Top Tips for Photographing Temples in Korea


One of my favorite times of the year in South Korea is during the Buddha’s Birthday celebrations. It is a time where you get to see people celebrating something that is not commercialized or tacky. Everything is decorated with a sort of quiet charm and for the most part everything is sort of quiet.

Over the past few weeks I have visited several temples in the area to get footage for an upcoming cinemagraph video project. I must admit that I really did enjoy getting out and shooting at these great temples. I learned a lot from these past few week and I hope that you can get something out of what I learned as well.


Don’t Be Afraid to Return

Often when we are shooting for a particular project we get in the habit of thinking that this is the last time that you will ever get to this place. If you are on a trip, perhaps it maybe true but for most of us living here, you just have to make time to come back. Why I say return is that sometimes the stars don’t line up for you and you just have to come back another time.


Last Friday, I left immediately after work to get to Tongdosa. I was in high spirits and excited to be free from the prison that is “work” However, by the time that I got to Tongdosa, they were closed or rather they were not allowing any more visitors. I was pissed off too because the ajeoshi (middle-aged Korea man) just shooed me away like a stray dog. I stood too long glaring at the jerk instead of hauling ass to the next location. By the time that I got to Beomosa, it was too dark to get the shots that I wanted. So I returned this past Sunday and it was amazing. The sky was much better and the people were so friendly.

Lantern display at Tongdosa, a temple in Korea

Slow Down

I often get so over excited when I am shooting that I stop thinking about the shots that I want to get and instead I just run around snapping away. The problem with this is that I usually finish without getting the shots that I wanted to get. What I found was the best thing to do is to just stop, sit down and just go over in your mind what you want to achieve. I did this while shooting out at Hongryeongsa. I just sat down on a bench and meditated about the shots that I wanted.

Hongryreongsa, a beautiful temple in Korea

Before you snicker and think that I have turned into a new-age hippie, just think about this for a second. Imagine you are at a mountain temple with next to no one around (rare for Korea) and you have time to kill before the light gets good. Why wouldn’t you just relax and let your mind flow for a bit. Organize your thoughts and make a plan. Not to mention, that once I did this, I was much more relaxed and the pressure was off. By pressure, I mean that nagging feeling that you “have” to get the best shot from this location. The pressure was off and I just took it all in.

door pull

Choose a Mantra

Going along with the meditation thing, I found that choosing a mantra helped me stick to the theme. I know some of you are probably scratching your heads thinking “has this guy spent too much time at these temples?” The mantra that I was using was “find the movement” because I was trying to get footage for cinemagraphs and not just still photos. When the light gets so nice, my brain gets overloaded. Having a mantra helped me stay on course and get the shots that I wanted.



When I was at Junggwansa, a temple that I have visited so many times that I think the Monks have started to remember me, I easily slip back into my standard shots. Using this phrase “find the movement” helped break my old habits before I spent too long focussing on the lanterns and not enough time finding the repetitive movement movement needed to make the cinemagraphs.

Be Courageous

When I am at places of worship, I am almost too respectful. I got kick out of a cathedral in Seoul once and I really felt bad about it. I could feel the people’s eyes burn through me. I am the same way at temples. If they say “no photos” the camera doesn’t even come out of the bag. However, this also means that I get a lot of the standard shots that everyone else gets.

at the temple

During a bell ringing ceremony that blesses the temple, people and the spirits around, I saw an old man just walk up with a flip-phone and start taking photos in front of everyone! I could not have cared any less about the people leering at him. I wanted to get a shot of the monk ringing the bell and up until now I was too shy to get it. So, I took this old man’s lead and walked up and got the shots that I wanted. No harm, no foul.

A Monk rings a bell at Tongdosa, a temple in Korea

Put Your F***ing Phone Down!

I am not a person who gripes about people on smartphones. I love mine. Perhaps a little too much. The problem with running another site, doing a masters as well as being a husband is that you have to juggle your time wisely because people are always contacting you. I noticed that I got better shots when the battery died on my phone and I left it to charge. There was no temptation to reply to a text or snap off one of those “behind the scenes” shots. I love being able to edit and share shots as soon as I take them but it as takes my head out of the game in a way because I end up checking facebook when I should be shooting. While I was at Junggwansa I missed a chance at a really cool shot because I was checking my phone.

Lanterns outside of a temple in Korea
I visit this temple every year. I get the feeling sometimes that the monk have even started to recognize me.

Make a Plan

This year I visited all except for one of the temples on my list and that was because this morning I had a nasty migraine. At any rate, over the past few weeks I visited Baekyongsa (2x), Tongdonsa (2x), Hongryeongsa, Beomosa (2x), Hongbubsa, Seongnamsa, Jeonggwangsa, Bulguksa and the Ulsan Lantern Festival. This would not have been possible if I had not made a plan and stuck to it. Sure, I didn’t make it out to Yonggunsa, but seriously with that mall being built behind it, the road to Yonggunsa is a now a nightmare.

Feel free to pray inside the giant Buddha at a temple in Korea

At any rate, I learned that planning for a project like this made me more aware of my time and also pushed me to get out. It also allowed me to focus more on the photos because I was setting time out of each day to do something specific. I had a plan, I knew where I was going and what I had to do. That frees up a lot of brain space for focussing on your shots… if your phone is put away.

lanterns at Beomosa temple in Korea


I hope that these pieces of advice help you in some way. I learned a lot this past month with regards to my photography. I felt that even though my photos were not ground-breaking by any stretch of the imagination, I still learned so much and that perhaps in the future you will see the improvement too. I hope that you all had a great long weekend!


  1. Pingback:Buddha’s Birthday at Neunginsa | Border Crossing

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