Friday, April 3, 2009


Holi, also called the Festival of Colors, is a popular Hindu spring festival observed in India, Nepal, and countries with large Hindu diaspora such as Suriname, Guyana, South Africa, Trinidad, the UK, Mauritius and Fiji. In West Bengal of India it is known as Dolyatra (Doul Jatra) or Boshonto Utsav ("spring festival").

The main day, Holi, also known as Dhulheti, Dhulandi or Dhulendi, is celebrated by people throwing coloured powder and coloured water at each other. Bonfires are lit the day before, also known as Holika Dahan (death of Holika) or Chhoti Holi (little Holi). The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahlad had when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion. Holika Dahan is referred to as Kama Dahanam in Andhra Pradesh.
If you think about the task of photographing the holi bonfire, you have several options available. A wide angle shot that includes everything and the bonfire. A zoom, close crop shot of only the bonfire. Or something in between. If you are using a point-and-shoot you also have to consider leaving the flash on or off. The worst option would be to shoot using the auto mode of the camera, whether it is a point-and-shoot or an SLR.

If using an SLR or a camera that provides more options of controlling the exposure, ISO speed, aperture, shutter speed, etc... then there is the question of just how to compose the shot keeping in mind all these variables.

If you zoom and focus and also expose only on and for the bonfire you will likely get the best exposed shot in my opinion.

The speed will be fast enough to capture the individual flames, and there won't be any of the surrounding darkness of the night to overexpose the bonfire itself. Generally a speed of at least 1/60 seconds is needed to freeze the flames in the shot.

If you shoot with a slightly wider angle, and if you still want the bonfire to be crisply captured, you have to either do spot-metering, or manually underexpose by at least two f-stops or more.
If you use a point-and-shoot you can see what the image will look like in the preview screen. If you use a dSLR where the preview function has to be specially switched on, you can always take a shot, see it on the LCD screen of the camera, and retake it if not satisfied with it. After all, the economics of digital photography and memory cards mean that the marginal cost of taking a photo is close to zero.

One benefit of metering and exposing only for the bonfire is that almost everything else is underexposed. So you get nice effects like the silhouette of the man crouched in the shot below.

You can get the smooth effect as shown below by using a longer shutter speed, of say a second or longer. To do that you may need to use a slow ISO speed like 100, or use a high aperture setting, like f/16 to lengthen the exposure time. And yes, place the camera on a tripod.

Holi is celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Phalugna or Falguna (Phalgun Purnima), which usually falls in the later part of February or March. In 2009, Holi (Dhulandi) was on 11th March and Holika Dahan was on 10th March.

You really need something like a 400mm or even 600mm lens to capture the moon in more detail. This is a cropped shot, shot at the max 250mm focal length of my lens, so even at 100% magnification the photo only hints at the beauty of the moon. And like with the fire you need to meter for only the moon and not the surrounding sky, lest you get a completely white, washed-out moon with no details visible. Since at the maximum focal length the moon still does not occupy the entire frame, the surrounding black sky is going to fool the camera's meter. Therefore be sure to underexpose by two or three f-stops. As you would have guessed, it was a matter of trial and error for me. I got it about right only on the third shot I think.
And again yes, a tripod is a must.
Once I figure out how to use the mirror lockup feature the shot should be sharper the next time around.