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. Visit around sunset so you can catch the golden hour but don’t leave early. Shwedagon Pagoda at night is intense!
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.
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.
Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. – David McCullough
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
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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 be so unaware of your surroundings that you get in the way of locals praying or make it hard for them to do their ritual.
I like this quote from David McCullough which says, “Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” Remember you are here to see their world and sights, not for them to see you.
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!
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.
You can also get a more focused image by shooting details. Do this by zooming in, or looking up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shwedagon Pagoda at Night
They do light up Shwedagon 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.
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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