Capturing the ancient temples of Bagan at sunset.

Bagan at sunset can be absolutely mesmerizing. They get some fantastic sunsets here, mainly in the dry season though. Even if there are no clouds, you’ll still be treated with beautiful colorful skyglow. People tend to think clouds are bad for sunsets, but you need clouds to get those beautiful colors. It’s all about the light shining on the clouds, which gives those beautiful skies. Actually the best sunset is a sky covered in clouds, with a little opening right where the sun is. A situation like that will give you the most incredible sky you can wish for. 

Access denied

It is extremely unfortunate though that now all temples are closed for sunset. It’s like going to the best roller-coaster park in the world and you’re only allowed to watch it. It’s all still magical and worth visiting, but the best, most impressive part of the whole Bagan experience is no more. From a photographers perspective it’s a huge disappointment. We’ve all seen those photos with those great views, overlooking countless temples. No one is ever going to get those shots again. Except of course if you’re flying a drone. Or if perhaps they might open some of them again. But still, the part of going inside the temple, looking around, then going up the narrow stairway and being greeted with the spectacular views you’ve ever seen. That was the best part. Seeing Bagan at sunset or sunrise or any time actually, just isn’t the same anymore. But if you don’t know the difference, you don’t know what you’re missing.

I was still lucky to arrive when they were in the process of closing them down. They took over a year to close them down one by one. 15 temples were still open during my first visit in 2018, 7 when I arrived half a year later, all closed now. The reason for this is the incidents that have occurred, people falling off the temples, some even dead. I have never understood those people take such risks on the temples. 

Shooting with flash

I remember my first time at Bagan in 2012. I was on top of a small temple watching the sunset, behind me was the huge Shwesandaw temple. There were hundreds of people on that temple, everyone shooting as if their life depended on it.  You could see them shoot, because many had their flash on. It was like a disco show. The sunset was beautiful, but right after the sun had dipped below the horizon, everyone left. Right then the sky colored an incredible red color, majestic, truly unique. Barely anyone saw it. 

A flash has a range of only a few meters. Shooting a sunset with a flash is useless. Actually, there’s a bigger chance of your photo not coming out nice. If there’s any smoke or mist nearby, it turns white and destroys the photo. Don’t use the flash for sunsets please.

Watching a sunset isn’t just about watching the sun itself. It’s mainly about watching the light that occurs during a sunset. This means it might look even better behind you! Always keep looking around. It’s all about the light hitting the clouds. You’ll have better photos with the sun in your back, because you’ll have a nice lit scene with less contrast. Often the best part of a sunset is after the sun has gone down. Stick around for a bit!

Gear

Nikon D750 + D800 + D850 with Nikkor 20/1.8, 16-35/4 and 28-300/3.5-5.6

Other links

Watch the full Bagan photo series and other Myanmar photos at my portfolio.
Don’t miss my Myanmar travel guide and other Myanmar posts at my blog.

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