A visit to Angkor Wat has been at the top of my list of places to visit for a long time and I recently had the opportunity to spend three days there. I’d never hired a photo guide before but given my limited time and the fact the various sites are pretty spread out (the Angkor archeological complex covers an area of 150 square miles), I felt this would help make my time spent there more productive. After some research, I settled on Chris Cusick, a British photographer who has been leading private tours to the various sites around the temple complex for the past six years. From the look of Chris’ portfolio I could tell he was a talented photographer, and as an added bonus it turned out that he was well-versed in the culture and history of Cambodia and a foodie whose restaurant recommendations were spot on. We spent a couple of months going back and forth on how to best map out an agenda to blend my desire to see the most interesting parts of the park as well as the photographic highlights.
Chris has visited Angkor hundreds of times and knows every nook and cranny of all the major sites, the ideal time of day and season to photograph them, and how best to avoid the increasingly large crowds, many of whom are first time travelers from China. For anyone that might be planning a visit, here’s how we organized my trip.
Our first afternoon started out with a visit to one of the larger temples at Angkor, Preah Khan. It is nicely maintained with a handful on impressive carvings and is gaining popularity with tourists looking for less crowded parts of the park to visit. After a couple of hours there, we drove to the nearby South Gate of Angkor Thom where we watched the sunset from a bridge lined with a collection of Khmer sculptures.
We were up early the following morning to arrive for the opening of Ta Prohm, known as the “Tomb Raider” temple from its appearance in the 2018 movie starring Angelina Jolie. It's one of the more crowded locations in the park but we had a pretty quiet hour or so until the busloads of tourists began to arrive. Even so, the only place we ran into any crowds was near the famous doorway which has been overtaken by the roots of an enormous strangler fig tree that seemingly every visitor has their photo taken in front of. But there are many other interesting and photogenic spots around this area and some of my best images of the trip were taken here.
Our next stop involved hiking along a ridge that connects two of the original stone entrances of Angkor Thom and runs north from the East Gate to the Ghost Gate. Both are adorned with the large carved Khmer faces that Angkor is famous for and are located in a very quiet and peaceful part of the complex.
We then had a quick visit to Ta Nei temple before a break to grab lunch back in town and get out of the worst of the midday heat (and the harsh overhead lighting that makes good images hard to produce).
It was back to a different section of Angkor Thom in the mid-afternoon where we viewed hundreds of impressive carvings covering a maze of walls at the Terrace of the Leper King.
Just across the street was the Preah Pithu group of temples where we spent a short amount of time exploring while waiting for some warm late afternoon light to arrive at our next destination, Bayon. You have probably seen pictures of this large temple, the upper level of which is covered with approximately two hundred serene looking Khmer faces. Our visit there could not have been better timed as the temple was closing the following day for a five year long reconstruction project.
We finished up the day with a quick sunset visit to the main temple of Angkor Wat, the most famous and heavily visited place in the park. It is the largest religious site in the world and the wall that encloses it is 2.2 miles long. No trip to Cambodia is complete with at least a short visit here, yet as impressive as it is to see, I didn't consider it one of the photographic highlights of the trip as I found it hard to come up with an interesting photo of it that wasn't a cliche.
The following morning we drove an hour north from our base in the town of Siem Reap to Banteay Srei, a tenth century site outside of the main Angkor complex that is known for having the most intricate red sandstone carvings of any temple in the country. It’s constructed in a totally different style from the rest of Angkor, has been painstakingly restored and was well worth the visit. Plus we got to see a little bit of the countryside on the way there and back.
Our final stop was at the Buddhist temple of Banteay Kdei, a little gem of a place that was one of our favorites. To put it in perspective, this "small" temple probably covers fifty acres and would be the highlight of most ancient sites around the world, but gets somewhat overlooked considering the number of more elaborate temples that are scattered around the Angkor archeological site. I got most of my favorite close up images of carvings here, like the ones below, plus one of a woman praying that I liked as well.
For those of you considering a trip here, I’ve posted some additional information in the Travel and Photography tips section on my site. To view the full size versions of these images and several more, go to the Angkor Wat tab on my home page.
Tuweep is located in a remote corner of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It's hard to reach and requires a high clearance 4WD vehicle to make the three hour drive down a sixty mile long gravel road, the last couple of miles of which took me thirty minutes to cover. The National Park service estimates 25% of visitors get a flat tire on the way there or back which is pretty easy to believe, as there are some really rough stretches with sharp rocks to navigate around. Fortunately I made the trip without incident even though the jeep I rented was pretty beaten up.
When you arrive at the overlook there are no lodges, restaurants, services or cell reception, just ten campsites. You are definitely off the grid. Due to its remote location far from the lights of a major city, this area was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2014, and the view of the planets, stars and Milky Way is as good as you are likely to find just about anywhere in the United States. Even though it was Labor Day weekend I only saw about a dozen people during my visit, a refreshing change from the large crowds at the more accessible parts of the Grand Canyon.
The views are pretty spectacular. Tuweep is one of the few places at the Grand Canyon where you have an unobstructed view of the Colorado River. From the rim, you can watch and hear the rafters running the rapids at Lava Falls, three thousand feet directly below you. Trying to take pictures here is nerve racking as you need to stand right on the edge of a cliff to get the best view. It's not a place to visit if you suffer from vertigo.
I was able to get within a couple of feet of the edge to photograph the two images seen here. The picture above is the view looking west toward sunset and the one below the view of sunrise.
Good photographers also routinely calculate the precise angle of sunrises and sunsets during the course of the year to position the sun (and moon and Milky Way) where it can best compliment a particular composition. It’s a way to turn a good photograph into a great one. Notice how the leading lines formed by the faint moonlight streaming through the tufa formations at Mono Lake draw your eye into the picture. The moonlight also helps clearly define the outline of the rocks against the night sky. The image is also perfectly framed by the Milky Way as it sits low in the summer sky, centered exactly above this formation. To create this shot, Marc made trips to this location over the course of four years, taking advantage of the brief window of time when all of these elements came together.
Timing is critical in order to take advantage of the best seasons to photograph things like peak fall colors, spring waterfalls at full volume, and in the photo below, the late summer storms that roll across Arizona. Here Marc either got lucky or more likely used a shutter release device triggered by the flash of lightning to create this incredible desert image. The location was scouted in advance, one of several he probably had in mind after multiple trips to the area. As the storm moved across the horizon he anticipated where to position himself as it came into range. A nicely backlit line of cholla cactuses draws you into the scene toward the lightning on the right and a couple of saguaros provide nice highlights and help add some depth of field. Most photographers would have settled for a photo of the menacing storm clouds and lightning without much regard to the rest of the composition whereas Marc combines both a great composition and the unusual storm. There is always an element of luck in these types of images, but a well prepared photographer tends to get "luckier" more often than his less experienced counterparts. The clouds and lighting transform what would be just a good desert scene into something much more dramatic.
And finally, here’s a really unusual image Max shot in Lofoton, Norway that I recently purchased. Every year he spends many long, freezing nights (for this photo, four) waiting for dramatic aurorae borealis in places like Iceland, Greenland and Scandinavia hoping to create images like this one. Like the photo of the desert scene above, he's not content to shoot a picture of the surreal light in the sky without incorporating it into a great composition. And having his friend standing atop a seemingly impossible to climb peak adds a greater sense of scale than just the city lights in the distance. The slightly highlighted slope of the ridge on the left side draws your eyes up toward the dramatic light show in the sky, where you can clearly make out the silhouette of the person at the top. There is enough light behind the climber so that he does not blend into the dark part of the sky, a small but important detail. There is also enough light from the aurora behind the photographer to bathe the snow on the face of the mountain with an eerie green glow. This is a great example of the lengths the very best photographers will go to get the perfect shot.
Click on the links below to check out their respective sites to see more of their amazing (and reasonably priced) photos.
The hike to the Subway in Zion National Park is one I've wanted to do for a long time. It's very popular and only eighty permits a day are issued to keep the number of visitors manageable. When you stop by the visitors center to register, the ranger takes time to carefully explain what makes this an extremely strenuous hike and not just a strenuous one, has you sign a document acknowledging you are aware of all the risks you will be subjecting yourself to and finally takes your emergency contact persons' info. There is no doubt it is going to be a long day of hiking.
The trail starts at an elevation of 5,200 feet, and after a flat half mile walk you descend four hundred feet in four-tenths of a mile, about a fifty degree incline. Whatever the slope, it was very steep with lots of loose rocks. We were to find out later that we unknowingly took the more difficult of the two routes down. As you make your way down you can’t help but dread the inevitable climb back up at the end of the day.
From the bottom you then follow the Left Fork of North Creek upstream for about three and a half miles, gaining six hundred feet of elevation along the way. The goal is to find the most efficient route as there is not really much of a trail. Sometimes this involves walking through the river, which has lots of slick rocks and small waterfalls to climb over and at other times walking along the riverbank. You scramble over boulders, under and over fallen trees and there are obstacles everywhere. I lost count of how many times we crossed the river, fortunately it was only waist high at the deepest. It is pretty grueling, especially when you count the extra weight of the water in your neoprene socks and add a thirty pound camera bag to the equation. But the weather was perfect and the fall colors were almost at their peak.
The scenery during this part of the hike is not very spectacular which is probably a good thing as it allows you to focus on keeping your footing to avoid injury. The National Park Service has to rescue lost or injured hikers every couple of weeks and it's a major undertaking as there is no easy helicopter access. It is something you definitely want to avoid.
After a few hours, the walls of the canyon close in as you approach the Subway. All of the scenic highlights are in located in the last quarter mile or so. You know you are close when you can feel the temperature drop and the wind pick up as it gets funneled through the narrow canyon.
First you arrive at a cascading series of waterfalls named Archangel Falls.
Next, the crack, a six inch wide deep groove in the rock that runs for about fifty yards and which carries a large volume of the river flow.
And finally one last crawl up and over another obstacle and you arrive at the inner chamber of the Subway itself.
From inside the Subway you can see other hikers coming down from an alternative route that requires technical canyoneering skills and swimming through pools. It is a tough one to do if you are trying to carry cameras in addition to the necessary ropes and dry suits, so most photographers (and hikers) do the hike from the bottom up.
Then it's back out the way you just came, hoping you don't trip, run out of water, or miss the turn off to head back up the cliff. This time we took the easier trail up, but it's still a long, miserable ascent. Then the flat half mile stretch, which at this point seems a lot longer than that, and you are back to the parking lot. All in all a total of nine miles round trip in nine hours.
Not a hike I'd want to repeat but definitely a bucket list item crossed off.
The above photo of a kiva in Pecos National Monument just outside of Santa Fe is an example of using light beams to give your photos a more dramatic effect. Typically these shafts of light are pretty muted and don't photograph particularly well. A trick you can use to accentuate them is to throw a handful of sand in the air, and for the next few seconds the reflection of the grains of sand will make the light beam come to life. Its important to take several pictures as the intensity of the reflection will fall off within a few seconds. This technique is commonly done by the Navajo guides in Antelope Canyon (see my earlier post) as well.
One important thing to remember is to grab a ziplock bag or some plastic to cover your camera from the sand that will be floating around, as it can get into your lens and cause serious damage. The first time I visited Antelope Canyon my lens jammed from all the fine sand swirling around, costing me the opportunity to take a lot more images as well as several hundred dollars worth of repairs. Also be sure to bring a soft cloth or brush to carefully wipe down your lens as this dust can build up fast.