Last year I visited India for the first time and wrote an article about the benefits of using a really good guide to make the trip both more enjoyable and more productive from a photography point of view. Well, I was so entranced with the country that I immediately re-booked for this year (2015) and added into the mix the opportunity to see the celebrations of Holi, the Festival of Colours.
Many people will have seen images of brightly coloured powders and paint being thrown around with abandon, but Holi is much more than that and even between regions it varies considerably. The huge throngs of people crammed into temples tends to happen in the bigger towns like Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, the birthplace of Krishna.

In the country villages of Rajasthan however, Holi is a (slightly) more genteel affair with colours being rubbed on people rather than thrown in great rainbow coloured clouds. A stranger will run up to you and yell “Happy Holi”, then proceed to rub red powder in your hair. It’s all very jolly until someone starts splashing water around which has the effect of fixing the coloured dyes into your cloths and hair!
Holi is the celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring and it occurs around the last full moon of the lunar month at the end of winter – usually the spring or vernal equinox. There are also many symbolic myths behind commemorating Holi.

For us as photographers, Holi posed some interesting problems – mostly concerning safety of body and safety of the camera!
We chose to visit a small town called Bithoo (or Beetoo depending on which map you use). The reason for this was that our guide was a little reluctant to expose us newbies to the full brunt of the massively crowded Holi celebrations in the bigger towns. He told us it can get very boisterous. Using the words “boisterous” and “India” in the same sentence gives pause for thought…
As luck (or good planning) would have it, our host at the desert camp in the Thar Desert, Harish, was the senior man in Bithoo – in England he’d have been a Viscount or an Earl. He invited us to his home village to celebrate Holi and assured us it was not as wild as the bigger towns. He turned out to be mostly correct and we were able to witness the real deal, no other visitors except us, and a glimpse into the real life of people in the region.

I should mention that I was hosting a Leica Akademie Australia trip with six guests plus myself and our guide. We had been to Jodhpur, Osian and Chandelao but the Holi day was to be the highlight of our trip – and as it turned out we were not disappointed, as you can see in the accompanying photos.
The obvious question on everyone’s lips was “How do I shoot the images I want without risking damaging the camera?” The answer is not so simple. Do you compromise shooting opportunities to keep the camera safe or do you risk it all for the sake of a photo? Our group took different stances on this.
One couple brought along older model DSLRs with the original kit lens on one and a newly purchased 28-300 mm zoom on the other. Both were prepared to write off the camera as a worst case scenario. Two guests took compact cameras in plastic bags, another wrapped a ziplock bag around a mirrorless camera/Leica lens combo and the last guest did much the same with an older DSLR.

We basically put the cameras in the ziplock bags, cut a hole for the lens and taped the plastic to the lens hood. It was crude but effective and ultimately none of us had any problems, even those with fully unprotected cameras. The powder blows off easily; it’s just that you need to watch out for water. One guest copped the brunt of a plume of red water in his silver hair and, well, three days later after multiple washes we renamed him Pinky.
Myself, I shot on a Leica T with the 18-56 mm zoom lens in a plastic bag and it performed beautifully. I later switched to a Leica M once I had a sense of how things were going and again had no problems.
Maybe we were lucky but we got some sensational shots with zero damage to gear. This has given me confidence so, given that we had such a blast this year, I am going back next year; but this time we are heading for Mathura and the big crowds. Wish me luck!
– Nick Rains
Connect with Nick on his website.