Things to Keep in Mind When Photographing Temples

Things to Keep in Mind When Photographing Temples

Temples have always been close to my heart. In fact, that is where I started my journey in photography years ago. The divinity in its architecture and the timeless stories etched in it fascinate me. While we can talk about the what and how of temple photography in detail in a future article, this is essentially a list of important things that one has to tick before setting out to photograph temples. Hailing from India, the temples I have shot are mostly rooted here but the points mentioned would apply universally as well.

Respect the Space

Surpassing all our interests are these places of worship that had stood time and seen civilizations flourish around it. More than photographers, as better humans we should respect that fact and approach the temples with a holistic mindset. I believe that is where your journey into picturing temples begins.

Timing Matters

Calm surroundings, the sunrise, soft light, a blissful mood, and very few people; these factors make early mornings unbeatably the best time to shoot temples. Once the sunlight climbs up it will be too harsh, so usually the right time to capture the character of a temple is at dawn. In case you are looking to capture the temple with human element and drama, then evenings are a good time to shoot when there are more people visiting the temple and the sunset light is magical too.

Stay Informed

Almost all the temples have closure timings, and it varies from temple to temple. You wouldn't want to travel far and finally reach a temple that you always wanted to shoot only to find it closed. The opening and closing times are mostly available online. Do some research and check it out, that way you can avoid surprise delays and waits.

Know the Story

Every temple is a trove of timeless stories. It is fascinating to learn it all before you begin to shoot the temple, plus that way you will relate better to the temple and also know what to focus on. As a habit, I attend the heritage talks that happen about the temples I am fascinated about. That’s one way to cover the ground. And it gets better every time you keep revisiting the temple and explore further.

Mind the Order and Embrace the Code

Yes, everyone invites you with a smile inside the temple — until you take out your camera (at least in the case of Indian temples). Tripod? We’ll keep that to a separate discussion some other day. When it comes to temples, some are photography friendly, and it is strictly prohibited in others. Camera permits are available in the allowed premises that you should buy to avoid any hassle in the middle. If the temple is a UNESCO preserved heritage site, then you can write to them and get proper permission prior to visiting. They do allow photography when approached and requested the right way. Especially in Indian temples, they are strict about the dress code at times so make sure you keep a tab on this too.

Picturing the Sanctum? No, Not a Good Idea

Never ever pick out your camera when you are in the central sanctum. Often, photography is not allowed in the central part of any holy worship space and we have to respect that. It might sound fun to sneak through and picture the forbidden areas, but if caught, facing the consequences will be tedious. You don't want to be running between places to resolve a legal conflict.

Indulge, Involve, Shoot

Planning is fine but that doesn’t mean you have to schedule multiple temples in one day and run from pillar to pillar. There is so much to learn, observe, and shoot in every temple. It is wise to do one temple at a time, or even one part of the temple at a time. To me, every statue in a temple looks different every time I see it. You have to be patient for that picture to appear which tells the story in the best way.

Look for a Vantage Point

The beauty of temple architecture is that it gives a new perspective when seen from a different angle every time. Look out for vantage points in and around the temple, sometimes from afar, that would show the entirety of it, but also sometimes up close that would show an interesting view.

Increase the ISO

Let me be clear about this: lighting inside a temple is not really photography worthy in all instances. At places where you'd want to photograph a rare sculpture, you have to take the help of ISO and capture the details. Keep this in mind and ensure that your camera works noiselessly up to ISO 1,600. 

Experience Through Your Eyes

Now, this is the most important aspect in temple photography. It is important for you to experience the temple through your eyes, observe the bliss in the space, and stay lost. After that comes the time to pick up your camera and focus. Enjoying the present is very important and only that will give you amazing memories and pictures when you come back. Like they say: eyes like shutter and mind like lens.

What Is Your Story?

Every temple has its own story. As a photographer, decide how do you want to portray the ones you shoot. Do you want to shoot sculptures or cover the architecture or capture people or document events? It depends on your vision and calling. At the end of the day, it is your imagination and experience that comes together to tell that story you envision. Stay open and experiment. 

Like I said, these are the essentials for anyone who is planning to getting started in temple photography. I hope it helps. With interest and patience, one can capture wonders in this area of photography.

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3 Comments

Tomasz Stramel's picture

A well-worded reminder. Thank you.

Allen Freeman's picture

Good article. I was recently shooting monasteries in Bucharest area and some you are expected to take off your hat, some you are not. (Orthodox you do take it off) Some charge for taking photos some not. I’m always upset when I go somewhere and they base the fee on using a cell phone (free), or a more pro camera (not free). More and more if you care about the quality of your shot people want to charge you. When did photographers start being treated differently from other people? (After 9/11?) You can do just about anything you want at a public beach, but need a permit if taking a photo of someone at it. Or simply get run off if shooting buildings etc. (Even if on a public sidewalk).

Cathleen Shea's picture

Thank you. Wise counsel. :)