India by lens

A Girl does her washing in the Gagnes

From packing to departure, Travcom Travel Photographer of the Year 2014, Josh Donnelly, leads us on a photo tour of India

Ask a lot of people who have not been to India what their perception of the country is, and many will give a negative answer. I must admit, even before my plane touched down I was a little apprehensive about what I might be letting myself in for on my first visit. But after a quick two-week holiday, I can truthfully say it was one of the most amazing and colourful places I have ever been to and, as I would discover, it is a photographer’s paradise.

In this article I will write about my whirlwind tour, discussing a few thoughts and approaches on travel photography, and hoping I can motivate you to take the bull by the horns and step outside your comfort zone with your camera on your next holiday. 

A little girl plays in  an ally in Varnaesi

Regarding photographic equipment, my biggest bit of advice is to travel light. Unless you are on an arranged photographic tour, take minimal gear; I usually just travel with one camera body and one lens. On this trip it was a Nikon D7000 and an 18–200mm lens, which served me fine. Pick a versatile lens that works in most situations. It need not be 18–200mm, but something you like to use. Even a medium telephoto can be a good option. Last year when I visited Turkey, I shot with a 15–85mm and got some fantastic results.

Should I take the tripod or not? It’s a question I ask myself every single time I go overseas. I have a very small, compact and lightweight Cullmann tripod I usually take just in case but, to be honest, I have hardly used one at all during my last couple of trips. If you do like to use a tripod, I would suggest first researching the attractions at your destination, as many do not allow the use of a tripod — an example of this in India is the Taj Mahal. Modern cameras have amazing ISO abilities, so utilize them and you’re likely to find your pictures will come out fine, especially with today’s improvements in noise reduction and image-editing software.

Make sure you have plenty of memory. It’s always better to have plenty of cards than not enough. I usually take a 32GB card and always have at least two backups, just in case. And always make sure you fully charge your battery before each day’s shoot.

For the sort of trip I took in India, I brought a small over-the-shoulder camera bag that fitted into a bigger backpack so that I could pack other things with it for the plane journey. I have found on previous trips that camera backpacks leave very little room for your own personal items, which can be a nuisance after a day out when you may have collected the odd souvenir or brought some bottled water back to your hotel.

Now you have all your gear ready, it’s time to get on the road.

A man sewing in Todi Garh

My first stop in India was Delhi, and my initial impression was slightly negative on the photography front — I didn’t see the colour and chaos I was expecting. After the flight from Singapore I checked into the hotel before taking a small walk. Unfortunately I didn’t feel inspired to take photos, in fact I was too scared to even take the camera out. There were people everywhere, and I felt flaunting a camera would attract too much attention, that I was being intrusive. I did get over my initial hesitation on the second day, which involved a rickshaw trip through Old Delhi. I didn’t know which way to look because so much was going on; there were people bathing in the street, shopping, cleaning wax out of ears, sewing, repairing shoes, shaving — you name it, and it was going on. A street photographer’s dream, but difficult to shoot when on the go.

One of the places we visited in Delhi was the Jama Masjid Mosque. There were other tourists wandering through the grounds of the mosque and I wanted to get a photo that was different from the standard exterior shot, so I decided to explore the interior. I was impressed by its size and splendour, and it wasn’t until I had been in there for at least 15 minutes that I noticed there were only locals in the scene, so I decided to click away from some distance, respecting that it was a place of worship.

Jama Masjid Mosque

Varanasi, which is situated right on the banks of the Ganges, was the second location on my itinerary. I can truthfully say Varanasi was one of the most amazing and colourful places I have ever been to, and an incredible place to photograph. Ghats (a series of long steps) line the bank of the river closest to the city. You can see people fishing, washing themselves, washing clothes, praying and cremating their deceased loved ones along this culturally significant and holy river. You can photograph most of these things, but photography is strictly prohibited at the funeral ghats and at the actual cremations. 

Sadhus (holy men) are great to photograph; they are located along the banks of the river, normally sleeping in tents. They live quite a simple life and a lot of them have amazing faces. They may expect you to pay them if you want to take their photograph, so it’s a good idea to have some smaller Indian rupees, just in case, but much of the time it isn’t an issue. 

Offerings for the Gagnes River

One of the many photography highlights of my stay in Varanasi was a dawn cruise along the Ganges. You will see thousands of people bathing in the river and praying. It truly was amazing to witness such devotion. One cannot help but get caught up in the moment, and may even find yourself saying a prayer as well. In this situation it is important to shoot at high ISO, because the early morning light can make it difficult to photograph from a moving boat. 

You can’t go to India without visiting the Taj Mahal, and you will definitely not be disappointed. It is truly breathtaking. Photographing can be difficult, however, mainly due to the large number of other tourists. Expect it to be busy. Tripods are a definite no-no, so if you do manage to be there when the sun goes down, make sure to increase your ISO setting. The best vantage point to photograph the Taj is just in front of the pools that are in the foreground where, if you’re lucky, you will see the magnificent building reflected in the shot. There will likely be lots of locals trying to take your portrait with the Taj in the background. They will expect you to buy the image from them later, but look around for a fellow user of Nikon, Canon or whatever make you yourself use; you will usually find they will do a better job for free.

Old woman in Todi Garh

I was very fortunate to spend a night in the village of Tordi Garh. What makes this place special to photograph is that the tour companies stopping here encourage responsible tourism; there is no begging, we are told not to give any money for taking a local’s photo or to give the children any gifts. And the people, in turn, didn’t expect it. This place gave us quite a different look at the Indian people compared to those in the cities. Most of them actually want you to photograph them and love the simple gesture of showing them the results on your camera’s LCD screen. I got some stunning portraits in this place, and what made it work were the beautiful colours, both of the garments the people wore and of their surrounds. 

My final stop was the city of Jaipur before heading back to Delhi. Jaipur has many sights to explore, including the Amber Fort. You can walk up to the fort but, if you’re like me and want to experience how life would have been as a maharaja, you can also take a ride on an elephant. The elephants are beautiful and great to photograph, especially if they are still wearing their paint from the Elephant Festival, which happens in March.

The Taj Mahal just after sun set

Sadly, after that my travels in India quickly came to an end and it was time to fly back home. 

India did not disappoint photographically. It is difficult not to leave this amazing place without being touched by the colour and people. So the next time you’re looking to go on a holiday with great photographic opportunities, I encourage you to go somewhere different, like India. You don’t have to do a photography tour to get great shots, and you don’t need to spend big bucks on your gear. Just go out and enjoy it — the next trip for me is Burma and I can’t wait.