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.
Want to wow with the photos you bring home from Cambodia? Read on, and share ideas of your own in the comments.
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.
Have The Right Gear
You don’t need a dSLR to get great photos of Angkor, though I did shoot the photos in this post with the Canon 6D, the love of my pictorial life. I found the 24-105mm lens to be the perfect walking around lens for these temples — wide enough to shoot interiors and vast panoramas but long enough to capture detail at a distance.
For those looking for something smaller and lighter — or with tighter budgets — I cannot more highly recommend the Canon PowerShot G7X. I upgraded to this camera last year (yes, I need to update my photography gear page!) and I’m just obsessed with it. The image quality is gorgeous, the size couldn’t be more convenient, and it’s wifi-enabled in order to send photos straight to your smart phone. Best of all? The LCD screen flips up so that you can take perfect, high quality selfies — I wish I’d brought it with us on this particular day just to use this feature as they’re a little trickier with a dSLR.
Once you’re in Siem Reap, keep your camera out of the air conditioning, if possible — I kept mine in the bathroom at Navutu Dreams. Otherwise the hot, humid climate of Siem Reap will cause some serious fogging once you take your camera out of the icy arctic air con — bring a lens cloth just in case. This is secondary reason to go with a tuk tuk (or even a bicycle!) over an air-conditioned car — the primary reason being fun!
Take A Deep Breath
For travelers just looking to take better vacation snaps to show their friends and family back home, there’s probably no need for a reminder to relax and enjoy the ride. But for those for whom photography is a serious hobby, stress over getting the right shot can interfere with the experience.
Even on a great day, shooting the temples of Siem Reap can be a frustrating experience — crowds arrive by the literal busload, lighting conditions can be tricky and oh, did I mention the crowds?
One benefit of knowing this wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime for me but a thrice-in-a-lifetime was I just didn’t sweat the shots I was or wasn’t getting. However, I’m no stranger to getting worked up worrying about whether or not I’ll capture something as well as I want to. When I feel myself going in that frazzled direction, I take a moment to stop and literally meditate on the idea that as much as I love photography, I’m not going to let my pursuit of a great photo — or rather, my inability to snag one — ruin an amazing experience.
Select, Edit and Share
Once you’ve got these gorgeous photos on your memory card, don’t let them just linger there. Edit down to your best shots, give them at least a light edit, and then share them with the world however you see fit!
I get a lot of questions about my own editing routine. In short, I download all my photos through Adobe Bridge and try to aggressively cull down to my favorites. Then I do a big batch edit through Bridge to straighten horizon lines, crop as needed, and tweak saturation, contrast, brightness, and color balance. Along the way I’ll flag any photos that I absolutely love or that need a little extra attention, and I open those photos and individually play around with them in Adobe Photoshop. I love looking for free Photoshop actions online to download and play with! One premium plugin that I couldn’t live within is Photo Ninja, which cleans up noisy images. On my iPhone, I use Snapseed to edit before uploading.
Now that I’ve spilled a few of my own secrets, I want to hear some of yours! What are your favorite tips for travel photography? Let’s share some ideas in the comments!
Last chance to ask me anything! Want to submit a question? Ask here, or in the comments, or privately via email. Nothing is off limits to ask, though I exercise the right to be choosy in what I answer
Also — many thanks to Navutu Dreams for their hospitality. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.