Photographing in India

Last updated: 13 May, 2007

At the end of March 2007 I visited northern India for 10 days. I wanted to experience the country and its people as directly and intensely as possible, and I did hope to capture my impressions in photos that stood up above average snapshots. So I did my homework — I read up on India, its history, traditions and people, and I thought about what photo gear to take on the trip. I also looked up on the web for reports related to photographing in India, but found nothing significant. So once I got back, I wrote this essay.

Holy Man, Varanasi

Photographic Gear

I took with me a DSLR (Canon 30D), three lenses (17-40/4 L, 50/1.8, 70-200/4 L), and an external flash (420 EX). These, together with a lens pen, circular polarizer, two spare batteries, 2-3 spare memory cards and a lens-shade for the wide-angle lens, fit nicely in a LowePro OmniSport bag. Everything together weighed 3,7 kg, which is quite OK for a shoulder-bag.

In my suitcase I had three more batteries, a few memory cards, charger for the camera and flash batteries, a universal power-adapter and a borrowed spare DSLR (Canon 350D), in case my camera broke or got lost.

Also important is what I did not bring with me. A film SLR, for example, and if I didn't shoot a single slide in India, then I guess, I'll never shoot film again. I would have liked to take a laptop and a tripod along, but because of weight and size considerations, I had to leave them behind. As I did not expect to have many close-up or wildlife opportunities, at least not on my particular tour, I did not take a macro or a longer telephoto with me. India is, however, paradise for bird photograhpers, but that would be a very different tour and at a different time of the year.

Memory Cards and Batteries

Without a laptop or a separate storage-drive, I had to bring enough CF cards for the entire trip. I had a total of 10 GB with me, which meant about 1200 RAW images, but I could have purchased additional cards in India. There were even SanDisk Ultras on offer, but I don't know if they were original.

Since I didn't make any backups during the trip, I was running a risk of losing images. Luckily I suffered no data-loss, but on my next trip I'll definitely think twice about it.

On my first day I took about 350 photos, about 50 of which I erased almost immediately. In the hotel I erased another 80, but I was still left with more than double of my estimated daily average. So on the second day I started shooting JPGs. This was a mistake because shooting JPG means that I cannot do any non-destructive edits (in Photoshop CS2), and you can never tell if the next photo opportunity will be worth a RAW or just a JPG. In the end my 10 GB were enough, and I could have stayed with RAW the entire time. That's because on the one hand, later on I no longer photographed every street-merchant or colorful sari, and on the other hand, later on I experienced similar or better photographic situations than on the first days, so I was able to delete many of my earlier images. But I did have to critically look at my photos every night and delete many of them. Since I didn't have a laptop, I had to evaluate the images on the camera's display. The 30D has a bright and large display and the user interface for reviewing and deleting images is quite easy, so technically this was an easy task. But "creatively" it took me a long time and that required lots of battery power.

I had read in several travel books that electrical power in India is not very reliable and that the power plugs are not always standard. So I brought six camera batteries, all fully charged. They would have been enough for the whole journey, but all hotel-rooms had at least one two-prong European power plug, so I was able to load my batteries every night.

Jamia Masjid, Delhi

Weather Conditions

The weather was sunny, hot and dry the entire time. At sunrise the temperature was about 10C, in mid-morning it climbed to over 20 and in mid-afternoon it was over 30. Having drinking water at hand was very important, especially in the early afternoon, but you can easily buy cold bottled water at all tourist attractions and even at the smallest local markets.

Photographically speaking, the dry and sunny weather had four negative implications: lots of fine dust in the air, boring blue skies, potential for lens flare and very strong contrast during the day-hours.

Because of the dust I had to clean my lenses several times a day, so I was quite happy to have the LensPen with me. Since I was changing lenses quite often, I sometimes had to clean the rear elements too. I also expected having to clean the sensor, but it remained in good shape till the end of the trip. Dust is noticeable on very few images, all shot at f/22 or narrower.

I was glad to have the lens-shade for my wide-angle lens with me. Even if it didn't save every shot, it did a good job at reducing lens flare in many cases.

Strong shadows resulting from the very direct sun were much harder to deal with. It is, of course, best to shoot short after sunrise or short before sunset, but what do you do if you are surrounded by great scenes all day long? If possible, I tried shooting in the shadow — I looked for streets where one side was in the shade or for markets where the stands were covered by glass or fabric. If I had to shoot under direct sunlight, I always used my flash, set to 1 EV underexpose. Remember that in order to get a Canon camera to do a good balance between daylight and flash you have to go into aperture-priority and choose a wide aperture value. If your flash is not very powerful, choose a higher ISO. It surely looked strange to non-photographers to be running around shooting with a flash in the middle of a summer day, but it was quite effective. Just don't forget to dial in some flash underexposure, otherwise your photos will look horribly flat.

Gathering the Crop, Abaneri

What to Photograph

Most interesting to me were the local people going about their everyday-business: merchants cleaning the shop or tidying up their goods, rickshaw-drivers pushing the pedals, people cooking or selling food, women doing laundry on the street, people talking o the treet or women balancing heavy loads on their heads.

Probably everyone has heard about the incredible colors of India. Well, it's true. Women wear colorful saris, usually combining two or more bright colors. Houses and house-doors are often painted in different colors, textile stores have boldly colored goods on display, and fruit, vegetable and spice stands add to the color mix. The only exception to this color abundance are Indian men, who typically dress in white, grey or beige. Luckily there are exceptions to this rule — mostly older men wearing a turban or a bright cloth that covers the head.

Very interesting to me were the local markets, brimming with life. If you don't know how to find the nearest market, just ask a rickshaw-driver to take you to one. If you ask someone on the street for directions, you'll probably end up with a very talkative companion, who will not leave you alone until he's brought you to 5 different emporiums, to his cousin's vegetable store and has finally shown you his modest home. This is actually quite an interesting experience in itself, but sometimes you really just want to go to a market.

Also interesting are the numerous forts, temples, palaces, tombs and various other memorials, but frankly, they are all similar to each-other, so seeing a few was enough for me. You might feel differently.

Man and Women, Qutb Minar, Delhi

Photographing Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal is supposedly the most widely-known building in the world. It is indeed impressive and well worth seeing, but it is not as moving as I thought would be.

You can enter Taj Mahal between sunrise and sunset. If you want photos without people in them, you have to be there at sunrise. The entire complex is rectangular and oriented along the north-south direction. The entrance is at the south side and the main marble building is on the north side. You can walk around the main building, but you only get a good look at it from the east, south and west. Sadly you cannot climb up anywhere and you are not allowed to bring a tripod with you. Even more interesting than the main building are the two side buildings and the entrance, all three made out of red sand-stone. All buildings are quite large, so if you want to photograph them in their entirety, you will need quite a wide lens (24 mm or shorter). Exception is only the view of the main building from the south — here you have plenty of room.

Taj Mahal is situated directly on the south bank of the Yamuna river, and you also get a nice view from the north river-bank. Starting at Taj Mahal it takes about 20 min with a tuk-tuk to get to the other river side. Best viewing times are at sunrise or sunset, so you might want to bring a tripod along.

Sunrise over Taj Mahal, Agra

Photographing People

Watching and photographing people was the most rewarding aspect of my trip. The colorful saris that women wear are of course very striking, but there is much more to see: busy markets, piles of fruits, vegetables and spices, holy men, elephants and camels, workers in the fields, people bathing at sunrise or performing religious rituals, various celebrations in towns and villages...

Generally I found the local people to be very open and friendly to foreigners, more than in other countries that I've visited.

In less touristic settings the local people will take notice of a photographer, but will go on with their daily business. Sometimes I asked in advance if I may take a photo, sometimes I made a quick questioning gesture and sometimes I took a shot first, depending on the situation. In cases where I got halfway decent photos, I approached the people afterwards and gave them a small tip, usually 10 or 20 Rupees. Some expected my tip, others were surprised, but all were happy about it.

Since I planned to take many such photos, each morning I made sure to have enough small change in my pockets. By the way, the best source of small bank notes are the change desks at the hotels. If a clerk says he or she doesn't have any small notes, simply go back 10 minutes later and talk to a colleague.

In many tourist settings you will see locals, nicely dressed and ready to pose for you. Sometimes it is quite convenient to get a bit of extra color in your photo, but usually the result is a just a typical tourist photo. Such people usually make you a "money" hand-sign and cover their faces with their hands if you do not pay. Typically you would give 10 Rupees in such a situation, the equivalent of 0.20 USD.

Several times I was approached by locals and was asked to take their picture. Some simply wanted to be photographed and did not care further. Many wanted to see the image on your camera's display and a few asked me to send them a paper picture later on. And in some cases people asked me to take a photo of them and then asked for money for having posed for me. To the latter I simply said "no" and walked away.

Crushing Stones, Jaipur

What not to Photograph

In India you are not allowed to photograph bridges, railroad stations, airports, military personnel and military installations. It seems these rules are not very rigidly enforced, but they exist anyway.

Also, you should not photograph the body-burning sites in Varanasi from a close distance.

Not all situations in India are colorful and romantic — sometimes you will need to hold your nose, and if you wonder too far off the main streets, you will probably see scenes of extreme poverty and human despair that might upset your stomach. You probably should not photograph those either.

Looking Back

This was truly a great trip, and feel that I experienced a good bit of this fascinating country and its people. I travelled by plane, train, bus, Jeep, car, boat, rickshaw, tuk-tuk, horse-cart, on the back of an elephant and by foot. I was often out and photographing at sunrise, I separated myself from the group, stayed away from the tourist places, and was not afraid to walk in small streets...

I am quite happy with my photos, but if I were making the trip again, I would prefer to take a Canon 5D and a 24-105/4 IS lens along. This way I would not have to constantly swap lenses, I would have image stabilization, a wider wide-angle, better low-light performance and 50% more pixels. I would still leave the laptop and tripod at home, but I would definitely take a backup-drive with me.

In low-light situations I did make use of my 50mm prime lens, but in general this trip confirmed the need for high-quality zoom lenses. For street photography where you cannot set up the scenes and where you are overwhelmed by images from all sides, a zoom lens is simply far more flexible than a prime or a set of primes. And I am very happy that Canon has several f/4 zooms in the EOS system, as these are the perfect compromise of quality vs. size and weight between the cheap kit zooms and the professional f/2.8 zooms.

In the Shade, Khajuraho

A Word of Caution

Although nothing bad happened to me or to anyone in our group, one needs to take some care.

Educate yourself about malaria, hepatitis, upset stomach and so on, and decide if you want to take any precaution. I did, but it was probably unnecessary.

When you change money, always count the Rupees that you get back. It is not uncommon to get 100 to 500 Rupees less than you should. Also before buying something, know how much it should cost. Local merchants offer their goods at 3 to 10 times their real value, so bargain as necessary. At tourist places you get souvenirs shoved in your hands and then the seller does not want to take them back. Just put the things on the ground and walk away. Beware of friendly locals that appear to want to shake your hand, but in reality start to massage your hand and then want money for their services.

Indians have many tricks to make you willingly part with your money, but stealing or mugging a tourist seems to be quite rare. Indian merchants are very eloquent and go a bit overboard in praising their goods, so judge for yourself if something is pure silver, pure gold, handmade, finest-quality, made of camel-bone, or if you are indeed getting the best price in town. And can you really be the first customer of the day at 1 PM?

All I'm saying is, take some precaution, but don't be too afraid. Watch your valuables, but don't be obsessive about it. Otherwise you will miss out on the best of India.

"A Bit of Distance, Please!", Jaipur Sidestreet
Copyright © by Arnulf Hettrich

On one occasion, in a non-tourist area, I was photographing together with another member of the group. A few local kids gathered around us and wanted to have their picture taken. Then they wanted to see the picture on the camera's display, then another picture, then they wanted to hold the camera, and soon there was too much euphoria in the air. There was too much pushing and shoving from all sides, so after a minute or two I had to ask for some distance. In the image you are only seeing about 1/3 of the kids. - Essays - Photographing in India
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