10 Tips to Photograph the "Oldest Living City in the World" - Varanasi

10 Tips to Photograph the “Oldest Living City in the World” – Varanasi

A Guest post by Indian Photographer Tuhin Subhra Dey.

Mark Twain once wrote, “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Varanasi, sometimes called as Banaras or Kashi is “the oldest living city in the world, the city which was already old when Buddha was young” (Salman Rushdie in ‘Midnight’s Children’). It is situated along the west bank of the holy Ganga River in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. It is considered as the holiest place among the Hindus. Varanasi always seems a magical place to me, in fact many of my non-Indian friends have also expressed the same opinion. The place provides excellent opportunities for photography. Hence, since my last articles on portrait photography and Indian Festive photography for DPS, I have been planning to share my tips on shooting Varanasi for my fellow the DPS readers and here they are:

1. Camera equipments and making your own research


I use only one lens, a Canon 18-200mm, with a Canon 450D body which allows me to take all kinds of shots. But having a wide angle lens in your bag will also come in handy in Varanasi, for many reasons including to capture a clear shot in those narrowest alleys as well as the activities on the banks of the river with the background of the old temples and palaces.

Also I would suggest you to study something about Varanasi before going there. Check out the images the famous photographers like Steve McCurry, Ami Vitale have already taken and then plan your own shots. A prime lens with an F value around 2.8 will also help you to capture low light shots, especially during Ganga arati (explained below).

2. ‘Ghat’s ,‘Gali’s, Sunrise and Sunset boat trip


‘Ghat’s are the series of stairs leading down to a holy river. In Varanasi, you will find around 100 ghats. Each of the ghats has different name, history and importance. It is quite interesting to walk along the ghats on foot especially during winter. ‘Gali’ is a narrow alley which is another main characteristic of Varanasi, since they are extremely narrow; the play of lights and shadows inside a Gali is very interesting.

It is almost essential to hire boats during dawn and/or dust. As not only it will make you acquainted with the ghats but also will help you capture the spectacular Sunrise and Sunsets shots. Simply speaking, looking from the ghats, left side is the East and right is the West. So, when riding a boat with others, plan your sitting positing correctly. Try to capture in such a way so that your photographs themselves depicts that they were taken in Varanasi. You may include the ghats, river banks, pilgrims in your shot.

I would suggest you to use a telephoto lens if you are shooting the ghats from a boat on the River as you will always find interesting activities going on in each and every ghat. The sunset trip has another advantage; you may capture the Ganga arati (see next tip) while being seated your boat. However, I believe, you will need a tripod to shoot from there as it will be dark by the time of arati. Be careful, if you intend to shoot at the Hindu ‘Burning ghats’ , since it is not allowed to shoot at these ghats . But sneaky shots are indeed possible.

3. Try something new


Apart from the typical shots which have been taken thousands of times, do some experiments, for example, while riding the boat in a fine morning, I noticed these birds were flying from the top of the magnificent Darbhanga Palace. I decided to take a panning shot of the flock of birds, luckily it was possible as my boat was moving forward in the same direction with the birds, so the relative speed reduced and I almost didn’t have to move my hands.

4. Framing


Although I always look for a clear and clutter free background, in case of Varanasi, the clutter in your background can enhance your shots. As everything is a part of the ‘Banarasi’ environment, I would suggest you to shoot in Aperture priority mode and keep your F value within a range of f/8 to f/12 to keep everything in focus. Apart from shooting your main subject, try to fill up your frames with relevant subjects like street cows, sweet shops, Sadhus, street sellers etc.

Look for unique vantage points, like the shot where local boys were playing cricket on the Man-Mandir ghat while boats were waiting for passengers. Also look for geometry and colors in your frame, like the lady and the goat walking on the street, at the same time, some colorful objects and textures are also present in the frame.

5. Rituals


Since Varanasi is one of the holiest destinations for Hindus, it is very common to find various rituals going on throughout the year in this place. If you are lucky enough to be present during the Dev Deepavali occasion you’ll see the Ghats of Varanasi look vivid with thousands of Diyas (clay lamps) floated down the Ganges River with chanting of Vedic hymns by priests. It’s believed that the Gods descend from heaven to bathe in the Ganga on this occasion. The view is quite heavenly.

If you plan to visit north India during that time, you can’t afford to miss the occasion. However, this time I was not that lucky to shoot Dev Deepavali, but I spotted some chhat (a festival) devotees performing rituals in the Ganga, usually these people come from the state of Bihar and those women wear very colorful dresses. Here the frame with the woman worshipping the Sun god caught my attention and I clicked some of shots. But was not happy (as the rest of the frame was looking empty) until I spotted a floating Diya near about the other one third section and I finally filled up the frame.

6. Ganga Arati


Ganga arati is one of the main attractions in Varanasi. Everyday at around 7pm well dressed priests worship the Ganga River (which is called as Ganga maata or Mother Ganga) with beautiful chanting and spiritual songs, even if you don’t understand a single word, I bet you will enjoy the event. Try to use a prime lens (like 50mm or 28mm), as I found it extremely difficult to shoot with my Canon 18-200 mm.

7. People and portraits

Varanasi provides you with a great opportunity to photograph people. This time, I decided not to take any Sadhu portraits, as I hate to see their stretched hands for money after every click. Instead, I decided to shoot common people. We met this funny grandpa near the Dasaswamedh ghat (to know his story, check out my flickr page). Varanasi is also known for peaceful cohabitation of both Hindu and Muslim communities. So, it is possible to capture interesting portraits of Muslim people as well, like the Mother and her sleeping son.

8. Street animals

Street animals are quite interesting in Varanasi, especially the holy Cows which are considered very sacred by the Hindus. Sometimes they can provide you excellent street shots with people around them – especially in the narrow streets where they stand by blocking the ways, it becomes quite a view when people try to cross them. Sometimes they are decorated with vermilions and other colorful things which make them even more interesting. However, I hate to see some people shooting dying street dogs, dirty animals eating from dustbins in the streets of Varanasi. May be they don’t get to see those things in their own country and find it interesting , but to my taste, Varanasi offers you much better sights for your memory card space and battery.

9. Look for a story

Streets of Varanasi are full of many interesting stories. While we were walking down the Galis, suddenly a formidable looking Sadhu appeared from nowhere and started speaking strange hymns and showing magical tricks to that guy (pictured below). The Sadhu was actually a tantric one and basically was trying to hypnotize the man and finally managed to get 200 bucks from him. I didn’t go too close, as I didn’t want to become another victim and clicked only a single shot. You will find a lot of stories around, if you keep your eyes open.

10. Stay alert


My last tip is not related to photography. If you are a non-Indian, before coming to Varanasi, please make sure that you are going to stay in a secure and safe place and trust no stranger. Always take someone you know with you while walking down the narrow alleys, as your trip might turn into a hell like experience if you become a victim of any of the various kinds of anti-social activities go around the place (like any other holy places in the world). It is not very wise to depend on the guide book maps and last time my GPS device didn’t work. So, just stay alert and careful (without being too much stressed).

Finally, a video song for you, which, in my opinion, has excellently captured the true spirit of Varanasi.

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 one day in future. Connect more with me in Flickr and Facebook.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • ashu October 24, 2012 07:53 pm

    I agree with jeff.. please remove the picture of old man and put it under the section “people and portraits”.. its very derogatory IMO.

  • Jason May 17, 2011 01:02 am

    The pictures were nicely done and impressive. How did you find your way to elevated ground to take the top down pictures?

  • Nikhil May 15, 2011 03:09 am

    I just read the others' comments on your article. I think we as Indians wait for an opportunity to go up in arms against something that's against our points of view and our sense of propriety.
    All you little narrow-minded schmucks need to look beyond being politically correct and all the peripheral rubbish and appreciate Tuhin's work and his effort at sharing his knowledge and expertise. I think we'd all be better off taking a tip or two off the guy.
    Dada Tuhin, khoob bhalo!You coulda titled the article 'Wildlife Photography in Varanasi" for all I care, but I know I'm smiling to myself saying I've learnt a thing or two from you!
    Where can I see some more of your work, man?

  • Nikhil May 15, 2011 02:48 am

    Great article. Varanasi has some fantastic moments and places that make for dramatic photos!
    I love all the tips you give us amateurs, Darren!
    Very very inspired to get out n take more n more pictures and learn more n more about the technicalities of photography!

  • Tuhin Subhra Dey May 11, 2011 02:00 am

    @jellyfish. thank you very much and probably you know why..:)

  • Tuhin Subhra Dey May 11, 2011 01:50 am

    Great tips Sahul. Really I need to learn a lot about compositions..:) Thanks..:)

  • Sahul May 8, 2011 05:47 am

    1st picture - a nice photo of rituals taking place in the river but unfortunately its slanted.

    2nd picture - the structure's detail is more an appropriate subject than the flock of birds which are without any detail.

    3rd picture - too many subjects abound and very messy throughout.

    4th picture - subjects scattered apart without any particular focus or subject.

    5th picture - the best picture, the expression captured on the subject is fantastic plus the colourful gifts in her hands and the colour of her sari against the colour of the water below her.

    The rest of the pictures have subjects in them and are generally good. Thank you for your shots.

  • jellyfish May 8, 2011 03:44 am

    @Arjun - You are right! There is no such rule in DP saying that every topic needs a pic, and that's exactly why the topic "Street Animals" had no pic while on the other hand, the topic "Ganga Arati" got 2, which spilled on to the next topics, hence the misunderstanding. There is no need, none absolutely, for Tuhin to "say the usual “Oh man! real sorry! my bad dude! ” , coz that wouldn't have been the end of it! He has already offered an explanation and that was it. No offense there but I think it'll serve u better if u stop speaking somwetimes and listen to what others have to say.

  • Simon May 7, 2011 11:23 am

    Dear Tuhin,

    Thank you for sharing this article with us, together with those amazing photos.

    I am keen to visit India in the next few years and am so looking forward to photography whilst over there.

  • Arjun May 7, 2011 04:29 am

    omg! really guys? come on, what happened to the right to criticize??
    i just said that and don't make it a "you indians" kinda issue! you know with, bin laden being killed and all! :P:P:P
    yep! make a mistake and i'll always criticize and point it out! @tuhin, say all you want, but the image is badly/poorly placed, end of story! Just say the usual "Oh man! real sorry! my bad dude! " and that would have been the end of it! Its just that others won't be smart as I am, and understand that it was just a mistake! :P:P
    Why don't you assume that not all of the readers of dp school need not be the smartest around and edit it yourself!
    and btw I don't think there is any rule saying, every topic needs a pic in an article in dp!
    hey me just exercising my right to speak, no pun inteneded! :p

    Arjun V

  • ediac May 7, 2011 03:46 am

    Banaras is a great place to take pictures but when I went there I had lots of problem with lighting. I went during the sunrise to the ghats and only got a couple of decent pictures I think it was due to the fog perhaps contamination Im not sure, I used a 14-150mm F3.5 lens but I guess I needed something faster I need to say that at some time I decided not to take pictures since I didn’t want to offend people so I ended up having only a couple of photos but lots of good memories of this Holy City.

  • Krunal May 6, 2011 03:09 pm

    Varanasi - one of the oldest cities in the world, has been on my wishlist for a very long time. Don't know when I'm going to get my chance. Great shots Tuhin and a wonderful article. You second and third shot reminded me of those wonderful images from Ray's Aparajito.

  • Chinmoy Mukerji May 6, 2011 01:16 pm

    I belong to Allahabad, another city couple of hours away from Banaras - where my relatives live near one of the ghats. I've been there many times and seen almost everything depicted in the photographs.

    I'm living in Argentina for sometime now and this article just made me feel very nostalgic and the one thing I'm regretting now is that photography was not a passion and hobby while I was there. Now that I have my beloved camera - I'm not in the city !!

    Well, I'm going back to India in a couple of weeks. A trip to my hometown Allahabad is on the cards - I'm going to hop over to Banaras and spend sometime with the city and my camera.

    Thanks Tuhin for this article & making my evening !!!

  • Tuhin Subhra Dey May 6, 2011 06:47 am

    @Jellyfish and Todd,
    thanks guys for understanding the issue and making it even more clear. Once again , I request to read my article carefully to the people who are objecting about the picture and it's placement .:)

    @Todd, you are always welcome to India. You may check my other articles too on DPS, if you have time. Btw, just have checked your website.. Great work!


  • Ralph May 6, 2011 04:43 am

    I have done two trips to Varanasi in the past year - absolutely awesome place to visit as a photographer. Get up really early and get on the Ganges by sunrise. Most amazing and wonderful people there - look past the touristy stuff and you will be well rewarded! Lots of photo's in my portfolio..

  • Todd Beltz May 6, 2011 03:11 am

    A very well written article on a place that has always intrigued me but somehow has escaped my grasp. Would love to travel to India one day and be able to experience these things on my own. As a pro photographer I know I would certainly be in my element trying to capture all of the beauty, mystery and intrigue that Varanasi holds. It's a photographers dream come true for many and I'm sure that once I spend a few days there, I'll have a different respect for what I saw and experienced.

    I'm a bit dismayed at the lack of maturity and common sense that some people clearly don't have on this board when they kick up such a fuss about the wrong placement of photos, which seems was unavoidable. I can understand that you, as an Indian, wouldn't dare to disrespect another person like that and call him a street animal. As it was, you went on to explain about the holy cows which had nothing to do with the pic above it. You apologized for the simple mistake and glad that you clarified it. I read the article with great interest and I didn't blink an eye when I saw the title followed by the picture. I just assumed it was placed in the wrong section, which any smart person should be able to realize.

    Great pictures by the way and well written article. I look forward to my first journey to this magical place.

  • Jellyfish May 6, 2011 02:06 am

    Dear all, the author clearly talked about the old man under the topic "People and portraits", and I quote "Instead, I decided to shoot common people. We met this funny grandpa near the Dasaswamedh ghat (to know his story, check out my flickr page)..."
    And one photo per topic means the photo of the old man came under the next topic (Street Animals). Would those of you who criticise the placement have a little common sense and stop acting like complete arse. I guess it's so much easy to read and criticise somebody's writing as long as it's not yours.

  • Celesta May 6, 2011 02:00 am

    I admire the clarity of your photographs and the stories they communicate. From my experience in India, I agree on the importance of preparation work and the proper manner of approaching people and sacred sites. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  • Sweet Ronit May 6, 2011 01:58 am


    I got so excited when I saw the title to this post - Varanasi is one my favorites of all the cities in the world. Your images are fantastic, they truly capture the diversity and energy of The City of Learning. I'm especially drawn to the shots under Framing and Rituals.

    I was in Varanasi in the early 90s, so I only had my trusty Pentax K1000 and a 50mm lens. Here is one of my shots:


    You've inspired me to go back through my negatives and do more scanning!



  • Tarun May 6, 2011 01:50 am

    I agree with jeff.. please remove the picture of old man and put it under the section "people and portraits".. its very derogatory IMO.

  • Jeff May 5, 2011 12:31 am

    Tuhin, I believe people are offended because the placement of the images is wrong. The images are not only below the text where you write about them, but also below the title of the next section. So it does look like you are referring to the old man as a "Street Animal" and not as part of the "People and Portraits" section.

  • Arjun May 4, 2011 11:33 pm

    aha! now thats more like it! :)
    apology accepted mate..
    oh and btw nice read!

  • Tuhin Subhra Dey May 4, 2011 07:58 pm

    Dear all,
    I do apologize for the confusion. Neither me nor anyone from DPS meant to insult the old man. As Lara said, you can clearly understand the Old man's portrait is related with the tip 'people and portrait' and I didn't submit any pic for the tip 'Street animals'. Moreover, I submitted two pictures for the tip "ganga arati'. Hence, I believe while arranging the article , the picture of the old man incidentally / accidentally came under the tip 'Street animal' (there was 10 tips and 10 images which were not particularly related with each of the tips).

    This is not my first article for DPS, I am well acquainted with the ethics and techniques of street photography both in India and Europe.. Why should I portray a human being as a Street animal? Please read the article carefully before criticizing.

    Thank you Lara, for understanding my point.

    I hope it clears everything.


  • Lara May 4, 2011 01:48 pm

    I do believe that the author was referring to finding people AROUND street animals, because people tend to watch or protect them, as the man in this photo was probably doing.

    I sincerely doubt it was the author's intention to imply that he thought a human being was an "animal". Hopefully there will be some clarification, but I think it's a pretty safe bet, given the wording below the photo. You should re-read it with a different thought pattern and see what I mean...

  • Arjun May 3, 2011 08:43 pm

    I've been reading DP for long.
    But in this post, under the heading Street ANIMALS, the photo depicted is that of an old man!
    Wanna explain why you didn't notice the fact that he was a human?
    Please edit the post correctly atleast out of repsect for people they depict!
    Posts like this tarnish the image of a photographer and depict them as soulless 'holes!
    Sorry for the language, but I'm an amateur Indian photographer, and I cannot stand stuff like this,


  • Venkatesh H P May 3, 2011 04:36 pm

    Why u had pasted a poor man's photo under title "Street animals", you cannot portray ‘any thing’ on India and its culture. It’s against professional ethics. I request author to remove the photo and replace with appropriate one.

  • mrinal May 2, 2011 11:16 pm


    very well written article .... u have mentioned some really good points here ..... 1 thing missing - u mentioned about street animals - but i cant find those clicks - so may be share in flickr or face or here again ....


  • Pasha May 2, 2011 10:29 pm

    Just FYI: Jericho is actual oldest living "city" (almost 12.000 years).

  • Baba May 2, 2011 05:37 pm

    Please remove the picture of the old man (Human) under title "8. Street animals".

  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 2, 2011 09:00 am


    Fantastic article - I think the principles apply to almost any city. One must study, research and live in it to truly capture the character! Although Rome does not qualify for oldest city, it does have its share of antiquity! Here are a few gems from a recent visit!

    The Long Walk, Rome: http://t.co/8PzcfiV

    We Can See You, Rome: http://t.co/ZPiveVm

    Honey...Build Me a Temple, Rome: http://t.co/oZtaJTd

    Regards, Erik

  • ScottC May 2, 2011 04:11 am

    Interesting article, it's quite a challenge to represent the character of a city (or any place) thru photographs. You seemed to have learned Varanasi well, a must to represent it well.

    I think I'll a few more trips to Paris:


  • Tuhin Subhra Dey May 2, 2011 03:35 am

    Dear Lizabeta,
    I have never encouraged anyone to shoot at Burning ghats. But people all over the world (including some famous photographers) have been shooting at those places. I have just mentioned about probability of those shots. When you are giving tips, you must be clear about everything. I , myself is respectful to my own culture and I have never shot in those places.

    I hope you understood my POV.



  • Lizabeta May 2, 2011 03:12 am

    I find it a bit bothersome to read, "Be careful, if you intend to shoot at the Hindu ‘Burning ghats’ , since it is not allowed to shoot at these ghats . But sneaky shots are indeed possible."
    I think it's important to be respectful as a photographer. With the general negative perception of American's overseas... we don't need any encouragement to be disrespectful of other people's cultures.
    When I was in Greece with my aunt, we stumbled onto this church in a little-very-much-not-touristy town. They requested we not take photographs inside. I almost didn't go in but my aunt said, "You can't live your life behind a camera lens. Just because you can't take pictures doesn't mean its not worth seeing." Inside was the most amazing little church I've ever seen. No one was in there. I could have taken non-flash pictures and no one would have been the wiser... but it would have been disrespectful. I'm glad I went it, and the pictures are very much imprinted in my memory, if not my camera card. If a place or event is so culturally significant or holy as to prompt a restriction on photographs, it should be respected as such and viewed and remembered.

  • Aireza May 2, 2011 02:27 am

    Thanks for the tips! It would be great if you write more on photography in India, especially on how to approach people.

  • Julie May 2, 2011 01:34 am

    I think and hope you made a mistake, because putting that old man under "street animals" is very tacky.