Cambodia is a land of mysterious wonders and history. For me the word ‘Angkor’ implores thoughts of a luscious jungle with spectacular ancient ruins and temples lost in time but never forgotten – a place of harmony and serenity so captivating it will leave you speechless and questioning reality. I felt this before visiting Angkor and my thoughts remain unaltered.
Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple complex are among the most incredible man-made creations worldwide. The most iconic of them all; Angkor Wat, followed by Ta Prohm, Prasat Bayon or ‘Temple Of Smiles’ as locals call it and the magnificent Baphuon. These were some of my favourite temples to photograph so I’ve included images from each of these places in this post. For more of my Cambodian photos visit my website: www.drewhopperphotography.com
This article is intended to help travellers and photographers make the most of their time photographing the temples of Angkor. Whether you are a seasoned professional photographer or a photography enthusiast, this article should hopefully give you some tips and tricks to improve your images and inspire you to visit this magical place if its not already on your bucket-list. You don’t need to be a professional photographer to take great photos, and it’s not about your camera equipment, it’s purely how you envision your subjects to tell a story, that’s what every traveller wishes to share, right?
So, let’s get stuck into it…
First thing you need to do is buy your Angkor pass. There are three options to choose from depending on how long you plan on staying in Siem Reap. We opted for the seven day pass because we were in Siem Reap for just over two weeks and by having the seven day pass we were able to revisit our favourite temples at different times of the day. (Note, these prices were accurate in 2013 and may have changed since then, but this is a rough idea on the cost.)
- One day pass – $20 USD (pp)
- Three day pass – $40 USD (pp)
- Seven day pass – $60 USD (pp)
Your guesthouse should be able to assist you with booking passes. Our guesthouse organised free transport on scooters to the Angkor booking office where we paid for our passes. It’s also important to know that the passes are non-refundable. If you buy a seven-day pass it will remain valid for a month, so you can exit the country if you need to and use your pass when you return. We didn’t do this but the freedom to extend your visit is a fantastic idea for those with itchy feet.
Cambodia is hot and humid, it’s as if you’ve stepped into an oven and it can be overwhelming and tiring especially if you’re out shooting all day. I travelled with a backpack and shoulder bag that I offloaded some camera gear if I knew I wasn’t going to use it. Most of the time I only carried my Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35 and my tripod. This kept my bag to a minimum weight. It’s much easier to maneuver your way through narrow corridors and climb steep stairs. If you can move freely while photographing you are likely to enjoy the experience more and take better photos. I also travelled with a telephoto zoom lens (Canon 70-200 2.8), which was great for zooming in on my subject to isolate it from the background – perfect for photographing the intricate stone carvings and framing photos without other tourists in my shot. A 200mm is by no means a lightweight lens, but the extra zoom range made certain situations possible. A sturdy tripod is useful inside the temples where its dark when handheld shooting may not be achievable. If you don’t have a tripod you can find plenty of rocks and other objects to brace your camera. Circular polarised filters are a great thing to have especially when shooting the forest, it’ll help saturate the foliage and take the glare off from wet leafs to give your images more contrast – mine never came off my lens.
One of the most important elements in capturing strong images of the temples is composition. Take the time explore different angles; observe how the light falls on your subject and take note of your background as well as your foreground. Most of the temples are nestled in jungle clad. A poorly composed image can lose your subject in the background if you aren’t paying attention. Hundreds of tourists visit the temples every day and it does get crowded and can become overwhelming trying to get a clean shot. When I find a subject I want to photograph I wait until the right moment presents itself, so when people leave that’s when I shoot. You don’t have to wait there doing nothing though – wander off and find something else to shoot and return to your original composition when the moment’s right.
Battling the Crowds at Angkor Wat
Big, bold and beautiful, it’s the busiest temple of Angkor – the iconic and wonderful masterpiece commissioned by King Suryavarman II. Visiting for the first time I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the complex, it’s a whole other world and you can see why it’s Cambodia’s iconic piece of architecture. It pays to get here early, at least an hour before sunrise if you want a good position by the waters edge to photograph the sunrise. Angkor Wat is popular for photographers and tourists all chasing sunrise, so be prepared to battle for your spot on the firing line.
When I arrived it was around 5:30am and there were already busloads swarming towards the gate. If you’re quick enough you can race to the water for a prime position up front, but just because everyone else shoots the same angle doesn’t mean there aren’t other great spots to photograph the sunrise. Wander around the lagoon, there’s plenty of beautiful spots with fewer people to cramp your style. I’ll admit it was rather entertaining watching everyone fumble with their as if it was the last sunrise on earth (definitely worth shooting).
By around 10:00am the place is quiet, everyone bails back to their hotels for breakfast. You’ll get some great photos without the hassle of dealing with people walking in your shots, but just remember as soon as the sun rises the heat sets in, so make sure you pack water.
The temples are massive and it’s difficult fitting everything into frame. By getting low and shooting up at the temples creates dramatic perspective giving your subject a sense of scale. A lot of my images were taken between one – two feet off the ground. Ta Prohm is a good example of this because the forest canopy blankets the jungle. You’ll find different shots angles and your images will stand out from the rest of the classic shots you’ll find on the internet.
Most photographers are the same, we rarely appear in our vacation photos because we’re too busy behind the lens shooting. Take time out and shoot some selfies (you don’t need a selfie stick). You can add a great sense of scale by having the human element in your images and it will help the viewer picture what it felt like to be there in the moment. Just remember that it’s extremely disrespectful to climb the temples so don’t go getting too adventerous with your selfies – be considerate and have fun.
Rain, Hail or Shine
The best photos aren’t always taken on a sunny day, often more times than not the most atmospheric images are taken on an overcast or stormy day. When it’s overcast the clouds act as a giant diffuser that softens the light and removes nasty harsh shadows and highlights. It’s much easier to expose when you have less dynamic range to contend to. I spent hours exploring and photographing the temples in the rain. The light was perfect and there were no people around (maybe I’m crazy, but it was very rewarding) to ruin my shots. Ta Prohm came to life during the rain and that’s when my best images were taken. If you’re lucky you may even get some beautiful mist and beams of light peaking through the canopy. It really transforms a magical place into an even more mysterious landscape.
Patience is Everything
The key to taking stunning images is patience. There’s no point rushing to see everything at once. Spend time sitting and taking in the beauty of where you are. Remind yourself of where you are, it’s not every day you can stop and appreciate nature’s beauty mixed with the art of mankind in one place. Relax, breathe and enjoy your time.
Speak to the Locals
No doubt the local people are your source of inspiration and knowledge. Learn a bit of the language and mix with the local people. You may meet an interesting person who can assist you with your photography, perhaps sharing some hidden temples with you that not many tourists go, or maybe they can help translate monks or other Cambodian’s to model in your photos