the huge number of tourists that move through it in peak season. My own excursion was early in July, right in the middle of summer. I’d be happy to return, but wouldn’t want to do so at that time of year.

I took the train there, which was easy enough. But be aware that the last train back to Paris is not all that long after the Palace closes for the day.

A Flock of Early Birds 

I arrived reasonably early to find literally hundreds of other folks waiting outside the entrance gates. We baked in the sun together for about an hour and half before the line advanced enough for me to actually enter the main building. I made a few photos from the congested queue, including the first two in this post. It wasn’t easy, as the tightly congested crowd edged forwards, but it’s always worth the effort. In such a busy place it can be impossible to retrace your steps in the hope of making a photograph later.

A detail of the top of the entrance gate at the glorious Palace of Versailles, France

Playing to the Strengths of Color Photography

These are both fairly straight forward photos illustrating the majesty of what awaited us. The golden gates look particularly warm when contrasted against the deep blue sky. The side lighting in the photo at the top of this post was helpful in emphasizing the shape of the statues and gates. It’s a very simple recipe.

Statues and Gate, Palace of Versailles, France

I don’t want to downplay the beauty of Versailles, but the fact is my experience being herded through the main building was most unpleasant. The above photo was one of the few pictures I was able to make that didn’t show people. A moment afterwards they were popping up everywhere. Despite the difficulty it’s a reasonable result that showcases the classic pillars, ornate gold embellishments and spectacular murals.

A magnificent chandelier against a famously ornate series of ceiling murals at the Palace of Versailles, France

The images directly above and below were made from the middle of a densely packed group of tourists. I was only able to stop for a few seconds to make an exposure before being pushed along by the crowd. There were probably one hundred or more people in each of these rooms. I moved off to the side of the room hoping to wait it out until the crowd passed. But, just like the effects of a dodgy curry, it kept coming. Eventually I tilted my camera upwards or sideways to crop out the crowd. Not ideal compositions but, again, a reasonable result.

A statue in one of the magnificent rooms at the Palace of Versailles, France

After entering the foyer I was herded up the main staircase to the first floor where the crowd continued to push me along. I got to the end of the corridor and, rather than following the rest of the hordes upstairs, chose the downward path and got the heck out of there and headed out into the bright summer light.

Contemporary sculpture in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, France.

The gardens at Versailles are immense. Under more gentle light it would be fun making some really beautiful, carefully composed photographs. But my visit was shared with hundreds of others, many of whom were wandering around outside. I had to wait around 10 minutes before this particular scene was clear enough to make a photo. A classic garden like Versailles is all about order. Documentary photos showing folks pre-ambulating around the place is fine for a tourist brochure, but I wanted photos that showcased the geometric nature of the gardens and I wasn’t going to get that with the distraction of so many bodies wandering around.

The Palace of Versailles near Paris, France photographed under warm, late afternoon light. A highly decorative piece stands out in front of the buildings magnificent facade.

I was able to make a few good architectural images, but only through very careful composition and some unusual viewpoints. The photo of the cup (I'm not sure what else to call it) with the palace behind was one such image. It’s one of my favorites from the day.

A statue depicted King Louis XIV, the Sun King, at the Palace of Versailles, France.

Likewise, I’m happy with this photo of a statue of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, which I found in a niche on the outside of the Palace. The warmth from the late afternoon sun really brought the figure, in all it’s grandness, to life. Notice the carving in the wall behind it that represents the sun and, by implication, Louis’s radiance and divine right to rule. Propaganda at its best.

Statue and wreath in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, France

Fortunately, I know enough about travel to understand that you often only have to walk for a short distance to get away from the crowds. And that’s exactly what I did. Within 5 minutes I was away from the hordes and in another world concentrating on closer views of statues and other elements within the gardens.

A detailed image of sunlit flowers in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, France.

I made lots of intimate studies of various statues in the gardens, as well as interesting water fountains around the palace grounds. One of the final images I made was this detail of flowers where the application of Selective Focus allows the viewer to scan the photo, but be brought back to the main focal point within the image. To apply this technique all you need to do is to critically focus on your primary subject and apply a shallow depth of field to de-emphasize the surroundings.

Your Attitude Determines Your Success

A travel photography blog is about far more than showcasing your best photos. This is an educational site and, as such, I’m happy to discuss the difficulties associated with making good images under less than ideal conditions. Being able to do so is one of the determining factors in associating the word professional with what you do. In this case I use the world to describe an attitude, not as any measure of commercial success.

Travel Photography is not always about making amazing photos of iconic subjects under incredible light. More often than not you’ll find yourself working under adverse conditions and, rather than packing your camera away and heading to the bar, you dig deep and your passion and purpose, with some fundamental knowledge of the craft of photography, is what will see you through. But it’s not easy for the photographer, and almost certainly worse for their significant other half.

Why I Do What I Do

So, despite a difficult day as a tourist and photographer, I feel like I ended up with some pretty good results. Like so much else in life you earn your success as a photographer. How you judge success is a topic for another day. But I got back to my hotel room sunburned, tired and a tad jaded. But those few moments when the day’s best images came together in my camera’s viewfinder also brought with them a sense of elation, and that’s enough to keep me doing what I do. That’s what drives me. That, and the opportunity to share my work, thoughts and knowledge with an ever wider audience. Feel free to SHARE this post widely and wildly.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru