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Photo Tips When Visiting Bhutan

What gear to bring?

  • 35mm gear:
    lenses: I recommend at least one wide angle lense in the 24-35mm range for the wide views and a telephoto covering 100-200mm for to get closer pictures of masked dancers at crowded festivals. If you use primes keep in mind that you may not be able to "zoom by walking back and forth" in some situations (steep slopes on a trek or a crowded tshechu festival).

    filters: Bring at least a polariser - especially useful for during midday festival dances in the dry season, or to cut down reflections from the wet vegetation during the monsoons. A warming filter may help in cloudy conditions in the monsoon season time.

    tripods are manageable for treks (pack ponies) and cultural tours (cars). but forget about using one at a tshechu festival, you wont find the space.

  • film:
    You will find mostly 35mm print film. The following is what's available in Thimphu. Selections will be limited in all other towns. Colour print film is easy to come by in Thimphu. Mostly consumer versions of Kodak and Konica and sometime Fuji in ISO 100, 200 and 400 (all 36 exposures). They cost around Nu 100-150 (Nu46=US$1 in Dec 2003). Slide film is difficult to come by, I would suggest you bring enough yourself. As for black and white film, you may occasionally find Kodak 400CN chromogenic.
  • batteries:
    Good alkalines batteries are now easier to find in Thimphu. I would suggest that you stick to the international brands (duracell, energiser, national etc). Cheaper knockoffs and Indian brands will run out quickly or give you problems at low temperatures.

    Lithium batteries CR123 and CR2 batteries are available in Thimphu, Paro (not sure abou other places) but you have to know where to look for them. They are usually in the smaller stalls selling imported goods in the "shopping complexes".

  • airline restrictions:
    You will be flying into Bhutan on a "small" plane (BAe 146 carrying about 70 passengers) with baggage weight restrictions. In economy class, you are allowed 20kg checked baggage, and in executive class, its 30 kgs. Carry ons will be limited by size as well. If you are willing to pay for excess baggage and are willing to check in your gear, you have that option as well. For more details see the Druk Air website.

photographing conditions

  • Tshechu festivals:
    Most of the tshechu festivals are in the dry season during or after the harvest (late Sept to march) so you are likely to get a lot of bright high altitude sun. Most masked dances will begin around 8 or 9am and go on until late afternoon. So expect clear and bright skies (most of the time).

    It will be crowded with people from all over the valleys attending the festival in their finest clothes. You will find good opportunities to photograph ordinary bhutanese people as well as dancers and monks. You will need a telephoto of atleast 100mm focal length to get close up of masks and masked dancers from crowded sidelines - a zoom covering atleast 80-200mm is recommended. A polariser and lens hood is advisable. Since you will be in the dzong or monastary most of the day, its also a good opportunity to photograph the architecture and wall paintings and carvings.

    Tshechu festivals are living traditions and also because it'll be mostly in crowded coutyards of dzongs and monastaries, please observe your etiquette -your guide should brief you on this.

  • Treks:
    Most treking routes will take you to high altitude passes (3000m - 5000 meters) but you may begin your trek at around 1800 to 2400 meters. The vegetation changes accordingly from warm moist broadleaved forests through pine forests through mixed conifers and broadleaved temperated forests up to fir and alpine pastures. The best trekking season is in the fall and spring. It is also relatively dry at this time since the monsoons have either not yet arrived or just ended.

    There will be pack ponies (yaks at higher altitudes) to carry all the trekking gear so you do not have to worry too much about weight. You will only need a daypack or a hip pack to carry what you may need on hand.

    If you start walking really early in the morning, you will encounter pheasants and sometimes other wildlife on the trail. Watch out for bears in the fruiting season (autumn) - stick with the group. In the wet season in warm areas, especially on the Gasa Punakha route, you'll find a lot orchids and birds but if you stray off the trail you'll be sure to pick up leeches. Tucking pants into socks is no use - a good leech repellent is anti-mosquito cream. Apply the cream liberally on your leg from your ankles to above the knee and also around the shoe. If you see one starting to clib your shoe, flick it off with your finger.

  • cultural tours:
    Besides the tshechu festivals, you will be visiting monastaries and sites of cultural and historical significance and sceniv viewpoints. There will be opportunity to visits a few traditional art schools, museums and also some traditional farmhouse visits. Most of your travels will be in a bus, van or car (depending on your group size) and sites are within easy walking distance from the vehicle so weight should not be a problem. Lot of opportunities for landscape, architecture and cultural photography.

Photography ettiquette

  • in monastaries, temples and dzongs:
    Photography inside most monastaries, temples and dzongs (fortress monastaries) is restricted in order to preserve the sanctity of the place (behaviour of tourists in the past like theft and disturbance of monks and objects was a major factor). You can however photograph in the coutyards and surrounding areas. If you are travelling with a tour group, your guide will be able to tell you when it is not appropriate to take photographs.

  • at tshechu festivals:
    These festivals are living traditions and people come not only to watch and enjoy the masked dances but also because of religious faith. If you want a good spot, you will have to come and reserve your own spot just like everyone else - best location if you want to sit is on the south side of the courtyard, otherwise you have all back-lit dancers. If you must move up in front of the crowd to get a shot of a dancer, do so at accessible areas, and move off when you're done. Bring a long telephoto or zoom of at least 100mm focal length if you want any kind of close up shots. This is also the opportunity to take photographs inside courtyards of some dzongs (cameras are not allowed in the courtyard of some dzongs).

  • with people:
    Although most Bhutanese people do not mind their pictures being taken, it would not be impolite to ask their permission first. In urban areas, a lot of the younger people may become self conscious when you point your camera at them. However, outside of the major urban areas, most people will break out into a smile and willingly pose for you. Most children everywhere will be willing to have their pictures taken. However, sometimes a few people (mostly school children) may ask you to send a copy of the picture of you took and will give you their name and mailing address.

  • nature:
    Bhutan is one of the best remaining representatives of the Eastern Himalayan environment and forms a major part of this "global hotspot for biodiversity". The kingdom's policy is to strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation. If you are on a trek (or even stopped somewhere along the road) you may come want to take pictures of plants, animals or birds. However, don't expect to see animals like on an African safari because most the habitats are dense forests and the topography very rugged.

Processing film in Bhutan

Unless you really need it, just don't! A lot of the labs in Thimphu tend to produce green or blue tinted prints. I have to take the trouble of finding a friend or colleague travelling to India or Bangkok to take my film for me. This is a real hassle because I am not sure of consistency in what I get.

Update October 2003:
In the last year, a few more labs have come up in Thimphu that provide 1 hour services. They seem to do a decent enough job with negative film. A roll of 36 exposure film will cost about Nu. 250 (US$5) for process and print at 4x6. size. For critical work, I would still not do my processing here.

E6 processing is still not available in Bhutan.

all images thinley namgyel