Photographing India’s Holi Festival of Colors
The World’s Most Photogenic Festival
Is India’s Holi Festival of Colors the most photogenic celebration on the planet? Answers to questions like this are obviously matters of opinion. Since I'm writing this article, you can probably guess my opinion, but then again, I haven’t made it to Carnival in Rio, Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, or Burning Man in the Black Rock desert…yet.
Like most people, the Festival of Colors entered my awareness through pictures I came across on the internet & social media. After putting my eyeballs back in my head the first time I saw those insanely colorful images, my first thoughts were: What is THAT?!?! WHERE is That?!?! and HOW do I get there?!?! I eventually made it to Holi and, for once, reality lived up to the hype. Maybe you’ve seen similar photos and asked some of the same questions. I’m going back to photograph my third Holi Festival in March 2020 (join me!), so I thought I would share some knowledge and lessons from my past experiences.
What is Holi?
This annual celebration of the arrival of Spring goes back nearly two thousand years and has multiple meanings and purposes. It is closely associated with the Hindu gods Krishna and Vishnu and has its origins in a mythical allegory about the triumph of good over evil. The chaos of colors we see every year on Instagram mostly happens on a single day, but the actual festival lasts about a week and includes many other traditions like the bonfire burning of an effigy and the sharing meals & sweets with friends and family.
At its culmination, enthusiastic revelers 'play Holi' with handfuls of colored powders – throwing, rubbing, and smearing vivid hues over everyone and everything. Holi is not a spectator sport. Participation is mandatory. Rich, poor, tourist or local, no one is exempt – not even sacred cows. But it's all in the spirit of celebration and good fun. In fact, another name for Holi is the Festival of Sharing Love.
When is Holi?
The answer to this question isn’t nearly as straightforward as you might expect. That’s because the dates of Holi change from year to year based on the Hindu calendar, of which there are several versions, and the full moon in early Spring. It’s a bit complicated and the truth is even most Indians couldn’t tell you the exact dates of the next Holi more than a few months out. This makes planning your Holi Festival photography trip a little challenging, but not insurmountable. Start by blocking out late Feb/early March on your calendar and keep googling ‘Holi Festival dates 20XX' By about 9 or 10 months out, a consensus will form. Wait until you see the same dates from at least 2 or 3 different sources before you book any flights. Yeah, I wish I could be more definite too.
Just to add a little more spice to your Holi curry, there is a very special version of Holi, Lathmar Holi, which occurs a week before the official 'Main Holi' color party. It happens over two days in two tiny villages, Barsana and Nandgoan, the historical hometowns of Lord Krishna and his beloved, Radha. Now here’s the pro tip and your reward for reading this far: Photographically, Lathmar Holi is where it’s at!
I’ve been to both, but I skip the better known Main Holi celebrations on my photo workshops and focus on Lathmar Holi because there are simply more and better photo opportunities there, IMHO🙏🏽. The light, vantage points, certain activities that only occur during Lathmar Holi, plus the fact that the color throwing revelry lasts two full days make it an easy choice for me.
Since they are spaced a week apart, there’s no reason you couldn’t attend both Lathmar Holi in Barsana/Nandgoan and Main Holi in Mathura/Vrindavan – if the Holi festival is the sole purpose of your trip. But there’s so much more to see in India. My recommendation is to shoot Lathmar Holi for two full days and then move on. It’s very likely that wherever you are on Main Holi day a week later, they will be playing Holi there too, so you’ll get another shot (pun intended) at it anyway.
Where is Holi?
These days, Holi is celebrated throughout India and beyond, but its roots are in northern India and that’s where you’ll see the biggest celebrations. Every Holi guide you read will tell you that the epicenters of the festivities are in the towns of Vrindavan & Mathura, both several hours drive from Delhi. This is true, these towns receive the most visitors, but as I mentioned, they are not necessarily the best places to capture the essence of Holi with your camera.
Barsana and Nandgoan are also in the general vicinity of Delhi. That’s why I say it makes sense to chose one and move on - you would have to stay around Delhi for over a week to catch both celebrations and there’s so much more to see in India. Whichever event you choose, the festivities will be focused around one temple in each town, usually the one dedicated to Lord Krishna. No need to ask for directions once you arrive. Just go with the flow, the crowd will carry you along.
How do I protect my Camera?
First, no photographer worth their salt should pass on the opportunity to capture this unique spectacle – Holi was made for making pictures! At the same time, the ultra fine powders (and liquids) that fill the air threaten to gift your camera with a permanent rainbow filter, or worse. Precautions must be taken. Fortunately, the solutions are easy, cheap and effective.
First, no changing lenses. Choose your weapon and stick to it for the day. For me, that means my 24-105mm zoom lens on a full frame body. If you're a prime lens prima donna who wouldn’t be caught dead with a pedestrian zoom, you have a choice to make: wide angle for crowds, portrait lens for close ups, or something in between. Personally, I don’t get limiting yourself like that, but to each her own. You gotta live with your pictures and I aint yo’ mama.
Next, a clear glass or UV filter to protect the front lens element. Put it on and leave it on…not much else to say.
Finally, a camera rain cover. There are many to choose from and some can cost a pretty penny, but this is the rare case where cheaper is actually better. This one is the best I’ve found and it only costs about $8 for a package of 2!
Holi-proofing your camera
In addition to your rain cover, you’ll need your lens hood, UV filter, scissors and a little masking tape.
Step 1 - attach the UV filter and lens hood to the front of your lens.
Step 2 - Remove the viewfinder eyecup thingy from your camera and set it aside for the moment.
Step 3 - Modify the rain cover - I don’t trust the drawstring to seal around the lens so I cut it off with scissors
Step 4 - Install the raincover per the instructions on the package. This involves stretching the hole in the rain cover around your camera eyepiece
Step 5 - Tape the front of the raincover (the part you just cut off the drawstring) to the lens shade. Seal completely - your tape job shouldn’t contain any gaps where powers or liquids could enter.
Is Holi Safe?
During Holi, strangers, often children, will walk up to you with a big smile and smear a handful of dayglo dust all over your face and hair, usually accompanied by the greeting/cheer, "Happy Holi!" Close your eyes and mouth, smile to yourself, and go with it – there’s absolutely no malice intended. Once you've done that a time or two, you’ll be in the spirit of Holi. Wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes and carrying a small towel to wipe them out in case any irritants do get in are also smart strategies. Locals also apply oils (olive oil works well) or moisturizer to their skin and hair in advance of the festivities to make color removal easier. Wear disposable clothing. Beyond that, the main thing to avoid is getting crushed by the crowd.
On the main Holi day, the tempo slowly builds from early morning as people arrive in town and start making their way towards the temple. People will be playing Holi in the streets and alleys leading to the temple. This is all completely safe. Sometime in the late morning, the temple will close for several hours and everyone inside will be asked to leave. A crowd starts building almost immediately in front of the temple doors in anticipation of its afternoon re-opening. This is the part where some caution is required. The crowd quickly grows large and dense – if you suffer from even a hint of claustrophobia or are averse to being smushed by hundreds of sweaty strangers, you will want to skip this part of the celebrations and hang out in the quieter side streets until the temple re-opens and the crowd disperses.
Finally, if you’ve done your research, you’ve undoubtedly come across mentions of Bhang - the marijuana milkshake that is another Holi tradition. It’s easy enough to find if you look, but among the locals, those that partake are a minority and, in my experience, stoners rarely really represent a threat, here or anywhere else.
What Else Should I Know?
Have fun! That’s what Holi is all about. It’s easy get so caught up in making images that you miss the real experience. Look around, the only frowns you will see will probably be on the faces of photographers squinting at the backs of their cameras. Do a quick self-check once in a while. if your face isn’t wearing a huge grin, you’re doing something wrong. Dance a little, or drop a few rupees on some colored powders and play a little Holi yourself, with friends or strangers. Photographically, remember to check and wipe off the front of your UV filter from time to time and don’t be afraid to explore the nooks and crannies of the temple, side alleys or shops. In travel photography, as in life, bravery tends to be rewarded.
Have you ever attended a Holi Festival? Do you have another favorite festival to photograph? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.