Field Notes: Iran Photo Tour, 2019

Hello from Iran! I’ve just finished another photography tour and thought you might want to know how it went.

My karma must be good this year because once again I was blessed with a superb group. Out of five participants, four were returning students (I must be doing something right, right?). So it kind of felt like friends reuniting. 

October is the ideal time to visit Iran, the temperature is lovely and the skies are blue. Which is ideal. Plus, visiting at this time of year means we were able to witness the Arba’een festival, which not only makes for great photo opportunities, it’s also just an amazing personal experience. 

Day 1: Flights, Food and Smoky Reviews

On Day 1, we flew out of Tehran. The Iranian capital is very interesting from a photography point of view – but it’s also very crowded and, in my experience, it isn’t the best place to take a group on a photo tour. So, to get things started we escaped the crowds straight away and flew south to Kerman, the door of the desert. 

After landing we met up with Masoud, my friend and our extremely likeable local guide (you may have heard of him under “Masoud the great, or MTG”). I’ve been using Masoud’s services ever since my first trip to Iran. He’s originally from Kerman and as a result, is at home in the desert areas.

After taking a quick rest at our hotel we ventured into town for food. Sitting on a carpet, the group was served a traditional lunch and introduced to divine Persian cuisine for the first time. 

We then meandered through Kerman Bazar, giving the group an opportunity to warm up and for me to introduce the first photo workshop. The people of Kerman are very friendly and the atmosphere in the city is so peaceful compared to Tehran. The sky has these rich deep blue hues and the air is still.

old man posing for a photo in the bazar of Kerman

As the sun was going down, we headed to a nearby hill to catch the sunset over the city.

Sunset photo of a mosque in Kerman city

And later, after freshening up at the hotel, we reconvened in a local tea shop next door to start our first photo review of the trip. This stage of the tour is a great opportunity for me to see the common mistakes that some participants may be doing and help them correct them from Day 1. The shisha there was also one of the best I’ve ever had – an added bonus.

Day 2: Miracle Lakes, Muddy Boots and Full Moons

After breakfast, we boarded our van for the three-hour drive to the desert of Kalut. A UNESCO heritage site – which, by the way, has been recorded by NASA as the hottest place on earth! 

The road to get there winds up to 2,700 metres and landscapes are from another planet. The drive really got us excited for what was going to be three full days of an immersive desert experience.

The lut desert of Shahdad in Iran at night

After arriving at our desert lodge, we chilled out in a beautiful kapar – a small roundhouse made of palm trees. It is a great place to relax during the intense heat of the afternoon, and we used it frequently over the next couple of days to chat, have lunch, shower and nap.

Once the sun was getting a little softer, we took off with two jeeps and drivers into the desert of Kalut for our first night of desert camping. But before setting camp we had something to see.

About six months earlier, the desert here had experienced unprecedented rains. As you can imagine, this being a desert, it doesn’t rain very often – which is something of an understatement. But this year was different. The rain was extreme. And the unexpected deluge created a lake. Something that even the older generation in the area can never remember happening in their lifetime. 

Did someone say “once-in-a-lifetime situation”? This is a Pics of Asia photo tour, so obviously we had to go check it out! 

Now, if any of the group had been hoping for an afternoon splash in the lake, they were quickly disappointed. The lake was incredibly salty. This made the vision of a body of water in the desert even more surreal, as it was surrounded by bright white shores.

landscape photo at sunset of the salt lake in Shahdad desert in Iran during a photo tour with Pics of Asia

We captured the sunset over the “miracle lake”, and quickly learned that the thin crust of salt on top hid some very thick clay mud! After a thorough session of shoe-cleaning, we drove back to our campsite, set up for the night and started our first night-photo session.

Luck was still on our side, as it just so happened to be a full moon night. Well, it wasn’t actually a coincidence. We’ve organized the whole Iran Tour so that we can photograph the desert of Kalut at night, lit up by the moon. Shooting at night means we avoid the heat of the day and the entire experience is truly mind-blowing. 

a landscape photo of the rick formations in the Lut desert in Iran during a photography tour with Pics of Asia

The desert at night is an eerie place. There isn’t a single sound. No wildlife can survive here so it is literally “dead silent”. Living in South East Asia, where noise is constant, I found the silence quite disturbing at first.

We walked for a few hours, chatting, composing our images together, rolling down hills and having, of course, a lot of fun.

I honestly cannot describe to you with words (or show you with photos) what the experience of wandering the Kalut Desert at night is like. You really, truly, just have to be there. 

photography tour in the desert of Shahdad in Kerman region in Iran

Day 3: Dusty Interviews, Band Covers and Milky Ways

We woke for sunrise in order to capture more stunning images of this amazing desert landscape. We hunted for the leading lines and rock formations that would create more interesting rhythms into our images. 

We then had our first campsite breakfast: a combination of eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers and of course, bread and cheese! It was a brilliant morning, filled with jokes and laughter. The group really bonded on that morning and from now on, the tour felt like we had all been friends forever. 

It was time to head back to our lodge to rest and edit our photos, but then our guide received an interesting call from one of the UNESCO managers who manages the desert site, asking if we were ok to be interviewed by the local TV. 

Because no one had ever seen such a lake in the middle of the Kalut Desert before, it has become something of an attraction for everyone, including the local press. And I must say it was a really fun experience to be interviewed after spending a dusty night in the desert! 

Not only did the unprecedented rain allow us the opportunity to see a lake in the desert and get interviewed by local Iranian news, but it also gave us the chance to get the single best group photo of any of my tours. The flood-damaged broken road formed a truly epic backdrop. What an album cover!

The photography tour group from pics of asia in iran poses in front of a broken road

After a rest and another great lunch, we boarded our jeeps again and our drivers drove us to an amazing campsite on top of sand dunes surrounding a village. We arrived just before sunset, a little later than planned, as we had stopped to meet and photograph people working in the fields on the drive. 

As our drivers set up camp and started to cook dinner, the group walked through the main sand dune and composed incredible images using all the lines available. The hardest part was trying not to spoil the pristine-looking sand formations with our footsteps. 

After sunset, and before the moon rose, Thomas – a regular participant on Pics of Asia photo tours, and a very talented photographer – spotted the Milky Way and shared with us his passion for astrophotography. I have to be honest with you, this was my first time ever shooting the Milky Way, and it was a great experience! 

shooting the milky way in the desert of Iran with pics of Asia

Thanks again to Thomas for sharing – your passion was contagious. I’m positive you’ll make a great photo instructor! 

After dinner we spent a few hours shooting the sand dunes at night, lit by an almost full moon, before heading back into our tents for a well-deserved night’s rest. What a day!

pics of Asia photography tour at night in the desert of Iran

Day 4: Dates, Palms, Old Cities and Young Friends 

As we were wiped out from the previous day we opted to skip the crazy wake-up time needed for sunrise. The morning sun woke us naturally and the light was still beautiful enough for us to get some great shots on the dunes.

We enjoyed another superb breakfast prepared by our drivers. Again, an amazing combination of fried eggs, cheese, bread, cucumber and tomatoes. And of course, the remaining pickles from the previous night’s dinner.

As the drivers packed up our camp we suddenly felt the need to do silly things in the sand. Because you know, we are all still children.

After a shower and short rest in our lodge, we left and started our drive to the village of Keshit, home to an abandoned ancient city and an incredible oasis. 

Keshit is basically the end of the road. There is nothing after Keshit. It is as remote as you can find. The locals survive here from growing dates and the village is filled with palmeraies. It is truly beautiful, and the few families living there have adopted a slow way of life to match the relaxing surroundings. 

landscape photo of the river in keshit village in Iran

It is calming just walking down the pathways, capturing the children riding their bicycles and witnessing the vast landscape surrounding it.

We photographed the old city and the village at sunset before entering our beautiful new lodge for the night.

A student from pics of asia taking photos of the old city of Keshit in Iran

After dinner, we decided to explore the nightlife of the city. Or more precisely, the few people hanging around the main square at night. We chatted with the young guys hanging around while discussing people photography at night, which can be challenging. After a while we learned that a brand-new tea shop had just opened and we spent the next hour chilling out there, drinking tea and smoking shisha, while the young locals came in to take a look at us.

For me, this was the time I enjoyed a lot – as we could really feel the local life and not chase our next photo opportunity.

Day 5: Unexpected Waterfalls, Pedicures and Choux A La Crème

After a heavy breakfast in our lodge of bread, butter, cheese and an excellent carrot jam, we said goodbye to our host and headed to visit the oasis. (Yes, carrot jam is a thing in Iran – and it should be a thing all around the world!)

The walk to the oasis allowed us to witness how the young men of the village teach their pigeons to find their way back home. It also took us through the narrow canyon, which brings the stream of water to the village.

young boy teaching his pigeons to come back home in the old city of Keshit in Iran

Following the canyon and climbing a few rocks, we were amazed to discover a hidden waterfall. It was really like a set for a movie: a heavenly looking waterfall in the middle of this desolate dry land. We swam and enjoyed the cool water. 

We were also given an unexpected pedicure by the small fish that call the water home. They snuck up and nibbled away on the dead skin from our feet. A bit ticklish but altogether quite pleasant!

swimmming in the cool waters of the oasis of Keshit

After this blissful morning, we took off for what would be a six-hour drive to reach Yazd. We had a stunning lunch on the way, with the best beef skewers and stew ever! Followed by some divine mint tea and local date cookies. Did I already mention that Iranian food is divine? I did? Well, it’s worth mentioning again.

While driving and watching the sun setting we decided to stop in the next village to take advantage of the beautiful light. We had no knowledge about the village we ended up in and had no idea what to expect. We split into three small groups to make it easier to approach people.

After barely five minutes Andy and I ended up in the local mechanic’s workshop, chatting with him and snapping photos. The people there – who never see tourists in their town – were extremely welcoming. Later on, we saw a pastry shop and bought some excellent choux a la crème. The shop owner didn’t want me to pay for them and I had to beg her to take my money. Later on, the baker invited us in and we could witness him and his apprentices making bread.

a mechanic in his workshop in a village in Iran

Meanwhile, the girls who had left with Masoud, our local guide, stumbled upon a festival at the local cemetery. When they came back to the van and I offered them the pastries they refused, saying they had already been fed by friendly locals until they couldn’t eat anymore.

The people of Iran are just incredible and their sense of hospitality is very touching.

The drive to Yazd could’ve easily been a long and boring one – but by taking the chance to explore a random village, we managed to turn a long day of driving into one of the most heartwarming experiences! Helped a lot by that welcoming nature of the locals.

Day 6: Temples, Henna and Fishing in the Streets of Yazd

After a whirlwind beginning to the tour, Day Six came as very welcome break. Because at this point in the tour, we allow photography to give way a little, in favour of culture and sightseeing. We left the hotel after breakfast to visit The Tower of Silence and the Fire Temple – two must-see locations if you’re ever in Yazd. 

On top of that, we visited the henna factories, which had proven to be extremely photogenic on the previous year’s tour. Everyone had such a great time there that we decided to visit them again a few days later on our way out of Yazd. 

an Afghan worker grinding Henna in a factory in Iran

Our lunch consisted of what you could call “Iranian fast food” – a kind of do-it-yourself kefta sandwich with pickles, salad, and anything else you want to add in it. Excellent food on the go! 

After a short break, we had a quick photo review session in the beautiful garden of our hotel, before heading into the streets to capture the sunset from a rooftop, which offered a stunning view over the Jāmeh Mosque. 

Photograph the sunset over Jameh mosque in Yazd with Pics of Asia

Yazd is particularly amazing to photograph at night thanks to the narrow streets lit by small lights, creating tunnels of leading lines. It is a great place to learn how to “fish” for your picture, finding the best spot and waiting for the right subject to walk in. Like regular fishing, much patience is required.

We headed back to the hotel quite early, as we wanted to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the main event tomorrow: the Arba’een Festival.

Night photography in Yazd, Iran with Pics of Asia

Day 7: The Arba’een Festival and Tea Drinking… Lots of Tea Drinking 

What is the Arba’een? Well, it happens 40 days after the Day of Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali in the battle of Karbala in 680AD. Who was Imam Husayn? Well, he was the first Shia Imam and grandson of the prophet Muhammed. So kind of a big deal if you are a Shia Muslim – and most people in Iran are Shia. 

By 8.30 am in Yazd, people had started to gather in front of the Jāmeh Mosque, where stands had been set up to offer free tea to everyone. People gather around these stands and chat, greeting each other before making their way into the mosque where the main celebration is happening. 

taking photos of Arbaenn festival with Pics of Asia

It was a fantastic opportunity to take photos as everyone joining the event is in a cheerful mood. And while the festival is a commemoration of a very sad event, everything that happens does so in a convivial atmosphere, based on generosity and a great sense of community. This makes it an ideal time to take photos. 

We spent most of the morning outside where people were gathering, playing the layering game with all the tea-drinkers. The light was fantastic and the temperature ideal – plus, stopping for a free cup of tea every 30 minutes helped to keep our energy levels up in this hectic environment. 

drinking tea during Arba'een festival in Yazd, Iran

We then entered the mosque, where we were free to take photos of the main event – but I personally preferred to enjoy the experience rather than taking photos. The people were extremely welcoming and we had to constantly, politely, refuse offers of tea.

The female participants on the tour had a fantastic time sitting in the mosque with all the other women, chatting and taking photos of the beautiful space. 

After lunch and a short break back at our hotel, a few of us headed back into the mosque – where groups of men were unfolding and packing up the tents that had been set up for the event. The atmosphere was a lot of fun: the men were running around together in order to fold these huge tents, laughing and joking in an almost childish way. This offered even better photo opportunities. 

folding the tents after Arba'een festival in Jameh mosque in Yazd, Iran

Day 8: Henna again, Tehran and on to Kurdistan

After another breakfast feast at our hotel, we checked out and revisited the henna factories we had seen on Day 6. We all wanted another chance to shoot the process of huge rocks being used to grind the henna into thin powder. We even found a small coffee shop nearby with a great espresso – Iran is the best! 

Man working in a Henna factory in Yazd, Iran

As there are no direct flights from Yazd to Kermanshah in Kurdistan (our next destination), we flew to Tehran first and spent the afternoon shooting in the Grand Bazar before relaxing in a wonderful tea shop, editing images and smoking shisha. Not a bad way to spend a few hours!

We flew to Kermanshah that night and drove to our village lodge, nestled between stunning mountains in the countryside. Our hosts welcomed us, offered us tea and we chatted a little before going to sleep. We needed all the rest we could get for what promised to be yet another epic day tomorrow. 

Day 9: Old Walls, Turkey Shephards and the Village that Time Forgot

We woke up quite early to take a walk through the village – a village that’s said to host the remnants of a 3,000- year-old castle. A lot of houses in the village have been built using scavenged rock from the ancient castle, making some fantastic backgrounds for our images. 

Strolling through the village, we spotted some people in the surrounding fields. The morning light was excellent and the mountains were lit with a golden light. The first person we encountered was a local woman who was bringing her flock of turkeys to the field. This was the first time in my life I have ever witnessed a turkey shepherd! First time for everything. 

We then came across the men of the village heading toward the mountains with their herds of sheep and goats. It was such a picturesque morning – and the scene in front of us was so ageless – we agreed it was like travelling in time. 

taking photos of the sheep herders in Kurdistan on a photography tour with Pics of Asia

As if the morning wasn’t perfect enough, we then had the best breakfast of the entire trip. As the village produces pretty much every food from scratch, we were served local organic honey, jam, butter and cheese, as well as a type of porridge that we will never forget. Our host was a vibrant and energizing woman, who was obviously doing her best to make us feel at home. And she succeeded!  

After breakfast, we left the village and set course for Palangan, the final destination of the tour. 

We wandered around – chatting with local people, eating exceptional grilled trout, playing football with the kids, and of course, taking lots of photos. It would have been a fine final afternoon as it was. But we also lucky enough to arrive in town at the same time the people were taking hundreds (if not thousands) of sheep and goats into the mountains. 

Taking photos of the sheep herders in Palangan village in Iran

So, for one afternoon, we weren’t just photographers – we became shepherds. 

Day 10: Goodbye Iran – See you in 2020!

After a good night’s sleep in our Kermanshah hotel, we walked to a very nice coffee shop to have the final photo review of the trip. A lot of lessons had been learned and it was great to see everyone’s results!

We flew back to Tehran that afternoon to conclude the tour. I said goodbye to the group as they flew out, leaving me alone to ponder the mind-blowing generosity of Iranian people. 

Once again, the people of this great country had treated me and the group to countless – and I mean countless – examples of heart-melting hospitality. I can’t thank them enough for making this another unforgettable Pics of Asia photo tour. I’ll be back. Again, and again. 

Check out this link to find out about the Iran photo tour in 2020! 

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Etienne

Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

6 Comments

  1. Anne Forbes on November 12, 2019 at 9:29 am

    Oh Etienne, what a great description, complete with pics, of what must have been a very satisfying photo-tour!

    • Etienne on November 24, 2019 at 11:21 am

      Satisfying is understating what this tour was 🙂

  2. Sally B on November 12, 2019 at 9:48 am

    amazing

    • Etienne on November 24, 2019 at 11:21 am

      Thanks Sally, hope you are well

  3. Cathy on November 12, 2019 at 10:50 am

    Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. Thanks.

    • Etienne on November 24, 2019 at 11:21 am

      Thanks to you Cathy!

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