India - A Photographic Odyssey with Fujifilm.

March 05, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Marketplace, Ranakpur, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4, @ 1.4.

Planning

As far back as I can remember, I was always fascinated with images from India.  I’ve been a follower of Steve McCurry for decades and love his images of the monsoon, Kumbh Mela, Kushti (mud wrestling), and other unimaginable sights from this mystical land.  I had always wanted to go there and take an extensive tour to see the sights that I’d only witnessed through celluloid or on my computer screen.  The planets seemed to have ‘aligned’ in my life, so at the end of 2023/2024, I was able to book and head off for a trip of a lifetime. I wanted to explore the state of Rajasthan in Northern India, so I booked my flight to Delhi.

Passenger, Delhi Train Station, Delhi, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4 @ 1.4.

I run a side-gig as an events photographer and I also do a few weddings, portrait sessions and whatever I can point my lens at.  I’m also a full-time high school teacher, in the city of Perth, Western Australia.  I love having ‘two strings to my bow’, because my teaching job pays well, I get to mix with a bunch of great human beings in my students and colleagues, plus I earn extra money through my photography on weekends.  This also satisfies my passion for photography; but I’m also not stressing over money if I don’t have any bookings for a while.  The end of December and January new year was the perfect time for me to travel - that is our summer school holiday, so we as teachers have a six-week break.

Roadside barber, road to Ranakpur, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4 @ F2.

Transport

I had planned for this trip over so many years, so I wanted it to be special.  I didn’t want to be scabbing it overnight on trains or buses. As it turned out in hindsight, I banged into other foreigners travelling in India who had waited up to 15 hours on the platform at Delhi train station, followed by a 13-hour trip to their destination.  December/January is winter in Rajasthan, so it was mostly foggy for at least half of every day, hence the cancelled transportation.  Booking a private driver turned out to be the best decision I had ever made.  Even though it cost me, it was worth having a private driver.  No long painful bus trips, no waiting in ques; he was there at my hotel every morning and stayed with me all day. I also learned a lot from him about the Indian culture, as we spent many hours together - we clocked up over 4,000 Km throughout Rajasthan.  I told him I wasn’t a tourist, but a photographer, so I wanted to see the real India, not the sanitised version.  He took me to so many places where I guessed I was the only ‘white man’, that people had ever seen. 

Card game, Pushkar, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm, 1.4 @ F4.

Equipment

Leading up to the trip, my most stressful and lingering problem was, “what gear do I take”?  I literally vacillated and stressed for months on end – almost driving myself bonkers, working out the ‘perfect’ kit. I had recently returned from two weeks in Japan, and hadn’t been happy with my choice of equipment.   I’ll be very brief here, because I’ve written many blogs over the years on my transition from a decade with Fuji and now to Nikon FF (check them out).  For Japan, I took one of my Nikon Z6ii cameras, with my Z24-70 2.8s lens.  That lens along with my Godox V1 flash, is basically what I use for all of my professional shoots, here in Perth.  I now have 6 of their great Z lenses, but always end up coming back to one body with that wonderful zoom – it truly does everything and the images look the same as those from my primes.  The zoom is the combination I took to Japan, but that big heavy lens was too much to drag around.  I had taken the plastic Z40mm F2, but it was not wide enough for street photography.  I had to jump into the nearest photo store, and buy the plastic 28mm F2.8.  Even though I used the 28mm for most of my photography in Japan, I didn’t like the 2.8 aperture, it couldn’t isolate my subject from the background.

Ranakpur marketplace, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4 @ F2.

To further complicate the equation, I started going back and looking at my archive and some of my favourite photos over the last decade with Fuji cameras.  The images that were most striking, were those taken on the X Trans iii sensor (X-T2, X-H1).  I pondered long and hard, but for the sake of brevity here, I purchased a used X-H1 on ‘fleabay’, and it only arrived the day before I flew out.  I bought a new XF 18mm 1.4 WR lens to go on this body.  I also took my Nikon Z6ii along with the 40mm F2 plastic lens, for longer shots.  These were the two bodies and lenses that I used throughout my trip to take the majority of these memorable images.


Gypsy Woman, Pushkar, India.  Nikon Z6ii, Nikkor Z40mm, F2 @ F2.

In hindsight, there really are two different kinds of looks from my two different systems.  I love the Nikon FF look that I get from their beautiful Z lenses, and this is the look my clients need.  I struggled for many years trying to get that look with Fuji; in the end I gave up and swapped over to Nikon.  However, there is also a different look I get from the older Fuji APSC files, which is desirable for my overseas travels.  When I’m photographing old markets, tribal people, and the patina of the streets and shops in third-world countries, I’m after a different look than what my Nikon files offer.  However, once I get home to Australia, for all my personal work, professional work and paid events, I only use my Nikons - I have no desire to shoot Fujifilm in Australia.


Taj Mahal, Agra, India.  Fuji X-H1, FX 18mm 1.4 @ F4.

That raw filmic look that the Trans iii sensor on the X-H1 offers, was ideal for my images in India.  I took over 16,000 files for the many weeks that I was there.  I took four times as many images on my old Fuji X-H1, than what I took on my Nikon FF.  From the images that now form part of my portfolio and my list of ‘keepers’, there is at least three times as many that were taken on the Fuji, than from the Nikon.  The Fuji look for photographing the rawness of a third world country is very pleasant, and easily obtainable.


Snake charmer, Varanasi, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4 @ F2.8.

The X-H1 focus was slow and clunky – particularly in AFC (which is what I used most of the time).  The eye recognition is very poor and nothing like that on my Nikon Z6ii.  I did miss a few images because of autofocus, but it wasn’t a huge problem.  It was actually nice to have a camera that slowed me down, and one that produces outstanding images.  However, it was also great having the Nikon there with the 40mm lens.  I often needed more reach than the Fuji 27mm equivalent and the 40mm FF, was all the extra reach that I needed.
Passenger, Delhi Train Station, Delhi, India,  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4 @ F2.2.

My MO

I am so different to most photographers who give advice on street photography (believe me there are many).  All these ill-informed folk on YouTube, who say you must ask for permission, look and smile at everybody, be friendly, go and chat to people and make yourself known.  These people are absolutely clueless, because when you’ve been doing this for decades like me, those are the very last things that you do.  I arrive at my destination, and start sauntering around, looking like a hopeless case or somebody who is lost.  I NEVER make eye contact with anybody.  I don’t smile or look friendly, and I don’t lift my camera up to my eye.  People have a built-in radar, and as soon as you lift a camera to your eye, you have lost your moment – they freeze.  The whole idea of good street photography is to catch that special moment. 

 Amber Fort, Jaipur, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4, @ F5.6. 

You don’t want people putting up the happy finger, or smiling or gathering together for a group selfie – those are useless photos.  I mostly always shoot from the hip; I saunter past people – never looking at them – but having seen them in my peripheral vision.  As I shuffle past, I’m gazing down, seemingly fiddling with my camera controls (but actually looking into the screen at waist-level).  As I pass, I shoot off a volley of images (silent shutter).  Nine times out of ten, people never know they were even photographed.  Look at my images from the Delhi train station, they were all taken like this.  Nobody stopped what they were doing, there were no conversations, no trading of glances or smiles – I was just some ‘lost’ guy, shuffling around the place, but I came away with a bag-full of beautiful images.  I have literally used that MO for years and have never been beaten up or confronted or had anything bad happen, and I’ve literally taken hundreds of thousands of images.

Triveni Sangam - woman bathing, Allahabad, India.  Fuji X-H-1, XF 18mm 1.4, @ F2.8.

The Real India

I had too many experiences and went to too many places to mention them all.  I’ll just touch on some of the memorable places I visited, and some of my best experiences.  We started off in Delhi and after a couple of days of unbelievable pollution and bad air quality, we headed off for three nights in Jaipur.  That is the capital of Rajasthan and is known as the ‘Pink City’.  The main attraction is the Wind Palace in the old city, but there were so many people lining up on the street for ‘selfies’, I gave up trying to get any photos.  The highlight of Jaipur is Amber Fort.  Seeing the enormous elephants, lugging their burden of over-fed tourists, up and down the steep path to the top, was quite an experience.  The actual fort at the top was rather anticlimactic, because that fort is uninhabited, there was just a bunch of buskers there and people selling trinkets and spruiking their schtick.  The fort in Jaisalmer is much better and certainly worth the trip.  It is the only fort in India that is still inhabited, so there is a huge selection of restaurants, shops, and other wonderful sights to photograph.

Porter, Delhi Train Station, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4 @ 1.8.

From Jaipur, we went to Bikaner, for two nights.  My driver assured me that the Rat Temple was the highlight.  Apparently, this is the only temple in India (and I think the world), where rats are worshipped.  I must say, a visit here is not for the faint-hearted.  Because this place is supposedly ‘holy’, one must remove their shoes.  If I hadn’t been so desperate to get some images, I would not have entered.  Here I am now, back in my clean abode in Australia, and I can still sense and feel the faeces from thousands of rats, squelching up through my toes.  One can image how furiously I scrubbed myself, upon returning to my hotel.

City of Blue, Jodpur, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm, 1.4 @ F4.

From here we went to Jaisalmer, and as mentioned, the fortress there is an absolute must to visit.  I took some wonderful images of the 3 little boys singing their hearts out, and the beautiful photo of the two old guys, chatting in the early morning light (one is patting the other on the head­). I took a great photo too of the man pouring the chi tea out in the street, and the man with the moustache, puffing on his cigarette. From here we went to Jodhpur, which is also known as the ‘Blue City’.  This was a marvellous place to visit and I’d wish we’d stayed longer than only two nights.  Just a warning though, the streets are very narrow and with the hundreds of cows defecating in the street, the scores of feral dogs pooing and copulating everywhere, and the odd human following suit – there was literally a sea of faeces that one had to wade through.  Make sure you wear cast-iron shoes when you go to Jodhpur!

"...no photo", streets of Jodpur, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm, 1.4 @ F4.

From here we went to Ranakpur and Udaipur.  I got a few nice images in the markets at Ranakpur, but I didn’t particularly like Udaipur.  Then we went onto Pushkar.  This is a marvellous place and along with the bathing Ghats in the sacred lake, and the Mela (where they hold the camel fair each year), there were so many brilliant opportunities for great images.  Even though I was in the wrong month for the camel fair (October), there were still a lot of transient Gypsies who live in makeshift camps, along with their camels.  I took my driver with me to translate and ‘protect’ me.  Not that it’s dangerous, but there are so many traps for the hapless traveller that it’s best to have a local with you.  Many of the Gypsies ask you inside their shacks, and so many people follow you up the road trying to sell tours.  My driver said that if I had gone inside the shacks with the Gypsies, it would have cost me a lot of money to see the light of day again.

Giggling at the weird looking Foreigner, Jaipur, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4 @ F 1.4.

Probably one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen was on the highway into Pushka.  I noticed red witches-hats and a commotion on the highway.  I got my driver to pull over, because I couldn’t believe what I saw.  It was a Baba (holy man), who had an entourage diverting the traffic and were rolling out a 40m length of red-carpet.  The Baba would get on his knees and push forward a small red cushion. Then he would spread lengthways into the prone position, pushing his little pillow forward with his arms totally outstretched – I was tired just looking at him!  When he got to the end of his 40m carpet, he would stand on the road, whilst his entourage dragged his carpet out again onto the highway, and then he’d start the process all over again.  It was an incongruous site – the holy man dressed in his regalia, the huge lorries and trucks zooming by – only meters away.  This was no short burst of enthusiasm or some spur of the moment decision - my driver said that he would be doing that for around 400km, until he finally got to Pushkar to bathe in the sacred lake.  Apparently, the journey would take several months and he’d probably need a new set of knees upon arrival!!

Consoling, Jaisalmer Fort, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm, 1.4, @ F 2.5.

Our main destination from here was Varanasi, however, we spent a night in Agra to break the travel.  Then one night in Allahabad.  This proved to be the real highlight of my trip, (so much so, I insisted we go back for another night on our return from Varanasi).  Allahabad is the city where the confluence of the 3 sacred rivers meet; it’s called the Triveni Sangam.  Here the Yamuna River meets the sacred Ganga (Ganges), and the underground spring from the Saraswati, all meet together.  This is the place where they hold the Kumbh Mela once every 12 years.  Here, several million people converge on this sight to bathe in the confluence of the 3 sacred rivers.  Even when we were there in January 2024, there were thousands of people, bathing and washing in the Ganga.  We got there early but one only had about 50m of visibility, because of the fog and mist.  There were hundreds of half-clad children with no shoes on (it was only about 6 degrees), begging for food.  An NGO representative came and was putting rice (uncooked) into their bowls, and they mobbed her, ripping at the sack and spilling rice everywhere.  The police ran over with big sticks and were whacking the children, trying to restore some form of normality.  It was literally a scene out of an apocalyptic movie!  You will see from my images, that the mist created a nice soft atmosphere, that seemed to add ambience to the mood.

Holy Man, Jaipur, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm, 1.4 @ 3.6.

Our last destination was Varanasi.  This is the sight of the sacred Ghats on the Ganga, and it is where they burn the bodies.  I think the smell of the burning flesh will always stay with me, because I couldn’t get the acrid taste out of my throat for a very long time.  Photographically, this is a wonderful place.  Dozens of children flying their kites, holy men begging for a blessing, cows wandering everywhere and of course the litters being carried with the bodies of the dead.  It was difficult to take too many images of the bodies being burned and ceremonies surrounding that.  My driver said one had to be careful, because family was always present and one didn’t want to be disrespectful.  From here it was back to Allahabad for one more night, onto Agra for one day at the Taj Mahal, then the two nights in Delhi, before I flew out.

Snake Charmer smoking, Jaisalmer, India. Nikon Z6ii, Z40mm F2, @ F2.2.

My driver booked my final hotel within walking distance of the Delhi train station, and this was a real delight to photograph.  I remember the fantastic images taken by Steve McCurry around trains in India.  I had tried to take images at train stations in some of the smaller towns we stayed in, but security always ejected me.  However, Delhi train station is so vast, that even though I was sent packing a couple of times by overzealous security guards, I was able to evade them and keep on my pursuit of the perfect image.

The Three Minstrels (buskers at Jaisalmer Fort), India.  Fuji X-H1, Xf 18mm 1.4, @ F4.

In Summary.

India is a great place to photograph, but perhaps not for the faint-hearted.  It can be quite expensive if you stay in reasonable hotels.  If you hire a driver for convenience, like I did, that will only push the price up (this trip all up with flights cost me around $7,000 AUD).  Also, on the hygiene stakes – India can be found wanting.  On many occasions, my driver asked his colleagues, when we visited other towns, where their clients were, the answer always sounded familiar, “vomiting in their rooms”.  Mercifully (as an answer to my prayers, I’m sure), I managed to avoid any sickness - not even once over the whole trip.  Even though I am a vegetarian and found sourcing reasonable food very easy, Indians cook everything in deep-fried heavy oil.  I don’t eat like that, so after a month of their food, I was busting to get back home and eat some food that wasn’t so heavy and oily. 

Early morning walk, Pushka Ghats, India.  Fuji X-H1, FX 18mm, 1.4 @ F4.

These are all small niggles though, because the people were beautiful and kind - I was able to poke my camera into hundreds of people’s faces with very little resistance and usually always a smile.  If I had to return again, I’d give a lot of the places a miss, but the ones that were my highlights, I would certainly love to photograph again.  The places I recommend are; the fort at Jaisalmer, the ‘Blue City’ Jodhpur, certainly Pushkar with the Ghats and around the camel fair (Mela), Varanasi, and the confluence of the 3 rivers at Allahabad. Whatever cameras you decide to take, I’m sure it may make little difference to your final images.  There are so many opportunities in India for the street and travel photographer and the courageous explorer to take beautiful images – these will then grace your portfolio for many years. (This is only a sample of my images from India.  I have a gallery on my website called 'India'.  Check it out from time to time, because as I process more images, I'll be adding them to this folder).  Happy browsing!

Brick Factory worker, Road to Ranakpur, India.  Fuji X-H1, XF 18mm 1.4 @ F8.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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