10 Tips for Photographing an Indian Religious Festival

10 Tips for Photographing an Indian Religious Festival

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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?

Silence……..

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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Some Older Comments

  • Linus May 2, 2011 11:11 pm

    Diwali is a very famous festival in India. There is lot of lighting, crackers and celebrations. Here is a shot capturing the spirit of Diwali.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/linusmvs2/5240157167/

  • Prasun Dutta March 27, 2011 02:26 pm

    Really awesome post, super like it :)

    Thanks for writing such a great helpful post :)

  • faroo February 28, 2011 03:35 pm

    Quite comprehensively written. You definitely need to share your wisdom in photography more often. Absolutely loved reading this.

  • Tuhin Subhra Dey February 28, 2011 04:24 am

    Thanks guys.:)

    @Karinu, I also face the same (of course less than the foreigners) situation about asking money, but personally I don't like paying anything , since it only encourages their expectation from the next photographer.

    @Sailesh, although I had already visited all southern states when I was in college or university but back then , I didn't have any interest in photography. I would really love to visit South India during the festivals,

    @Joe, Indian weddings greatly differ in nature , mainly it depends on the State, religion and caste of the people they are coming from. Hence, I can't advice you specifically, except one thing. Don't forget to carry a prime lens (like 50 mm 1.8 etc.)

    Thanks again.:)

  • Jeanne February 27, 2011 04:49 pm

    So much beauty in your shots. Your article is wonderful. I love the photo of the gentleman right above #10. He looks like someone I would like to meet. I bet he has some great stories to tell.

  • usman February 26, 2011 06:52 pm

    Just few years back only, i started with my photography journey. You article so informative and all are great pictures with lot of story in it.

  • Ben February 26, 2011 12:42 am

    Hi, thanks for this.

    I will be travellin in India this summer, mainly in Ladakh but my tour ends in Delhi in early August. Anybody got any good ideas for places I could travel on to. I've been to Taj before (though might go again) but looking on this trip to do some serious photography not just site seeing.

  • Arvind D February 25, 2011 09:28 pm

    Brilliant article. Can see a lot of hardwork in the text you have put in. Didn't see any redundant advice! Nicely put... Being an Indian, I myself have been looking to attend one of these numerous festivals! Keep the support going...

  • Tuhin Subhra Dey February 25, 2011 07:54 pm

    HI Reshma,
    thanks. Mostly I use lightroom. But Sometimes PS CS4 too.

  • Reshma Pai February 25, 2011 07:52 pm

    Hi Tuhin, thanks for sharing your invaluable insights. May I ask which post-processing software you use? Hope to see more posts from you in the future.

  • wimpy February 25, 2011 06:58 pm

    Namaste,
    dear TSD,i enjoy very much into your article,since i also love to taking picture of indian festival,and so far i only have change to get it in Singapore.
    There is some picture i get,and it being my family favorite.i will post it when you welcome.
    best regards

  • robby bradbury February 25, 2011 06:51 pm

    Try to put you're camera away and hang out with locals, eat tali where the lines are longest and if youre there for the kumb mela hang out in the camps and meet people. I get incredibly embarrassed being a westerner who blends in well when 20 khaki-pants wearing photo geeks roll through a sacred space on the ganges, totally unaware of their unparticipatory lurking impact on the surrounding human environment. Your photos will reflect your participation in the culture you shoot.

  • John Fernandes February 25, 2011 05:08 pm

    Thanks a ton for these wonderful articles & nice shots...its very true people do ask you for a photo even after knowing they wont get to see the photo of theirs..this happene dwith me many times...keep up your good work ....GOD BLESS

  • Karinu February 25, 2011 12:58 pm

    Great tips! I was lucky enough to be in India during Diwali & everything about the country and the people was amazing. The only difference I noticed is that many people asked for tips if you asked to take their picture...or not. Perhaps Tuhin, you don't experience this being of Indian origin? At any rate, I was happy enough to oblige & never had a problem. I look forward to returning to India and encourage everyone to put India on your travel list if you haven't had the chance to travel there.

  • Mike February 25, 2011 12:07 pm

    Hi Tuhin, yes hope you enjoy my webiste & can come to peru soon - wouldl ove to get you into the rainforest!

  • Guillermo Galindo February 25, 2011 11:58 am

    Excelente artículo y excelentes fotos como respaldo.

  • Binny February 25, 2011 09:32 am

    Very nice article with helpful, actionable tips. Great shots. Hopefully I will also be able to capture some glimpses of India's soul.

  • sumit February 25, 2011 04:21 am

    lovely photos and spot on with the tips.
    will employ them the first chance i get.

  • Sachin February 25, 2011 04:17 am

    Good article for shooting in India. I second your recommendation on using 18-200 mm lens, because there are lot of thing to capture when there is any event and you cannot go too much near to subject. It may be due to social/ religious restriction.

  • s. shankar February 25, 2011 04:14 am

    Nice article! Very valid points. As and Indian myself, living in Dubai, I can appreciate the points. A couple of other points: be friendly and smile a lot. I have found that a smile and a friendly greeting works wonders, wherever in the world you go.
    However, try and avoid 'rough' looking guys, like a bunch of rough looking youth, or groups of young men making catcalls etc. These boys play rough.
    @ brandon, I see you are very keen to photograph the Holi festival. Well, good luck to you, but there are several red flags here: some places, esp. in the North, tend to be a bit rough. Of course, you have to wear your oldest clothes, as some of the locals may take pleasure in applying colour on the odd foreigner: just go with the flow and enjoy yourself. (personally, I wouldn't though!)
    However, your equipment could take a beating: one, the most harmless form of applying colour is simply red powder on the face. This powder is generally harmless to the body, but fine powder on your lens and precious camera can jam the mechanism, and cause some grinding motion when you try to focus etc.
    Worse still is dunking by water: buckets of coloured water are thrown on each other, and as a foreigner, you are bound to get special treatment! Now bucketfuls of water and camera equipment don't exactly match. So watch out. Even worse is the aluminium paint some youngsters apply on their faces.
    If I were you, I'd probably shoot from behind glass, however you can manage that!
    Watch out for powder/ water/ aluminium paint on your precious equipment.

  • Joe February 25, 2011 03:21 am

    Tuhin, Thanks for good advice. I'm going to a traditional Indian wedding with hand and feet painting. I hope this will make for some good photos. Is there anything else I should look to photograph?

  • Erasmo February 25, 2011 03:04 am

    The lady asking for a picture almost got to cry :(.

  • Tuhin Subhra Dey February 25, 2011 02:58 am

    Hello Mike,
    I would love to visit Peru one day.I will chk your site. Thanks..

  • Mike February 25, 2011 02:55 am

    Great article & images. When are you coming to Peru? Please visit my web tambopatatravel.com befoer you come over.

  • Tuhin Subhra Dey February 25, 2011 02:51 am

    Thanks Everybody.

    @Saranya, I use a Canon 450D cam.

  • Lorenzo Ropeta February 25, 2011 12:45 am

    I like the tips ...i think those tips are useful for a beginner like me...

  • Shailesh Uppina February 24, 2011 03:36 pm

    One thing I love about Indian festivals most are the vivid colors on display (may be with the exception of sweets :)). Provides great photo ops.

    Tuhin, great shots. Have you tried festivals from southern states?

  • Saptarshi Sanyal February 24, 2011 07:48 am

    Very pithy and helpful...I'm planning Gangasagar for 2012! Inspired by you know who :)

    Shots with tips # 5, 7 & 8 are outstanding.

    Thanks Tuhin for sharing your world yet another time with class!

  • Shishir February 24, 2011 06:52 am

    Very well written. As an Indian myself, I am quite familiar with what you feel. And the part where a woman asked you for a photograph is so so true. People really DO ask you for a photo even though they know they'll never see you again.Gives you an inside edge, I guess :D

  • saranya February 24, 2011 06:14 am

    Hey which camera do u use / do u advice to buy.. to take these kind of shots...

  • mrinal February 24, 2011 04:37 am

    Tuhin - nice article, those points what ever u have mentioned are very much true and applicable to shoot in this kind of situation - thanks for sharing.

  • ScottC February 24, 2011 04:18 am

    A lot of this advice applies to something I recently tried, parade photos. Except for number 8 (most will ham it up for the camera) and perhaps number 6 (when a parade moves fast you have to take your chances sometimes).

    The backgorunds can be difficult in a parade, this is from the 2011 Fasching parade in Tubingen, Germany:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5461885312/

  • Brandon February 24, 2011 03:39 am

    As an expat living in India this was an exciting article to read and is very applicable, thanks for doing this! I cant wait to take some great photos of the Holi Festival!

  • lynette February 24, 2011 01:59 am

    nice article, thank you. your photos are great....keep them coming!