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10 Tips for Photographing an Indian Religious Festival

In this tutorial Tuhin Subhra Dey shares some tips on taking portraits.

Since my last article on portrait photography for DPS, many readers have emailed me with their queries on shooting Indian religious festivals. Here are my tips and experiences in a precise form.

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1. Choosing your gear

Since festivals provide us with a lot of photographic opportunities, ranging from wide angle to telephoto perspectives, hence, it is always wise to carry two cameras with two different (wide and telephoto) lenses. However, it is not a necessary condition; for example, I use only one lens Canon 18-200mm which serves both purposes (although this advantage comes with an obvious compromise in image quality). Bring an extra battery along with faster memory cards (if you shoot in raw). Sometimes, pocket P n S cameras come quite handy.

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2. Shooting Mode

For me, it is always useful to use continuous shooting mode along with AI Focus as it will help you to capture moving subjects and candid shots. I prefer to shoot in Aperture priority mode as it helps me to get the DOF according to my choice and composition.

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3. Make your plan

When you have planned shoot a festival, always try to do some prior research before going to the place, be it from guide books or internet. If you ever visit a religious festival in India, it’s always a lifetime experience. Even though I am an Indian myself, every time I visit these places, I get thrilled. I get to see the whole India in a single place during these fairs. People from different states with different colorful dresses, different dressing styles, ornaments, languages, ways of worshiping (it may be different – depending on the regions from where the pilgrims are coming), ritual bathing, group dancing etc. You should have an idea about the main auspicious aspects and the events to happen during the festival. Search in the internet for photos of the place and the festival already taken by other photographers. I use Flickr and Getty images for this purpose. This will help you to preplan, previsualize and ultimately capture some unique and original shots which will be absolutely yours only.

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4. Know the time of Sunrise and Sunset of the next day in advance

Since I always prefer to shoot during the ‘magic hours’, I always keep checking the time of Sunset and Sunrise of the next day which helps me to get some perfect shots during those hours.

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5. Shoot alone

Even if you go to shoot as a group, try to shoot alone; otherwise it is not only very difficult to get original shots, sometimes you subjects may get confused and nervous too if they faces too many photographers. If you go as a member of a workshop, try to find a different POV and angle from your team members,

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6. Don’t just click the shutter

If you are new in a country and place, especially if you visit Indian festivals, there is a big chance that you may get carried away by the people, colors and many things which you usually don’t see in your home country. But please control yourself, save your battery and memory card space for some meaningful shots. Have a look, what is going on around and then start to shoot. Also, since you won’t have much chance for staged shots, so the shot and composition has to be planned very quickly. Hence, train yourself to quickly measure the direction of the light and shadows; interesting POVs, the aperture and shutter speed. Use your prior research to capture important religious aspects of the festivals.

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7. Choosing Your Backgrounds

It is very difficult to get a clear background in the festivals, hence you must compose in such a way so that background enhances your shots, you may include people bathing or praying; Sunrise or Sunset etc. in the BG while keeping your main subject in the FG, I believe that it makes your shots more relevant giving a feel of the place.

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8. Asking permissions vs. taking ‘unaware’ shots

Usually, people in India are very camera friendly, in most of the cases you don’t need any permission to shoot. In fact, sometimes unaware type of shots can become more interesting and candid. However, my experiences say that if you interact a little (in some cases just smiling , saying hello and showing your cam ) with your subjects, it may help you to achieve a more vivid and expressive shot, including the ‘direct eye contact’ advantage, especially in case of shooting portraits. Here, I can share an experience I had in this year’s Gangasagar fair. One day, suddenly I heard a female voice saying “O Photuwala bhaia, zara suno to (hey, my photographer bro, come here)”, I saw a lady was calling me, I went and we had the following conversation:

The lady: Please take a picture of me. I will see my face in the news paper.
Me: No, I am not a journalist.
The lady: Ok, whoever you are, please take my photo.
Me: Why?


The lady: Nobody has taken my photo since I got married 20 years ago.

So I clicked that shot. Needless to say she was very happy.

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9. Show respect to your subjects

In these festivals, most of the pilgrims are very poor people and not very educated as well. I have seen a lot of poor people saving money for many years, only to attend these fairs. Even if they are not well-mannered, you should always pay respect to them. For example, if somebody is worshiping or bathing for ritual purpose and you just ask him ‘Hey! Do this, pose like that’ etc., that’s just not fair. Let them finish what they are doing, then shoot. Never try to ridicule a Naga Sadhu (naked holy man) even if they look bizarre, if you want to take closer shots of them, go ahead, say “Namaste” / “Jay ho” and then shoot. I have never seen them getting angry if you approach in this way. Lastly, never try to break the local laws in order to get a shot.

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10. Always keep yourself safe

Beware of pickpoketers and thieves as they are parts of any religious festival. If you don’t know how to swim, don’t go farther when shooting in water.

About the Author: I am Tuhin Subhra Dey from India. I call myself a serious amateur photographer but dream to become a professional travel photographer someday in future. Connect more with me in Flickr and Facebook.

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