The do’s and don’ts of temple photography

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The do’s and don’ts of temple photography

For many foreign photographers in Korea, Buddhist temples are among the most enticing of subjects. I have photographed Buddhist temples and events for some 30 or so years in Japan and Korea, during which time I picked up a few worthwhile lessons.
First, there are some cultural issues to keep in mind. Buddhist temples are obviously places of worship, a fact that should never be forgotten ― no matter how determined one may be to “get that shot.” It means, among other things, refraining from smoking and speaking in a loud voice when one is within the walls of a temple. Though not required, it is good manners to greet the monks and nuns with a Buddhist bow that includes putting one’s hands together as if in prayer ― rather like that most Buddhist of countries, Thailand.
Second, be mindful of where you may and may not wear shoes. While it may be obvious not to wear shoes within a temple itself, there are often outdoor plazas that are kept clean for worshipers to prostrate themselves. Shoes must not be worn within these well-marked areas.
Third, not all temples permit photographs to be taken of the interior Buddhist images. Some places seem not to really care, while others will admonish a photographer that, “Buddha doesn’t like to have his photograph taken.”
Frankly speaking, interior Buddhist image shots usually don’t make for great photographs, beyond simply documenting that a particular statue or painting is located within a certain building. However, if one chooses to take such a photograph, be discreet and do it quickly, from just outside the doorway.
While I often make landscape-type temple photographs, they are usually for my own recollection rather than for taking really good photographs ― personally, I find that better photographs deal with details.
A favorite image is of Korean rubber shoes parked in front of a colorful door. While this idea has become a cliche, I’m often surprised how one can come up with new variations on this old theme. One way to give new life to this shot is to vary the angle including getting down low and shooting up.
Other favorite subjects may be close-ups of painted ― either freshly or faded ― beams. Also, Korean temple doors offer some wonderful details. I am often delighted by what worshipers leave behind as offerings. Some things are even playful in nature, such as miniature Buddhist statuary and dolls. With incense burning or a lit candle, such close ups can make for some whimsical subjects.
When appropriate, I often include people, since people-shots on average tend to make more interesting photographs than just buildings and sky. However, some of my favorite photographs are devoid of people.
While one may take candid photographs of monks and nuns, I recommend whenever appropriate to try to first build a rapport and ask for their permission. Many monks and nuns are good sports about this sort of thing and can pose for some endearing images. On the other hand, if your request is rejected, do the honorable thing and comply with the other person’s wishes.
Korean worshipers tend to be tolerant of photographers, but I strongly urge discretion in respect of their faith. They are there to worship and not to be photographed. With some empathy, one may still get a decent shot, like the one I took recently in Samcheon-sa, near Gupabal, north of Seoul.
Finally, I often find myself arriving around noon at temples. Usually the light is not very attractive. If one has the option, I strongly recommend scoping out the location but waiting until at least 4 p.m. to take photos. The light is generally most attractive before 10 a.m. Using digital cameras, a photographer can practice at midday and erase the material if you find yourself running out of space. Regardless, subjects in shadows are normally good at anytime of the day.
Enjoy your next temple visit, good luck on your photography, and please be empathetic to the feelings of your Korean hosts.


by Tom Coyner

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