The Ultimate Guide to Varanasi Photography
Varanasi, often called as a photographers paradise ,it is like the beating heart of India’s spirituality. It’s that kind of place that’s a total photographer’s dream, no matter where you’re from.
Having been lucky enough to explore Varanasi on multiple occasions, I can vouch that it’s a real gem. It’s my own photography haven as well, a place where I’ve captured some of my most cherished shots. Not only that, it’s also become a top pick for my photography workshops. The city’s blend of spirituality, vibrant colors, and candid life scenes is an absolute delight for anyone with a camera in hand.
Why varanasi is one of the best destinations for photographers in the world ?
Spiritual and Cultural legacy: Varanasi, The city’s ancient lineage as one of the world’s oldest inhabited places lends an air of mystique to every frame. Its deep cultural resonance is palpable through the rituals, ceremonies, and interactions along the sacred Ganges River. Its historic and religious significance attracts thousands of visitors and pilgrims to the city every day and these become wonderful subjects to photograph .
Ganges Ghats: A Photographer’s Playground: The ghats, the heart of Varanasi’s essence. You can photograph the religious ceremonies to intimate moments of daily life – be it a devotee’s bath, clothes washing, or prayers – the ghats are never ending source of visual stories.
Beautiful mourning light : The soft touch of light during the golden hours, transforms Varanasi into a mesmerizing dreamworld. As sunlight dances on the river’s surface, and ancient buildings bathe in its warmth, the ethereal quality of the light amplifies the magic of your photography.
Religious rituals: Every day you can witness various groups from different Indian communities performing religious rituals. To be frank with you, I would often come randomly to Varanasi and there will be some holiday, some puja for some community. The amount of religious ceremonies performed there has no ending.
Unique faces – Sadhus: In the colorful chaos of Varanasi, you’ll come across the intriguing figures known as sadhus, or baba’s. Swathed saffron robes, often smoking some ganja these ascetics radiate a kind of spiritual mojo that’s just plain captivating. Their faces often covered with ashes tell tales of a life soaked in meditation and devotion, making them fascinating characters for portrait photography.
Unique visuals for the place: Truly there is no other city that looks and feels the same. Being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world it is just build in layers, there a hundreds of very ancient temples and sacred places spread across the city. I often joke that every stone or wall in that city can be holly.
Photographing the Streets: The narrow alleys of Varanasi’s old city are full of life , giving you a glimpse into the city’s soul. There is a story waiting to be told behind every corner, you just need to look for it.
When is the best season to photograph in varanasi?
Typically, the prime tourism season and the most opportune period for photography span from autumn through spring. Commencing roughly a week ahead of the Dev Dewali festival and extending up to Holi, this window offers splendid photographic opportunities.
The winter months are more advisable for photography. During this season, the city often experiences foggy days that infuse an extra layer of mystique into your photos. Another benefit is that during these days your golden hour time extends
Summers, characterized by intense warmth and harsh sunlight, limiting the available photography hours.
The monsoon season is another good time for photography here. It offers a different perspective on Varanasi. Many places that you are used to walking during the winter months become flooded. The riverbank becomes inaccessible, and life shifts to the small alleys behind.
There are certain types of photographs that you can only capture during these times
When is the best time to photograph in varansi?
Varanasi is bathed in beautiful golden light in the mornings. However, during the afternoon, the light shifts to the opposite shore, which is less busy. Therefore, I would recommend focusing most of your photographic efforts during the morning hours. You can start photographing at sunrise and continue until 9-10 AM along the Ganga shore. Later on hunt for the light and explore the small alleys.
What are the most interesting things to photograph in VARANASI? Best shooting locations
The Varanasi ‘Ganga Aarti‘ Puja Ceremony: The evening ‘arti’ ceremony held on the main ghat “Dhasarsamet Ghat ” is tremendously popular and deserves an evening of your time. If you’re blessed with extra days, consider visiting Asi Ghat for both the evening and morning ceremonies. The morning session holds a unique charm as it tends to be less crowded, accompanied by an array of activities that make for splendid photographic subjects.
Evening sessions start prior to sunset, while the morning ones typically precede sunrise. Given the varying timings, it’s advisable to inquire on-site or at your accommodation for precise details.
Photographing the ritual bathings: As dawn breaks, locals and pilgrims alike gather at the ghats to partake in ritual baths in the holy Ganges River.
This early-morning cleansing is believed to purify the body and soul, washing away sins and bestowing blessings.
Devotees immerse themselves in the sacred waters, often accompanied by the chanting of prayers and hymns, as the rising sun washes the riverbank in morning warm light.
It creates beautiful connection between the physical act of cleansing and the spiritual act of devotion all that combined with the morning light creates an unbelievable atmosphere for photography.
Mornings around the Ganga river are rich with activities. People are bathing, sending flowers, doing yoga or just going with their daily life.
The Different Kushti Akharas: These are traditional gyms, often with wrestling areas. They are suer interesting subject for photography. If you’re lucky, you might witness some of the wrestling activities, otherwise it will be just the training part which is equally fascinating. There’s a highly popular one near Asi Ghat, and a few others are scattered throughout the city, including one near the bridge at the last ghat.
The Different Holy Men, also known as Sadhus or Babas – Usually, they expect some monetary reward for modeling, and the amount can vary depending on your preference. Some may be willing to join you for an extended photoshoot session, and might even accompany you for a sunrise boat ride, providing you with the chance to capture classic images of Holy man on a boat.
The Narrow Alleyways: Once the sun climbs high and capturing shots at the ghats becomes challenging, you can take a deep dive and lose yourself in Varanasi’s labyrinthine back alleys. Simply wander through the streets, play with the interplay of light and shadow, and uncover your personal favorite corners.
Three areas stand out as particularly interesting:
First, the stretch from Main Ghat towards Manikarnika Ghat; you can ascend near Alta Hotel and meander through the quaint lanes.
Second, explore the paths tucked behind Ash Ghat, which lead all the way to Main Ghat.
Third, venture from Manikarnika Ghat towards the bridge.
Exploring each of these can easily consume several hours, requiring at least three mornings to adequately photograph them all.
The Textile Factories: Are another fascinating subject to photograph. Varanasi has been a hub for textiles and weaving for centuries, and its textile factories are an integral part of the city’s rich cultural and economic heritage. Textile production in Varanasi dates back to ancient times and continues to be done manually in the same way as it was centuries ago. Make sure to grab your wide-aperture lens, as these spaces are usually poorly lit.
My favorite Ghat for photography: Kedar Ghat – one of the five sacred ghats in Varanasi. It’s easily recognizable due to its striped stairs, and it’s also one of the busiest ones. Some of my favorite photos come from this place, and I recommend spending a morning here.
How it is best to plan your shooting days
Start Early:By essentially following the natural light.
Ensure an early start! Venture out before sunrise and continue photographing until the sun reaches its zenith. You can remain along the riverbank until 9-10 AM. Remember to explore the opposite side of the river as well. You can access it from the main ghat, with boats continuously ferrying passengers.
- Sunrises at the Ghats: Begin with capturing the mesmerizing sunrise scenes at the ghats.
- When the Sun Soars: As the sun ascends to its peak, explore the back alleys, gyms, textile factories, and bustling markets.
- Evening Moments: During the evening, position yourself at the Ganga Aarti ceremony area or saunter along the riverbank.
Personal Preference: Personally, I rarely engage in photography during the evenings. Instead, I relish leisurely strolls, engaging in conversations with locals, and simply being present in the moment.”
PHOTOGRAPHING festivals in Varanasi
Shooting at Indian festivals can be very rewarding, but also a very stressful experience. On one side, they are very beautiful; on the other, very crowded and attract many photographers. You might find 500 photographers trying to capture the same subject. It involves a lot of pushing and might not be the experience you have imagined.
Dev Diwali: The most visually attractive festival is Dev Diwali; it is when all the ghats are decorated with candles, and if you manage to capture it properly, you will come back home with beautiful images. My tip for this festival will be to come a week earlier; you will have the opportunity to shoot it on a smaller scale and get to know the place. Dates are changing every year.
Masan Holi: The other one will be Masan Holi, which happens 3-4 days before the actual Holi celebration. Its uniqueness is that it is celebrated in the cremation ground, and the main participants are dressed up as Aghori babas. But it’s a very cloudy one, and getting a shot can be challenging.
Shivaratri is another one; I personally never had the chance to photograph it, but as far as I know, apart from the bathing in the Ganga, most of the activities are in the various Shiva temples around town.
And how about Holi – Well, there are better places to photograph Holi, you do have some celebrations here, but they mostly involve young people who drink a lot and are going absolutely wild. Many locals are locking their children at home and let them out only after the craziness on the streets levels down.
Other than that, look for popular bathing days; on these days you will have more people than usual coming to the Ganga.
Almost every month has a few of them, so it’s better to do some research on the subject.”
How many days do I need?
To photograph without stress and truly enjoy what Varanasi has to offer for a photographer, I would recommend allocating at least a week there.
If you’re on a tight schedule, a minimum of 2 nights is suggested. This will enable you to experience one evening and one morning at the Arti ceremony, take a boat ride, and engage in photography within the alleys.
Do’s and Don’t – cultural ETIQUETTE
The Ganga shore is full with small temples like the one on the photo, it is accustomed to remove your shoes before stepping on one.
- “Photographing Women Bathing: Exercise caution when photographing women bathing, especially during changing moments. This can potentially lead to trouble. You’ll observe that at most ghats, women bathe on one side while men on the other. In such instances, I typically avoid positioning myself on the women’s side. However, if it’s a mixed area, I carefully capture photos while respecting their privacy.
- Cremation Grounds: In general, photography within cremation areas is prohibited. However, you can obtain a ‘special’ permission at a cost. The expense varies depending on your perceived affluence, the size of your camera, and your bargaining skills. Shooting from a boat or maintaining a distance generally avoids any issues.
- Various Akharas: When visiting the different Akharas, remember to remove your shoes. The training grounds hold a sense of sanctity, necessitating your respect.”
WHICH PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR SHOULD I TAKE TO VARANASI?
The choice of gear largely depends on your shooting style.
Street photographers usually opt for a 28mm or 35mm prime lens.
In general, I’d recommend a zoom lens like 24-70mm for capturing shots in alleys and a range of wide to medium compositions. Additionally, a longer telephoto lens such as 70-200mm, coupled with a wide-aperture lens like f1.4 or similar, can be beneficial.
For many years, my personal full-frame camera kit included:
- 24-70mm f2.8 lens
- 50mm f 1.2 lens
- 135mm f2 lens
More recently, as I’ve leaned toward street photography, I use a crop body with the following lenses:
- 18mm f1.4
- 33mm f1.4
- 18-50mm f 2.8
- 90mm f 2
Personal Tip: I often choose a single lens and stick with it for the entire session. This approach helps me stay more focused and engaged in the present moment. I intentionally disregard other focal lengths and concentrate on what I can create rather than what I could potentially achieve.”
Photography costs – PRICES FOR PHOTOS AND BOAts
- Boat Ride (1 hour, 300-500 rupees) – The cost depends on your bargaining skills and the time you plan to embark. During puja and sunrise times, boats tend to be pricier.
- Baba Photography (Holy Man) – Many of them supplement their income by receiving a few rupees from photographers. A single click usually costs 10-20 rupees. If you’d like to arrange a somewhat staged shoot and have them pose for about 5-10 minutes, it’s around 100 rupees. For a 1-hour boat ride during sunrise, the charge can range from 300 to 1000 rupees, depending on the baba and your bargaining prowess. It’s a good idea to agree on a meeting point and take their phone number the day before, as they are known to indulge in late-night activities, sometimes making them difficult to find in the morning. (Avoid paying in advance, as you might never encounter the baba or see your money again.)
I’m sure I have missed thousands of other things, but I believe I have managed to create the most comprehensive guide to Varanasi photography. Varanasi is indeed an inexhaustible wellspring of photographic opportunities and serves as my personal source of inspiration.
If you’re not comfortable with the idea of going to a place like this and photographing on your own, consider joining my Varanasi Photography Workshop. Here, we not only capture photographs but also learn the art behind it.
If you have additional tips, feel welcome to add them in the comments. See you next time!