Photography in India

India flag

Overview

India is soon to be the most populous country on the planet and it is therefore no great wonder that many of the best images coming from the sub-continent are of people. Perhaps, though, these are only a feature of a bigger theme - of great crowds, urban sprawls and of a lifestyle so utterly alien that it appears to be without sense or order - of chaos.

The sheer size of the country prohibits us from a detailed account of all of the photographic challenges available and likewise for the travel-related issues. This page is intended as a summary only - but we hope it points you in an interesting direction. Feel free to email us with any specific questions you might have and we will do our best to find an answer.

Red Fort at sunset

Photographic opportunities

There are opportunities for absolutely every style of photography in India. There are many obvious classic images that are highly sought after but the discerning photography will also seek out places where they can feel that the images are their own. Since travel within India is easy enough this presents no great issues, though time is needed to cover the vast distances and to be able to absorb something of the culture before being able to adequately represent it.

The task for the photographer in India is to make sense of what they see. The best images capture the essence of a scene - showing something of the exotic in a way that can be understood by everyone, even those who have never been to India and probably never will. It is therefore essential to be clear what is the subject of your image, which always sounds easier than it is.

In India you will have a wide range of subjects to choose from including unexpected ones so do not over plan your approach but do review your work daily and see if you find common themes amongst the captures. These could then guide you in future excursions and allow you to develop a portfolio upon your return.

Many find the religious aspects in India fascinating. They are certainly varied, colourful and ubiquitous.

Street photography

India is such a natural venue for street photographers. The streets are so cluttered with activity that the challenge is not finding subjects but in capturing them in a meaningful way. Aim to capture significant moments as these help to tell the story. Gestures are often part of these - and anticipation is the key.

Although the people of some castes and religions are more reserved about having their photo taken, the vast majority are delighted to be included. If in doubt, ask. Much depends upon your approach so do loosen up and wear a friendly smile.

Jama Masjid Mosque

Where

The big cities are an obvious starting point for anyone intending to focus on street photography. Kolkata has a strong reputation as a place to find remarkable subjects and images galore. Old Delhi can be equally productive with some fascinating markets. As your photographic collection grows though, you are likely to be tempted to try other destinations. When researching options you could think about holy sites which attract both religious figures (sadhus and the like) as well as great masses of pilgrims. Another option would be to visit ex-colonial sites where the fading glory seems strangely at odds with the present. Mumbai evokes such sensations with its Gateway of India and grand CST station.

When

There are a huge range of festivals and other events throughout the calendar and you should easily be able to find something suitable if you like to capture crowds and mass action.

The Holi Festival early in the year attracts much interest as the tradition of casting coloured powders at each other results in delightfully vibrant images without the need for any tweaking. This is really a one day event though there are exceptions. Many services close for the day so you will need to be in place and prepared good and early. Some caution is required as some participants do get over-excited (sometimes intoxicated). Cameras can be protected by bags - though some photographers bring old equipment that they are more comfortable risking with damage.

The Kumbh Mela is said to be the largest gathering of humans on earth. The festival-series is on a 12 year cycle and actually incorporates many lesser events in 4 holy places associated with the origin legend. Since these are all well attended there is no need to wait for the biggest events to capture something of the flavour. It would be impossible to capture all anyway, except perhaps from the sky.

What

Other popular street-photography themes in India include transport, food, signage, market stalls and graffiti.

Delhi, street art

For something more original look out for lesser well-known traditions such as martial arts, henna or some particular trade or occupation.

Inspiration

For more inspiring photos from India check out this collection on 121clicks.com.

Landscape photography

When we think of landscape photography it is usually with definite land-forms in mind: mountains, deserts etc. The Himalaya obviously loom up as a mighty opportunity, as do the deserts of Rajasthan, but India has many lesser-known geographic features that will be of interest to photographers. Often, though, the best images are the ones that show the interaction between the landscape and people and this is where India excels. Much additional interest can be found for fore and middle grounds, with depth and scale coming from vast expanses beyond.

Mountains

The Himalaya are a great opportunity but not just the peaks north of Delhi. The range extends from Kashmir in the west through Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan far to the east finally disappearing beyond the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. The snow-capped peaks are not the only option in the Himalaya either. There are many attractive hill stations along the southern edge that give an interesting overlook of the plains below.

The Western Ghats are another important range. Although less dramatic than the Himalaya these mountains are listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO for their biological diversity. This incredibly ancient range is soft in appearance and marked by extensive forests and magnificent waterfalls.

Deserts

The Thar Desert - mostly in Rajasthan but extending into Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana states as well as into Pakistan - has extensive areas of dunes that shift with the monsoonal winds. These arid areas are interspersed with low hills and gravel plains, allowing for a significant farming population to exist and for a diverse fauna.

Lady from a dhani, Rajasthan

Photographers will find the dunes attractive, though perhaps not quite as isolated as in other deserts. The largest dunes are found north of Jodhpur near the town of Osian. Camel rides into the desert can be arranged and, though not everyone's cup of tea, these can be turned into modelling shoots with men and beasts in their environmental setting.

A visit to a dhani (the local term for a hamlet, or cluster of huts) to meet with locals is well worth arranging. The people are hospitable and generally happy to pose for photos. The people of the Bishnoi tribe have gained something of a reputation as ecologists but most locals understand the need to work with nature to keep their farms productive for the long term.

The desert is sufficiently fertile to support a number of small cities, originally city states, such as Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner. These provide good bases for desert excursions as well as plenty of photographic interest in their own right.

In Gujarat the Thar Desert meets the Arabian Sea. There are more interesting tribal areas here. Unfortunately, the ship's graveyard at Aalang (near Bhavnagar) is now deemed unsafe for visitors and is no longer an option for photographers.

Rivers

Indian culture has always been influenced by the Indus and the Ganges in the north. There are a host of holy sites and other historic sites clustered along these watercourses and a documentary style trip could easily focus on some aspect related to one of these rivers or their tributaries.

The Brahmaputra is another mighty river and well worth exploring as its upstream sections pass through some of India's less visited areas. The local people are often tribal, outside of the dominant Hindu and Muslim cultures, and offer another viewpoint for the photographer seeking unusual images.

In the far south the Cauvery River flows down from the Western Gahts Mountains south-east to the Bay of Bengal. There are a seriesr of great waterfalls as the river descends the Eastern Ghats. For instance, Hogenakal Falls.

Coast

India has an extensive coastline. Popular sections for photographers include the area around Goa and further south around Cochin (including the so-called Backwaters of Kerala)

Chilika Lake is a huge lagoon in Odisha State. It has been designated a 'Wetland of International Importance' due to its rich eco-system which attracts migratory birds from much of Asia. Many fisherfolk also depend upon the rich waters for their livelihood and these could be the subjects of your photographs or hired as assistants to help you get around.

Many of the colonial ports have forts and other structures that add interest to coastal photography. There are too many options to list here.

Wildlife photography

Much of India is still wild and it is not surprising that big game and big predators still exist in numbers, even if their sustainability requires management. Top of the list for many will be the magnificent tigers that are now mostly confined to natures reserves such as the Jim Corbett National Park, the original sanctuary set up in 1936.

Bird lovers have a wide range of species (over 1000) to choose from and will therefore need to do some research in order to suit their tastes. The peacock is the national bird of India but not the only one to put on a flamboyant display. The north-eastern states have a well-deserved reputation for other beauties including Mrs. Gould's Sunbird and, of course, the magnificent hornbills. This site gives a more complete picture of the geographical distribution of birds in India and has much other useful information besides.

To see wildlife in India does not always require a special excursion to a nature reserve though. The Hindu religion associates many different species with deities and these are then venerated in temples. For instance, there is a temple for rats near Bikaner, Rajasthan, (the Karni Mata Temple) and cows and monkeys are sacred everywhere - as are tigers, snakes and elephants, though perhaps a little less strictly.

Indian mugger crocodile
Pushkar, monkey

It is important to respect the local beliefs regarding such animals. As a visitor you must be careful not to offend by harming these animals in any way. In most cases even touching is likely to be considered offensive - so keep well back and do as you see the locals doing. Monkeys in particular are wild and can be scary - so do prepare yourself for encounters. They are most likely to approach if they think there is a chance of food, so have none with you. Try also to have no loose items that could be snatched and lost. As with all species, be particularly wary of mothers with young - however cute the latter may look.

Architectural photography

Throughout history the lands that we now know as India have been home to a succession of ruling civilizations and many have left monuments and other architectural features that are still extant. The name Rajasthan speaks volumes from its recent past. The Rajas were independent rulers of city states and each had a mix of palaces, temples, forts and tombs. Many of these are now open to the public and are worthy of exploration and capture of a different kind.

Red Fort, Delhi

Probably the most famous structure in the country is the Taj Mahal. This is not the only great architecture in and around Agra making a viist particularly productive for any that care to make the short journey from Delhi. Check out the Fatehpur Sikri and Agra Fort, at least.

Delhi is not short of great monuments. This page features two images from the Red Fort and one from the Jama Masjid Mosque. Other architecture would also make for an interesting study. Connaught Place at the heart of New Delhi is of the colonial era but now definitely has a character that is very local. There is also a trend towards modern buildings so those photographers with a preference for the contemporary will find interest here too - with Indian influences for sure.

Rajasthan is popular with visitors and a good venue for architectural photographers too. The Rajas vied with each other in their magnificence, producing palaces, temples, forts and other structures to display their power and wealth. The exteriors are often just as grand as the interiors with fine carvings even on battlement walls. The lighting can be an issue during opening hours, especially when tripods are generally banned for 'security reasons', but the clever photographer will find ways around this. Most modern cameras produce good images with a high ISO anyway. Some of the cities are noted for a particular colour used on homes - so if you have a favourite you might well be able to focus in accordingly.

Some temples are noted for their erotic details, for instance, those at Khajuraho,in Madhya Pradesh. Whilst some might blush at the positions depicted others may find artistic inspiration.

The Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains have produced their fair share of delightful places of worship and each could easily lead to a body of work. Each religion has a different take on non-practicing visitors, especially those with cameras, so do show respect for any rules published.

Markets and bazaars are good places to start looking for less grandiose structures. These often have a similar attention to detail with some finely decorated doors or windows, the only parts you are likely to see without an invitation. Craft workshops are more likely to be open to potential customers and can be a good option for those looking to get a flavour of typical interiors.

For more ideas take a look at our Architecture in India Pinterest board. Not all photos are of great quality but, if not, they have been chosen because their subject could be of interest.

Step wells

These features require a little explanation. A well typically is a vertical shaft and a receptacle is lower down to retrieve the water at the bottom. These are fine where only one person needs water at a time. In India, with its large population, such wells are impractical, requiring too many in urban areas. The solution is a well where the, invariably, women are able to walk down steps inside the hole to the water level and then climb back up other steps with a full receptacle.

The step well shown here is one of the few remaining in Delhi.

One of the most famous for photography is the Chand Baori step well near Ahbaneri (just off the road between Jaipur and Agra). This has 13-storeys, is about 100 feet deep and has a total of some 3500 steps.

Step well, Delhi

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