Photographing the Temples of Angkor

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat after the crowds have left

With Siem Reap having been my home for nearly 18 months now I've had a pretty good bite of the cherry when it comes to photographing the Angkor temples. For the first time photo-enthusiast-visitor here are some of my personal suggestions for capturing the main temples...

Angkor Wat
Google "Angkor Wat sunrise" and you’ll be presented with a surplus of pink/orange skies and sun bursts, not to mention some pretty gruesome over-saturation and HDR monstrosities! As a keen photographer to come to Cambodia and not attempt a photo of the sunrise over Angkor Wat would be akin to ordering a caprese and then only eating the tomatoes! It has to be done, we all know that. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. Much better detail of the temple can be captured in the evening (dawn delivers only silhouettes) and if you can pacify / bribe the guard at the temple to let you stay a few minutes after everyone else has trouped out you may even get a photo with no-one in it. Innit!

The Bayon
The Bayon

The Bayon at dawn - it beats breakfast

Despite there being an alleged 2 million visitors a year to Angkor, fortunately for us photographers tourists are generally 1. creatures of habit and 2. more interested in their breakfast than getting up super-early to see a world famous site. Although many of the temples are not classic sunrise locations, most being surrounded by trees, there are sure benefits to be reaped from starting nice and early, great light notwithstanding. Arriving at the Bayon by 6am will pretty much guarantee you the temple to yourself, just as the first sun hits the top of the towers…magic! Shortly after that the hordes descend – seemingly ALL starting their day at The Bayon…

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm, assisted by Adobe Photoshop

When photographing many of the temples you will find that extreme contrast is a major issue. Properly exposed temple = over exposed sky. My recommendation would be exposure blending, which can be achieved in a number of different ways, e.g. using simple layer masks (or those canny luminosity masks) in Photoshop or with an HDR plug-in if that is your thing. It is sometimes just about possible to eek enough detail from a single RAW file but the price paid is noisy shadows and weird looking highlights. A tripod is invaluable of course to keep those multiple exposures correctly aligned…

It’s also worth noting that many of the iconic images of Ta Prohm are no longer possible to replicate, due to a rather over-exuberant placing of barriers and ‘mind-your-head’ signs by Apsara, the company in charge of managing the temples. These days for images of crumbling temples topped by strangler fig trees consider Ta Som or Preah Khan instead.

Preah Khan

Panoramic Preah Khan

The temples really lend themselves to panoramic images and with the amazing job that recent versions of Photoshop do at stitching composites it’s always worth keeping that format in mind when pondering a composition.

Black and White
Ta Som

Ta Som: Ancient Angkor in B&W

When it comes to high contrast issues Black and White hides a multitude of sins. With the focus on form rather than colour who cares if that sky is not a deep shade of blue? Could this be why so many famous images of Angkor are in monochrome…? In fairness the temples do look great in B&W as it effortlessly lends an atmosphere of great age to the sites.

And for great landscapes...

…. jump on a plane to Laos, they’ve got some beauties over there!
This entry was posted in Holly's Travel Blog.