Street Photography in Old Delhi

The cat’s out of the bag, I’ve been traveling over the last couple of weeks in India. This is my first trip to the sub-continent and in some ways I was prepared and in other ways – well, no one can really fully prepare for the sensory overload that is “India.”

Technically, we flew into New Delhi, but the city of New Delhi didn’t really interest me so much as the adventure of the old narrow streets of old Delhi. My husband and I weren’t going to spend that much time in Delhi – not many tours do it seems – we really used the city to get our feet on the ground in India and overcome the long flight. Then we’d be off on our Indian adventure.

I dusted off my street photography chops (not much true street photography in mid-America) and headed into the narrow streets of Old Delhi. I was reminded of a few things about taking street photographs in one of the world’s most crowded cities.

Standing in a relatively protected spot between a few parked rickshaws, I saw the shadow cast by the bicycle wheel and waited for some typical modes of Indian transport to zoom around the corner.

1. Choose a Centralized Home Base

We based out of a lovely hotel in the middle of old Delhi.The hotel is so embedded in the narrow streets that taxis could only drop us close by and the hotel sent a guide and porter. Google Maps will show you the hotel, but don’t look for a street – Google just gives up and you’ll only find a sea of buildings crammed together.

We like to base our hotels in the middle of the photographically interesting parts of a city. Being centrally located means that as long as we could get back to the hotel – or the alleyway leading to the hotel – we weren’t lost. The hotel staff knew the back alleyways and the local venders – like the rickshaw drivers that hang out on the main streets – knew the hotel. We had some local backup.

A central location also meant that when the press of people, rickshaws and motorbikes in the market overwhelmed us, we could dive back into the hotel for a quick breather.

Our hotel was within walking distance of many of the markets in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. We were able to walk the streets a number of times seeing the same people and becoming more and more comfortable with our surroundings. I caught this fellow smoking a cigarette. Once he noticed me, he stopped smoking.

2. Minimize

In Cuba, I carried an extra lens and my regular Peak Design sling camera bag, but I prepared differently for India.

I set off with my camera and one lens (a Sony 24-240) and a small Peak Design pouch strapped to my belt.

When I travel, I try to keep my gear minimal at the best of times, but in places as crowded as old Delhi this is a must. My attention was all over the place in old Delhi. I was trying to compose photos while also trying to keep from being run over by a speeding motorbike or the ten thousand other people all crammed into the small alleyway with me. The last thing I needed was to have a lot of gear that needed keeping track of. If I’d put something down, it would have been immediately spirited away.

There’s not much room to maneuver in some of the narrow “streets” in old Delhi. People jostle with carts, motorbikes, rickshaws, and goods for sale.

More importantly, space is at a premium. I had to be careful not to let the camera hang away from my body or it would have been bashed into by any number of things including the aforementioned speeding motorbike. Even when riding in a rickshaw, I was careful not to push the lens too far out of the vehicle.

There’s no space to change lenses even if I’d wanted to in this dusty street so no need to bring another.

3. Take your Time

Street photography is not only something that happens while I’m touring a place, it’s something that happens while I’m getting from Place A to Place B. I took my time when traveling from place to place looking all around me, not just straight in front of me. This not only makes me more aware of my surroundings for safety reasons, but I’m more likely to see what’s photographically interesting. I can start to see patterns in the actions of the people around me.

I spent quite a bit of time standing on a street corner near our hotel just watching the world go by. I and quite a few others were very interested when this truck pulled up with this enormous metal lion statue and began the process of unloading it onto a rickety rickshaw for delivery down the narrow streets. We all knew this venture was doomed to fail, but to our amazement, the lion was safely offloaded and the rickshaw didn’t in fact collapse under the weight.

Best yet is to stop. Even on the crowded, narrow alleyways there were places to stop – between parked motorbikes or in a space between market stalls. Just stop and look for a bit. Taking photos of people moving while I’m also moving is doubly difficult. If I stop moving for just a minute, I have a better shot at capturing a moving scene. These stops also helped me not get overwhelmed by the sheer chaos happening around me. I didn’t feel so much like I was being whisked along by the crowd.

4. Smile and Wave

In a place as busy as old Delhi, most people aren’t really noticing that I’m photographing. They’re just getting on with their own business. Sometimes I like to interact with the people I’m photographing, but other times calling attention to the photograph just makes them stiffen up or annoys them because I’m getting in their way.

Most people are flattered to have their photos taken. This fellow’s red robe caught my eye especially as he was sitting against the red sandstone building. I caught this photo before he noticed and then took a number of others with he and what I took to be his son. 

Even when I have a chance to interact with a person, I try to take a candid photo first and then interact. I find that the candid photo can sometimes be the best – but this isn’t necessarily always the case. Sometimes the person warms up and I can get an even better shot and see the person’s personality.

Even when I don’t fully interact with a person, if they notice that I’m photographing them, I always smile and wave a quick “thank you.” Smiles and waves translate so no worries about language barriers.

Final Thoughts

Remember that most people either don’t mind their photo being taken or are flattered. Only a few people don’t want their photos taken and in a place like old Delhi I simply smile and wave and turn around to the thousand people standing behind me to find another colorful person doing something interesting.

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