London-based photographer Simon Roberts discusses how he captured one of the world's great archaeological sites on camera...from a hot air balloon.

By Hannah Walhout
May 17, 2019
Simon Roberts

Earlier this year, photographer Simon Roberts traveled to Egypt for this month's issue of Travel + Leisure. His photographs accompany a story about a country in flux; in it, writer Aatish Taseer explores the vast, unknowable nature of antiquity, the enduring scars of Egypt's tumultuous political history, and the ways in which this ancient nation is envisioning its future as tourism steadily rebounds.

Roberts had worked with T+L before, traveling not so far from his native London to photograph Scotland's Isle of Skye. Needless to say, this most recent assignment took him to a dramatically different environment. Rather than encountering desolate landscapes, remote towns, and the occasional sheep, this trip dove into the bustling, beating heart of one of the oldest civilizations on earth. His images that accompany the feature are dense with things humans have built there: pyramids, mosques, burial chambers; a luxury cruise ship passing villages along the Nile; a sneak peak inside the forthcoming Grand Egyptian Museum, still under construction in Giza

But one of Roberts' photographs, which makes an appearance on the issue's newsstand cover, rises above these built environments — literally, since it was taken from a hot air balloon above the famous Valley of the Kings — to show the contours of the landscape in an even more epic way.

Here's how he got the shot:

T+L: Had you ever been to Egypt before? What was your overall impression of the place and the subject matter?

Simon Roberts: "It was my first visit, and I was apprehensive about traveling to one of the most photographed places in the world! However, the experience was quite profound and did not disappoint. In fact, it's hard to describe the experience of witnessing, first hand, some of civilization's earliest achievements."

What was it like shooting from a hot air balloon? Any particular distractions or unique opportunities? 

"I’d photographed from a hot air balloon before — but never one that contained an additional 35 people! The biggest challenge was getting into a position where I could photograph in the direction facing the Valley of the Kings as the sun came up behind me, which required some skilled flying by the balloon pilot and careful diplomacy with my fellow passengers so as not to spoil their experience.

Initially, when I was taking the photographs, I was frustrated that the view was obscured by other hot-air balloons — but in the end, I like how the balloons appear suspended in the sky and also give a sense of scale to the scene."

Simon Roberts

Do you have any tips for shooting wide, relatively monochromatic landscapes like this one?

"Well, some height always helps. I often photograph from the roof of my motorhome when shooting landscapes; a slightly elevated vantage point allows the relationship of individual bodies and buildings in the landscape to be clearly observed. I also like to photograph at times of the day or in weather conditions that give me a more restrained, pastel palette of colors."

What time of day did you take the picture? What type of equipment did you use?

"The photograph was taken at dawn using a Phase One medium format digital camera, which was mounted on a monopod to give myself some stability and prevent camera shake."

Do you have any other cool projects in the works that you’d like to share?

"I’m currently working on a longer-term project, in Cuba, which brings together four European and four Cuban photographers to collaborate on a book and exhibition for the 2021 Havana Biennial. I’m looking at the role of faith in a post-Castro era, where various religious practices — from Christianity and Islam to Baha'i and Santeria — have been allowed to grow, and appear to form an important part of contemporary Cuban society."

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