Buddhist Travel Photography In Southeast Asia
Recently I had the opportunity to enjoy travel photography in Southeast Asia for 9 months. It was my first trip to Asia and not by accident did I choose to visit Buddhist countries.
Buddhism being one of the few peaceful religions resulted in amazing experiences, ones that no first time visitor can be prepared for.
Smiling Young Buddhist Monk At Wat Phuang Kaew On Don Khong Island, Laos
Just like with any trip basic research is a good idea especially regarding culturally sensitive / responsible travel photography. More about this later. Travel forums are a tricky thing, while may be good source of real world information. But a few bad experiences blown out of proportion or people with a chronic complaining attitude can paint a very unrealistic picture completely slandering entire countries.
Something bad can happen anywhere in the world so anyone who is expecting an absolute smooth trip should never even leave the house. I found one of the worst cases of misrepresenting an entire county in a short forum post. The writer encountered what is typical at tourist spots all over the world: high prices, scammers, rip offs etc.
Due to his experiences which can be easily prepared for by reading a few pages of travel warnings he recommended “to skip Vietnam” as it is not worth visiting.
I am starting with a picture that sums up my visit to Southeast Asia. I believe the first time visitor can never be prepared for the amount of smiles he or she will receive. It is happening 24/7 all around you.
The pagoda named Wat Phuang Kaew can be found in the Southern region of Laos named Four Thousand Islands on Don Khong Island. Buddhist monks are great travel photography subjects but kids in saffron-colored robes can take travel photos to new heights. This photo was taken at 18mm focal length (35mm equivalent is 27mm) which allowed me to include plenty of the surroundings to tell a more complete story.
I tried a few different compositions but aiming upward like this was the most visually interesting. I love the lines and shapes in this photo and the color palette could not be better. This young Buddhist monk was especially friendly, intelligent, seemed already wise for his age and a perfect photography subject.
Young Buddhist Monks During Evening Prayer On Don Khong Island, Laos
During my travels in Vietnam and Cambodia I was not allowed to photograph the prayer rituals of Buddhist monks. Perhaps it would have been possible if I asked more but but “No” seemed to be the consensus.
While I was on Don Khong Island in Laos I was allowed to be inside a Wat during evening prayer service without any problem. Still I had to be culturally sensitive about how I would conduct myself while taking pictures. Using flash was out of the question and so was being too close or moving around too much. Even my body position had to be respectful to Buddhism as pointing one’s feet towards The Buddha is highly disrespectful.
By this point in my trip I got rid of my tripod because I hardly used it and it was just extra weight. So the camera was placed on the floor. I used the camera’s self timer set at 2 seconds to prevent camera shake. The aperture was f4, shutter speed 1/5sec at 1600 ISO.
Placing the horizon in the middle of the frame when it comes to landscape photography is usually not optimal unless the scene involves the reflection of a mountain in a lake or other similar situation. Having to place my camera on the floor “forced me” to cut the inside of the pagoda in half but due to the reflective floor the result was a great composition.
I could have placed my camera higher, for example on my backpack that was on the floor and fiddle with keeping the picture perfectly level but as soon as I looked through the viewfinder while the camera was on the ground I knew I had the best possible composition under the given circumstances.
Giant Sitting Buddha Statue At Wat Si Chum In Sukhothai, Thailand
Wat Si Chum in Sukhothai, Thailand was the location for one of my favorite photography subjects during my 9 month long trip. The giant sitting Buddha statue was in a tight roofless stone enclosure.
For this reason most of the photos from different photographers of Wat Si Chum will closely resemble to each other. The widest angle lens I had with me was 12mm (18mm equivalent on 35mm camera) and this is as far as I could go back before entering the narrow corridor leading to the statue.
Another option would have been to take several overlapping photos and stitch them together. I have never been inclined to do stitching but if I remember correctly wide angle shots don’t match up well when stitched.
Spending time with the giant Buddha Statue was a very peaceful and rewarding experience. There were few tourists and when they came they took some pictures but did not stay for longer than 2 minutes (I did time them). I stayed over one hour. The sun was going down so I decided to leave but came back the next day and stayed over two hours.
I had a very special and peaceful time again, the minutes flew by and my stay did not seem like 2 hours. I just sat in one corner so I would not be in the way of the few tourists that showed up. Of course I sat with my legs folded under me in a way that my feet would not be pointed toward The Buddha.
Sunrise Picture Of Ancient Khmer Ruins At Wat Mahathat In Sukhothai, Thailand
The ancient Khmer ruins at Wat Mahathat spread across a large area full of stupas Buddha statues, carvings and religious structures I cannot even name. Wat Mahathat was just a few minutes from my hotel so I could easily manage to show up at sunrise.
When one cannot (or does not want to) avoid visiting must see tourist traps it is best to show up early before hotels serve their breakfasts and the tour buses arrive. The timing of the arrival of hordes varies but it is safe to say that adding 1-2 hour after hotel breakfast is served is a good way to gauge the time of invasion.
There are other reasons why arriving early is best: not only it is cooler in the morning but the so called magical light of sunrise (or sunset which is less often applicable to tourist traps) will add a beautiful glow to the pictures. Shadows during sunrise and sunset will be longer but I prefer side lighting as opposed to the harsh midday light coming from above which washes out most colors and creates undesired shadows.
This is not a hard rule I follow but mornings and evenings are great for color photography while daytime – if under the harsh sun – is best for black and white photography.
I really like the look of the long shadows created by the majestic columns of the ruins on the above picture. With only very few tourists early in the morning it was possible to edit out people (in camera) walking around by framing the picture and clicking the shutter while they were hidden behind columns or walls.
“Hiding the tourist” can be a fun game if the photographer has enough patience. Making the best of every situation and not getting frustrated when all the stars are not lined up perfectly is a great philosophy to travel by.
Travel Photography Of Ancient Khmer Ruins: Wat Mahathat In Sukhothai, Thailand
Wat Mahathat In Sukhothai, Thailand contains a fantastic collection of ancient Khmer ruins. While it is somewhat on the tourist trail it is worth a visit. Just by looking at this picture taken just after sunrise with very few tourists around one is transported back in time. Now imagine having this scenery surrounding you 360 degrees!
Photographically speaking a location with ruins like this offers endless ways to compose your pictures. There are thousands of decisions to be made which can sharpen the photographer’s eye not only resulting in beautiful images but valuable learning experience as well.
It would be interesting to visit these ruins during the rainy season as the sky gets a lot more dramatic! Just imagine the golden rays of sunrise illuminating these ruins and statues while dark storm clouds and maybe even a rainbow would provide the perfect background.
Some people might be inclined to digitally replace the sky in Photoshop but I don’t believe in so much manipulation. For some reason I would feel not only the viewers would be cheated but me too because I never saw those dramatic clouds myself.
Stupa Decorated By Stone Elephants At Wat Sorasak In Sukhothai, Thailand
I took this photo of this great stupa with elephants at its base while the sun was about to set. I also took some pictures from closer creating perspective shot of the elephants but somehow the image lacked impact.
This picture is nice but still lacks drama, perhaps it could have been better if I had a wider lens and was closer to the stupa. Another way to improve image would be to return in the wet season and take black and white pictures with dark storm clouds in the background.
Famous Buddha Head In Bodhi Tree: Wat Phra Mahathat In Ayutthaya, Thailand
This often photographed famous Buddha Head in a Bodhi tree is a major tourist attraction at Wat Phra Mahathat In the ancient historic town of Ayutthaya, Thailand. With the exception of an occasional royal palace or museum I have never seen men guarding a Buddha statue, not even in Angkor Wat. I can only guess that the hordes of culturally insensitive / ignorant tourists warrant this kind of supervision.
My theory was immediately put to the test after a few minutes when a European couple arrived. She seemed like trouble from the start. Even by spending 2 minutes reading any condensed versions of how to behave in a Buddhist country would have been sufficient for her not to do what she ended up doing.
I was actually laughing my ass off when the guards started yelling at her (in Thai), this moment could not have been any better timed for me to witness.
These are the rules she broke (all at one time):
- she was wearing very short shorts and a tank top – exposing this much skin is highly disrespectful at Buddhist religious places
- she had a hat on while close proximity of the Buddha Head – hats are also highly disrespectful when around The Buddha
- as she sat down on the ground to take photos in front of the Bohdi tree she did not fold her legs under her butt instead she pointed her feet straight towards the Buddha Head – this was the last straw when the guard started yelling at her telling her to move on
And this was just a one minute slice of what these guards have to deal with day after day. I am far from being an expert on Buddhism but the few times I was around tourist during my 9 month trip I was sometimes shocked and sometimes down right embarrassed by cultural insensitivity displayed.
Perfect Travel Photography: Ancient Khmer Temple Ruins Of Wat Phu In Champasak, Laos
If you wish to enjoy a breath of fresh air during your cultural or travel photography journey visit the ancient Khmer temple ruins of Wat Phu just outside Champasak, Laos. Easy to get to on a rented bicycle before the tourists arrive. It is small in size but you will not find the crowds of Angkor Wat at any time of the day.
I found that using a wide angle lens resulted in really pleasing three dimensional pictures. By not tilting the camera up or down the distorted lines of walls can be avoided. By photographing from short distances the photographer can choose a main dominant element that will be large in the foreground while filling up the background with other narrative details that complete the story.
I really enjoy overcast days especially when the ruins or structures are not in shadows. The soft diffused light coming from above will add the much needed three dimensional look but without the large patches of dark shadows typical of midday lighting conditions.
On these days colors are beautifully saturated. When being on a travel photography trip it is not an option to only take pictures during the magical sunrise plus one hour and sunset minus one hour time period.
Golden Khmer Decoration On Wall Of Buddhist Pagoda In Tra Vinh, Vietnam
Tra Vinh, Vietnam was one of those dream destinations where I saw only 2 tourists in 10 days. Because of my lack of knowledge of Buddhist and Khmer art and due to the lack of English speaking locals I do not have much to say about what I photographed above.
It is golden and beautiful and spanned a whole wall at the entrance of the Khmer pagoda. There is one thought I can share here though which is the importance of close-up or closely cropped images when doing travel photography.
A fellow photographer told me once that if I wanted to capture National Geographic style images I need to either take pictures with the widest lens I have (to tell stories) or do close-up photography (to isolate details that are otherwise missed). Like all rules this can be broken but it is not a bad direction to follow.
I did take wide angle photos trying several compositions of the long wall that contained the golden engravings but none of my attempts were visually interesting. On the other hand I do like this close-up version! So when in doubt it is recommended to try not just a slightly different approach but more radical ones as well.
I don’t mean this is a radical picture it is just a general travel photography advice.
Saffron Colored Laundry Of Buddhist Monks In Battambang, Cambodia
During the 9 months I spent in Southeast Asia I was completely immersed in a living breathing National Geographic scene that stimulates all senses. Pictures are everywhere, something interesting happening every minute of the day!
It was very special to be in Asia for the first time, the travel photographer is even more receptive to all things new. I discovered this when I received emails about my pictures from people who were born in Vietnam
but have been away from their home country. They really appreciated the subtle beauty I captured of the everyday life of the Vietnamese people. Seeing their own country through the eyes of a visitor made them appreciate their home even more.
I found the grounds of Buddhist temples always a great place to visit. There was always something interesting to see. They are in a away the same while being always different. It is a sure bet that I would find saffron colored monks’ robes drying. Before noon there are few monks or often nobody is around as it is the time of food collections.
The above photo is one of these “could’ve been anywhere” scenes that I saw dozens of times and of course missed as soon as my trip was over.
Unusual Pink Buddha Face In Khmer Buddhist Temple In Tra Vinh, Vietnam
This pink Buddha face seemed unusual to me and I was actually able to ask an English teacher I ran into. The Khmer (Cambodian) minority is not well treated in Vietnam and the government dictating the colors that they are allowed to use is just another form of control.
The pink Buddha face was decoration on the arch over the main gate of a Buddhist temple. Nevertheless the colors are beautiful … and this reminds me that even though I love black and white photography Southeast Asia was so colorful that for a large percentage of my images I have been unable to make pleasing B&W conversions.
This pink Buddha face is a great illustration of that: beautiful color contrast, not so great tonal contrast.
Stupas Contain Remains Of The Buddha At Wat Botum In Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Wat Botum is one of the most historic pagodas in Cambodia, allegedly some of The Buddha’s cremated remains are in these stupas I photographed. There are quite few rich politicians also buried there.
These stupas can be found near the main entrance. It was not hard to make a pleasing composition as it is a beautiful arrangement of structures. There is one notable detail; notice the clouds that mean the photo was taken during the rainy season.
Having been in Southeast Asia long enough to take photos in both the dry and rainy season I must admit spite the torrential downpours the wet season offers a lot more beautiful and more dramatic skies. Some people will caution not to visit during the rainy season but I would advise to experience at least a little bit of it for the sake of greater image diversity.
One would think the rainy season offers a lot more overcast days with perfect diffused light but more often than not the storm clouds will very quickly clear.
Stone Hand At Ancient Khmer Ruins: Wat Phra Mahathat in Ayutthaya, Thailand
Historic town Ayutthaya, Thailand may be quite busy with tourists but it is definitely worth a visit. The ancient Khmer ruins offer endless photographic opportunities.
If there are a couple of busloads of tourists interfering your wide angle shots you can concentrate on close-up compositions and isolate interesting details. That is what I did with this broken hand of a statue.
Tourists are all about point ‘n shoot quick snapshots so take a Kit Kat break and see them leave after a short time.
Broken Buddhist Pagoda Guardian Statue In Battambang, Cambodia
It almost became an obsession for me to look for “statue cemeteries” as I was referring to discarded statues on the grounds of pagodas. If English was not a common language (most of the time) I tried to draw it, in other cases I tried my best to explain what I was looking for. Needless to say the only couple of times I was able to photograph them was when I found them myself by pure luck.
I knew they were out there and the juxtaposition of the ill-fitting peaces, limbs, torsos, legs, heads haphazardly arranged would have been incredible photographic material. The photo of the Pagoda Guardian statue above is nice but not great. It is photographed as I found it, I did not think that by disturbing it I could have arrived at a better arrangement.
I do like that there are both yellow and blue colors present (they are color opposites and contrast nicely). Also it is nice that both eyes of the statue are showing and even better they are peeking out from behind the thigh in an interesting way.
Famous Stone Face At Bayon Temple In Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia
Visiting the tourist trap at Bayon Temple of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia is a mixed bag of goodies. On one hand it is the breathtaking Seventh Wonder of The World on the other one could mistake it with a Khmer theme park due to the hordes of loud and inconsiderate tourists.
At the Bayon Temple cultural insensitivity is “the norm”. Tourists were jumping on the statues for their worthless photo opportunity which will be lost among the 1000′s of other snapshots taken. I would imagine there are a less people that jump up on the cross and pose with crucified Jesus wearing tank tops and short shorts. But Buddhism is a peaceful religion full with beautiful iconography so it is easier to take advantage of.
Buddhist monks are peaceful by nature and would never offend anyone by being rude. While I was walking around Bayon Temple I saw some photographers with huge DSLR cameras and lenses directing a monk to pray and hold the pose while their loud shutters were firing away. He was clearly uncomfortable.
I was embarrassed to witness a “travel photographer” fabricating a religious and cultural moment. To furthr prove how fake that setup was for the rest of my time in the Bayon Temple or Angkor Wat for that matter I never saw a monk praying in that fashion at all.
This is how the scene described above looked like:
I much more prefer exchanging a few words with monks who are always looking to practice their English and asking for permission to take photos. If the moment is fleeting and truly unique I take candid photos as you can see the next image which I title: “Spiritual Cleansing”.
Candid Travel Photography: Spiritual Cleansing By Buddhist Monk In Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Krishna insisted on outer cleanliness and inner cleansing. Clean clothes and clean minds are an ideal combination.
Sri Sathya Sai Baba
My candid picture of a Buddhist Monk practicing spiritual cleansing on the steps of Bayon Temple In Angkor Wat was not taken by me it was given to me as quite possible the best photo of that day. Every photographer knows about the difference between taking photos and being given moments to capture.
“Chance favors the prepared mind” and “good things come to those who wait” are two sayings that come to mind when it comes to taking unique and memorable images. These photos are taken without conscious thinking because the moment would be gone if the photographer would have to make calculated decisions about composition and the decisive moment when to press the shutter.
Luck also played a small role in making this photo a success, fortunately there were no tourists behind the monk wearing culturally insensitive tank tops and short shorts. While thousands of tourist took hundreds of thousands photos that day at Angkor Wat, I believe it is safe to say that I came away with one of the most unique and genuine images.
Some people are afraid of what they might find if they try to analyze themselves too much, but you have to crawl into your wounds to discover where your fears are. Once the bleeding starts, the cleansing can begin.
Devata: Khmer Female Guardian Angel (Guardian Spirit) In Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Devatas are guardian spirits or guardian angels. The word “devata” also means gods. There are male and female devatas but in Angkor Wat they are all female.
There are so many devatas in Angkor Wat on so many walls facing so many directions that the photographer will not have trouble finding ideal lighting conditions. For my taste I like side lighting best which creates a nice three dimensional effect but one can experiment with overcast skies resulting in no or very subtle shadows.
Khmer Dancers As Tourist Attraction At Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia
The evidence of being at a tourist trap is quite evident in Angkor Wat. While everyone was taking photos of these ladies preforming authentic Khmer dances to the never ending hordes of tourists I decided to take my picture between performances when the dancers true feelings were expressed.
Buddhist Monks Leaving Pagoda To Gather Donations In Tra Vinh, Vietnam
After visiting a few Buddhist pagodas during 9 months of travel photography it was easy to figure out the schedule of monks according to the rules of a monk’s life. This way I could anticipate certain photo opportunities at specific times of the day.
This photo was taken in the morning when monks were leaving the pagoda to gather food donations. Monks do this up until noon so the pagoda grounds are all but deserted during these hours. This offers a chance to roam around and take still life photos without any interruptions which is sometimes a breath of fresh air in a country where all eyes are on the traveler 24/7.
Noon or 1 pm is the last time monks are allowed to eat on that day so the afternoon is spent studying and hanging around the pagoda. During these hours the photographer can incorporate monks therefore the saffron colored robes into the pictures.
Monks with even only a few words of English knowledge are always very happy to “practice”. It is a good icebreaker before asking for permission to photograph them. Some are so shy that will decline but there are plenty of yes answers to go around.
At one time I was photographing a pagoda and when it started raining I was invited into the living area of the monks. While waiting for the rain to stop I downloaded the best picture I had of their pagoda on their computer and made it into their desktop wallpaper. That was a fun an unexpected experience.
I really like the above photo because the high trees compliment and elongate the tall stupa. Yellow and orange contrast beautifully against green and fortunately the tree canape was thin so there was enough light for the monks’ saffron-colored robes to be vivid and saturated.
These moments as most were fleeting, I had to time and compose my shots quickly to be able to have one good image. There was no way to say: hey guys can you walk down this path again so I can re-shoot this concept?
Woman Saying A Prayer While Giving Monks Food Donation In Kampot, Cambodia
Even though temperatures rapidly rise in Southeast Asia after the early morning hours, it is worth putting up with the heat as Buddhist monks do their food collection up until noon.
The gathering of donations involves a prayer from the person giving so there is always a frozen moment which can result in interesting photos.
The yellow or saffron colored umbrellas are customary providing additional color and visually interesting circular or oval shapes to the images. I would find it intrusive to follow the monks around for extended amount of time. But there is no harm done if the photographer attempts to get a good image by working out angles and compositions during a few stops.
In places like Luang Prabang, Laos which is a popular tourist trap, the early morning food donation collection has been turned into a Disneyland type tourist attraction which is organized by tour offices.
Buddhism being a peaceful religion ensures that nobody will visibly object to being photographed.
I personally don’t feel comfortable being part of tourist hordes and stand shoulder to shoulder like paparazzi photographers lining up along the red carpet. The above photo was taken in Kampot, Cambodia where there are very few tourists. These towns are often not even off the beaten path but offer a lot more authentic experiences.
Buddhist Monks Drinking Coke In Phnom Penh, Cambodia
This photo is a good example of one of the things I tried to really concentrate during my 9 month old travel photography trip: lines, shapes and geometry in my compositions.
I wish to avoid having to straighten lines in Photoshop, I want to do it in camera at the time the photo is taken. I also needed to work on taking wider angle photographs. As long as I remember I had a feeling I have been framing my images too tight, especially during modeling photoshoots. With travel photography there must be a balance of wide angle shots that tell stories and close-ups which emphasize and separate.
I immediately liked the color contrast between the turquoise wall and the saffron colored robes. So I hoped that these two Buddhist monks who were drinking Coke would be willing to be photographed. The possible reactions when approaching monks: shyness, curiosity, indifference, enthusiasm to name a few so it is a toss up until the moment of truth.
In this case one monk looked at me like I just landed in a spaceship (I was used to it by now) but the other one was curious and agreeable to be photographed. When there is no chance to communicate in English the picture taking process takes on a different shape.
The question is how many photos to take before the process becomes exploitative or uncomfortable for the sitter. This mostly depends on their personality and not hard to gauge when they had enough.
The photographer could just show up and take photos as the scene and people were found. That may sound like the most authentic approach but if the body position, light or background aren’t optimal I find it smart to give some direction and alter what was found. Otherwise all you get is a snapshot which is chancing a unique opportunity.
If the subject seems uneasy try sitting them down, if they are inclined to follow your directions. Because we are talking about travel and street photography these people have no modeling experience. For them there is nothing more uncomfortable than being photographed while standing and doing nothing. The simple act of sitting down can greatly improve their comfort level.
In the case of the monks they were already sitting and one (the friendlier one) had a Coke can in his hand which is a good example of above phenomenon.
Buddhist Monk Photographed On Stairs To His House In Phnom Penh, Cambodia
After Buddhist monks finish the morning food donation collection the afternoon is spent by studying and doing chores. This is a great time to visit pagodas like this one in Phnom Penh to have conversations and take photos with monks.
Depending the monk’s English skill these talks may be very basic with more smiles exchanged than ideas. Nevertheless they can break the ice which might have prevented photos being taken.
When photographing vivid colors, overcast sky or the subject being in an open shade will result in the most saturated colors. This is usually not an issue because nobody is willingly under the scorching sun but it is a technique worth keeping in mind. Watch out for blue color cast in the shade on sunny days. you may have to adjust your white balance from automatic to cloudy or shade!
Some cameras and camera settings tend to blow out / overexpose vivid reds and oranges so a -1/3 stop underexposure is a good setting to experiment with. Otherwise shapes and textures will be lost resulting in a big blob of color which cannot be repaired in Photoshop.
People are automatically more comfortable sitting down than standing up and the above photo is a good example of that. Casting / auditioning is important even when it comes to travel photography. The photographer should be inspired by the subject because it will definitely translate into the photo.
Buddhist Monk Doing Homework In Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Candid travel photography can be a challenge in a country where the photographer cannot blend in. A Hungarian in Vietnam or Cambodia is such an example. But it is still possible to take candid pictures, often just a moment before being discovered.
How welcoming people are when they notice that candid images were taken of them depends not only on their personality but the country’s culture as well. I have found Buddhist countries to be very friendly and understanding. So if personal safety or just non-stop smiles are important part of the journey Buddhist countries should be on the top of your list.
The photo of the Buddhist monk studying was easy to take as I was walking around the grounds of a pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Fortunately he was immersed in his task and he did not notice me until I was able to take the picture.
I tried to maximize the impact of the many lines present in the scene with a not too close and not too wide composition. If I cropped the image tighter I would have lost the lines created by the shutters and a large amount of blue color. If I composed the image wider the monk might have been too small. The decision to place the monk in the visually optimal position according to the rule of thirds was not conscious but an ingrained decision.
The saffron-colored laundry hanging inside was a very fortunate element as it adds a contrasting color to all the blue. Without the laundry the photo would lack its current punch. These small details are often noticed only during photo editing. At least in my case I do not notice many of these positive elements that help the picture. I seem to be more tuned into filtering out what does not belong in the frame.
Stormy Sky Over Khmer Wat On Don Khong Island, Laos
Dramatic stormy skies can tremendously improve travel photos. Although some advise against visiting Southeast Asia during the sometimes severe and even dangerous wet season I would not go that far.
Yes, if the travel photography trip is very short (under 2 weeks) it is a gamble for the photographer to arrive in the middle of the wet season. But if the trip is longer I would advise picking a time period that overlaps the two seasons. Umbrellas and rain coats are easy to buy; packing less and buying supplies on an as needed bases is an art of its own.
The drama and color contrast that the dark stormy skies provide are so desired that some photographers often replace their blue (or vanilla) sky with more visually interesting stormy skies. For me Photoshopping skies to this degree is unacceptable for travel photography. But to each their own. The other end of the spectrum is HDR travel, landscape or portrait photography which in my opinion should not even be called photography but digital art.
Kids Playing Soccer At Wat Phuang Kaew On Don Khong Island, Laos
Symbols of Buddhism that are all around Southeast Asia can immediately transform otherwise ordinary scenes to exotic beautiful pictures. The Buddhist temple in the background along with the large Buddha statue and the row of several stupas create a visually interesting horizon on the above picture. Along with the kids playing soccer the picture becomes complete.
Moments and photos like this made traveling and photographing in Southeast Asia addicting. I could not imagine having photographer’s block for the rest of my life if I had so much visual excitement in front of my eyes 24/7.
The longer I study a photo the more lucky coincidences and visual elements I discover that were not apparent when scouting the location or taking the picture. Repeating colors are important to add balance to an image even if it is not consciously registering with the viewer. Fortunately the orange color of the gate repeats in the shirt of one of the boys.
Red colored areas are the first places where the viewers eyes focus on and red always adds pop to images. Fortunately the boy that kicks the ball on the photo has red shorts so the viewer’s eyes are automatically drawn to the main action via the red color.
Ancient Khmer Ruins Reflection At Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai, Thailand
One of my most favorite compositional techniques is to photograph a reflection while not showing the reflected object or person. By turning the image upside down the result can be whimsical, abstract even confusing to the viewer.
There were so many ways to photograph the Khmer ruins of Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai, Thailand that I was creative paradise. It was almost creative nirvana. Showing up early in the morning ensured the minimum amount of tourists would be there but even later the day it was not difficult to “edit out” the few people wondering into the photos.
Peaceful Pond In Hoa Lu: Vietnam’s Ancient Capital Outside Ninh Binh
Hoa Lu is Vietnam’s old capital located just a few miles away from one of my places to visit: Ninh Binh. Hoa Lu receives a moderate amount of tourists which is a breath of fresh air compared to other tourist traps.
The tourists are mostly Vietnamese so the distraction is minimal.
A patient travel photographer can easily spend a whole day discovering small gems like this beautiful (lotus I assume) pond. I did not have steps on my side to gain a lower vantage point and place the leaves closer in the foreground of the picture. If I were to take a picture from the opposite side the lack of steps in the frame would have made the image less interesting.
It would have been nice if someone in bright colored clothes or robe would have sit across from me on the steps. Perhaps I could have waited for awhile but it did not seem a likely resting spot with other important attractions nearby with more seating areas.
I do find the shapes interesting though. The straight lines of the wall and steps against the repeating circular shapes of the leaves.
Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien Pagoda As Seen From Ha Tien, Vietnam
Ha Tien, Vietnam was another favorite stop for me. Tourists are few and far between because it is slightly out of the beaten path of those typical rushed schedules.
This is fortunately made possible by guidebooks like The Lonely Planet. I love these books because they offer a clearly defined itinerary for those with limited vacation time. In a way LP is the shepherd while tourists are the …
You can see on travel forums people asking if 5, 7 or 10 days is enough to see Vietnam. But it is not their fault as the average American vacation is painfully short and with the pressures and temptations of a consumer society saving money is not a second nature.
These pre-defined routes and rushed schedules mean that the travel photographer can easily find almost or completely tourist free “off the eaten path” locations which are often just 2 hours off from that path therefore really easy to get to.
Ha Tien is such place tucked away in the most South Western corner of the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam adjacent to the Cambodian border. The Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien Pagoda on my picture is across the bay from Ha Tien looking like a colorful jewel carefully placed in the green rolling hills. The pagoda became one of my favorite hang outs.
Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien Pagoda was completely free of tourists with a beautiful sweeping view over Ha Tien, Vietnam and Cambodia. When I find special places like this pagoda or the large Buddha statue in Sukhothai, Thailand I spend hours instead of minutes savoring the experience. I could not imagine traveling half way across the world, show up someplace amazing just to snap a photo and move right along to the next “must snap” spot.
This luxury is backed up not just by an easy going attitude but an open ended travel itinerary. The end of my trip was marked by when my money ran out. As I am writing this article and preparing for my return to Southeast Asia I am working on establishing reoccurring online income which will eliminate the chance to be out of money resulting in a truly open ended trip.
Buddhist Swastika Symbol At Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien Pagoda In Ha Tien, Vietnam
For travelers who are not familiar with the meaning of swastika in Buddhism these signs might represent a source of culture shock.
The swastika symbol represents dharma in Buddhist art and scripture. Dharma is universal harmony and the balance of opposites. The swastika is also known as The Heart’s Seal.
The right-hand swastika is said to have been stamped on The Buddha’s chest after his death.
The Tinh Xa Ngoc Tien Pagoda across from Ha Tien was a very relaxing place with numerous photo opportunities. The grounds and the buildings of the pagoda were painted in bright vivid colors which just happened to have great color contrast on photographs. There were some narrow corridors and close quarters so my 12mm (18mm film equivalent) wide angle lens came in handy.
But as the above image shows I could have used an even wider angle lens. When purchasing extreme wide angle lenses their high price can be a deciding factor and what I would recommend is that a cheaper wide angle lens is better than not going wide enough.
Sunny Picture Of Khmer Wat in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
There is no shortage of hot sunny days in Southeast Asia. While the locals were smart relaxing in the shade I was pounding the pavement. I just could not justify taking a break between 10am and 3pm and waste 1/3 of my trip waiting for the temperature to drop.
During these midday hours the heat is not the only factor that can hinder photography. The sun shining from high above often casts undesired shadows as opposed to the more visually pleasing shadows resulting from side lighting. Side lighting can add a three dimensional look to images, light coming from straight above has little aesthetic value to me.
The Khmer Wat on the above picture withstood the unflattering light from above and the picture actually works for me. The pagoda looks three dimensional partly because of the perspective gained from using a 12mm wide angle lens (18mm in film format).
Even if I wanted to I would not have had many focal length or vantage point choices on this location because everything around me was quite crammed plus the background would have had a lot more clutter of unnecessary elements.
Just like other images taken during the dry season this picture also could gain more drama and visual appeal from white cumulus clouds or dark storm clouds in the background. The only reason I keep repeating this point is because some people explicitly discourage traveling to Southeast Asia during the rainy season.
Blooming Tree In Khmer Ruins: Wihaan Phra Mongkhon In Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wihaan Phra Mongkhon in Ayutthaya, Thailand has a beautiful collection of ancient Khmer ruins which may be on the tourist trail but definitely worth visiting.
The beautiful blooming tree is a sign of being in the right place at the right time. I try not to take anything for granted and spend proper amount of time to appreciate every little gift because no matter how seemingly minor they are, travel photography would not be the same without them.
Just like many tourist attractions this was a challenging locations to photograph due to not only tourists but signs, fences and other modern artifacts. Of course there are ways to erase them in Photoshop but I spend enough time already on my laptop.
But this vantage point worked out nicely, the blooming tree is against the clear blue sky so its branches are not lost due to a busy backdrop. The amount and height of ruins is just right as well, they assist telling the story but do not overshadow the main subject: the tree.
Travel Photography At Wihaan Phra Mongkhon Bophit In Ayutthaya, Thailand
Another picture with tree branches and Khmer architecture but in a different composition from the previous image. Framing the image with branches is a common technique which works well if the scene captures retains a natural feel.
The picture was taken at 12mm focal length (18mm in film format). The Tokina 12-24mm was the widest lens I had with me on this trip. Zooming in was out of the question because I needed all the field of view I had at 18mm.
In that respect this zoom lens just became an 18mm prime lens.
This meant as every prime lens user knows is that the composition had to be achieved not by zooming but by finding the ideal vantage point by waking. The best composition can depend on an inch to the left or right.
Composing photos with prime lenses which is also commonly called “zooming with feet” activates additional brain functionality that zoom lens users don’t need to access. Creating pleasing compositions become a lot more conscious process.
I remember how this picture was taken how long it took (compared to zooming) to find the ideal framing and the place to shoot from. If it took longer that means the brain was involved longer in the decision making process. More brain activity means more practice time of problem solving which can only lead to greater proficiency = better photographer and better pictures.
So I do believe what is commonly circulated: prime lenses will make you a better photographer.
These thoughts tie into my present situation. As I am finishing this page my brand new digital rangefinder camera system is on its way. I am starting with a classic 50mm lens and no doubt will have to re-learn photography.
I no longer own a DSLR camera system. Durign 9 month of non-stop use I found it to be too bulky, invasive and lacking when it comes to image quality. My next photography trip will be solely shot on a rangefinder camera. Looking forward to the next adventure!
Out of the countries I visited, Vietnam happens to be my favorite, Cambodia being a close second followed by Thailanad and Laos. Therefore I cannot imagine anyone hating Vietnam unless they ONLY visited tourist traps and have a closed mind when it comes to experiencing cultures different from their own. I would also suspect humble, kind and compassionate is not how these tourist could be described. Bringing the stress of the Western world and unloading them on the local population is a sure way to ruin any trip.
I found Vietnamese people incredible and genuinely friendly. About 95% of my time was spent away from tourist traps often not seeing any tourist for days or weeks. This also meant that 95% of the time I could not communicate in English therefore our interactions were relying a great deal on smiles and body language.
I do have a pet peeve when it comes to online photography tutorials: their often sub standard example images. It always makes me wonder how come these articles lack great pictures and do the readers find the information less credible.
With that said I hope to rise above the norm with my favorite photos that I choose to include here.