Say Cheese, Ismail Please: Top 10 Photography tips for India

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Ten years of being on the road has taught ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY some important things about shooting in India. Here’s a list of their Top 10 crazy yet extremely useful photography tips.

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1. Use protection
Forget Delhi Belly, Malaria, Dengue and Chikungunya, if there’s anything that needs more protection in India than you, it’s your camera. Ask the millions of people who’ve emigrated from India and they’ll admit 2 things that have changed for them – a) quality of life and b) no dust. There’s a lot of suspended particulate matter in most metros and sudden dust storms are fairly common in North and Central India, especially Ladakh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi, MP, UP… actually everywhere! Be careful while changing lenses or you can get a lot of dust on your sensor. Keep a brush and blower handy to clean it after a day’s work. Remember what they say about your body being a temple, it applies to your camera too! (Festivals like Holi and Diwali are the equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for your camera so watch out.)

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2. Keep the change… handy!
The sadhu in colourful attire you chanced upon in Rishikesh? The kid dressed up like Hanuman you found in Hampi? The beautiful gypsy woman in Rajasthan wearing a red veil, dancing in the dunes at sunset? It wasn’t serendipity or good fortune that they happened to be there. They were waiting for you, just as a tiger stalks its prey. You can tell them by their over-friendly approach and an attempt to catch your eye. Many such gods and godmen are opportunists in make-up trawling the streets for a quick buck. You got to pay more than a penny for your postcard, so keep enough 10s, 20s and the odd 50 handy. Reaching for your wallet and coming up with a 500 is a bad idea. (Once in Khajuraho, had to borrow a milkman’s cycle to get some change for Baba Gobind Singh who lifted a 50kg stone with his willy!)

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3. Trespassers will be prosecuted
After 9/11, 7/11 and other terrorist attacks around the globe, security has become a big issue everywhere. Security guards and policemen are pretty edgy nowadays about major landmarks. Avoid dams, bridges, Government buildings, sensitive installations, even some high-profile temples and mosques or you’ll find a khaki-clad guy waving his stick at you. Stop when you hear a whistle. Often they’ll wait for you to trespass before moving in. Avoid using the words ‘shooting’ ‘recce’ or ‘we’re just having a blast’. Most monuments have ticket counters for photography and video. Entry tickets for foreign nationals are priced higher. (Remember, we’re a third world country, so do your bit for the economy. C’mon, it’s a better deal than paying $250 a day in Bhutan!)

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4. Writing on the wall
India is one large outdoor canvas with bizarre road signs, graffiti, ‘miss-spelt‘ menu cards, strange stores selling stranger things, weird public service instructions and mind-boggling English. Hell, even English seems like a foreign language. In fact some road safety signs are so hilarious, you might go off the road, around the bend and die laughing. In Ladakh you’re told ‘Don’t be a Gama in the land of the Lama’, Goa advises ‘Safety on Road Safe Tea at Home’ while shops offer everything from bread-amblet, oil message-fechial to cycles for rant.

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5. Sense and Sensitivity
Sensitivity is not just something to do with your camera, it applies to you too. Sure you’re seeing a funeral procession for the first time in your life and it must be unusual, but don’t go clicking away like a manic monkey. Be it the burning ghats of Varanasi or the bathing ghats of Pushkar, people don’t like their private moments to be captured. Show some restraint. Often, old women, religious figures or traditional people might get offended if you click without seeking permission. It helps to establish a rapport with your subject – a smile, nod or namaste (namaskaram if you’re in the South) often does the trick. When in doubt, ask. Showing people their photos on your digicam works as an excellent icebreaker. Tele lenses are a good alternative to shoving the camera in someone’s face.

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6. Shooting wildlife
India is not Africa, here the wildlife is like a shy whimsical Indian village belle so you’ve got to be patient. Forget a tripod; monopods and beanbags are probably the most important accessories you’ll need as you’ll be shooting mostly from jeeps or elephant back. Light conditions vary with seasons and temperatures fluctuate from 4 to 45 degrees C. Hence, light is usually soft in winters and harsh in summers. Early mornings and evenings are best time to shoot, when wildlife is most active. The quality of your wildlife experience greatly depends on your team of naturalists, guides and drivers, so don’t keep forgetting their names, be nice and tip them well. It’s better to keep two camera bodies while shooting so you don’t waste time changing from tele-zoom to landscape. And remember, no flashing. The wildlife may find it rather disturbing!

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7. If you wanna shoot, shoot, don’t talk
Saw that great photo-op from your car and thought you’ll click it on your way back or perhaps later? Na da. Ain’t happening. What’s gone will be gone unless you do something about it. If you have a gut feel about a shot, stop the vehicle immediately (no, not the train) and turn back if you’ve overshot. Even though it breaks the momentum of the journey and is a pain when you’re on the road, you’ll thank yourself for doing so. Holds true 99 out of 100 times. It helps to keep your eyes open so try not to doze off, yap on the phone or bury your nose in a book from point A to point B.

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8. Liquid Damage
When shooting in cold weather or adverse conditions like rain or snow, it’s important not to change your lens outdoors, otherwise moisture or condensation can get inside your camera body. Rains in India can be torrential and unpredictable. In monsoons, make sure to carry an umbrella, plastic sheets and waterproof bags. Take care while crossing rivers or streams on foot. Beaches are another dangerous place and if you aren’t careful the salty surf and sand can ruin your equipment. Try not to doze off on the beach or you may find your camera bag floating in high tide.

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9. Stay charged
They say whenever you get a chance to eat or sleep, you must. The same holds true for charging. Electricity in India can be erratic, especially in remote parts, wildlife areas and the rural outback, so charge whenever you can. The standard usage is 240 volts, 50-60 Hertz and circular/round pin plug points. Carry adapters for the chargers besides spare batteries and memory cards. Sourcing batteries may be difficult in remote areas. After a heavy meal, there’s less oxygen flow to the brain, so make sure to collect your charger and battery from hotels and restaurants.

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10. Beware, be aware
Check beforehand on the time of sunset and sunrise the next day. Don’t hang around alone at isolated spots after dark. Make sure of the direction of light while shooting. Be aware of local events and festivals to capture a destination at its colourful best but be extra careful with your equipment. Animal fairs are exciting but don’t go walkabout in the dark (we nearly got hoofed by a horse). Never let your camera bag out of sight, especially on trains, buses, public transport and eateries. If you get it back, it’s only your good karma. And watch your step –open manholes, banana peels, a fresh cake of cowdung, oncoming vehicles… it’s a minefield out there! Don’t get so engrossed while shooting that you get run over on the street. And make sure to get yourself in some photos. Getting shot never felt so good!

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12 responses »

    • Sure will. Enough adventures on the road. Both with and without the camera. Nearly getting lynched in Pulga, pawning off junk jewellery in exchange for chowmein, hitchhiking on a truck from Ladakh to Manali after the monastery closed down for winter, madness at Maha Kumbh… Might have to do a book!

  1. I want to share something with you guys. My journery to Amritsar (Punjab)

    Oh how I Love food of Amritsar, especially that Lassi Glass! Thick glass of milk with a huge dollop of cream aaww! Served in a good way. So when that awesome glass of Lassi comes from the Gian Chand Lassi wale o/p Regent Cinema, Katra Sher Singh, Amritsar, I was dying to see how that taste was replicated in the class of Claridges. How authentic would a 5-star experience measure up to a very human-centric approach at dhabas across North India? As it turns out, it scores pretty well on some counts!

  2. hahaha….. that sure was a hilarious read! I am learning photography from a place called seamedu.com and i have an assignment to capture a few festive moments. These tips will surely help! Thank you.

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