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FAQ (and not so FAQ)


Most recent update: March 11, 2007

1.) Is Cambodia a photogenic country?
2.) How agreeable are the people to being photographed?
3.) Do they want money?
4.) Any advice for photographing the temples?
5.) How about photographing other things (villages, countryside, etc)?
6.) Can I download digital images from my camera and get them burned to a CD?
7.) I'm a dinosaur. How is photographic processing? Quality and service okay?
8.) Okay, you're sending me to Bangkok, where then?
9.) Can you even get film in Cambodia?

Q: Is Cambodia a photogenic country?

A: Absolutely, yes. The people, temples, countryside, there are fantastic photo opportunities to be had in this country and I've found Cambodia to be one of the most photographically stimulating countries in Asia.

Q: How agreeable are the people to being photographed?

A: Often, quite agreeable. I've found Cambodians to be very easy to photograph. If you want to photograph people the best advice I can offer is that you take an English-speaking local with you who can break the ice. If for example you want to take photos of somebody fishing or working in their fields, a thirty-second conversation facilitated by your local companion can make all the difference in the world. I have numerous photographs of people that I have exhibited (and sold) and in almost all cases I sought their permission and had chatted briefly with them beforehand.

Q: Do they want money?

A: In certain areas, we are starting to see more frequent requests for money in exchange for a photo, sometimes initiated by the would-be model. A lot of the cute kids running around the temples will let you take their photo for a little bit of money, or if you buy something from one of the sellers you can usually get a photo out of it. That they want money at Angkor for photos doesn't surprise me, but recently, the previously shy hilltribe people up in Ratanakiri are now making the same requests.

And should you pay? It's a personal decision. Generally speaking I'm against giving money in exchange for photographs, but I'd be a liar and a fool if I told you I've never done it. The problem is obvious - you encourage modeling. It's a sad state of affairs when you pull up to some far away village and half a dozen people run up to you, "take photo, money? take photo, money?" On the other hand, there's an exploitation issue. If I take a photo of somebody, turn around, exhibit and sell the print or it winds up in publication somewhere and I profit from it, well, doesn't the person in the photo deserve some sort of compensation?

However, I believe there is clearly a difference between a professional or commercial use of a photo and a few snapshots from your summer vacation. When I have paid somebody money for a photo I made them work for it as just standing there like they would for an average tourist is not sufficient and I would not pay for such a photo.

I can't tell you what to do. It's a tricky situation and an inevitable result of how tourism affects these indigenous communities. That a person approaching me, "take photo, money? take photo, money?" destroys my notion of what a village should be is my problem. However, the fact remains, that this not a sustainable way to make a living and in the end, that will be their problem.

My advice is think before you act and let your conscience be your guide. And remember, more will follow where you have tread and your actions will affect what they experience.

Q: Any advice for photographing the temples?

A: Wow, where do I begin? Atmospherically, the best time is from around July to November, particularly August to October which is the second half of the rainy season and everything is a lush green and the combination of high moisture, greenery, and sun can make for some stunning photographs. Also, rain and lightning can make for some fabulous photos as well. By November the rains are coming to an end but the landscape is still quite green. Come December the dust begins to build up, and by March and April there is a permanent haze covering everything, though the dusty haze does some interesting things to the light as well. I've photographed temples at all times of the year and each season has its own advantages and disadvantages.

The best time of day is of course early in the morning and late in the afternoon. The sunlight in mid-day, especially in the dry season, is virtually useless. Use a polarizing filter, regardless.

There are no restrictions (yet!) on the use of a tripod at any of the temples.

As far as individual temples go, here's a bit of advice...

Angkor Wat: This temple is photographed millions of times every year and as a result, getting a 'special' photograph of this temple takes a lot of work and even more luck. Think big. Angkor Wat means towers and a special shot of Angkor Wat is going to have these towers in it. The classic shot is straight down the causeway, but everybody does it, so wait for the weather to do something and maybe you can get something like this. Or not. I waited four days to get that picture, and surprisingly to most, I did not use any special filters. Also, you can aim for unusual angles, focal lengths, etc. If you already know what you're doing, you don't need me to help you find your shot, but it's been my experience that the massive nature of Angkor Wat combined with the fact it's photographed so much, does not present a whole lot of photographic opportunities that yield images that rise above the norm.

The Bayon: You could shoot millions of photos in this temples and never do the same shot twice. With 216 heads that can be photographed in numerous different ways, you ought to bring a lot of film here and use your imagination, sense of composition and perspective. You also have the added bonus of ever changing shadows and contrasts as the time of day changes. In general though, get here early in the morning. You could spend days in this temple looking for the ultimate "Bayon head" shot. I like this one.

Ta Prohm: A very popular temple due to it's natural state. It's a lot more difficult to photograph now as they won't let you climb up on the walls to take a photograph and the best shots are taken from atop these walls. I've managed to get up on the walls a few times and gotten very good results. Because of all the trees and the streaking sunlight it creates, this temple poses a lot of tricky problems in respect to contrast. Crowds are another problem here, it seems there's always a constant stream of tourists walking through your shot. Be prepared to be here awhile. Because of the crowd and contrast problems, you might want to get here just past sunrise. It's been my experience that the crowds don't start turning up until after eight a.m. Also, if there's nobody around, you might be able to pay one of the guards five bucks to get up on the walls. Once the crowds come in, no amount of money will get you up. If you do start climbing around, please be careful, not just for your safety but for the temple's safety as well.

Preah Khan: I quite like this temple. A lot of little nooks and crannies and vegetation about, two huge trees on the east side, and one structure that looks like it came from ancient Greece or Rome. Again, walk around and look for interesting perspectives. There is one structure you can climb up on and get a wide view of the temple. Alert! This temple has a lot of young boys who follow you around, trying to act as your guide. They tend to get very demanding and nasty about money so I would advise that any 12-year-old boy that starts to make conversation with you should be told to buzz off asap, because once he starts his talk, he's going to want money.

These are the main temples in the complex but there are many more temples that offer good opportunities for photos as well. Perhaps in time I might significantly expand this into a guide for photographing the Angkor temples. Perhaps.

If you're looking for a photo tour you might contact Dave Perkes at Peace of Angkor Tours as they run photo tours to Angkor and many places beyond.

Q: How about photographing other things (villages, countryside, etc)?

A: Again, Cambodia is a very photogenic country. An electric green rice field with the morning sun rising on it is a spectacular photo indeed. Quaint little villages with straw shacks and wooden houses on stilts, water buffalo, kids running around, there are endless opportunities here. Bring a lot of film.

Q: Can I download digital images from my camera and get them burned to a CD?

A: Yes. Anywhere and everywhere. Almost any photo lab or internert shop can do this for you.

Q: I'm a dinosaur. How is photographic processing? Quality and service okay?

A: Not really, no, and now that almost everyone uses digital, dinosaur film users are going to have an even tougher time with it. There are a few shops in Phnom Penh that do a reasonable job of developing and printing negative film without wrecking anything, though it's all by machine of course. If you're doing any serious photographic work including the use of slide film, black and white, medium or large format, etc you will want do all that in Bangkok. As I'm not sure that anybody can properly do slide film in Cambodia.

With digital technology what it is now, it is possible to get some decent prints made in Cambodia and it's also possible to get some crappy ones done, too. If you're in Phnom Penh, stop by California 2, look at the shots on the wall and ask the owner, Jim, where he gets them done.

Q: Okay, you're sending me to Bangkok, where then?

A: There are a couple of pro labs in Bangkok that are as good as anything on the planet. IQ Labs is the largest and when I was doing a lot of photography work I did a ton of business with this place. They did all my print work and a lot of my processing. They are fully integrated with the digital world but can still handle all formats of film. Because they are a big lab they do screw up sometimes and they are not suited to doing some tourist's three rolls of negs. They'll do them for you, yes, but it's not their business and you may wait three days. Most of the complaints I've heard about IQ came from people who fell into the consumer category and not from professionals. So again, if it's a few rolls of neg film, don't bother with IQ, go somewhere else. IQ Labs is located on Chong Nonsri Road between Silom and Suriwong Roads, east side.

Q: Can you even get film in Cambodia?

A: Depends on what you want. Standard consumer negative film is still widely available at reasonable prices, but be aware that some film is expired film that has been repackaged in new boxes. If the price seems too cheap, don't buy it! Also, around the temples, many kids sell film which, all too often, has been subjected to excessive heat and sunlight. While I normally advocate buying all sorts of stuff off these kids, I don't recommend buying film from them. Consumer slide film is available at a few shops, as is some black and white and some less common ISO films (i.e. 800). You can find these but you'll have to poke around a bit. In Siem Reap, there is a Fuji shop that carries a wide selection of films. They are on Wat Bo Road, maybe fifty meters south of Route 6, east side of the river. It's near one of the two intersections in Siem Reap with a traffic light. For pro slide films and medium and large format, forget it, try to find it in Bangkok. And I've never seen film refrigerated in Cambodia.


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