Photographing Paro Taktsang
One of the highlights on any trip to Bhutan is a visit to the Tiger's Nest Monastery. This breathtaking structure is also known as Paro Taktsang and is perched tentatively off the cliffs overlooking Paro valley. It is a sacred Himalayan Buddhist site first built in 1692, though a series of fires have required several rounds of restoration. A cluster of temples have been built up around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) is said to have meditated for 3 years, 3 months , 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours. I think he liked the number 3. This Guru was credited at introducing Buddhism to Bhutan. The site gets it's name "Tiger's Nest" as legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress.
1. Get fit:
The site sits at 3120 m above sea level. We kept the hike till the end of our trip to allow for acclimatization. That being said it was not particularly arduous and most reasonably fit people once acclimatized will be able to hike it without issues. There are plenty of shady rest spots so you can go at your own pace. There were certainly many old aunties from India who were slowly making their way up to the site in their sandals and saris. If they can do it, so can you! However, remember that you will be carrying extra weight of your photography equipment. It will be a comprise in how much you are willing to slug up there. In the end I decided on four lenses and a full frame body. I did not bring a tripod as I didn't have one with me on this trip. It may be useful in lower lighting but I often make use of the ground and other ad-hoc items to create my poor-man's tripod.
2. Know your lighting:
This issue is key. The structure technically faces mostly due west. Hiking during the morning will mean that the structure is mostly in shadows. Once 11am is reached the temples will emerge into the light. I studies the light the previous day and suggested to our guide that perhaps going in the afternoon might be better for light. He was disinclined to agree, but perhaps he thought that it would be better for the light in the sense that if we departed early, we could hike mostly in the shade. As we ate lunch in the cafeteria after our visit, the light was only getting better and better. So up I went a second time, camera lens et al. I am so glad I did as the lighting in the afternoon was beautiful and fell much better on the compound. If I was to do it again, I probably would go up early in the morning to see if there was any mist floating around giving it an unearthly aura. And I would go back up again in the late afternoon. I would stay until sunset. The things we do for a good picture! The site is not lite at night so night photography might not be that great unless you are lucky enough to get a clear night and maybe a full moon.
Though Bhutan is not overrun with Tourists, this site along with the TImphu Tsechu draws a fair amount. That being said it is still a spectacular site to behold and worth the visit (or two). Take note that most tourists go early in the morning. It is probably cooler and more shade. On my second hike after lunch, I did not see a single tourist. There were a few local people, but not a single damn tourist! I had the place to myself. I strongly urge you to consider an afternoon visit. Better lighting and less tourists - you do that math!
4. Inside photography:
Photography inside the temple is strictly forbidden. No bags or cameras allowed. Bring a lock as you can check your bag and equipment in a small locker. You will be searched for any recording device and will not be permitted to bring it in. This includes all camera and phones. Remember that this is a sacred place and you are very lucky to be able to see it. So cameras off and soak it in.
As I mentioned in the "get fit" blurb, pack what you need as you must carry everything up with you. That being said there are horses that will carry you as far as the cafeteria. You are on your own after that. I brought the following lenses:
i. Canon Zoom Lens EF 24-105mm 1:4 L IS USM
ii. Canon Zoom Lens EF 70-200mm 1:4 L IS USM
iii. Canon Wide Angle 16-35mm IS L
iv. Canon Lens TS-E 45 mm 1:2.8
In the end I used mostly the 24-105mm zoom lens and the 70-200mm zoom lens. The tilt-shift was fun but I am still learning this one. The wide angle was not used too much either. I didn't bring a tripod and just made do with either my bag, a branch or a ledge.
6. Vantage Points:
There are many vantage points along the way. I stuck to the "short cut" trails which had a few extra vantage points and less traffic. It is hard to get lost as they just take you off the main path and back again without the threat of horses running past you. As the day passed and the crowds thinned out, you will have the place to yourself to photograph so just be patient.