A Passage to India: a photographic odyssey through Rajasthan.
Updated: Jan 23, 2019
Overview. Camera equipment decisions, and practical observations, from a trip to capture the colour and splendour of the wildlife, street-life, landscapes and characters of Rajasthan.
The Itinerary. Our Christmas trip, arranged through the Experience Travel Group, was to be a bespoke ‘off the beaten track’ tour of Rajasthan offering wide and varied photo opportunities. ‘Rural’ was a key theme of the journey, with a personal aim to photograph leopards in the wild. Our brief to Experience Travel was to tailor a tour avoiding key tourist traps (think Taj Mahal), adding a dash of city life, and concentrating on the path less beaten. Our itinerary included Jodhpur, a wilderness camp, a converted rural hunting lodge, a small-town luxury hotel, a homestay base for leopard safari, and a final flurry in Udaipur before flying home. From a photography perspective, I was expecting themes of wildlife and landscape (firmly within my comfort zone), and street-life and portraiture (firmly without!).
Equipment Decisions. With such a range of potential subjects to cater for, it was clear upfront that weight and volume of gear would be my photo nemesis for this trip; it was against these factors I sought advice from the travel gods of the internet. Two clear themes emerged from my research; first, to equip myself with a fast/wide lens for low-light street work and second, on the basis most wildlife is within forested/jungle environs, to leave super long lenses at home. The devil on my shoulder won out over the advice of the pundits on this last point and my Sigma 150-600mm Sport zoom – a hefty brute of a lens – was packed on the basis of leopard opportunities alone. Rajasthan is actually mostly desert/scrub so, with no thick canopy to limit long-lens reach, the decision to lug the big gun was a good one.
Jet Air, our international and domestic airline, weight limits set the parameters for my final choices of kit with a generous 46kg in the hold and 7.5kg in the hand. Staying with me in the cabin would be; Canon 5D Mk4 body, Canon 35mm and 85mm F1.4L primes, Canon 28-300mm F3.5-5.6L zoom, and the Sigma 150-600mm Sport F5-6.3 super zoom. In the hold I packed a (very well protected) Sigma 20mm F1.4 Art prime and assorted accessories including; Manfrotto monopod and Pixi minipod, drop-in filter holder with 10-stop Nisi ND and Cokin 4-stop hard/soft Grad and 2-stop hard Grad, circular polarisers, camera remote, batteries and charger. I also packed a compact mirrorless Canon M3 with 20mm prime for the moments I suspected I might not want to carry the DSLR kit.
Carrying my gear in-country was an important consideration. I wanted an unobtrusive bag providing flexible storage and fast access to a range of lenses without need to ‘take off and set down’ in busy locations. I purchased a Mindset Photocross 13 sling bag to complement my larger backpack; at 11 litres it comfortably held the 28-300mm zoom, 85mm and either of the 35/20mm primes along with the 5D body. There was plenty of space to hold filters and other accessories including the Pixi minipod. A clever design of toggle zips secures the compartments for added security. All this in a snug and comfortable fit at minimal weight of just 1 kg. I choose to forsake camera neck/shoulder straps when out and about in favour of hand carrying with the security of a wrist strap; I found this ideal as photo opportunities were around every corner and the camera was rarely from my eye.
Aside from camera equipment, suitable clothing for all aspects of the trip was vital for both personal comfort and for complying with local customs on conformity of dress. Relatively conservative dress (long trousers for men and long skirts/covered arms for the ladies) is required in many places especially religious sites of worship; on this trip my shorts were left unpacked in my bag! The climate provided some surprises; although daytime temperatures were a pleasant 24-29 deg, they plummeted to 4-8deg for the morning safari drives – several layers topped by a down jacket were not excessive. The warm clothing was also essential for evening meals as it was as good as compulsory to dine beneath the stars on almost every night! Don’t forget sunscreen, hats and sunglasses!
The Indian Adventure. Transiting Mumbai airport was a surprisingly efficient and relatively pleasant experience and certainly not the nightmare many internet posts would have us believe. An internal flight carried us to our first stop; Jodhpur. We had pre-arranged tours of the city to include the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, the market areas, and the famed Blue City. The fort is undeniably imposing, beautiful, and crammed with historical interest. However the guiding was somewhat restrictive and we found the experience too regimented for our liking; from a photography perspective, the speed at which we felt obliged to move with the guide meant that I was unable to look for, and execute, any out-of-the-norm shots that would differentiate my captures from those already in abundance over the internet. There was opportunity for some portrait shots but, with the local staff in uniform, these seemed to lack authenticity when reviewed in the wider context of our overall trip. There is an expectation to give 10-20 rupees to each willing subject, so be sure to have a selection of small notes in your pocket. Lens-wise most shots were taken with the 28-300mm, but I did change to the 85mm for some portrait captures; I will more closely analyse lens statistics and success rates later.
The later part of the morning was dedicated to a wander through the market area of the city; this was more of the India that we had come to see – real colour and raw authentic life. I exclusively had the 28-300mm mounted and used this to good effect to capture both close ups of individuals and longer-range candid shots; life was moving at too fast a pace to attempt any posed shots here, and a life-preserving necessity to dodge tuk tuks and mopeds meant captures had to be reactive to moments that presented themselves. The afternoon took us to the labyrinthine streets of the Blue City; a guide here is essential to get the best of the area with no replacement for local contacts and
knowledge; my highlight was being introduced to the mother of the little boy made famous running through the streets in the iconic Steve McCurry image. When she dashed into her house to reappear with a wall canvas of that very shot, I took my opportunity to capture an art-imitating-art shot of her proudly holding the wall hanging. Language limitations prevented me from getting the pose I had in my mind, but I nonetheless left with a feeling of having captured my own small piece of local history.
For me, the Blue City was all about ‘details’; the enclosed nature of the streets made it tricky to capture any wider architectural shots so, again, the 28-300mm was ideal and remained on the body throughout. Leaving the Blue City we headed back to the central market area. With the light dropping I switched to the 35mm F1.4; for my style of shooting this was not a success. I missed the opportunities to zoom in on people to capture actions and expressions – I came away with only generic street shots lacking in any distinction or variety; none survived my final cut back home.
A note here on travel in this part of India; we had an assigned car and driver to ferry us between all stages of our trip and our impression was that it would be difficult to do it any other way. Public transport did not seem a realistic option and this feeling was echoed by a solo Italian photographer we met; also an experienced independent traveller and member of the 7 continents/100-countries club, he also thought chauffeured travel (self-drive would be akin to suicide in the cities) was the only sensible way to travel.
The next phase of our trip was to a Wilderness Camp outside the small town of Rohet. En-route we transferred to a jeep safari to see wildlife and visit local villages. The wildlife did not in truth match expectation; a few antelope made distant appearances, but my only photographic keepers were some close-up shots of iridescent Green Bee-eaters. As far as the village visits were concerned, these seemed a little ‘staged’. We visited a Bishnoi farm to learn of their distinct ‘live and let live’ philosophy and, whilst we had no ‘direct’ contact with the individuals (they sat close by whilst our guide provided the commentary), I did capture some fascinating portraits of the ‘lived-in’ faces of the elderly farming couple. Our overnight stay was in a tented encampment; a wonderful experience, but little to excite in terms of photography.
A new day and a new destination; a 2-hour drive to Kessa Bargh, an old hunting lodge reinvented as a bespoke hotel. We took an evening stroll into the local town; no pretences for tourists here. I carried the 28-300mm which was again perfect for capturing a range of candid street shots of the locals going about their daily business. The next day was an excursion on the Deogarh ‘Monkey Train’; a route established in the 1930s through the Kamlighat hills to link otherwise isolated villages, today it feels as if the line is preserved as much for the benefit of the tourists to the region as it is for the locals.
Trundling at slow speed across numerous hillside viaducts, the train gets its name from the local monkeys that descend on the tracks at the station stops to beg, borrow and often steal food from the passengers. We stopped on the drive up the hills to our departure station to interact with a group of Grey Langur in the road… which was just as well as the promised primates of the train itself hadn't received the brief that we were coming! Some good simian shots captured here on the 85mm prime before switching to the 28-300mm on the train. I failed to better (or indeed match) any standard scenic pictures already littering the internet, but did
capture some interesting candid shots of local travellers at the station stops. The hunter became the hunted at this stage with one Indian tourist requesting a selfie with a genuine westerner!
The highlight of this part of our trip came later that day with an impromptu walk from the Kassa with one of the hotel staff to spot some of the migratory birds and take a wander through one of the local villages. My decision to carry the 85mm rather than the big Sigma seemed a poor one at first as we passed an array of bee-eaters, kingfishers, and other migratory birds. The lens choice seemed inspired however when we wandered through the village as some of the candid portrait shots of the villagers – the children in particular – would prove to be some of my favourite of the whole trip. Our hotel guide seemed to know each and every one of the villagers and this gave us the real opportunity to engage on a personal level; a smile and a wave to the growing group of kids in our wake won over their inhibitions for me to capture some natural shots depicting authentic rural Rajasthani life.
We genuinely left small parts of our hearts in that village when we departed Kessa Bargh for Rawla Narlai, a small town some 90 minutes’ drive away. This was the ‘luxury’ hotel of our trip. Whilst a stunning property in which to stay – a repurposed fort – it definitely felt more ‘touristy’ and sanitised; despite the creature comforts (of which there were many), it was not our favourite destination. Some more pictures of locals in the town (a capture of a local seamstress at work in her shop one of my favourite shots of the trip), and some vistas from atop Elephant Hill were the extent of photo opportunities here. We were happy to be on the road early the next day for what we anticipated would be the highlight of our tour… leopard safari based from the beautiful homestay of Castle Bera.
Aside from the wonderful accommodation, great food, and family-like welcome from the Castle Bera owners, we loved the chance to mix with other guests over post-safari drinks around the brazier, and at the communal dining table. This was the first real opportunity we had all trip to share experiences with other travellers and it really enhanced the overall experience. Guests come to Castle Bera from far and wide solely to see the leopards, so it was not by chance that we had much in common with people who shared interests in travel, wildlife and, in many cases, photography. It goes without saying that no wild
encounter can ever be guaranteed, but in Bera it is probably as close to a certainty as you can get for sighting the big cats (our host Winku claimed that, since opening in 2005, only 8 guests have ever left without sighting a leopard – and almost all those only stayed for a single night). With a population of approximately 25 big cats in the surrounding area, the local knowledge and tracking skills of the guides did not disappoint. Of our four game drives, only one failed to produce the leopard goods; with encounters near, mid-range, and far – the 600mm reach of the big Sigma was essential. Be aware that the encounters tend to be at dawn, dusk, and in the dark under searchlight, so a camera with low-noise high-ISO is a real bonus. We also visited the Jawai Dam lagoon from which I captured some passable shots of basking crocodiles and wading flamingos both reflected in the still waters. Again, the reach of the 600mm on a full-frame sensor was essential.
It was with a real touch of sadness that we left Bera for the last stage of our journey – Udaipur, the city of the palaces on the lakes. The two-hour drive was through some stunning mountain scenery and I have some regrets that I did not ask Satish our driver to stop on a couple of occasions to capture some scenes that were bursting with colour in the isolated settlements – no one to blame but myself! It was something of a shock to re-enter the chaos of Indian city traffic after our time in the countryside. First impressions of Udaipur are that it has maybe become a victim of its own beauty; the influences of tourism are far more apparent here than the other areas we had visited. Street hustlers are more common and, whilst everyone was friendly enough, the sincerity of welcome we had experienced in other places was less so here. Views of the palaces on the lake are truly stunning, and this was one of the few occasions where I used the 35mm prime to good effect. Using the Minipod and the big stopper ND, I captured some long-exposure landscapes from the roof of our hotel.
Some bartering with our guide the next day enabled us to shorten the tour of the Grand Palace and trade a visit to the Saheliyon Ki Bari Gardens for time to explore the locals' market (as opposed to the tourist market). We were pleased we did this; our view is that manicured gardens can be seen almost anywhere around the world - but the colour and energy of these markets however is unique to India.
It was fascinating to immerse ourselves in this world; we tried our amateur hands at bartering for spices and felt no malice to the traders clearly laughing at our lack of business acumen as we scurried away with our 'bargains'! The photo opportunities just kept coming, as they also did when visiting the Jagdish Hindu Temple in the Old Town. The 28-300mm allowed me to easily switch between candid shots of the local personalities, to capturing some of the still-life details in the shops and temple.
The Numbers Game. I’m not generally one for muddying the art of photography with the banality of statistics, but the numbers have been crunched and make for an interesting perspective that will certainly influence my future choices of kit for similar trips. Of the 1048 shutter releases, I have kept 287 – a hit rate of 1 in 4. From a focal length perspective, 10% were at the far range 301-600mm, 12% at the opposite end of the spectrum at 50mm and below, 25% between 51-100mm, and a whopping 53% shot between 101-300mm. Analysis against the use of the lenses is perhaps more telling; only 4 shots on the 20mm, 7 shots on the 35mm, 41 shots on the 85mm, 204 from the 28-300mm zoom, and 31 shots on the 150-600mm superzoom. On future trips of this nature I will probably lighten my load by leaving the 20mm and 35mm primes at home unless I was visiting an area defined by its landscape splendour; carriage of the big Sigma will be dictated by any serious chances of wildlife.
Lessons Learned. For what its worth, here are my Top 10 lessons from this trip:
1. Use the internet wisely; research and harvest advice from those who have trod before, but make sure their experiences reflect your plans. I would have kicked myself (hard and repeatedly) had I followed common advice to leave the 150-600mm zoom at home.
2. Know the capabilities of your system; experiment with ISO settings to determine acceptable levels of noise before your trip rather than risk poor quality captures of unrepeatable moments – know how to return to default settings swiftly (and in the dark) if settings have been customised.
3. Shoot in Raw; you can’t recover what hasn’t been recorded!
4. Be ready; lens cap off and expected settings dialled in. Opportunities happen fast and furious in such a dynamic place as India and being quick on the draw can be crucial in nailing a great capture.
5. Check your camera screen regularly; make sure that your settings are appropriate to capture your interpretation of the scene – think movement, exposure, focus, depth of field and look for unwanted elements creeping into the shot. Alter settings or consider bracketing if captures are off.
6. Be aware of your surroundings – whilst I never felt threatened from crime, I had a few close scrapes with the traffic!
7. Be firm with guides if you have definite photographic goals; I would not have captured some of my favourite images from the local markets had we not been insistent on forsaking palaces for bazaars.
8. Go native - engage with the locals. A smile and some chat (even if there are language barriers) can go a long way to helping you capture that great portrait shot – especially with the kids. Show them your in-camera image - most will appreciate this.
9. Respect people, traditions and customs. Beware religious and military/police sensitivities. Ask to take portraits – raising and pointing to your camera may be all that is needed for your subject to strike an interesting pose. Respect any wishes not to be photographed and move on – there will be plenty more opportunities round the corner!
10. And finally… be adaptable. My pre-trip focus was wildlife, but my most valued captures were from life on the streets.
Last Thoughts. Hopefully some of you out there will find value in this post; my intent was to fill a void in information that I was hoping to find before my trip. Please feel free to share this post amongst your friends; if you have any comments or questions fire them to me in the space below - I'll try to answer as best I can. If you really like any of the images in this blog, these and more are available as full resolution un-watermarked prints or digital downloads from the shop page of this website. Happy travels!
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