8 Tips for Travel Photography in Bhutan, by Foreigners and Locals
“A local once told me, ‘It’s easy to remember where you mustn’t take photos. Wherever you need to take your shoes off, you are not allowed to take photos.’"
- Dylan B. Haskin, photographer stationed in eastern Bhutan
Bhutan’s remoteness and limited access make it one of the world’s least photographed, most desirable destinations for travel photographers. Prepare for unpredictable monsoon rains, minimal availability of technology, and a protected, mystical culture that will capture your heart.
Here are some things you should know to save time, money, and dignity in The Land of the Thunder Dragon.
First and foremost, let’s remember to respect our subjects. Respect for one another and for the environment is fundamental in Bhutanese culture. Visiting photographers should mirror that stance.
MyBhutan offers specialized photography tours and workshops with some of the world’s best photographers. Keep an eye out on our website for our workshop announcements.
The following tips have been suggested by the MyBhutan photography team who have spent considerable time photographing the country.
TRIP PLANNING & IN THE FIELD:
1. Plan Your Trip Around Tsechus:
Vincent: Tsechus are majestic religious ceremonies that often involve vibrant masked dances believed to purify the karma of all in attendance. Plan your photography trip around Tsechus, which are frequent in the fall months- September through November.
AJ: Remember that Tsechus are primarily for locals. The locals often look forward to these ceremonies all year, and on the day of the occasion, some will have been there since early in the morning to reserve their seats. Respect them and the occasion.
Thinley: Bhutanese dress in their most elaborate attire for these festivals. Don’t forget to photograph the people in the audience wearing their best ghos and kiras (traditional Bhutanese clothing), or the other activities around the festival grounds. Shooting at the larger Tsechu festivals of Paro and Thimphu is almost like shooting a sporting event; you can benefit by using telephoto lenses. The smaller community festivals, however, are more intimate and provide more flexibility.
2. Know the Weather, Seasons, and Time of Day:
Michael: Shoot early and late! It’s a struggle to get up at the crack of dawn but you won’t find better light. The bulk of tours may not plan travel to prime locations during “golden hours,” so make special requests with your tour guide ahead of time.
AJ: I feel that afternoon light (after 3 p.m.) is best for shooting landscapes in Bhutan. The light gets very harsh very quickly in the mornings.
Vincent: Though the fall season contains the most Tshechus, the monsoon months (June through August) give rise to incredibly lush landscapes and moody cloud formations. In these months, monsoon rains frequently start after 4 p.m. During the day, clouds provide softer light than in the rest of the year.
Thinley: If you shoot wildflowers and macro photography, the high biodiversity in Bhutan provides many opportunities. Alpine beauty peaks during monsoon season. Weather can change quickly in Bhutan, so if you’re shooting landscapes and you find a good location, wait! The scene can change dramatically from moment to moment.
3. Book a Farmstay:
Vincent: Don’t forget to get out to the villages! Staying overnight at a farmstay provides the most authentic experience of rural life in “the real Bhutan.” It also supports eco- tourism and allows for plenty of chances to capture the most intimate portraits. The best area to book a farmstay is in the Phobjikha Valley, in the Wangdue Phodrang District.
4. Offer Respect:
Dylan: A local once told me, "It’s easy to remember where you mustn’t take photos. Wherever you need to take your shoes off, you are not allowed to take photos.” If you want to take photos of people, learn a few key phrases: “May I take your picture?” and “Thank you.” In Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan, you can say “Na gi paa chi tab gay la?” and, “Kadrinchey la,” respectively. In the eastern dialect Sharchop, say, “Naan ga paar thur taap cho moh?” and “Kadrinchey la.”
Michael: Don’t be shy. It can feel really awkward to walk up to someone and take their picture and that hesitation prevents a lot of photographers from taking quality portraits. Bhutanese are very friendly, though, and as long as you’re polite they will be happy to have their photograph taken.
AJ: Traditional Bhutanese dress separates you from the other tourists and helps you blend in. With this dress, doors may open that might have otherwise been closed, and locals will value your respect.
Vincent: If you happen to encounter members of the royal family, please seek permission before shooting and publishing photographs. Photographs must be submitted to the royal body and approved prior to public release. Remember also that photography inside temples is forbidden. However, in rare cases you may be granted permission via a gentle nod from the head monk. In every circumstance, altars should not be photographed; they are deemed sacrosanct and are believed to lose spiritual value if viewed by too many eyes.
5. Travel Light:
AJ: Traveling with a tripod can be a hassle, especially because Druk Airways baggage allowance is pretty tight (20 kgs) and they charge a lot for going over. I usually travel with a Gorilla Grip, which is very useful especially if you have a GoPro.
6. Charge Up Wisely:
Vincent: Don’t burn down a house! You’ll need a proper power strip to charge your gear; outlets in all areas are limited. Most strips purchased outside Bhutan will exceed voltage requirements, thus creating a fire hazard. Make your life easier by purchasing strips on arrival in Paro. This will save you money and luggage space.
Dylan: For treks or camping, I use a Powergorilla from Powertraveller. This device charges my batteries, my laptop, and anything else that can charge via USB. It also comes with a solar panel and a power adapter for charging. If I want something a bit smaller I use a Powertraveller Extreme.
Everyone: Pack extra batteries!
7. Clean and Protect:
AJ: Shooting in Bhutan can be pretty dusty and when changing lenses in the field you’re bound to get dust on your DSLR sensor. I highly recommend carrying a large-sized Rocket Air Blaster, wet wipes, and paint brush for dust removal.
Thinley: A white umbrella is quite useful for shooting wildflowers. It can be used to diffuse harsh sunlight for flower close-ups, as a wind shield to stop the flowers from shaking, and of course as shelter from the rain. Carry a microfiber towel as well to clean wet gear.
Dylan: Make sure your camera bag has some kind of rain cover. In Bhutan, weather can change very quickly. You can easily be caught far from shelter when rain comes out of the blue.
Michael: Get lost. The best photos are usually unplanned. If you allow time in your schedule to wander around, you’re likely to come across a meditating monk, a group of kids practicing archery or any number of ceremonies.
Bumthab: Choose a tour guide that knows a bit about photography. They will have more knowledge of favorable locations and timing.
AJ: Remember to put your camera down and enjoy the experience. Having brilliant shots is one thing, but it’s the experiences and stories that go with your travel photographs that make them even more special.
Vincent: Bhutanese are very friendly in front of the camera so don’t be afraid to shoot. In remote areas some Bhutanese have never seen a photo of themselves so show them their photo on your playback and shoot again. Go the extra mile and find a way to exchange contact information so that you can send them the photo or email us and we’ll share it on our social media.
Bumthab Lhendup (Bhutan)
Dylan B. Haskin (South Africa)
Thinley Namgyel (Bhutan)
AJ Heath (United Kingdom)
Michael Marquand (United States)
Vincent Roazzi Jr. (United States)
STORY BY VINCENT ROAZZI JR.