Culture
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Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most sacred sites of buddhism in Myanmar and one of the biggest, gold-est temples I’ve ever seen.

Put this one at the top of your list if you are planning a visit to Yangon – it’s a stunning site that no photographer should miss.

I went to Myanmar a few weeks ago on a tour with Flashpack tours, which I would totally recommend, and this was the first location we visited.

We went around 5pm which was ideal as it was getting close to sunset. Both the sunset golden hour and the blue hour after are great times to visit the temple and shoot.

Temple Wear

You’ll probably hear this advice about all the temple sites in Myanmar – but I’ll put it here just in case.

Cover your shoulders which means avoid sleeveless, strappy tops. However a short-sleeved t-shirt is just fine.

Cover your knees. Women can wear capris or wrap a sarong. Men can wear longer shorts or even a longyi – the local version of a sarong that many men wear.

Do not wear your shoes or socks in the temple area but walk barefoot, the temples are clean although the floor can get hot in the midday sun.

The Nitty Gritty

Best Time of DayThe golden and blue hours are the best time to visit the temple for photography.
Golden Hour Calculator
Versatile GearA good walkaround lens will work here.
Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM
Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR II
Performance GearUltra-wide angle lens to fit the giant pagoda!
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM Lens
Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 EX DC HSM Super Wide Angle Lens for Nikon
AccessoriesA travel tripod could allow for unique shots as it gets darker.
Wirecutter Rec: Dolica Ultra Premium Lightweight Tripod

Photography at Shwedagon Pagoda

Unlike a church, most of the temples we visited in Myanmar were not super quiet or formal. They are pretty full of life, with children around, people walking, praying, making offerings, taking photos.

It’s okay to photograph most of the temple scenes, including the Buddha statues. A lot of the locals will be taking photos as well, including monks taking selfies!

Just be considerate of others, respectful and aware of your surroundings. Don’t do the backwards-walking photographer bit or you might trip over a praying devotee.

Funny story, the whole time I was hoping to catch a good photo of a monk.

Then, at one point, a young monk asked if he could take a photo with us and a crowd of locals gathered and started taking photos of our group.

Perhaps they had been hoping to catch a good photo of a tourist!

Burmese Monk

Exposure
1/5s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 2000
Focal Length
74mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1474915060

Compelling images

The Shwedagon temple site is pretty large – with the large, golden pagoda being the main focus, surrounded by lots of stupas and prayer halls.

The site can be very busy visually – a bit too busy unless you are careful. I mean it’s just chock full of temples, pagodas, halls, buddhas, people, children, tourists, etc… so you need to watch how much ends up in your frame. Or else your photos will feel unfocused.

One way to simplify is to limit the colors or subjects in the image.

I loved the fresh white stupas with the gold tops – I felt the simple white enhanced the gold as well as the colorful clothing of the locals, without getting too busy.

White prayers halls at Shwedagon

Exposure
1/2000s ƒ/4.5 @ ISO 1250
Focal Length
10mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1474911174

You can also get a more focused image by shooting details. Do this by zooming in, or looking up.

White and Gold at Shwedagon

Exposure
1/1000s ƒ/6.3 @ ISO 1250
Focal Length
10mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1474911290

Buddha and candles

Exposure
1/1000s ƒ/6.3 @ ISO 1250
Focal Length
10mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1474911290

Temple Traditions

Try to capture some of the local life and traditions surrounding the temple as well – this is an important cultural and religious site for the locals.

Watch for a good moment at the day corners around the pagoda. The day corners (such as Tuesday Corner) are meant for people born on that day to make their offerings.

Shwedagon Tuesday corner

Exposure
1/160s ƒ/7.1 @ ISO 1250
Focal Length
56mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1474911854

If you hang out near one of the bells, cross your fingers that eventually a cute Burmese child will show up to ring the bell.

I find that sometimes you find a part of your image, like this bell, but it’s not the whole picture. It takes a human being to breathe some life into the real image.

After you get the shot, you can ring the bell yourself, it makes a beautiful sound.

Burmese child ringing buddhist bell

Exposure
1/80s ƒ/5 @ ISO 1250
Focal Length
18mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1474912566

Shooting the Golden Pagoda

Of course the center focus of this site is the huge, gold pagoda in the middle. You can’t miss it!

It’s so large, it’s actually pretty hard to shoot without an ultra-wide lens, and then you have to deal with the distortion of going ultra-wide.

Learn how to fix vertical distortion in Lightroom or even on your phone.

I found that it’s best to only partially fix the vertical distortion in post or you risk distorting other parts of the image too much.

As you walk around the pagoda, watch out for spots where you can back away from the pagoda enough to get a good view of it.

Shwedagon Pagoda Photography

As it gets later the gold makes an incredible contrast against the blue hour – this is why it’s best to visit around sunset.

Do you know about the blue hour? Here’s a great article on understanding the golden and blue hours.

On Tripods

They do light up the pagoda at night so you can shoot without a tripod, but of course using a travel tripod (wirecutter recommendation) or monopod would help steady your shots.

I didn’t have a tripod as I rarely travel with one, but I was still able to get some good handheld shots even as it got darker due to the lights.

With a tripod though, you could try some advanced techniques. You might be able to take several shots and remove people or a long exposure that blurs them just enough for effect.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Exposure
1/15s ƒ/6.3 @ ISO 1250
Focal Length
12mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1474913754

shwedagon pagoda

Exposure
1/10s ƒ/6.3 @ ISO 1250
Focal Length
18mm
Camera
Canon EOS 70D
Date & Time
1474914073

The temple is such a beautiful site and you can spend a lot of time there.

Be sure to learn something about the history of the location to make your visit more meaningful.

I went back and forth with shooting and listening to the guide about the history and traditions surrounding Shwedagon.

Are you planning to go and shoot this beautiful location? Feel free to ask any specific questions you might have in the comments.

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Shimona Carvalho
Photographer, Engineer, Traveler who wants to help you take incredible photographs on your next trip.