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The Ultimate Guide to Travel Photography in India

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I recently spent nearly three weeks tromping all over India (first time). I spent quite a bit of time in the east (Jodhpur), the North East (New Delhi and Varanasi), and the Northern tip in the Indian Himalaya (Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh).

I’ve cooked up this 4000 word guide with some things I learned during my three week photo tour of India.

And thus, here are my 22 essential travel photography tips for India that will help you take awesome photos during your trip.

1. Bring a Wide Angle 

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Leh, India at 17mm on a Full Frame

India is a place of dramatic landscapes — both in the terrain and in architecture.

In practically every city there are some sort of ancient temple, castle, fort, or ruins — something you may want to shoot with a wide focal length.

If you take a trip to the north to the Indian Himalaya (there are multiple provinces that touch the Himalaya in India — so you have a lot of choice where to go to see Himalayan high altitude terrain), you will absolutely want to have an ultra wide angle to better capture the awe inspiring mountain terrain.

Personally, I highly recommend something along a line of a 16-35mm focal length if you shoot Full Frame. If you shoot with a crop camera, then 10-22mm will do you well. For canon users who don’t want to bring more than one lens, something like a 24-105mm is about the perfect walk around lens to capture both wide angle at the 24mm range, and telephoto at the 105mm range.

My favorite focal range for street photography was either 24mm, 50mm for portraits, 85mm for head portraits, or 200mm for candid portraits.

For landscape shots, I found I used 17mm on my full frame quite often for some of the more dramatic sky shots, 24mm for general wide angle landscapes, 40mm for non-wide angle landscapes, and 200mm for specific landscape compositions.

2. Bring a Telephoto Lens

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India is not only a place of dramatic landscapes, but a place of dramatic candid portraits too. The streets are practically brimming with interesting-looking people — from bearded holy men wearing only loin clothes, to old women sitting beside the street, to young children frolicking in the slums, there is a virtually unlimited travel photography opportunities in India.

If you are uncomfortable with taking close up portrait shots, having a telephoto for long range candid shots is a good idea. I recommend at least a 70-200mm focal range for this. You can easily sit back at the end of a crowd and capture some pretty remarkable candids.

For landscape photography, you do want a telephoto. I found I used my 70-200mm about 40 or 50 percent of the time, when capturing landscapes or shooting panoramas. There were simply some compositions my 17-40mm could not easily capture.

I’ve found that Indian people can be very alert, unlike westerners, when someone pulls out a big camera with a fancy looking lens. You’ll often get many pairs of eyes looking at you. This can ruin your candid photography opportunities if you are not careful. You can get around this by using a longer focal length (300mm or more) or by trying to be a bit inconspicuous. Just note that if you pull a big camera and lens out, people around you will notice.

What’s the best telephoto focus length for India?

Again, this is a very personal choice. I brought my 70-200 mm f/4L which I used all the time. Next time, however, I will bring either a 70-300mm OR a 100-400mm for a bit more focal length. 200mm is long but it’s not that long. There were more than a few times I wanted a much longer range.

So, I recommend a MINIMUM 70-200mm or, if you can swing it, a 70-300mm (see the Canon 70-300 f/4,5-5.6L) or a 100-400mm lens (see the Canon 100-400mm 4.5 – 5.6L). You only need ONE of these choices though. I can’t directly comment on what choice to make if you don’t have a  Canon setup, but the 70-300mm L is more portable and shorter and much cheaper while the 100-400mm L (version ii) is longer, less portable, quite a bit more expensie but offers superior range. My personal choice would simply to just go with the 100-400mm and opt for a prime — either 50mm or an 85mm to cover the mid-range between 35 and 100, assuming you end up with a wide angle range of 16-35mm.

3. Get Close for People Portraits

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The people are VERY friendly towards photographers who want to capture intimate, close-up portrait shots. You’ll find the locals (especially kids) will often even run up to you if they see you pull out a DSL camera with a big lens and ask you specifically to take a picture of them — or sometimes WITH them.

Many times, I did not even ask to take a picture — I simply pulled out my 85mm lens and started shooting facial portraits. The people were very obliging.

In three weeks travelling through India, there were only 2 or 3 people out of dozens and dozens who did not want their picture taken when asked. I’m a bit shy myself to just barge into a crowd of people and start shooting pictures — or even just asking random people to take a picture of them — but my travel companion (who is an extreme extrovert), had no problems with doing either of these. And she had no issues the entire time (except for 1 lady who started waved her off and started muttering).

What’s the best portrait taking focal length you’ll use in India?

Well this obviously depends on your style of photography and whether you want to take candid shots or in-your-face shots only or in-your-face-shots-with-some-background.

While in India, I saw some good opportunity to use anywhere between 30mm to 85mm focal lengths for ‘in your face’ portrait photos.

I only had a 17-40mm, an 85mm, and a 70-200mm lens with me on my trip. For most of my street portraits, I stuck with the 85mm. However, the 85mm is a very close focal length for street stuff — you are literally can only get a good torso and head shot, but little else when you walk about on the street (unless you want to ran backwards in a crowd to reframe your composition, which I found did not work so well in the crowded areas).

Personally, wish I brought a 50mm prime over the 85mm.

If you want to bring one prime, I suggest either a 35mm or a 50mm for full body portraits or if you want faces, 85mm. I used my canon 85mm 1.2L to good effect for facial and torso shots, though frankly as I noted above, I would have preferred a 50mm.

4. Be Sensitive About Where and What You Shoot

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Burning Ghats of Varanasi

While India is very photography friend and the people generally love having their picture taken (and will often pose). There are some situations and some places where you are NOT allowed to take pictures.  One such is the burning ghats of Varanasi where the poor come to have the bodies of their dead loved ones burned over a sacred fire.

You are NOT allowed to photograph this ritual (well, you can if you are willing to pay something like 2000-4000 rubies to the family and priests as a bribe) and if you do, you’ll get a violent response from the locals. I was told that recently a Japanese tourist was assaulted (his camera was taken away and smashed) by locals here for showing up during the burning ritual and snapping photos when told not to multiple times.

Another place I’ve heard the locals get upset if you start taking pictures are the bathing steps of Phuskar.

Some temples, private family gatherings, and religious sites are off limits to photographers. It’s a good idea to ask people around you if photographing is allowed. If you have any doubts, error on the side of caution. A little research on Google will go a long way too answering these questions too.

5. Ask for a Picture

As stated, Indian people are very friendly towards photographers and usually love having photos take of them. You can often just walk into a crowd or a festival and start taking photos without asking. Indians will even come up to you, if they see you with a DSLR camera, and ask you to take a picture of them. However, if you smile at your subjects, say hello (even better if it’s in Hindi) and ask if you can take a photo. The subject will often pose and smile, giving you a much better photo than if you just take a photo without asking.

Hint: keep a few small rupees handy. Many Indians are poor and will asking for some money for the photograph. If your subject does not want a photo taken, they will almost always change their mind if you often them 20,30 or 50 rupees.

6. Add a Human Touch to Your Photos

By Blain Harrington Photography

For some photos, try adding a human presence to the photo. I find this works especially well when you can incorporate a silhouette into the photo frame against a unique architectural backdrop or a dramatic landscape. This works even better IF you can add an Indian touch to the silhouette -something that’s Indian. Think a women carrying a vase or a woman in a sari, or the silhouette of a a man riding an elephant. Be creative — you can capture the ESSENCE of India this way, in a simple yet dramatic fashion.

7. Travel by Train or Bus for Better Photo Opportunities

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While air travel is faster and more convenient, it often leads to less interesting photo opportunities. If you want better photo opportunities, try travelling via a local train (India is connected by a network of rail roads from the Colonial days) or a local bus. Not only will you get to see a changing countryside, but you’ll have a lot more interesting people photo opportunities too. As side affect, you’ll mingle with the locals a lot more, develop some interesting connections, have fun conversations AND get better photos too.

You’ll also save a lot of money traveling by train or bus over plane.

I traveled by train from Jaipur to Jodhpur and had some of the best experiences of my trip just trying to get on the train with five minutes to spare. I also traveled by bus from Delhi to Manali for 1 day and took a 3 day jeep from Manali to Leh. These experiences let to some of my best photos of the three week trip and some of the best memories too.

8. Rent a Private Vehicle Through the Himalaya

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Roadside, Manali to Leh Highway Through Himalayas

If you are going to be going to some of the more scenic areas of India (Ladakh, Himachel Pradesh, Sikkim, Utterkland) to the north in the Himalaya areas, consider hiring a private jeep with a driver for the BEST road-side photo opportunities on the way there.

While it’s cheaper to take a bus through some of these routes, if you want to take some awesome landscape photos along the way, you simply can’t unless you hire your own private vehicle. You can stop at will and take landscape shots.

One such road trip you absolutely need to rent your own vehicle and driver for is the Manali to Leh and the Leh to Sringar journey. It’s an out of the world experience crossing many high passes and witnessing some stunning scenery over the 500 km (each way) drives. Expect to pay about 300-350 USD for a private jeep + driver each way for the 2 or 3 day overland trip, but it’s worth it. Considering you will pay almost 300 USD to fly each way to Leh from Delhi, at nearly the same cost you can have a 2 day photo trip of your lifetime, it’s worth it.

9. Learn Some Hindi Words

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You’ll find most Indians speak very good English. But if you want to do portrait photography, learning a couple key words in Hindi can go a long way to smooth the path a bit with the locals. Even learning how to say ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’ and ‘Picture’ can help you make a connection with the locals (and easier to get that picture taken).

10. Use a Fast Shutter Speed to Freeze Motion

If I could describe India on one work, it would be ‘MOTION.’ The place is literately one non-stop waterfall of action and movement — from the crazy, traffic ingested roads, to the packs of children running around, to the cows pushing through the crowds of people, and much more.

Unfortunately, unless you are specifically trying to capture a blur effect in your photo, this rapid motion can present a problem for your photography — specifically blurry photos. The way around this to make sure are using a fast shutter speed. Use your Shutter Mode if you have one or set your camera for manual mode and keep the reciprocal number of your shutter speed higher than your focal lens length (we call this the reciprocal rule) to ensure you don’t get a blurry image.

For example, if you are shooting at a 200mm focal length, you’ll want your shutter speed greater than 1/200. If you are shooting at 10mm, you will want your shutter speed greater than 1/10. See the pattern here? The bottom number of your shutter speed should be higher than your focal length as a rule of thumb. In some cases, where there is some really fast motion (sports, cars, waves — something where movements are a fraction of a second) you’ll want even faster shutter speeds to get a nice, crisp image.

For my own experience in India over 3 weeks, I usually shot between 17-70mm. Having something like a 24-105 on a full frame camera should cover most of your street photography needs. Keeping my shutter speed about 1/200 was good enough. India, at least when it’s not monsoon season, is a bright place with lots of light, so you can keep a low ISO and decent shutter speed at the same time for good quality photos.

11. Avoid Flash

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Generally, outside of a few situations, don’t use FLASH. For landscapes, avoid it. And for people, avoid it too. Not only is a flash intrusive when you point your camera into someone’s face (or a crowd) and blast away, it’s sometimes banned from certain locations — especially government or religious in nature (temples or government buildings).

If you need the extra light, use a lens that has a wider aperture (a low fstop number) for more lighting in dark areas or use a tripod.

12. Bring a Tripod

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Trust me, while it may be a pain to haul a tripod around (which is why you need to get the best travel tripod you can), there are a lot of situations where you are going to want one. Landscapes, for example, and architecture (the forts, Taj Mahal, etc).

Indeed, if you are going to any of the northern areas with the awesome Himalayan scenery, you are going to want your tripod to take some quality landscape shots. And if you don’t have one, you are going to feel the absence of it.

Many of temples don’t allow flash as well and they are quite dark inside — you will need a tripod for the low light situation.

Also note though, in some cases I found having a tripod made it more difficult for me to shoot. Many locations in India (specifically, the forts, palaces, and old colonial government buildings) require you to pay a photography fee on TOP of your gate tickets. If you just have a DSLR or Mirrorless camera, you can often get away without having to pay for a photography ticket (which is usually about 2-7 USD at most places), but if you have a tripod, there is no way you are going to get in without having to pay for the extra photography ticket.

Check out my Best Tripods for Photographers article for tripod recommendations.

13. A Polarizer is Your Best Friend

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No Polarizer vs Polarizer Photo Comparision by Darren Wigget, Landscape Photographer

A polarizer is just about the most useful filter you can have — saturating your image and bringing out deeper blue skies with fluffy clouds. For compositions that incldue water, you can use it to either cut the reflection on the water or enhance it. For sunny days where you want to capture motion (running water, a field of grass) it holds 2 stops of light which can help you lower your shutter speed by a few stops. And  on rainy days, it also cuts down on the reflection, bringing out a a better image.

Don’t go to India without one. I grantee you’ll use it. I recommend either the B&W Polarizer, which is one of the best ones on the market. Or if you want a particularly vivid image, look at Singh-Ray’s LB Color Combo which is a warming polarizer + color enhancer. I own this one myself, and it really adds more vivid colors to your image. It’s particularly awesome for autumn colors.

Darren Wigget, famous landscape photographer says this about Polarizers:

“I use a polarizer for almost every landscape and nature image I make,” says Darwin Wiggett. “In fact, I always start off with a polarizer on my lens. It’s only if the filter has no effect — or a negative effect (which is rare) — that I will take it off the lens. And if you think you can replicate the effect of a polarizer in software, you can’t — plain and simple.

14. Bring a Set of Grad Filters

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If you want to capture some stunning landscape photography shots (sunset, sunrise, mountain scenery, etc), you will absolutely want to have a set of grad filters (read my article why this is the case). If you have NO interest in any serious landscape photography, then you don’t need grad filters. But if you do want to take some stunning landscape photos of some sort (especially if you go to the Himalayan areas), you need these. However, you will ALSO need to have a tripod too and a ball head for your tripod. Don’t bother with grad filters if you don’t have a tripod setup first.

For India, I recommend having these 2.

  • One 3 Stop Hard Grad
  • One 2  Stop Soft Grad
  • One 3 Stop Soft Grad (optional)
  • One 4 Stop Reverse Grad (optional)

I recommend Lee Filters if you want the middle ground between quality and price, Singh-Ray if you want the best, and HiTech if you are on a budget.

15. Protect Your Camera from Dust

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There is one thing you can’t escape from in India no matter where you go: Dust. You need to protect your camera and your lenses. All across India, you’ll see copious amounts of dust and dirt, especially in the North and Central parts (Rajasthan, Ladakh, Delhi, etc). Many roads are not paved and even if they are, the surrounding areas are not. You’ll get sudden dust storms from gusts of wind or simply from passing vehicles.

I found the desert areas of Rajasthan and the high altitude deserts of Ladakh particularly bad when it came to dust.

I recommend you keep a UV filter (Either a Hoya Super HMC or B+W XS-Pro recommend) on your lens to protect  from scratches and dust and you’ll need to watch when you change lenses — it’s easily for dust to blow into your camera and onto your sensor.

You’ll also want a blower (recommend Rocket Blower) and a lens pen brush to wipe off dust. You can find a package containing a dust cleaning kits on amazon for pretty cheap.

You might also want to consider a DIY sensor cleaning kit too. Many cameras do have a sensor cleaning mode which can help remove some dust (but not all).

16. Stay Fully Charged

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If you don’t have charged batteries, you can’t shoot. If you are a photographer, having charged batteries is just as important is it eating or sleeping — maybe even more so! Power in India can be quite erratic at times, even more so in the remote areas.

Outside of the big cities, I found there were MANY power outages occurring every day, from Jodhupur to  Varanasi to Leh. There was not one place I went to outside of the big cities where the hotel I was staying at lost power for part of the day.

Fortunately, despite the power outages, most of India has plenty of power readily available IF you have a plug adapter to plug your north american power cords into.

The standard power usage in India is 240v, 50-60 hertz with the circular round pin plugs. In North America, we use 120v with the two prong square endings, so you will need a plug converter WITH a voltage converter from 240v to 120v. Travel-friendly electronics like laptops, electric shavers, blow driers usually have DUAL voltage, so you usually only have to worry about getting an adapter for your plug endings. Still, it’s better to be safe then sorry.

Just buy a common universal travel power adapter which will do it all for you. So make sure you have a travel adapter before coming (you can buy them in India readily, but depending where you are, it can be a pain to find one sometimes).

For certain areas, especially in the high altitude areas or north eastern tribal areas, there may not be any electrical charging outlets outside of the cities. Certainly don’t expect power if you go trekking by foot into small remote villages. You want to have plenty of power available, even if you can’t charge your batteries.

To that end, I recommend you have at least a six to ten or so backup batteries for your camera — enough to last you for 3-7 days of steady shooting without needing a re-charge — which may indeed be the case if you go trekking. Also remember that in high altitude areas where it’s cold, batteries don’t last as long with a charge, so budget on having even less battery life than normal.

Tip: You can buy generic camera batteries on Amazon for a few bucks each — a fraction of  the price it would cost for your official camera brand of batteries. This is an easy way to stock up on 5 or 6 no-name camera batteries — the same as it would cost for 1 or 2 official branded batteries.

Every night, when and where you can, you should have all your batteries charged — don’t forget to do this or you may find you have a dead batteries when you are in the field. Having two chargers can speed up your charging situation. And when you leave your hotels, don’t forget to retrieve your power adapters and your chargers. You don’t want to find you’ve left your specialized camera battery charger somewhere and be unable to charge your batteries!

Yes, this has happened to me. And no, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

I recommend:

  • 2-3 travel adapter plugs (one for your computer, one for your battery charger, and a backup one)
  • Two battery chargers for your camera batteries (trust me, it’s so much faster being able to charge two batteries at once rather than serially with one charger and a stack of batteries waiting to be charged).
  • A backup storage power bar to charge your electronics on the go. You can readily buy these. In a pinch, you can use it to charge your batteries a few times.

17. Bring Rain Protection For Your Camera

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Sudden rainstorms can and do happen in India, especially in the more tropical areas. The eastern desert also has it’s own monsoon seasons too — you never know when it’s going to go from blue sky to pouring rain. Make sure your camera backpack has rain protection of some sort (good camera bags usually some sort of rain guard you can pull out from somewhere and fit over your bag to rain-proof it). If you do get caught out in the open and soaked, your camera bag — and all the equipment — will stay dry.

18. Join an Indian Religious Festival

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Varanasi, July Festival

India is home to some of the world’s great religions. This means at any given month there is probably some grand religious festival going on. For example, when I went to Varanasi in June, there was a month long religious festival every night by the Ghatz (stone steps leading to the water where people bathe in the River Ganges).

Here are some tips to capture a religious festival in India That Helped me:

Continuous Shooting Mode with AI Focus: this helps you better capture moving subjects with your camera. You’ll be able to hold your finger on the camera trigger and shoot a burst of photos with the continuous shooting mode. The AI Focus keeps your MOVING camera subject in better focus.

Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode: If your camera has this setting, it’s a good one to use during religious festivals. It helps your camera better focus on the subject at hand while controlling the camera’s Depth of Focus, which often is the most important setting for getting a an awesome portrait shot.

Show up BEFORE it starts: If you want to BEST position to shoot, you better show up a bit early before the festival starts. This often means planning out exactly where and when you are going to be arriving to shoot. For a bit of research, look at what other photographers have shot for this particular festival so you have an idea what you can capture yourself. Also take a look WHERE photographers are shooting so you know of some prime shooting positions. Use flickr and getty images for this research.

Plan out Sunset/Sunrise times. These times often provide magical lighting and a dramatic mood for the festival IF you are there exactly at the right time. Not all festivals take place during sunset or sunrise, but some do. You should plan accordingly and know the sunset/sunrise times. If the festival takes place during magic hour, make sure you are THERE early.

19. Capture The Colors of India

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Mustard Fields of Leh, India

India is a landscape of color, both in the people’s dress, the old buildings, and the landscape itself.

Clothing: I found particularly in the east (Rajasthan), the locals (especially the women) often dressed up in brilliant colors — azure blue saris, flaming red veils, green skirts. The streets are literally awash with the colors of people. You’ll see quite a bit of color in the local style of dress, but it’s strongest in the eastern states.

Markets: Markets too present you with a kaleidoscope of colors with all manner of brilliant colored spices and fruits begging for a photo.

The Landscape: The landscape too shows it’s color. The eastern desert areas of Rajasthan are a red — with  reddish mountains, amber-color ancient fortresses, and yellow dune deserts. These red, gold, and yellow colors really come to life during sunset and sunrise, with the warm hues of the sun lighting the already red and orange landscape on fire. Jodhpur, especially, is a photographer’s dream with many of the old houses pained a brilliant blue with the hill and giant fort overlooking the city a burnished red color.

In the northern states — especially in the high Himalaya landscape of Ladakh and Himachel Pradish– you have brilliantly blue skies, popcorn white clouds, red and yellow hills surrounded by jagged mountains crowed with white snow. This is also contrasted by green trees and even greener crops. You might even see brilliant yellow fields of mustard. There are white monasteries and even whiter Buddhist ghompas scatted on the hilltops.

To better capture the colors, I HIGHLY recommend you bring a polarizer, which can help saturate the blue of the sky and bring out the white of the clouds. A polarizer also turns up the greens. My personal recommendation is that you bring the LB Color Combo filter by Singh-Ray. This is a filter you wont’ want to take off your lens — with the warming polarizer and color enhancer qualities really adding a rich saturation to your photos. The reds are brighter, the yellows deeper, greens greener, and the sky made more brilliant by the polarizer.

20. Take Advantage of the Sunrise and Sunsets

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Capturing Sunset over Leh

These are magical times in India. You never know what you’ll see around these times. Don’t waste them while you are in India. If that means foregoing a bit more sleep in the morning to capture a sunrise over an Indian city or staying out a bit later to capture the brilliant oranges as the sun dips below the horizon, then make sure you have your camera out and ready to go.

You should have a bit of planning done beforehand — know exactly WHEN the sun rises and sets and do some location scouting so you can position the sun just right. Depending just where you are, you might find unique photo opportunities with the local people during these times too which can add a lot more to your photos.

For example, sunset over the river Ganges as a person takes a sacred bath.

Early morning photography presents some interesting photo opportunities — there are less people on the roads and the light is softer. You may just catch some unique photo opportunities too.

21. Travel Outside the Golden Triangle

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I took this in Leh, Ladakh far from the normal tourist routes

The Golden Triangle, the popular tourist circuit that extends from New Delhi to Jaipur and Agra (roughly the shape of a triangle) has many remarkable sites such as the Taj Majal and the Amber Palace in Jaipur.

However, don’t limit yourself to ONLY this route because you’ll miss some of the more interesting sights a bit off the beaten tourist path.

There are many more interesting areas for photographers to capture, with some of the best of the best outside of this area.

Here are some of the more exotic and photographically fascinating areas you should check out:

Ladakh in the far north for the Tibetan-like high altitude desert surrounded by the Himalaya and Karakorm Mountains

Tribal Lands in the Tribal North Eastern states: right smack where the Tibetan and Burmese Himalayas  merge with the lowlands of India, you get an heady mix of exotic tribes and landscapes — the last outpost of unmapped and unexplored India. You can hang with headhunters, eat rat on the menu, travel into unknown areas of the Himalayas and search for  the last shangri-la in the foothills of the north eastern Himalaya.

South Tip of India: If you want India’s version of Thailand’s beaches, you’ll want to check out Goa. However, this area is ransacked by tourists. A far more photographically interesting area is Kerala witch it’s network of jungle-clad canals, steamy beaches, jungled mountains, and laid-back feel.

 22. Watch Out for Pickpockets

Finally, it’s a good idea to keep your wits about you so you don’t lose your money or equipment to thieves.

There’s a lot of pickpockets in India, especially in crowds — and as a tourist with camera gear, you are a target. The best prevention is to be aware at all times. Photographers who get too lost in the moment of picture taking can be vulnerable to petty theft. You don’t want to keep you eyes ONLY peeled to your camera screen and lose your valuables while you are shooting.

There are a few things you can do to reduce the  risk of theft.

1) Get a travel money pouch that fits UNDER your short and keep your larger money bills, passport, and bank cards there. Only keep pocket change and non-valuables in your pockets.

2) If you wear a camera bag, opt for one that’s inconspicuous looking, rather than one that screams ‘expensive photography equipment here’

3) Walk around with someone else you trust while taking pictures. It’s harder to pickpocket (or snatch and run) when there are two people together than it is a single, isolated target.

I traveled hard on train, bus, jeep, and planes through India for almost three weeks without any sort of issues with pickpockets or thieves. I did have one situation when I was in Nepal where thieves tried to break into my room while I was sleeping, however. But not in India.

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