Here is some advice I hope can help you make great photos around Angkor Wat. There’s no one right way to photograph a place but I hope my experiences can help you get a jump start on ways to approach this beautiful collection of temples. I spent three weeks shooting around Angkor Wat during November 2015.
My first piece of advice is to search Google for photos from Angkor and see what shots, places, and lighting you like. Don’t be afraid to copy, there is no such thing as copying in photography, every moment, camera, and person come together to make a unique vision of a place.
The park is very big and there are many temples. Find a few of your favorites ahead of time and go on your own, otherwise your driver will take you on the ‘small’ or ‘grand’ loop tour and you’ll be where everyone is, which is very nice none the less. I got around by hiring a Tuk Tuk to take me around all day for $15-$20. It was cheap and easy, but bumpy.
Many temples are surrounded by walls or jungle so it is sometimes hard to get a long shot of them standing alone. Expect to do a fair amount of close quarters shooting. Also the park is very flat so don’t expect to shoot down and get pictures of temples sticking out of the jungle unless you take a helicopter or the balloon.
Go at Dawn
From around 10am the park gets hot, and crowded. But when it first opens, around 5am, the weather is perfect, the temples are empty, and the light is soft and even. If you’re lucky it might even be foggy. This is my favorite time to catch some of the more popular places like Ta Prohm, the temple with lots of amazing trees where they shot tomb raider, with no people and without harsh light creating sharp contrasts. I shot almost all of my B&W photos at dawn. If you’re not a morning person then hitting the road at 4:30 kind of sucks, but it’s so beautiful it’s worth it. Once in a lifetime, right?
Sunrise over Angkor is beautiful, but there will probably be hundreds of people there. I didn’t bother staying longer than a few minutes, preferring to catch other places without people. Shooting from across the moat is nice, or inside my favorite place was the far left corner of the left pool just in front of the main temple. That spot gives a beautiful reflection and you can set up right to the edge of the water so people can’t step in front of your photo.
Most people start their tour at Angkor Wat, so it is most crowded in the morning. Try coming in the late afternoon, or around sunset when there are fewer people. I like to be the last person in a place, to the point where the guards are asking me to leave, because at that time I can shoot the place with no people in it.
Use a Tripod
Tripods make sharper images and help you slow down to think about what you’re shooting. Try to picture what you are seeing in the viewfinder as if it had just been posted on the web for your friends. Is it simple, clear, and amazing enough or do you need to recompose or get closer?
When it’s dark people increase their ISO setting so they can hand hold the camera and avoid the image getting blurry. But a high ISO adds noise and I don’t like even a little noise in my pictures. With a tripod you can use a slower shutter speed and avoid using a high ISO setting.
Look for Reflections
There are lots of moats and reservoirs in the park, keep an eye out for temple reflections. The moat and ponds at Angkor Wat are good for this, and the southwest corner of the moat around The Bayon. My favorite spot was the moat around Naek Pean. You can’t see a temple there but the trees, floating plants, and clouds make for great pictures. Especially at sunrise.
Find Your Point of View
There are many beautiful details and carvings at the temples. It’s a great opportunity to get close, to shoot just a face, a hand, or some element that brings out a feeling in you. But beware of sharp shadows crossing your image. I usually seek out places in the shade or where the light is consistent and coming from the side and so creating a sense of depth with shadows. I personally like shooting things that seem timeless but also show the effects of time (mold, cracks, roots).
The temples are large but the trees that grow out of them are often more than twice as tall as the temple. To get a sense of place I found a very wide lens essential. I shot almost all of my photos with a 14-24 Nikon lens. A wide lens was also great in tight spaces where I wanted to capture a variety of carvings as well as architectural elements in a hallway or narrow spot between buildings.
I didn’t use my telephoto lens much. There were carvings high up on the temples but shooting up distorted the image and I didn’t like how it looked. I liked the telephoto the most when shooting down a long walkway leading up to a temple. Telephoto tends to compress depth, so by getting very far back I could pull in the columns along the walk way with the front of the temple.
Sunsets are Tricky
Most of the park is pretty flat and there are only a couple temples where you can climb above the tree line. Phnom Bakheng had hundreds of people at sunset and I didn’t even try standing in the long line to try to get in. You’d need to get there more than an hour before sunset to hold a spot. Prae Roup had a good view and was less crowded but to be honest the view of the sunset from both places wasn’t interesting to me for photos, it was mostly jungle with not much opportunity to put interesting temple elements in to the foreground. I never really found a satisfying place to shoot the sunset except for when I took a boat tour out on Tonle Sap Lake, that was great for sunsets.
Scout and Return
Don’t hesitate to visit a place twice. As you travel keep an eye out places you like and come back during different times of day to see them with a different light or fewer people.
Ask your guide, or someone else’s guide for advice. They’ve seen everything, including a lot of other photographers, and know the great places to shoot.
There were many monks around, on vacation. They are friendly! Don’t be afraid to ask them to stop for a picture.
This isn’t for everyone but I’m not one of those people who believes the creation of the image stops in the camera. Photoshop and Lightroom are great for interpreting a scene, cropping to revisit the composition, converting to B&W, exploring different contrast, and bringing some detail in to the shadows. But you can’t fix what’s not there, so be sure to get something technically good to start with.
Shooting in RAW will make more data available to you than jpg so you’ll have more options during post processing. I personally use Photoshop plus Google Nik Collection.
Go slow, take your time, stay in touch with the experience. How we approach a place and shoot it is a very personal experience. Look for what you love, then use your skills to grab it. Hopefully my experience will give you a jump start on approaching this place and bringing home your own vision.
Check out my gallery for more images from Angkor and Cambodia.