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Advice and tips for photographers interested in capturing this colorful festival — with information on how to protect yourself and your camera

Overview

You can photograph Holi Festival at many places in India but I stayed in the region around Mathura, three hours south of Delhi and just north of Agra in Uttar Pradesh.

Mathura is the birth place of Krishna and the celebrations in the area are particularly important. They also last over a week, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to capture both the religious and social aspects of the festival. Holi is often limited to just a couple of days elsewhere.

Holi isn’t just celebrated in India — you’ll also find it in many other countries with Hindu populations. I was only in the area for a few days, but wish I’d had longer, to get a more representative set of images. I didn’t get a chance to visit Nandagaon, or Barsana – both of which are, from what I’ve seen, really good places for photography.

Inspiration

There are some really great images from Holi out there, including the following:

  • Jitendra Singh was kind enough to take the time to advise me on shooting Holi. His images of the festival are amongst the best I’ve seen
  • Boston Big Picture (2009, 2010 and 2011)
  • Steve McCurry

Dates and timings for Holi Festival

Holi is celebrated on the Phalgun Purnima or Pooranmashi (full moon) in the month of Phalgun according to the Hindu calendar.

  • 2012: March 8th
  • 2013: March 27th
  • 2014: March 17th
  • 2015: March 6th

Locations

  • Holika Dahan (the eve of Holi) before Holi sees bonfires built everywhere, then later lit around 8–10pm. Colourful effigies of Holika (who the festival is named after) holding the infant Prahlad are placed on top
  • The main celebrations in Mathura happen around Holi Gate, on Holi itself. There’s a long procession up from the temples lining the river to the gate, with plenty of colour and music. People tried to prevent us entering the street that joins the temples and the gate, telling us it was too dangerous to be there and we ran the risk of being blinded. I’m sure this was well-intentioned, but we chose to ignore the warnings
  • Shri Banke Bihari Mandir (Banke Bihari temple) in Vrindavan is busy throughout the festival. You have to be careful not to photograph the religiously deity itself though — this might cause offense

Protecting your equipment

Unless you can pass for a local, you’ll be a key target for powder and paint throwing, so you’ll need to protect your equipment carefully. I used OP/TECH rain sleeves, which, despite looking thin, worked well. Once inside the cover, I sealed all the gaps with Gorilla Tape. OP/TECH covers have a small hole that allows you to see through your viewfinder. You put the cover on minus your eye-piece, which you slide on afterwards to hold the hole in place.

I changed the cover and tape at least twice a day which also gave me a chance to remove any liquid or powder that had got inside. When putting a cover on your camera, remember to turn off any air conditioning, to help prevent condensation forming inside.

It probably isn’t a good idea to change lenses, batteries or memory cards within throwing distance of anyone, so having two cameras really helps if you have access to them. I used two Canon 5D MKIs, one with a 24-70mm f2.8 lens, the other with a 70-200mm f4.

Protecting yourself

I covered my face and arms with thick sunblock, which did seem to ease washing the dye off. That said, some of the pigments are pretty much industrial strength, so will remain on your skin for a few days afterwards.

Many Indians wear headscarves and sunglasses to add an extra layer of cover. I wore Caspian safety googles to protect my eyes — not only did they make me look a little OCD, but also made me even more of a target (they were torn off and powder rubbed in my eyes a couple of times). I’d still wear them if I went again!

Risks

The celebrations do get pretty boisterous, but most of what I experienced was fairly good natured. When things did get out of hand, I was kindly assisted by older Indians, who led me away so I could get all the powder out of my eyes. We often had powder or ink thrown right in our faces, mouths and ears, and saw quite a few people drawing water from the gutter to throw, so keep your mouth shut and eyes protected as much as possible.


8 Comments » for A guide to Holi Festival for photographers
  1. Holi has always inspired me, since I first saw Steve McCurry’s images.
    I hope to go there soon, maybe next year.
    I have to find a travel companion…

    By the way, your image is superb!

  2. Amanda says:

    Thanks for the comments on how to protect camera. We are doing a graffiti run with the color power from India. Kind of the same concept but in a 5 k event style. Looking forward to taking some pics!

  3. Cora Unk says:

    Hi Jim,

    I’m going for the first time to capture Holi! I really look forward to it, I have been waiting for years to cover this. YOur tips will really help me out!
    Keep on traveling!

  4. Kim says:

    Hi! I just would like to ask something regarding the OPTech Rainsleeve. Did you seal the whole camera with it including the big hole where your hand goes through in order to hold the camera from the inside? Thanks a lot.

    • Jim Shannon says:

      Hi Kim,

      Thanks for the comment. I sealed the whole thing up. It means operating the camera through the sleeve, but it’s not too hard. Otherwise you camera will get trashed!

      Jim

  5. Mark Pacey says:

    Great information, thanks very much for sharing :) I cant wait to go next year. Was it easy to find accomodation etc? Thanks very much,
    Mark

  6. Suman says:

    Hi, Love to watch your Holi photos ! I am from India….and this was my first time to visit Northern part of India on the Holi time. And I enjoyed a lot. So how did you guys enjoy that Holi part? Wish I could know that few of you are coming in my land…we could meet there ! Anyway….Jim, if you have time watch on my work though… http://mannholi.blogspot.in/ Hope next year …… we will meet…and will learn from you…if you want ! Regards, Sumon.

2 Pings/Trackbacks for "A guide to Holi Festival for photographers"
  1. [...] Jim’s advice on how to photograph during Holi, especially in Vrindavan., is a must-read. I noted he photographed in the Banke Bihari temple in that holy town, but urges caution not to cause grave offense by photographing the religious deity itself. He also recommends covering one’s face and arms with thick sunblock, which seemed to help in washing the dye off a little more easily. He also recommends wearing a pair of goggles to protect one’s eyes from the industrial dyes. [...]

  2. [...] Jim’s advice on how to photograph during Holi. He recommends covering one’s face and arms with thick sunblock, which seemed to help in washing the dye off a little more easily. He also recommends wearing a pair of goggles to protect one’s eyes from the industrial dyes. [...]

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