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Studying photography at Angkor Wat (Siem Reap, Cambodia, January 8-12, 2011)

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This trip has taught me the value of a good camera. We made our way through the Galapagos photographically outclassed by our fellow travelers, our little Canon Powershot the plucky younger brothers of the digital SLRs carried by our shipmates. By the time we got to New Zealand, we figured that it was time to invest in a better camera. We snagged a Canon Rebel XS, as Amazon was having a sale that scored us a free telephoto lens. It's an older model, but we felt that there was no sense in paying top dollar for something that we didn't know how to use.

Indeed, despite the plethora of features, buttons, knobs and dials, I hadn't taken the camera out of automatic until I got to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Siem Reap. These locations overflow with beautiful imagery, but much of it eludes capture by our SLRs automatic settings. More detail after the break.

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A carving at Ta Prohm, the "Tomb Raider" temple

For instance, we visited Ta Prohm -- unofficially known as the "Tomb Raider" temple -- in the middle of the day. Famous for the trees and vegetation growing amidst the crumbling ruins, Ta Prohm was a tourist favorite even before the movie, its new association with Angelina Jolie [1], and the creation of commemorative drinks in Siem Reap bars. However, many of the best shots tend to be taken from the ground pointing upwards, and the Canon's automatic settings tend to overexpose the photo and bleach out the blue sky.

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Not the Tomb Raider tree. Just my favorite one.

The effect is exacerbated in distance shots. Sadly, I didn't learn how to adjust the exposure until long after we'd left Ta Prohm.

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I think this is the "Tomb Raider" tree. I'm not watching the movie to confirm this. The bleaching effect is most noticeable at the top.

Our pictures of the famous stone faces at Bayon, in the Angkor Thom temple complex, suffered the same flaw. There are few places in Bayon from which you can take a picture of the faces without simultaneously capturing a handful of sky. Although I could sometimes play with the settings to get better effects, many of my shots looked like this.

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Although this was the best-case scenario:

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Unsurprisingly, automatic settings tended to work best on the rich variety of wall carvings. Some of my favorite were at the Terrace of the Leper King, another of the features of Angkor Thom. The terrace is supported by a seven meter wall, which is itself sheltered by an exterior wall. Thus, the carvings have been protected from the elements for centuries and are in relatively good condition.

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I felt my lack of photographic knowledge most strongly when we visited Angkor Wat at sunset one evening, and at sunrise the next morning. The automatic settings of the SLR simply refused to focus or take pictures in some low light environments. Even when the sun finally brightened enough at the sunrise session to allow photographs, the automatic settings failed to capture the deep hues of orange and blue that framed the magnificent temple. We got some good photos, but not particularly great ones.

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Inside Angkor Wat at sunset

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Tourists watch the sun go down from the veranda at Angkor Wat

As I mentioned, sunrise photos were made particularly difficult because the automatic features do not function well in low light. I was forced to learn how to adjust the F-stop, exposure time, and other settings pretty much on the fly, which in turn resulted in some acceptable, but not exceptional, shots.

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Angkor Wat at dawn the next day

(As an aside: one oft-forgotten aspect of photography is its ability to reduce reality to the four corners of the snapshot, eliminating everything outside the frame. Looking at this photograph, one imagines the meditative silence of the increasing sunlight illuminating the ancient towers and casting their reflection upon the water. This might have been true a few centuries ago. At present, sunrise at Angkor Wat is a bit of a circus, as you can see below.)

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A Thousand Points of LCD Light: Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Whatever my difficulties with the camera, one thing I am enjoying is the telephoto lens and taking pictures from a distance. I'm including only one of my favorites: this is a small plant growing out of the top of one of Angkor Wat's towers, basking in the early morning light.

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This post is already getting a little long, and there is much more to say about some of the other temples, so I will leave that for another entry. Suffice it to say that I'm now making my way through a number of photography blogs, looking for things that can make this aspect of our journey more colorful. I would love to have several good photos that we could blow up and frame when we return.

[1] We passed six or seven Japanese and Korean tour groups, and I could make out the frequent references to both the movie and its star. Places actually featured in the film were crammed with tourists snapping pictures of friends, family and significant others standing in provocative poses.

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