For any visitor to Cambodia, sunrise at Angkor Wat sounds like a must. And it probably is. I say “probably” because it may not turn out to be the soothing, wondrous experience you might expect.
I feel extremely lucky and grateful that I’ve been able to watch sunrise at this extraordinary location twice in my life. The first one, which I told you about here, was disappointing in every possible way. Not only there were far more people than I’d expected, but the sun was completely blocked by thick layers of clouds.
The second one was far more rewarding. The skies were clear and I managed a bunch of decent shots. Unfortunately, the crowds were far worse than the first time.
Get there early you say?
One of the cardinal rules of travel photography (and photography in general) is “get there early, stay late”. There are several reasons to follow that rule, and one is that in many of the world’s most visited attractions you can have the place almost for yourself simply by getting up at a silly hour or staying until the crowds have left.
Not at Angkor Wat, though. If you intend to capture the iconic sunrise view of the west gate with the pond in the foreground, you need to be there around 5 AM.
And trust me – you won’t be alone. Unless you are among the very first to arrive, way before there’s even a hint of light in the horizon, you’ll be jockeying for position with, I don’t know, several hundred people. And even if you manage to get a good spot, you’ll have to deal, understandably, with some pushing and shoving.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a snapshot I took with my phone when the sun was already up. This is the view across the pond, with Angkor Wat behind me:
That’s where I was standing. That’s a lot of people, right? Maybe not a thousand as I wrote in the title, but definitely a few hundred.
Also, if you look closely, you’ll see some people on the left edge of the pond. Earlier, there were even more people in that area, making it really hard, if at all possible, to capture the whole scene without them in the shot.
That’s all good and well. It presents a challenge, photographically speaking, but there are ways around this.
What you won’t be able to do is enjoy the magical sunset in relative peace and calm. I know we’re all different and there are bound to be all sorts of people and moods in a several hundred-strong crowd. What I don’t get is why so many people choose this unique spot and precise time of the day to be loud and silly, instead of enjoying the view in a way that doesn’t detract from everybody else’s pleasure.
Making photographic decisions
I knew I was going to be shooting against the sun, so my initial idea was to expose mainly for the highlights. That would take care of both the sky and the reflection of the temple on the pond, and give me nice silhouettes of the buildings and trees.
I left me some wiggle room to lift the shadows in post-processing if I chose to, but I knew beforehand I probably wouldn’t do it, since the people on the edge of the pond would detract from the image. Even if I took the shadows all the way down (which I haven’t quite done here), I’d have to clone out the bright phone and camera displays showing here and there. That might work though.
You may notice by looking at the edge of the silhouetted towers that the photo has some blur motion, but at that point I was just shooting to get an idea of the light and the composition options I had, so I didn’t really care.
I still wasn’t happy with having the edge of the pond in the frame. It could have made for a nice leading line (drawing your eye into the temple), but not with so many people standing there.
The sky wasn’t spectacular, either, although it should be possible do something more in post-processing to give those colours some pop. So I decided to move around, looking for a cleaner composition or at least different angles. I walked towards the temple and sat at the far edge of the pond to enjoy the view. It was then that I realised something. Judging from the position and height of the sun with respect to the temple, there was a very good chance that it would end up at an interesting place behind the towers.
I run back to the near edge of the pond, and shuffled around for a new spot amongst the people, waited for a few more minutes, and there it was – the sun glowing right between two towers, just like I hoped it would be.
In post-processing, I simply adjusted the shadows down and increased the contrast to get rid (not entirely, by conscious decision) of the figures of people walking in front of the temple. I also cropped the image a little bit and played around with the colors to give a warmer glow to the whole scene:
Of course, had I done some prior research on this location I would have found out that this shot was possible and prepared for it accordingly. Now that I intend to take photography much more seriously, I won’t forget that it is crucial to research your location and prepare for a shoot. By doing that, not only will you increase your chances of coming back with the images you intended. You’ll also be able to enjoy the moment so much more, because you have sorted the technical aspects beforehand.
Was it worth it?
You may look at the crowds and think “There are already millions of photos of sunrise at Angkor Wat. What’s the point of my taking another one?”
That’s fair enough. But if you have a passion for photography, you simply can’t go there and not attempt to create your own, personal take of the scene. After all, your own photos will always be more meaningful to you than anybody else’s. And who knows? You might be able to find a slightly different angle or treatment that will in turn inspire others to try their hand at it, or simply visit the place.
What do you think? Have you been to Angkor Wat at sunrise? What were your impressions? Tell me about it in the comments!