Sri Lanka is a diverse, vibrant and exciting nation; providing a wealth of excellent photography opportunities. Ancient temples, idyllic beaches, huge landscapes and fascinatingly unique culture, Sri Lanka really does have it all. To help you get the most out of the fantastic picture opportunities which will be available when visiting, we got in touch with two professionals, who have agreed to let you in on some of the secrets to capturing the island at its finest.
Photographers John Alexander and Matthew Williams-Ellis travelled around Sri Lanka together, and returned home with some fantastic images. The two professionals captured the nation very differently, and both had images from the trip finalised in the Travel Photographer of the Year competition. Considering their wealth of knowledge in travel photography, as well as their rich experience of capturing Sri Lanka, we couldn’t think of any two people better to ask for their top tips. So let’s get started!
What was it that made you want to travel to Sri Lanka?
Matthew Williams-Ellis: I was keen to visit a destination that offered variety, both in terms of subjects to photograph and interesting places to visit. The draw for me was the combination of traditional ways of life, historic temples and beautiful landscapes…being able to photograph in shorts and flip-flops at 5am is always a plus too!
John Alexander: I was looking for a country which would offer us a diverse portfolio of images such as epic vistas, street portraiture and wildlife photographs, as having a broad range of subjects always makes a trip interesting. Also, it goes without saying that it needed to be significantly warmer than the UK in March!
How did you find photographing the famous Sigiriya Rock, & what tips would you offer to people wanting to capture Sri Lanka’s temples at their best?
MWE: For me, the impressive thing about Sigiriya Rock is the way it towers above the vast plains below, so – while scaling the clifftop temple was fascinating – like John, I preferred the view from Pidurangala. It was the perfect way to show Sigiriya’s true scale, and we only saw one other couple the whole time we were there.
The most obvious tip I would give to capture Sri Lanka’s temples is the oldest in the book – arrive at sunrise. Exploring any destination at the crack of dawn will not just reward you with the best photos, but also makes for some of the most unique travel experiences. Beyond that, one lesson I always teach in my photography workshops is to look for details, colours and patterns, and don’t just photograph the whole temple in one shot.
JA: Sigiriya Rock is an amazing sight. The expansive view from its summit was impressive, but as a photographer I wanted to photograph the Rock rather than be on top of it! We were recommended to climb Sigiriya’s neighbouring rock, Pidurangula, and from there the view of Sigiriya took my breath away. It’s a much easier climb and there are almost no tourists there! If I were to give someone a tip it would be to climb Pidurangul, It was the best view of my trip.
You’ve both photographed Sri Lanka’s famous stilt fishermen; how did you approach the task differently?
JA: I had seen so many photographs of the stilt fishermen; it was the reason I booked my ticket, but I wanted to find something different to everyone else. We arrived before sunrise both mornings, just as the fishermen waded out onto their stilts. I started photographing them with a long exposure, capturing the motion of the waves rolling in below them. Then, once the light had lost the subtle twilight colours, I switched from landscape photography mode into portrait. I decided to swim out, after getting the go-ahead from one of the fisherman’s friends, with my camera over my head and madly treading water. The gamble paid off and I took a I was really happy with from behind him in the surf with my wide-angle lens. This shot eventually got selected as a finalist in the Travel Photographer of the Year Competition.
MWE: I approached the stilt fishermen quite differently to how John did. On the first morning, I focused on photographing them fairly close up from the shoreline, with blurry waves around them. When I was reviewing the photos, I realised that what really creates the atmosphere is the setting. The following morning, I headed to the headland, where I could photograph them as part of a larger landscape. As a result, this photo – along with a few others – was picked up by National Geographic Traveller Magazine, to be used in an article on Sri Lanka.
JA: I had seen so many photographs of the stilt fishermen; it was the reason I booked my ticket, but I wanted to find something different to everyone else.
How did you approach photographing the ancient capital of Kandy, & what advice would you give to people photographing it?
JA: I loved Kandy too, the hustle and bustle created a unique atmosphere that completely contrasted with the rural feel from the rest of Sri Lanka. I photographed the city using a slow-shutter speed to show that frenetic pace of life. When I’m travelling, I always try and request a room with a balcony, it’s a convenient way to get some great shots, like this below.
MWE: There is so much to see and photograph in Kandy; The Temple of the Tooth, the markets, the Botanical Gardens and my personal favourite, Kandy Lake. As soon as I walked around it on the first day, I knew there was a great landscape shot to be taken. I chose this as my sunrise spot, but had to return on more than one occasion in order to capture it in the best light. As most of the market is covered, I knew I would be able to take portraits here and capture the hustle and bustle of the city during the day.
How would you recommend photographing the Sri Lankan coastline?
MWE: For me, the key to photographing the Sri Lankan coast is shooting at the right time of day, which is about 45 minutes either side of sunrise or sunset. In, general photos will look much more dramatic at either end of the day. Also, try to keep your photos simple and uncluttered, with a clean composition. Find an element of the coastline that is impressive and make that the focus of the photo.
JA: The Sri Lankan coastline has breath-taking variety. Personally, I love rugged coastal shots rather than those with blue skies and palm trees, as my aim is to fill my images with as much drama as possible. This involves getting as close to the action and hoping for some dramatic light
How did you find Sri Lanka’s tea plantations to photograph, where the world famous Ceylon tea is produced?
JA: Visiting the tea plantations brought another completely different feel to the photographs of our trip. We spent most of our time here just exploring, as well as finding subjects to photograph. If there was a landscape shot that looked promising – perhaps in different lighting conditions – we would ask a tuk-tuk driver to take us there at an opportune time, so we could return to the shot we had pre-visualized. When we did come across tea pickers to photograph, we asked (by pointing at our cameras and smiling ridiculously) and stayed with them for around 30 minutes as they picked the leaves.
MWE: Photographing in the tea plantations was definitely one of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip. Picking tea is a surprisingly energetic activity, as we found out when they let us take part. I wanted to convey this in my photos, so I slowed down the shutter speed to add movement to the hands and as such, breathe a bit of life into the photo.
How would you recommend travelling when in Sri Lanka?
MWE: One thing that is key as a travel photographer is flexibility, so we’d often find a tuk-tuk driver we liked the night before and ask him to pick us up early so that we could drive into the countryside for sunrise. Probably the most exciting form of transport was taking a train to Haputale from Adam’s Peak. Sitting and watching the tea plantations role past was perfect, and even provided more photographic opportunities itself.
JA: Ideally, I would hire my own self-drive tuk-tuk and stop at the side of the road whenever/wherever I spot a potential photograph. The next best thing is to order a tuk-tuk for a period of time, and direct the driver wherever you would like to go. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and it’s convenient.
How did the two of you approach photographing popular tourist locations, was it a challenge to find good spots in busy cities like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa?
MWE: When it comes to photographing popular tourist destinations, the key is to look for new angles and to use different techniques. In Polonnaruwa for example, as storm clouds rolled in and most people were ducking for cover, I set up my tripod and captured a long exposure of clouds passing over stunning Kiri Vihara, as you can see below.
JA: Temples are not my preference for shots, Matt, however, seemed to be on a mission to photograph every single one that Sri Lanka had to offer! Although, just because I didn’t want to photograph the temples, I had an amazing time photographing all the locals around them so I was in my element. There is always something to photograph if you look for it!
We hope that the tales and advice of these two seasoned photographers will help you to get the very best pictures possible from your next trip to Sri Lanka. Whether you’re looking to capture natural, documentary-style photographs like those in John Alexander’s Sri Lanka portfolio, or idyllic, colourful shots similar to the ones found in Matthew Williams-Ellis’ portfolio, with these tips in mind, there’s no reason you won’t return home with amazing images to do your holiday justice!
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