Walk a Mile in My Shoes
A few weeks ago, I decided that I needed a busman’s holiday. Photography for work can get exceptionally tiresome when you are expected to stick to the same style and parameters, taking pictures of the same boring stuff over and over again, without the freedom to really artistically express yourself. At the end of the day, photography is an art, making that freedom of expression an important part of what makes it enjoyable. I could write this article along the lines of the others before it, giving you a list of key considerations when it comes to photographing temples. However, for the sake of variety, I will instead tell you what I did, what I think worked well and what I wish I had done differently. You can learn from my experiences and adapt those lessons to your own style as you please.
Since I had to come up to Bangkok (from my usual base in Phuket) for a friend’s birthday party anyway, I decided to add an extra day to the trip and also spend some time photographing just for my own pleasure. I intentionally picked an easy target – one of Thailand’s beautiful temples and one of Bangkok’s most popular tourist attractions: Wat Pho.
Bring Me Sunshine
I am sad to say that I have to start on a negative. I am not a morning person at the best of times and, having arrived in Bangkok on the last flight out of Phuket, I didn’t get to my hotel until something like 1am. As a result, I slept right through the morning.
One of the most important lessons you will take away from a photography course in Bangkok is the importance of natural light. I struck lucky with that that weekend and while it rained very hard in the evenings, the days themselves where bright and sunny, with just a few fluffy white clouds to make the sky picture-perfect. However, different times of the day provide different advantages and different challenges, especially when photographing temples.
Probably the most ideal time of day for photographing temples is from about 10am to 2pm. The light is generally coming from overhead, minimising the shadows so that you have perfectly-lit pictures from whatever angle you choose. All of my pictures were in the afternoon, from roughly 2pm onwards. That means that any shot where I was facing the west had to contend with strong background light and deep shadows. Some of that could be fixed with Photoshop, but the better pictures were all facing east, with the sunlight making the colours really stand out.
Photographing Temples – Focus on Details
One of the key differences between my photography work and this trip was that, for once, I was not taking pictures for the sake of documentation. I wasn’t trying to give my audience an impression of what the whole place looks like, which generally demands a 10-20mm wide-angle lens.
The temples of Thailand are so remarkably beautiful because of their intricate details and it was that which I wanted to show. For that reason, I started out with my 18-50mm lens before switching to my 50mm f/1.8 lens. I did switch back to the wide-angle later, but I was switching between all three of those lenses throughout the day while photograhing temples as the situation changed.
This detail-oriented focus proved highly effective, particularly when I focussed on largely inconsequential details. I spent very little time inside the temples themselves because, while the Buddha statues are very striking, they are also very busy. I was able to spend more time photographing what are considered to be unimportant little details without disruption or interruption, but still getting some really beautiful shots; arguably more beautiful.
Take Your Time
In a previous post about photo composition, I said that patterns and breaks in those patterns make particularly striking images, and I really wanted to practise what I was preaching on this trip. Sure enough, in the grounds of Wat Pho, I found the perfect place to do so: a courtyard ringed with golden Buddha statues, with the occasional one or two which was, for reasons unknown, black.
I must have spent about 30 minutes in just this one place, experimenting with different angles, different lenses, different settings and so on. This is the advantage of doing this sort of trip alone or with other photographers, incidentally. On many occasions, I’ve found myself right at the back of a tour group because I was trying to get that one perfect shot and they just wanted a quick look around. This has happened on all of my previous trips to Wat Pho, which is why I wanted to come back on my own this time.
The shot which I am most proud of from that batch was taken with my 50mm f/1.8 lens. I was close in to the line of statues, with the black one framed one third in from the left of the frame. Using a very low aperture, only the black statue is really in focus, meaning that the gold ones behind and in front of it – the ones forming the pattern which the black one breaks – are slightly fuzzy. I maybe could have amplified that effect with a zoom lens, but I hadn’t brought one with me.
Too Many Tourists?
Some people would complain about Wat Pho as a photographic subject due to its excessive popularity. It is widely considered to be one of the must-visit attractions in the city, ranking at or close to the #1 spot on TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, Bangkok.com and dozens of other travel sites, as well as on the bucket lists of the majority of visitors. As a result, you are generally one camera-wielder among dozens, and a lot of shots can be “ruined” because some tourist wanders into frame at the wrong time.
I will admit that there was more than one occasion when photographing temples where I was muttering to myself something along the lines of “get out of the way, you bloody…” – and my voice has a habit of carrying further than I expect, which can be risky. However, some of the shots I’m most proud of took advantage of the tourists. People walking around makes your pictures look more dynamic, which I think adds a certain something to the shot. I might be alone in that feeling and the instructors of the Bangkok photography course may well disagree with me, but we’ll have to put that down to artistic differences.