The grand scale of Angkor Wat is second only to the level of detail enshrined. Amidst the monumental structures are unending bas relief carvings and statues that tell a story of a kingdom at peace, at war, and at the peak of its prowess. Anthony Lau, an award-winning photographer, shares how Sony’s G Master trinity lenses tell of Angkor Wat’s complex tales with its sophisticated technology.
Anthony Lau won the Grand Award of the “National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year” contest in 2016. Since then, he has been collaborating with National Geographic and other brands for projects in the Chinese region. Anthony switched to the Sony system in 2013. Since then, he has travelled with the Alpha mirrorless systems and G Master series lenses from the frozen tundra in Churchill of Canada to the infinite grasslands in Maasai Mara of Kenya. In his latest adventure to Angkor Wat, Anthony shares his thoughts on the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site in Cambodia and how the G Master trinity helps him to capture its beauty down to the smallest details.
Alpha 7R III | FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS | 1 sec | f/9 | ISO 50
Every detail has a history
During the 12th century, King Suryavarman II built the spectacular Angkor Wat as a homage to the Hindu God Vishnu. Also known as the City of Temples, it was the capital of the powerful Khmer Empire and is an architectural masterpiece of fine proportions and detail—the apex of classical Khmer style. The grand scale of the palace-temple complex is second only to the level of detail enshrined. Amidst the monumental structures are unending bas relief carvings and statues that tell a story of a kingdom at peace, at war, and at the peak of its prowess. It is easy to imagine it buzz with rhythmic chanting of holy men and the feverish footsteps of palace attendants.
Sony G Master lenses represent the cream of the crop with its sophisticated technology. They are the perfect tools to capture these magnificent monuments.
Alpha 7R III | FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM | 1/200 sec | f/16 | ISO 320
Capturing the true colors of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is Angkor’s most impressive temple, built to mimic Mount Meru, the center of Hindu cosmology. Viewed from a distance, the temple’s five prasats or sanctuary towers represent the peaks of the sacred mountains, while the moats mirror the oceans that surround Mount Meru. However, it’s the 600 m-long bas reliefs covering the galleries that hold greatest intrigue to visitors. They tell the tales of the conquest of Kurukshetra, the procession of Suryavarman II, and many legends from Hindu mythology. The sun has bathed the magical Angkor Wat gallery in every hue possible for a thousand years, but only a G Master lens can do justice to its true color and awe-inspiring presence.
What were your thoughts in terms of composition and lighting when capturing the scene? And how did G Master lens help you achieve your vision?
Making the most of the beautiful light at different times of the day was crucial. The break of dawn covers the entire temple with warm hues. As the morning sun passes behind the five prasats, photographers have a wonderful opportunity to shoot dramatic backlit shots. The evening also presents a chance to capture people ambling through the golden galleries.
G Master lenses are well known for their resolution power, corner-to-corner sharpness, creamy bokeh, minimal distortion, and accurate color reproduction. The G Master lenses exceled in all these areas with the use of XA (extreme aspherical) lens, which basically eliminated light-ray misalignment, for optimal image quality even at maximum aperture. Paired with the original Sony Nano AR Coating, light transmission is very accurate, resulting in notable improvement in clarity and contrast.
How did Angkor Wat’s beautiful galleries and golden light inspire you as a photographer?
Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument and my knowledge of Hindu mythology allowed me to focus my creative effort on the key locations inside Angkor Wat.
It was a mesmerizing experience capturing the carvings. As the sun descended towards the horizon, the golden tint reflected by the sandstone surface became truly radiant. The interplay between the pillars’ shadows and sauntering visitors created an ever-changing projection against the walls. It reminded me that photography is about light and its interaction with a subject, and the mission of a photographer is to anticipate and capture the most impactful moment.
How does one faithfully capture the golden-colored galleries and still keep sufficient detail in the shadows of the pillars?
Timing is of the essence: Arrive at the location early and get ready for the evening light as it shines on the galleries. I will also stop down the exposure value by -0.3 to -0.7 to protect the highlights. Thanks to the excellent dynamic range of the Sony Alpha 7 mirrorless camera system, the shadow areas retained a lot detail that is easily extracted in post-processing. It is also a good practice to check the histogram for an accurate review of the exposure and apply necessary adjustment.
Alpha 7R III | FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS | 1/8 sec | f/13 | ISO 50
Every detail, faithfully captured
On almost every surface, on every wall, there is a story being told at Banteay Srei—the Citadel of Women. Dedicated to the Shiva, the pink sandstone temple features the most intricate carvings of all the temples at Angkor and is home to extravagant carvings based on legends from Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The architect’s choice of hard pink sandstone ensured that every nuance on each façade survived the test of time and nature. That is why the temple is known as the ‘Jewel of Khmer Art.’ The temple is highly significant for its dense collection of mythological narratives in pediments and lintels. Banteay Srei’s miniature-like scale sets it apart from other temples in Angkor. It is indeed fertile ground to test the edge-to-edge sharpness of a Sony G Master lens. With the Sony 70-200 GM lens, all the details of this magnificent architectural wonder are faithfully captured.
When shooting the ornate details of the main temple structure, what were your thoughts in terms of composition and lighting? How did your choice of G Master lens help you achieve your vision?
The most elaborate carvings, and best-preserved part of the temple, are in the inner enclosure, which housed two libraries and a sanctuary, and is also prohibited to enter. Thankfully, the Sony 70-200 G Master lens’ long reach saved the day. I focused on capturing the ornamentations, decorative frames, and edges of the tower, keeping the key elements intact. The distortion-free performance from the Sony 70-200 G Master lens kept the vertical lines straight. I also shot different angles and locations, in order to capture the ever-changing light, shadow, and color.
How did Banteay Srei’s rich architectural details inspire you as a photographer?
I dare to say that Banteay Srei is the most well-preserved monument in Angkor. Its exquisite ornamentations covered most of the temple and showed Khmer civilization and craftsmanship at its best. On the lintels, you could see detailed descriptions of the Ramayana, my favorite being the two Monkey brothers Vlin and Sugriva battling for the crown. The depictions were so dramatic and detailed; I could feel the intensity of the battle. Kissed by the evening sun, the colors continued to change as the sun went down below the forest lines; I just couldn’t stop myself capturing the monument at every possible angle.
The faces of perfection
The Bayon, the center temple of Angkor Thom, is one of the most enigmatic and powerful religious constructions in the world. It reveals the phases of religious worship, from the Pantheon of the Gods, Hinduism, and Buddhism. When Anthony Lau first laid eyes upon The Bayon––he was awe-struck by the ornate details. Built by King Jayavarman VII, it has a ‘baroque’ quality and is vastly different from the classic style of Angkor Wat. The most stunning feature of the Bayon Temple belongs to the 200 gigantic stone faces. Also known as the Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia, they depict a level of artistic perfection that is truly captivating to the photographer. The statues meld facial features of King Jayavarman VII with the serenity of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and stand resplendent in the jungle setting. It was a great chance to put the resolution of the Sony FE24-70 G Master lens to the test.
Alpha 7R III | FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS | 1/500 sec | f/16 | ISO 1000
Known as the Mona Lisa of SE Asia, how did the massive faces at The Bayon inspire you?
It’s been said one can’t hide from their gaze. At every step, at every angle, I can feel the compassionate gaze of these majestic faces. Capturing an image here is a very spiritual experience due to my family’s connection to Buddhism. I wanted to recreate the experience with my photos, filling the frame with these benevolent faces, without any distraction from other elements.
Any tips on choosing vantage points or time of day to bring out the best of these giant carvings?
The best vantage point is on the upper open platform, where some of the best-preserved carvings can be found. However, the walkway is narrow and always crowded with visitors during peak hours, so I visited The Bayon before the break of dawn. At this time of the day, I am free to compose the shot, experiment with different focal lengths and angles, and be present to capture the first rays of sunlight on the sculpted faces.
For an “eye-level” portrait of these giant carvings, make use of the narrow stairs around the platform to gain elevation or simply use a monopod to hold your camera higher. As this is a sacred temple, it is paramount that we show our respect by not touching the statues or attempt to scale the walls.
Since the stone faces are set apart, shooting at F11 or above is necessary to achieve sufficient depth of view. For tack-sharp images, select a shutter speed that is at least equal to 1/focal length used (e.g. at least 1/70 sec shutter speed when shooting at 70 mm) to minimize camera shake when shooting without a tripod.
Bringing ancient royal terraces to life
Alpha 7R III | FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM | 1/2000 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 100
Which aspect of the Royal terraces was interesting to you as a photographer?
I spent a good amount of time at the Terrace of Leper King. This location really stands out for a number of reasons.
The Terrace is filled with countless carvings of highly intricate deities and mythic creatures, all within arm’s reach—just perfect for close-up shots. Thankfully, the details on these carvings are in excellent conditions due to its double-wall construction, with the outer wall protecting the inner wall. What's more, the quality of light is amazing there; the reflected light from the red-hued outer wall enveloped the statues in a warm glow.
Located next to the Ancient Royal Palace, King Jayavarman VII constructed the royal terraces, which became an important part of Khmer palace life. They were used to host foreign dignitaries and public ceremonies. The Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King were built in the same style as The Bayon. Amidst high reliefs of elephants, multi-headed Naga snakes, and warriors, the statue of The Leper King sits on top of the terrace. According to the Yuan Dynasty envoy, Zhou Daguan, the King heard the plights of his people from these beautiful terraces. Walking through these hallowed grounds with the Sony 16-35 G Master lens, Anthony Lau could almost hear and see the terraces come to life.
What were your thoughts when photographing the close-up shots of these carvings in the terraces? And how did G Master lens help you achieve your vision?
Finding the best “face” with enough detail for a close-up shot was my first thought. Then I started to experiment with various focal lengths, angles, and the distance between my lens and the subjects. My aim was to maximize the impact from the natural light, so that the subject’s features could be enhanced while generating beautiful bokeh from the background.
The Sony 16-35 G Master is just perfect in here as I can freely compose my shots around the tight corners and narrow corridors in the terrace. The short minimum focus distance at 0.28 m put me right next to these ancient faces. The circular 11-blade aperture paired with the optical quality of the lens helped me isolate the subject by turning the background into creamy bokeh.
Any advice for photographers on shooting the terraces?
If you have limited time in Angkor, the Inner Wall of The Terrace of Leper King is definitely worth photographing. Get there at midday for the best lighting conditions, as the overhead sun shines into the narrow corridor. At this time of the day, the sun is extremely bright, so be prepared to stop down the exposure in order to protect the highlight.