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Photographing Bhutan

Fine art travel photographer David Lazar first became fascinated with Bhutan after winning a photography contest in 2010, and then enjoying the fruits of his first prize – a free trip to the mysterious, “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. When he had the chance to return earlier this year, he could not have been happier! This is quite befitting in a country where the government actually has programs for the mental and spiritual wellbeing of its citizens, and measures what it terms, Gross National Happiness.

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Monk near Punhaka Dzong, Thimpu

Sandwiched between India in the south and Tibet in the north, Bhutan was for many centuries controlled by one or the other. It was in 1634 that Bhutan defeated Tibet in the Battle of Five Lamas and began its life as an independent kingdom. While it became a British protectorate for a time, (English is well and widely spoken to this day), clearly the most profound and deepest influences came from Tibet and the Kagyu school of Tibetan style Mahayana Buddhism.

Walking into a Bhutanese monastery for the first time and taking in the beauty of a great thongdro (tapestry) and other works of Buddhist art, along with the mesmerizing sounds of monks chanting, is quite an extraordinary experience. Of course you cannot go in gripping and ripping. Shoes off, with permission, you enter quietly and respectfully and do your utmost not to disturb anyone, while taking select frames.

Places to visit with wonderful photo opportunities range from the charming streets of the capital city of Thimpu, which may be the only capital city in the world without traffic lights; to massive centuries old fortress monasteries called dzongs; to simply awesome high mountain landscapes and 10,000 foot high rice paddies in the clouds!

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Monks Milling in Court Yard, Punakha Dzong
NIKON D800 @ 24mm, ISO 640, 10/8000, f/6.3

The Autumn and Spring religious festivals with masked dancers are also fun and exciting to photograph, as well as pastoral farms and villages that look much as they did a century ago. Prayer wheels of all sizes are a common site, and even more common are colorful prayer flags serving both to adorn and to remind people of their spiritual awareness and kindness toward all sentient beings.

There’s no need to worry about hordes of tourists in Bhutan, or hordes of anything for that matter. There are only 800,000 people in a country roughly the size of Switzerland, which has ten times the population. The government currently issues only about 70,000 international tourist visas a year, and is keen to keep the country pristine and prevent over-development. Compare it to Thailand with 35 million yearly visitors, or neighboring India with 10 million, and you get the picture.

David’s story angle – since it’s virtually impossible to separate Bhutan from its Buddhism visually or otherwise – could not have come more naturally. For this article we asked him about his recent second visit to the kingdom.

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Ascending – Bhutanese Monks in Monastery, Chamkar Valley

David Lazar – The 2010 trip was an unexpected treat and I was thrilled to have the opportunity, even if only for a week. It was plenty enough time though, to fall in love with the warm and welcoming people and their iconography. Their genuine warmth made establishing personal relationships natural and easy. Such relationships, while often brief, are what makes my style of travel photography possible. They’re also what keeps me coming back to certain places time and again. Of course managing to capture a few successful images to build a body of work on doesn’t hurt either!

While I was reluctant to leave the country eight years ago, I knew I’d find a way to return at some point. So when the opportunity to design a Spring 2019 Bhutan photography tour workshop arose, of course I jumped at the chance!

There’s never enough time, but I was rather happy with the 2018 results and hope PL readers will enjoy the images. I’ve included a backstory on several I hope will be of interest as well.

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Luminous Novice with Butter Lamp, Domkhar Festival

This novice monk was working in a dark room with some window and door light on preparations for the Domkhar Festival. At most angles, I knew the light would be too dark to capture a photo of this monk that had any impact. I decided I would need to position him next to the window and have him angled enough toward the light to get that bright window light on his face in this otherwise low light condition. After spending some time in and out of this room photographing the festival outside and some still life scenes inside, the monk became familiar with me and at that time I asked him if I could take a photo of him. He agreed, and I indicated that I wanted to do it near the window and indicated where I wanted him to sit with the butter lamp. To have a clean and complimentary background, I asked someone else who entered the room to hold the curtain of the window up behind him. Now the portrait has strong light, and a clean background with complimentary colours that brings all attention to the main subject.

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Novice Monks Reading Prayers Together, Gangtey.

Monks in Bhutan generally often come from poor families or from more remote rural areas. Entering the monastery provides a means of support and education, as well as high standing in the family and community at large. Young novices enter the monastery as young as 4-years old, and likely spend the rest of their lives as monastics. It’s a disciplined life of Buddhist and general studies, doing chores with practiced awareness, and meditation. They also have free time for play, and football! Taking photos of kids this age is usually pretty easy, and these three didn’t pay any attention to me until after I had gotten down to their level and made several snaps.

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Prayer Beads and Hand, Thimpu. – An elderly lady with her prayer beads, used to mark the repetitions of prayers, chants and devotions.
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Bhutanese Girl with Father, dressed up in her festive best for the Dhomkar Tshechu, or religious festival
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Masked Dancer in Motion, Domkhar Tshechu
NIKON D800 @ 36mm, ISO 400, 10/300, f/20.0

A Bhutanese masked dancer in motion, photographed using a zoom blast technique during the Domkhar Festival. To give a feeling of energy and action in the photo, I tried a series of zoom blasts to blur the edges of the photo around the subject in a way that has direction and leads the eye to relatively sharp dancer subject. To achieve this effect I selected a slow shutter speed of 1/30 sec, focused on the dancer, and quickly zoomed out as I was taking the photo. It was important to keep as steady as possible and keep the dancer in the middle of the frame where I used a centre point focus mode and positioned the dancer in the middle. The timing of pressing the shutter right as you are zooming in or out has to be simultaneous. No tripod was used here as the nature of a festival like this means you are moving around a lot and working in and around crowds.

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The Pilgrim and the Prayer Wheel

A devoted pilgrim walks around a Buddhist temple in Chamkar Valley, spinning the prayer wheels by hand each time he walks around.

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Very Young Monk and Prayer Wheel – A four year old novice dwarfed by a giant prayer wheel, Chamkar Valley
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Nuns Walking Under the Eyes of a Stupa, Punhaka
NIKON D800 @ 32mm, ISO 640, 10/2500, f/8.0
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Prayer Wheel in Motion, Paro

These are small revolving cylinders inscribed with prayers. Each revolution symbolizes the repetition of a prayer. To make this photo of the prayer wheels more interesting, I imagined a shot where one is spinning, and the others are stationary. To have one spinning helps give the viewer a better idea of how the prayer wheels work, but to have them all spinning would be confusing and not clear objects, so some needed to be static and sharp. I set the camera to slow shutter, 1/30 sec, and since it was in bright enough daylight I had to compensate the other settings to be f/10 and ISO 200. I had my guide spin the middle wheel while I used the live view mode on the camera (no need to look through the shutter) to get the angle and composition right. It was important to frame the wheels straight on, at even angle, which would either require bending down or using the live view mode (or a tripod, but I did this shot hand held).

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Monks Entering Colourful Temple, Gangtey District
NIKON D700 @ 24mm, ISO 400, 10/600, f/4.0
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Life in Jakar Dzong
NIKON D800 @ 31mm, ISO 800, 10/3200, f/5.6

A ‘dzong’ is a type of fortress with distinctive architecture found in the Bhutan, which has living quarters for monks, as well as areas for government officials to work.

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Tashichho Dzong By Night, Thimphu

The Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu is a dzong (fortress) which serves as the administrative centre and also a Buddhist monastery. To photograph it at night with the lights on was an idea I had, without having seen other photos as a reference for this landscape photo. In a car with my driver and guide, we stopped the vehicle on the side of the road where there seemed to be a decent view of the building. I set my tripod up and tried some photos, but the dzong was partially covered by the hill and wasn’t reading clearly. We drove a bit further to a different point in the road, the angle was better, but the building was still not so striking. I find the challenge with landscapes is to find just the right angle – and by moving just a bit it can make all the difference. There was a hill with a road just behind me, so we walked up the road and the higher angle proved to be the best view of the dzong, which now included some rice paddy fields in the foreground. Shooting around blue hour, just as the lights were coming on but before the sky turned black, I photographed this vertical landscape scene of the dzong and the town featured in the valley behind it. This was shot with a Nikon 28-300mm zoom lens at 105mm focal length.

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Prayer Flags and The Tiger’s Nest – The Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang) is Bhutan’s most iconic site, and was originally built in 1692. It takes a 3 hour trek to reach, but only 2 hours back!
NIKON D700 @ 30mm, ISO 400, 1/30, f/16.0
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