How I Shot the Holi Festival in India

How I Shot the Holi Festival in India

Shooting events with a ton of people can always be a bit overwhelming at times. There are thing constantly happening all around you, pulling your attention in every direction. Add to this being in another country and at an event such as the Holi festival, and you have a recipe for mass mental chaos. In order to combat this, I went to India with a pretty deliberate plan on how I wanted to shoot.

First thing's first, for those that don't know, the Holi festival is the celebration of Spring as well as the celebration of good winning over evil. The main way it’s celebrated is with the use of colored powder and water. This colored powder is thrown into the air, thrown at people, and even physically rubbed onto peoples faces. For the water, this is thrown with buckets, water balloons, sprayed with hoses, and can even come from shower heads spraying from all around you if you are in a certain temple.  


Because of these adverse shooting conditions, camera protection is a must have. Most reading online about how to protect your camera will lead you down the path of using plastic bags and a lot of tape. While this seemed to work for most people I saw, it doesn't quite inspire confidence when really getting into the thick parts of the celebration. Knowing this, I decided to go with a more robust protection in the form of an underwater housing from Aquatech. I won't go into too much detail about the housing since I wrote a full review already, but this housing really did allow me to fully submerge myself into shooting and completely forget about trying to keep my camera gear safe.

Aside from camera protection, it’s also a good idea to think about protecting yourself. Some of the colored powder that is used can be very harsh on your skin and hair. It also has the potential to stain your skin and clothes. To prevent this from happening, we used a small bottle of hair oil (though any type of oil should do the job) in order to give a layer of protection over our skin and hair. I also wore a pair of cheap white pants and a white shirt that I was prepared to throw away after the event. Not only did this make it so I could not worry about my clothes, but it also gave a nice visual of just how colorful I was from all the powder. I also carried around a small Ziploc bag where I kept extra batteries, my wallet, and phone.

Camera and lens

One of my favorite things to do when I’m dealing with situations that have a lot going on, is limit myself. This may seem a bit counter intuitive. Most people go into a complex situation wanting to be prepared for anything. They may bring a bag of lenses in order to cover anything that happens or they may throw on one of those crazy zoom lenses that can go from 18mm to 250mm. While there is nothing wrong with this, I find that having too many options can cause more issues than solutions. Not only are you left bouncing around changing lenses or focal lengths, but you are also busy looking for anything and everything to shoot.

Because of this, I decided to go with a single Fuji X-T2 and the 23mm f/2 lens (35mm equivalent). Not only is this focal length perfect for all purpose storytelling photography, but being limited to just this lens allows me to concentrate on what I can shoot well. No longer am I chasing things down by zooming or changing a lens. Instead, I look for things to capture and I get to where I need to be to do that. If I cant get there, then I ignore what's going on and look for something I can capture. This style of shooting really makes you open your eyes and see what's going on and intentionally plan how you want to shoot it. You are now in a box and all you care about is what's inside the box or how you can move that box.    


In a similar fashion to how I limited myself with my camera gear, I also limited myself with the type of light I was willing to shoot. This may seem like a weird way to limit yourself, but hear me out. In the above example I talked about limiting your focal length so that you were sort of trapped in a box. Now imagine if you could only shoot a certain type of thing in that box. It now becomes pretty apparent when and where you need to move the box in order to shoot. This is what I did with my light. By only shooting subjects that were in direct light, I developed a sort of spider sense to all the little strips and patches of direct light all around me. If I didn't see any direct light inside my box, then I knew I needed to move.

Once the sun went down, I kept to the same task at hand, but this time I was on the lookout for anything that could produce light. If there wasn't a subject in that light, then I waited or I looked for another place to shoot from. This is where it can get complicated. How long do I wait? Is that spot over there better? It sort of becomes like fishing. Thankfully there are times where the fish can just jump into your boat, or in this case, a guy waves a giant flame around and then has flower petals thrown above him.

For all the times where there was not direct light and I didn't have the option to move, I didn't simply not shoot at all. In these situations I just looked for interesting compositions, subjects, moments, or hopefully a combination of all three.

Have you ever given yourself limits to help narrow what you concentrated on? What kinds of things help you focus on what you can do well and ignore everything else? You can also see more images from this shoot on my blog

Log in or register to post comments
Donald Lawson's picture

Great images and preparation, thanks!

Jason Vinson's picture

thank you!

Edgar Pereira's picture

Some of the best images I've seen from the Holi event, great work Jason..

Jason Vinson's picture

ah thanks a lot!! much appreciated!

Anonymous's picture

The best approach to this kind of photography I've ever heard of. Great photos!

Jason Vinson's picture

thank you!! so glad you liked it!

Nissor Abdourazakov's picture

Amazing images! Thank you for sharing.

Jason Vinson's picture

thank you!!

David Strauss's picture

These are so fantastic! You captured this with such a great balance in approach of journalism and fine art.

Jason Vinson's picture

thanks a lot David!

Timothy Linn's picture

Nice images, Jason, that stand out as distinctly different from what one normally sees of Holi. I'll definitely check out the rest of them on your blog. Why the F2 over the F1.4? Did you need the AF speed? Are you able to adjust the aperture when the X-T2 is in a housing?

Jason Vinson's picture

You cant adjust the aperture while the camera is in the housing, but the lens port is easy to take on and off and allows easy access to the aperture ring. And i used the f/2 version because I don't own the f/1.4 version. I was mostly in the f/4 range anyway so probably would have stuck with the faster focusing lens anyway. also, thak you for your kind words!! :)

W. T. Vandemark's picture

Informative post; great images.

Jason Vinson's picture

thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Mark Bowers's picture

Really inspiring Jason, congrats on these amazing results!

Jason Vinson's picture

Thank you!

Stephen Kampff's picture

Absolutely stunning!

Jason Vinson's picture


Charn Bedi's picture

Beautiful set of images!

Jason Vinson's picture

Thank you!!

Ralph Hightower's picture

Using an underwater housing for shooting above ground is interesting for protecting the gear. LensRentals showed a tear down of a camera that was used at Burning Man. LenRentals said that the renter for use at Burning Man and Color Runs are responsible for the repair.
I would probably use a handful of disposable film cameras.

Jason Vinson's picture

I took about 8000 images for this trip so film would be a super expensive and bulky option!

Lee Morris's picture

killer shots

Jason Vinson's picture

Thank you Lee!

Arun Hegden's picture

I shot holi in 2015 with 85mm prime lens, the safety method we followed were quite DIY which we followed from a blog written by a friend of mine.
The basic idea was use a UV filter + a good plastic cover + tape to cover up the camera. You can find the blog here.

Jason Vinson's picture

yup! The plastic bag and UV filter was one of the more popular methods. Its cheaper, but doesn't give much confidence in how much protection your actually getting. Still plenty of space for the colored powder to get in.

Jave Weiting's picture

Thank you so much for these inspiring images and post about limits! Been shooting for expressive fun since 2007 on a nikon FM with only a 50mm lens and later a gh1 with a 20mm pancake. When finally deciding to catch up with technology, I felt so overwhelmed with all these 'necessary' gears and lens said online. Am glad to finally find someone who shows the opposite!

Deleted Account's picture

Great work and article Jason! And I completely agree with limiting yourself. I'm trying to figure out how to reduce what I bring to jobs, I shouldn't need 8 lenses to shoot one event!

Joe Black's picture

So impressive. WaW. Sincerely impressed. Hats off.

Allen Freeman's picture

Great article and images. I shot a much smaller Holi Festival near me not too long ago in Riverside CA. I also wore clothes I didn’t aim to keep, a ball cap etc. Should have had something covering my face and nose as to breath in less paint powder. I shot with a Sony A7Rii, with a 24-240 lens. I used two ziploc bags pulling them on from both sides then with wide tape connecting them at their openings in the middle. I cut enough for the lens to be exposed with rubber bands sealing around the lens. I had on a UV filter so actual lens was not exposed. I also cut a bit of plastic and exposed the EVF also rubber banding it to seal around it. I was able to zoom in and out and see what I was shooting. I could change settings somewhat but mostly used auto ISO and didn’t swap settings much. I always shoot in manual mode, and Raw. After the event I tossed the clothes away, my hat actually washed out the color. My camera didn’t have any trace of paint powder on it. And yes I did get powder all over me. I’m not one to be happy with a set focal length as too much is going on and I want to zoom in on it sometimes. But I do get in the middle of things and shoot wide also. I saw another photographer shooting with similar gear who did have his face covered and a hat, but no protection at all on his powder covered camera. A photographer with me, her ziploc bag (not taped up the way mine was, had mostly come off. Tho later she said her camera was still fine after cleaning it off. I must add that no water was sprayed or tossed on anyone at this event. Only paint powder.