A Photographer’s Guide to Santorini, Greece
Santorini is one of the most visited islands in the world (placed in the top 10 of most visited islands), a destination where tourists come to from all over the world.
They come to admire the cave houses built on cliffs measuring hundreds of meters, the rooftops painted in a blue more intense than the sea, the clear sky and great weather, or the donkeys waiting to carry the tourists from the harbor to the heart of the cities.
The pride of the Greek islands, Santorini is, simply put, a place of contrasts. A place where, during the touristic season (from late April to late October), one must struggle to find a place to hide from the crowd. And when the season ends, more than 80% of the islanders become inlanders and move on the continental Greece, mainily around the big cities of Athens, Salonic, Sparta, Kalamata, etc. Even at the highest peak, during the months of July and August, when the streets and beaches are overcrowded, you can still find places that seem deserted.
More than that, Santorini is a unique place to visit. The tourist visiting these places for the first time is faced with a strange feeling of confusion. It lacks the terms for comparison. With little exceptions (e.g. Cinque Terre, Italy), nothing in the world you have already seen in the world can compare to the sights that Santorini offers.
A very brief history overview
More than 4000 years ago, Santorini had the shape of a circle, more like the northern island of Thassos, until the volcano erupted (around the year 1450 B.C.) and created a tsunami that it is said to have destroyed the Minoic civilization. The former island was shaped to its present form, mainly consisting of the islands of Thira (the Greek word for Santorini), Thirassia, Paleo Kameni (the ancient island) and Nea Kameni (the new island). The latter is so new that it only has existed for 60 years. It actually emerged over night from the sea. Literally. The inhabitants of Santorini woke up one morning to discover a new island that had not existed the previous day.
Why does Santorini attract tourists, aside from its past surrounded by millenniums of myths, legends and history?
The answers are so many that it is hard to decide where to start.
- It attracts because of the unique and panoramic sightseeing. It is almost as if you need to catch your breath every time you look around. The images are indeed breathtaking.
- People and churches.
- The inhabitants, whose behavior is as warm and welcoming as the places and the weather.
- The olives in all kinds of shapes and colors.
- And its wines, in a display of more than 35 types, red, white and rose.
- And last but not least, the well known churches and houses for prayer, exceeding 250 in number.
A more appropriate question would be to ask if there is anything that Santorini does not impress with, for I have not found anything that I did not like.
How to get to Santorini
There are two ways to get to Santorini. The fastest one is by air. Santorini has a national airport situated near Kamari village, in the central eastern part of the main island, called Thira (the Greek name) or Santorini. For more details about the airport, visit
They offer regular flights from the capital of Greece, Athens, with two main Greek companies, Olympic Airways and Aegean Airlines, as well as charters from many European cities. The flight duration from Athens to Santorini is around 30 minutes. You can also get to Santorini by air from other Greek island such as Rodos (duration 40 minutes) or Crete (duration around 20 minutes). From the airport you can take a bus to Fira (Thira), where you can change to buses for other towns. There are also taxis waiting at the airport and the cost is about 20 euros (they differ according to the destination). They can be negotiated, but remember to have a friendly attitude and to put a smile on your face (it always helps).
The other option to get to Santorini is by sea. Either with a cruise or transport ferry line or with a fast ferry. The difference lies in the amount of time needed to get there and, of course, the price. Once again, there are several places that you can arrive from. Either from other countries than Greece, from the mainland (Athens) or many of the islands. From Athens to Santorini, the duration is around 10 hours, so a night time travel is most recommended (the ferries have 4, 5 or more decks and levels and the places to sleep are not a problem, for there are a lot of chairs that can be turned into a very comfortable bed. If you decide on a cruise ferry, the only place deep enough for such ships to dock is in the harbor of Athinios.
The equipment that is available to you will do. As in any other aspect of photography, it all depends on the purpose. If you intend to shoot panoramas, a tripod with a 360 degrees rotating head is a recommendation but not a must.
- wide angle lenses
- normal lenses
- zoom and telephoto lenses
- tripod with a rotating head
You will certainly get great panoramas shooting handheld. If you want to achieve professional results, you will find that a suitable tripod and the right lenses (wide lenses) will do the job better. A long lens will help you get some images with the other islands (the two volcanoes mentioned earlier) and some genuine emotions on the faces of the tourists and locals.
Nevertheless, you can get these pictures even with standard lenses, because the inhabitants of the island are very warm and friendly. A simple nod will do to ask for permission to photograph them. And in most of the cases they will agree. The people are in general very friendly.
If you want to get some good exposures of the sunset or during the night, then the tripod proves again to be a useful tool. Not a must, but still useful. And the sunsets, well, the sunsets alone could be a reason enough to go there and shoot. To find a good place to shoot, it is recommended to get there at least 30-40 minutes in advance. Or at least to know a couple of such places. Let me mention some.
First, there is the town called Oia, the highest and most northern place on the island that has a seaside view. You can see some amazing sunsets from this village. Remember thought that, as you do, some other thousands of tourists will go there. Be prepared for both a huge crowd and little place to shoot from. Again, if you go there in advance, everyone around you will be very civilized and allow you to set up your camera and tripod. A great place to see the sunset in Oia is on the setting of some old ruins, somewhere right at the end of the stairs that come from the village of Ammoudi.
Another great place is from the village of Ammoudi, especially if you want to catch the reflections of the sun at sea level. Pyrgos is also a great place to visit and see the sunset from. Situated in the central western part of the island, it is an oasis of silence and cool breeze, at the end of a sunny, long day. And of course, any place from the western part of the island stands for a perfect spot to watch the sunset.
Touring the Island
With a surface of about 76 square km and a coast line of 70 km in length, Santorini can be seen in one day. Still, in order to really get to know it, a week or more is highly recommended for there is plenty to see, both as a tourist and especially as a photographer. First, there is the capital, Thira, situated in the center of the island, looking west towards Thirassia. This is a great place for those looking for shops and an active nightlife. The scenery is breathtaking anytime of day or night. This is the biggest town on the island, so here you can find pretty much everything except for silence.
The second town on the island is Oia, also facing Thirassia, situated in the northern part. It is by far the most romantic and attractive location. It gives you the feeling of belonging to those places, of being home. The scenery looks different every time you admire it. Here you can arrive either by car or by bus, from Thira, or by sea, from the harbor of Armeni or Ammoudi. If time allows, I recommend a visit to both harbors. Although you have to descend 242 steps from Oia to Ammoudi, it is worth doing it.
And besides Thira and Oia, Santorini will welcome you with so many beautiful places that you will wish you had more time to enjoy them.
Places such as Perissa, a lowland sandy beach where, when entering the sea, instead of sand, you will step on volcanic bedrock, cooled and shaped by the waves. Those passionate about scuba diving will love to see that, just a couple of meters in the water, the sea level descends more than 6-7 meters, harboring a rich marine life, far different from what one might expect.
Or the Red Beach, where you can get by car, from the city of Akrotiri.
And for those interested in escaping the crowds, I recommend the White Beach, far more secluded, accessible only by boat. If you are not a very good swimmer, try not to miss the last boat that brings tourists in and out of this remote beach. Make sure to ask the boat drivers when the last boat leaves.
Pyrgos is another beautiful spot, a coastal village that can be seen from almost any place on the island. I recommend visiting Pyrgos late in the day, in order to see the sunset from a place high above. The sunset is as spectacular as seen from Oia, only less crowded. And after the sunset, do spend a couple of hours just wandering the streets that breathe the mystery and history of the island.
And let us not forget about Kamari, a lowland so different from the entire island that it looks like an oasis of green and nature. It is full of palm trees, pine trees and all sorts of plants, from the famous oleander, with a display of colors ranging from pale white to pure white, from pink to ruby red, to reed in all shapes and sizes.
And, of course, Ammoudi bay, an old fishermen village, now one of the two harbors of Oia, accessible only to small size boats. Any of the places already mentioned is teeming with images worth capturing. What else could be said?
At least one day wake up early in the morning (5:30-6am) and descend the 242 steps that I mentioned earlier, to get to the harbor. You will get the unique chance to see the fishermen going out to place their fishing nets, as well as the restaurant owners and employees preparing for a new busy day, and negotiating with the fishermen for some of the most fresh and tasty fish you could try.
If you have accommodation in Ammoudi, climb the 242 steps in order to see the morning sun (and sunrise) from high above in Oia, to catch the light playing games on the buildings with walls whiter than the chalk and roofs of a deeper blue than the sea.
As a photographer, you will certainly not lack the challenges in terms of subjects to shoot. From spectacular sunrises and sunsets, to houses shining in the sunlight and reflecting the moon rays. From cats and dogs lazing in the shade, inviting tourists to do the same, to streets swarming with travelers.
And not least, we should mention the people that spice and color these places, either as owners to the shops and restaurants from the island, kindly inviting tourists, or mere inhabitants adapting in their own pace to the changes brought and somehow imposed by the ever increasing number of travelers.
On a more personal note, I went there on my honeymoon, with my wife Cristina and two of our best friends. We arrived in Santorini on a longer route, last year towards the end of September. It was one of those trips where you explore the feeling on doing exactly what you wish by pointing your finger at a map and deciding that there is where you want to go. Nevertheless, Santorini was the only sure destination from the beginning. I knew I wanted to get there ever since I saw a photo album on Greek Islands. Both as a traveler and a photographer, I was enchanted by the colors of the sky, the buildings and the sea, all matching in a perfect composition. I knew for sure that this is the place I wanted to see. And everyone else agreed. And I am safe to say that none of us regretted the decision.
I made the reservations for a very nice cave house in Oia, facing the Caldera, with one of the best views on the island. By cave house I mean a great apartment built in stone, which keeps cool when it’s over 40 degrees © outside and keeps warm when the nights are cooler. I wanted to be both in one of the best places, namely the city of Oia, and to have the silence we were seeking. And we found both in the old village and fishing harbor of Amoudi, just a few steps above the sea (http://www.greekhotel.com/cyclades/santorin/oia/amoudi/home.htm). The manager is a great guy called Ianis, very skilled in customer relations and overall a great host. When we arrived in Oia, he came to pick us up from Armeni and brought us to our apartment in Amoudi. Ianis also took the time (more than an hours time) to tell us about the things we should visit in Santorini and the places we should not miss.
We arrived at Santorini in a small plane, from Rhodes, one of the far eastern greek islands (known for the ancient Colossos). The plane was so small that we had to fly to Santorini in 2 groups: first my wife and I and then our two friends.
It was either by air or a 10-12 hours long trip by ferry from Rhodes, via Crete and finally Santorini. And since the difference in price was only around 40 euros per person (around 80 euros for the ferry, and 120 for the plane), we decided for the latter. 35 minutes later we were in Santorini. The flight was ok, no problems whatsoever, and I even managed to take some shots inside the plane (lucky I had a wider lens, for a longer one would have meant to shoot outside the plane). We then arrived at the International Santorini Airport. There was hardly any crowd there. I am joking, of course. We were the only passengers at that hour, so in less than a minute we were outside the airport, negotiating for a taxi. We went further to Perissa, to meet some friends. The next day our friends took the next available flight to Santorini, and then we started exploring the island.
We finally arrived in Oia by boat, with an organized trip, carrying all our luggage. I forgot to mention that one of our friends came on this trip from Canada and was heading back home (to Canada), thus having slightly more luggage than the rest of some (some 50 kg in weight). The trip started from Perissa by bus, which took us to Athinios harbor and then we were taken aboard a ship. The first stop was to see the Caldera (the Volcano that remained after the explosion). We took a walk on the volcano, partially still active, feeling the smell of sulphur and other mixture of gases. There were hundreds of tourists wandering around, taking pictures, admiring the scenery.
The next stop on our trip was at the Hot Springs, a place where hot water comes out of the ground in the sea, warming it by at least 10 degrees. Indeed, the color is not that attractive (it loses the emerald green nuances), but as an old saying mentions, “it smells, but at least it is warm.” You may have guessed that the smell comes from the sulphur gas.
The third stop was on the small island called Thirassia, where they take pride in their restaurants and where seafood is a delicacy. And, last but not least, we arrived in Oia, our final destination. And here we did not lack the surprises. Even before we decided to come to Santorini we heard about the donkeys that carry you and/or your luggage up the hundreds of stairs, from Armeni harbor into the city of Oia. So we decided to try it. And it was worth it. Even though my friend got his luggage trashed by one of the donkeys (indeed, it was quite a big suitcase and the poor donkey had to carry it all over the hundreds of stairs). Anyways, a great event to mention and laugh about. For 5 euros per donkey, you get an experience you will certainly remember.
As a photographer, the entire experience was unique. The people, the places, the light. I really felt a strange combination of being both in an exotic place, and home as well. Everywhere you look there is something interesting.
And what better way to end this photographic journey other than by inviting you to see and feel what I felt there. Both through words and photography. Especially photography.
Text and photos ©2009 Sebastian Vaida.