Tips for photo studio portraits in Phnom Penh

What we say: 3.5 stars

It’s no secret that one of my favourite daytime activities in Cambodia is dressing up like a Khmer princess and having my photo taken. It is quite possibly the most interesting, non-touristy thing to do in Phnom Penh, and the memories will last forever. It’s also kid-friendly, as most studios have munchkin-sized costumes. There are scores of studios all over the city, so just pick one and give it a try.

Four sets of lashes and you'll be pretty as a picture!

Here are some tips:

Discuss prices before you start. Most studios have pretty firm prices but are willing to throw in freebies if you negotiate up front. Prices usually cost $2-5 per picture — the low end is for men (who don’t need their hair and makeup done) and the price goes up as the costumes get more fancy and complicated. Bring a flash drive and see if they’ll throw in digital copies with a large order, otherwise expect to pay $2 extra for a CD.

Bring your own cosmetics. Part of what’s included in the price is a full face of makeup for women (men pay less and don’t have to endure the indignities of wearing four pairs of false eyelashes simultaneously). Don’t bother doing your own makeup — looking like a tart is part of the package. Studios tend to only have Khmer-coloured cosmetics, so if you’re as pasty as me, you’ll come out with an oddly brown face that contrasts harshly with an anaemic neck and shoulders. Moreover, the makeup brushes are shared with no apparent cleansing between dozens, nay, hundreds of customers. So save yourself an eye infection or pustule breakout and bring your own eyeliner and foundation and applicators. (Personally, I’ve decided to let them use their own blue and pink eyeshadows, as I don’t have my own.) The staff will be confused and have no idea why you are insisting that they use your powder puff, but after repeated prodding, they will eventually go along just to get you to stop speaking English to them.

Consider your poses. The ultimate goal of Khmer portraits is to find a balance between the ridiculous and looking terrible. Therefore, it’s good to let the studio pose you a bit, but don’t be afraid to make your own decisions as well. One studio I went to drew a huge black eyebrow on me and wouldn’t allow me to show teeth when I smiled, and I now have a set of photos that will never see the light of day.

Remember that most photo studios have little experience with foreigners and dress and pose you in a way that is most flattering to Khmers. For example, the photographers will often kneel on the ground and take pictures with the camera directed upwards. This makes a tiny Khmer girl look more voluptuous but can give the rest of us three chins. Tell your photographer to stand up.

Talk about Photoshop. Good studios will do a decent job of Photoshopping the pictures before printing them to take out all warts and spots. Some will also add a few inches to the bust and bum when needed (for the apsara pictures, mainly). If you have a problem area you’d like dealt with in post-production, I find that pointing at it and theatrically cringing is usually a decent way of communicating that without speaking Khmer. If you have tattoos, they may try and remove them, so make it clear if you don’t want them to do that. I unhappily lose my freckles every time, but sometimes it’s nice to see what you’d look if you were Khmer-beautiful.

Last updated: 8th August, 2014

About the author:
Previously, Lina has been based in Oakland, California, New York City, Dublin and London. Lina spends most of her time thinking about food, travel and synthpop. She's currently based in Siem Reap.
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