The Best Camera Gear for Photographing Angkor Wat
What’s the best camera gear for photographing Angkor Wat and the other temples is usually the first question I get asked by friends coming to Siem Reap who are into photography. Here’s what to pack for capturing memorable images.
As a Siem Reap based photographer I’ve spent a lot of time photographing Angkor Wat and other Angkor temples. With such an abundance of spectacular archaeological sites on our doorstep here, there are all kinds of opportunities for making breathtaking images, whether you’re a hobbyist on holidays or a pro photographer visiting Siem Reap and shooting the Angkor temples for the first time.
Best Camera Gear for Photographing Angkor Wat
As we have our Cambodia Culinary Travel Writing and Photography Retreats coming up in May and October, I’ve been fielding questions from participants as to what they should pack, what’s the best camera gear for photographing Angkor Wat, what lenses should they bring, and, the number one question: “do I need a tripod?”
Here are some of their questions and my responses. If you have a question, feel free to leave it in the comments below and I’ll add the answer here.
Do I need an interchangeable lens camera?
These days it doesn’t really matter much if you’re using an interchangeable lens camera, it’s the lenses that you need to think about if you’re serious about photographing Angkor Wat and capturing the best possible shots you can. If you have a fixed-lens camera like a point-and shoot, most of the lenses will not be wide enough (see below) to get shots that are impressive when you’re actually in the temples, so you’ll just have to make do, or upgrade.
What focal length and lenses will I need?
To take advantage of all the best photo opportunities, you’ll need everything from 12-14mm to around 200mm lenses or more. For the full-frame DSLR crowd that would usually mean a wide-angle zoom (eg. 12-24mm), mid-range zoom (eg. 24-70mm), and a telephoto zoom (eg. 70-200mm).
For those using cameras with a smaller sensor, the focal length is usually called the ‘equivalent’ focal length, meaning that the focal length is the equivalent of a 35mm full-frame camera. For more on this, you should read this wikipedia entry. Once you’ve taken that into account, the focal length of the lenses I recommend are the same.
While the wide angle lens is great for taking exterior photos of Angkor Wat and the complete temple complex, they come into their own when you’re inside the temple. If you want to get a floor to ceiling shot, it’s handy to have a wide lens, although you might just get by with 24mm as your widest focal length.
A mid-range zoom (eg. 24-70mm) is going to be your main lens for photographing Angkor Wat and the other temples. I shoot a lot of frames at the 35mm focal length. It’s great for shooting sections of intricate carvings, lintels and bas reliefs in the temples and for shooting down through the columns of arcades.
A real favourite lens of mine for photographing Angkor Wat is a telephoto zoom (eg. 70-200mm). The reason I like it so much is that I can take advantage of ‘compression’, which is where objects in the background are made to appear closer to the object that’s in focus — as with the photo below that I took at the Bayon temple.
The carved face in the background is actually 10 metres away, but the combination of a 200mm focal length and a shallow depth of field manages to make the background face look close to the front one, but out of focus due to the shallow depth of field (f3.2).
Does my camera have to be good in low light?
For photographing Angkor Wat and the temples themselves, not really, as the light in Cambodia is very bright. It’s only in the rainy season that you get overcast weather and a lot of cloud — which is beautiful to shoot as well.
One thing that you might need low light capabilities for is shooting an Apsara show, which are generally poorly lit. The time that low light capabilities really come in handy is if you’re photographing Angkor Wat at dawn and want to capture a ‘noise-free’ image just before daybreak. See below.
Do I need a tripod for photographing Angkor Wat?
Do you work for Nat Geo Traveler? Yes, bring one. Are you serious about capturing that classic Angkor Wat at dawn image? Yes, bring one. But here’s the thing: do you want to carry a tripod around for that one shot? Because that’s probably the only time that you’ll probably need a tripod.
Unless you’re into time-lapse photography or long-exposure images, photographing Angkor Wat at dawn is the only time you’ll probably need a tripod. Why do I keep saying probably? Because I’ve seen pretty decent photos of that classic image taken on an iPhone.
Having said that, a lot of visitors do change their mind when they get to Siem Reap and end up purchasing a tripod that probably won’t even survive the flight home. I have seen shop assistants try to demonstrate how to set up poorly-made spindly tripods to visitors with DSLRs around their neck and, on one occasion recently, the tripod literally fell apart as he tried to adjust it. There’s no way I’d risk a US$1,000+ camera on a rubbish US$30 tripod.
If you don’t have a tripod and are passing through Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok on your way to Siem Reap, buy a tripod in one of those cities. I personally recommend Manfrotto gear, because the first serious one I purchased over 12 years ago is still my only tripod — and it’s done some serious air miles.
The model (055 carbon fibre 3-section tripod) is much improved since I purchased mine and while it may appear expensive, retailing at over US$500, like a good quality lens it’s a photography item that will serve you for years to come.
For tripod heads, I’ve settled on the Manfrotto-804RC2 after having two (!) tripod heads broken by clumsy hotel porters trying to snatch my gear off me so they get a tip. Otherwise, it’s a solid piece of kit and my latest one has lasted a few years.
If you have any questions about the gear you’ll need for photographing Angkor Wat and the other temples, feel free to leave a comment below.