Alpha Universe Story Detail

Every detail
has a history

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

Anthony Lau

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 grassland in Maasai Mara of Kenya. In his latest adventure to Angkor Wat, Anthony shares his thoughts on the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site Cambodia and how the G Master trinity helps him to capture its beauty down to the details.

Angkor Wat from afar with twilight as background

Alpha 7R III | FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS | 1 sec | f/9 | ISO 50

Angkor Wat 

Every detail has a history

During the 12th century, King Suryavarman II built the spectacular Angkor Wat as an 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.

Capturing the true colours of Angkor Wat

Alpha 7R III | FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM | 1/200 sec | f/16 | ISO 320

Capturing the true colours of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is Angkor’s most impressive temple, built to mimic Mount Meru, the centre 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 600m long bas reliefs covering the galleries that hold greatest intrigue to visitors. They tell the tales of the conquest Kurukshettra, 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 colour and awe-inspiring presence.

What was your consideration 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 with 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 colour 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 coloured galleries, and still keep sufficient detail in the shadows of the pillars?

Timing is of the essence; do 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 much 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.

Carvings on door and wall in Banteay Srei

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 is faithfully captured.

When shooting the ornate details of the main temple structure, what was your consideration 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 is the inner enclosure, which housed two libraries and a sanctuary, and 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 capture the ever-changing light, shadow and colour.

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 can see detailed description of the Ramayana, my favourite being the two Monkey brothers Vlin and Sugriva, battling for the crown. The depictions are so dramatic and detailed; I can feel the intensity of the battle. Kissed by the evening sun, the colours 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

Any tips for budding photographers on extracting the best level of detail from this scene?

In order to capture the dramatic interplay between the light and shadow, I opted to compose the shot from the side, and shot at f13 for a wide depth-of-field.  A tripod is definitely needed, to reduce motion blur and for a longer exposure time.  When setting up the tripod, avoid placing it on the wooden pathway to avoid camera shake from footsteps.  My advice is to switch off the IBIS (In Built Image Stabilisation), and, use the Sony mobile app to trigger the shot to eliminate camera shake.

Zooming into the photo of the carvings, I was impressed by how natural the colour transition was under the evening sun – the warm red tones melded seamlessly  with the darker moss covered areas. Even in the shadows, one can enjoy the intricate details of the carvings – displaying all the magnificence of the deities and mythic creatures.

The Bayon, the centre temple of Angkor Thom, is one of the most enigmatic and power religious construction 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 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 South East 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.

Close up portrait of three faces carved in stone

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.  Making 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 with these giant carvings, do 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 scared 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 1/70sec shutter speed when shooting at 70mm) to minimize camera shake when shooting without a tripod.

Bringing ancient royal terraces to life

What was your consideration when photographing these massive face carvings? And how did G Master lens help you achieve your vision?

Sony 24-70 G Master lens works perfectly here as I can zoom in to create a “tight portrait” perspective.   Each face was unique with different colour tones, and lighting and the true-to-life colours of the G Master lens really brought out the best of the subject. It was as if the deities had descended for a meeting and I was the event photographer. The G Master lenses achieved superb and unified optical performance throughout the whole zoom range with a direct drive SSM (Super Sonicwave Motor) with high stop position accuracy, high-speed autofocus as well as minimal zoom image shift.  It gave me the confidence to experiment with different focal lengths, and made hand-held shooting that much easier.

Close up of rustic statue against bokeh background in Leper King Terrace

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 arms’ reach–just perfect for up-close 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 gifted a warm glow the statues.

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 in 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 was your consideration 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 consideration. Then I started to experiment with various focal lengths, angles and the distance between my lens and the subjects. My aim was to maximise 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 0.28m 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 very worth photographing. Get there at noontime for the best lighting conditions, as the overhead sun shines into the narrow corridor.  At this time of the day, the sun is extremely strong, so be prepared to stop down the exposure in order to protect the highlight.

Prologue

Angkor Wat is a world heritage site that fascinates. Photographers are drawn to the Angkor Wat; to its splendour, its history, and its memories. There are an infinite number of angles to photograph. A different story to tell in each frame. One could capture its majesty with a wide-angle shot. Get up-close and personal with the bas relief carvings. Or zoom into giant faces hanging on the towers. But to truly do justice to the temples and palaces in Angkor, photographers turn to Sony G Master lenses. Known for their incredible sharpness, true-to-life colours and wonderful out-of-focus rendition, photographers today can spin a rich tapestry of Angkor Wat that is fitting to its significance in world history.

Anthony’s gear

ILCE-7RM3

Alpha 7R III

ILCE-7RM3

SEL1635GM

FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM

SEL1635GM

SEL70200GM

FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM

SEL2470GM

SEL70200GM

FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS

SEL70200GM