Angkor Wat is on many a traveler’s bucket list. And whether those travelers are professional photographers, aspiring shutterbugs or just Instagram enthusiasts with smartphones, chances are they want to take home beautiful photos that will help them remember and reminisce about their trip for a lifetime to come.
My trip this year was no exception. Actually, as this was my third visit to Siem Reap and to the temples of Angkor, the focus — pun intended! — of this trip was almost purely photography.
The truth is I’m no expert — though I took several photography classes as part of my undergraduate arts degree and have interned with a professional photographer, my technical knowledge is limited. But what I lack in manual shooting skills, I make up for with an eye for composition and aesthetics and tight editing. And seven years after my first visit to Angkor Wat, I’ve picked up a tip or two about photographing temples along the way just by trial and error.
Start With The Basics
Unless you’re trying to shoot a silhouette, make sure the sun is behind you. Don’t cut off people’s feet in photos (my personal photography pet peeve!). Be patient when waiting for crowds to clear from your shot. Use people to add scale and the human element to landscape and architecture shots. Don’t be afraid to lay down on the ground or stand up on your toes and hold your camera over your head.
Start with those photography basics that apply anywhere in the world, and you’ll be off to an amazing start.
Be Direct With Your Driver
I have had the experience many times in Southeast Asia — not just at Angkor Wat — that I hand over a detailed plan for a tuk tuk ride or explicitly explain a route I want in a taxi, only to have the driver nod and then just go right ahead and do something completely different.
Obviously language barrier accounts for at least some of this, but I do sense that sometimes there’s also an assumption on the part of the driver that they know better — which in most cases they probably do! No one knows this temples complex as well as the drivers and guides who spend all day everyday driving in and around it, so don’t be shy about asking them for their favorite spots and the best times to avoid the big crowds.
But if you’ve pored over maps and sunset timetables to craft a perfect photography itinerary; if you’ve studied guidebooks and other photographer’s work to see if there were specific doorways, temples and trees you wanted to try to capture through your own lens in certain lighting conditions, don’t be afraid to explain that directly to your driver — and pay attention to which direction you end up headed.
While cloudy skies might not make for the best panoramas, they can provide nice even lighting for shooting portraits, interiors, close ups. I was disappointed by the white skies that hung around for the majority of our day at the temples — I would have at least settled for dramatic clouds if I couldn’t have bright blue skies! — but tried to use them to my advantage to shoot details that would have had too many drastic shadows on a nicer day.
Editing a photo to black and white or sepia can also be a post-production save for blown out skies.
Think Outside the Wat
If you come home with nothing but the iconic shots of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon, they will all blend together into a taupe colored blur by the time you get to the twentieth shot in your post-vacation slideshow. Look for hand-painted signs, bright foliage, and scenes of every day life that punctuate your photos with color and human interest and tell the complete story of your trip.
Set Your Expectations For Sunrise
Watching the sun rise over the back of Angkor Wat is an incredibly popular experience in Siem Reap, yet as someone incredibly averse to alarm clocks this was my first time attempting it.
We arrived in the pitch black long before the actual sunrise, and still had a hard time jockeying for a prime time spot. If that sunrise picture is really important to you, get up an hour earlier than you think you have to. For me as a third time visitor, seeing the sunrise was more about having a new experience than it was about actually getting a postcard perfect shot, but if I had arrived hoping to find a place to put down a tripod I would have been disappointed. In the end it was a cloudy, gray morning and we never got that “sky on fire” look so many photographers are chasing.
Check sunrise times online or on your iPhone weather app the day before to properly plan. And take a headlamp and a sweater — it is dark (and for us, cold!) when you get there.
Hand Your Camera Over, Or Selfie Without Shame
My first trip to Angkor Wat was with my dad in 2009, and we took one measly photo together. Just one! It’s not even a particularly good one, and I regret that we didn’t shoot more whenever I look back those albums.
This time, Ian and I went to town handing my camera over to random people or turning it back on ourselves. Are any of these photos great? Not really. Would I frame them? Nah. But I love that we have them to look back and remember how much fun we had there together that day.
One thing I do urge you to do is think beyond the front camera on your iPhone. The quality is awful! Consider a camera like the Canon G7X instead — more on that below.
I have found patience to be one of the secrets of great travel photography. There’s a tour group in front of the building you want to shoot? Sit tight. You need traffic to clear a bit so you can get that perfect shot from across the street? Just wait. You have a beautiful portrait set up but there are stragglers in the background? Be patient.
I remembered the window sill at Bayon below from a previous trip to Angkor and wanted to shoot Ian in it. When we got there, there was a small crowd, so we just sat and chilled out for a moment and waited until the group cleared out. We gave them plenty of space and time so that we could enjoy the same when it was our turn.
What if the small crowd grows to gargantuan? At some very popular iconic spots — especially the overgrown doorways of Ta Prohm — there will be lines of entire tour bus groups waiting to each individually have their photo taken. Personally, I didn’t care enough about posing in front of a bunch of tree roots to wait for it, but I did want to shoot the overgrown doorway myself. I watched several other photographers walk away annoyed, but I saw an alternate opportunity.
I walked down next to the line off to the side, waited for the moment between various people setting up for their shots, and snapped. You might have to wait for a few switches as there’s only a millisecond or so of the view being unobstructed, but it’s a lot better than waiting at the end of the long line. That’s how I got the second photo in this post in less than five minutes, as opposed to waiting in line for half an hour….. Read full article at www.alexinwanderland.com