India, part 1: Introduction
December, 2004
by Norman Koren

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Part 1: Introduction |
Part 2: Gujarat | Part 3: Udaipur
Part 4: Jodhpur fort | Part 5: Jodhpur rooftops
| Part 6: Jaipur: Palaces and Amber fort
Part 7: Jaipur streets | Part 8: Jaipur: Jantar Mantar
| Part 9: Ranakpur temple and sculptures
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Table of contents



Jodhpur fort
Jodhpur Fort

Jodhpur rooftops
Jodhpur rooftops

Jodhpur palaces
Jaipur palaces

Jaipur streets
Jaipur streets

Jantar Mantar
Jantar Mantar

My son Nathan, who lived in India for five months in 2001-2002, motivated the trip. He had worked in Ahmedabad (in the state of Gujarat) as an intern for the well-known architect Balkrishna Doshi, who was interviewed in thze film about Louis Kahn, My Architect. Nathan has been dreaming about India ever since he returned to the USA. I also wanted to see my old friend Shrikant Jhaveri— my office partner from my first job in Boston, whom I hadn't seen since 1969.

The trip was planned for December 5-30. We lost two days in Los Angeles waiting for Air India to replace a jet engine: better than falling out of the sky. We visited Mumbai (the city formerly known as Bombay), Ahmedabad and Junagadh (location of Girnar Hill) in Gujarat, then Udaipur, Jodhpur, and Jaipur in Rajasthan.

I took my new Canon EOS-20D with the 10-22mm, 24-70 f2.8L, and 70-200 f/4L lenses. I gave my EOS-10D with the 24-85 and 17-40 f/4L lenses to Nathan. The 17-40 is a superb lens: I still have misgivings about parting with it. But Nathan is an excellent photographer; he'll use it to full advantage. I ordered the new 17-85mm IS lens, but it didn't arrive in time for the trip. In its place I used the excellent 24-70L in its place: a lens I both love (for its optical quality) and hate (for its size and weight). My friend Dennis Wilkins has been raving about the Sigma 18-125mm f.3,5-5.6 lens. Since the 17-85 still hasn't arrived as of January 12,I may give it a try. It's pretty inexpensive ($269).

Some of the images on the pages are postcards or documents; some are attempts at fine art.


I want to thank Shrikant Jhaveri, his son Nirav, and his family for their fine hospitality (in Ahmedabad) and help in planning the trip. I also want to thank Ashok Viswanathan of Mumbai (which he still calls Bombay) for his immense help in planning the trip and particularly for his assistance in getting us on the first available Air India flight while we were stranded in Los Angeles. Ashok and his wife Laxmi took us to the superb Khyber restaurant in downtown Bombay
the best Indian food I've ever had and the most memorable meal of the trip.

Ashok gave us a real scare though. He and Laxmi went to visit Laxmi's family in Chennai (Madras) for the Christmas holidays. He was going to photograph the beach the day after Christmas, but he overslept. Missed the tsunami. Good thing!


Ranakpur Jain temple, interior

My favorite image of the trip was taken inside the Ranakpur Jain temple, between Udaipur and Jodhpur. It was taken with the the 10-22mm lens zoomed all the way out (10mm) to capture the feel of the architecture and the life of this magnificent temple. View more images of Ranakpur's remarkable sculptures here.

There are several difficulties in photographing India.

1. Unwanted attention. A white guy with a huge camera stands out like a very sore thumb. No escape. Merchants and rickshaw drivers clamor persistently for your business; they haven't learned the art of "soft sell." Poor people (and India has many) ask to be photographed
for rupees, of course. If you look rich, and anybody with a large camera is rich by their standards, they ask for exhorbitant fees. I can't blame them, but I spent a lot of effort dodging them. However I paid to photograph a photographer (below) who wanted to take my picture.

2. Harsh light. In semi-arid western India there is hardly a cloud in the sky except during monsoon season (usually June-September). As always, the "golden hour," within two hours of sunrise and sunset, is the best time. India is extremely polluted. Don't expect any clear sweeping vistas. Smog can be used to photographic advantage. It doesn't please me to do so, but there's no choice.
Ranakpur Jain temple, detail
The unreduced crop on the left illustrates the detail. At a typical screen resolution of 90 dpi (the oft-quoted number of 72 dpi is unrealistically low) this 2336x3504 pixel image would be 26x39 inches. I recently (2014) framed an 18x24 inch print of this image: it is beautiful.
This man wanted to photograph me. So I turned the tables and paid to photograph him. He had an "instant" camera: he developed and fixed the images on the spot. Pretty clever. I would have liked to learn more about his process, but his English was limited when it came to chemistry. Instant photographer, Jaipur

Notes and observations

It's a cliche of course, but I have to repeat it anyway. India is a land of extreme contrasts: rich and poor; ugly and beautiful, often in the closest proximity. One billion people in an area smaller than the lower 48 states in the US. The poverty is shocking, but not unexpected. The road from the Mumbai airport to downtown is lined with slums and shacks. Thousands of people
living in the poorest conditions with no sanitation.

Ahmedabad, which is a relatively prosperous city, has a great many beautiful new office and apartment buildings and shopping malls. Nathan was amazed by the change in only three years. Signs of India's new prosperity are everywhere. Many of the buildings are architecturally world class: Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn built several buildings there, and the tradition has been passed through Balkrishna Doshi to a generation of  new architects. The streets are well paved.

But the zone between the streets and the buildings or apartment complex walls is utter chaos: 5 to 10 meters of dusty unpaved land filled with squatter's sheds, merchants, vendors, hawkers, parked vehicles, cows, goats, dogs, and trash. Few sidewalks. Trash is dumped here. The poor scavange it for anything of value; the animals eat any vegetable matter. What's left is burned, adding to the already severe pollution. Not a pretty picture. It's not easy to walk in most Indian cities. You get pushed out to the street, which is filled with bicycles, motorcycles, motor scooters, autorickshaws, motorcycle-rickshaws, cars, busses, trucks, cows, goats, and carts drawn by camels, bullocks, or horses, all traveling at different speeds and all honking wildly. Even boars occasionally. The Honda scooters sound like ducks. Crossing the street is an adventure every time.

Yet there is a curious calm midst all the chaos. There is a spirit to the people: stoic, positive, and cheerful. I saw no sign of the road rage you might experience in Los Angeles when traffic is a fraction as stressful.

This chaos is not without interest but it's not easy to photograph because you attract too much attention, the light is often harsh, and the extreme visual clutter makes fine composition difficult. I mostly saw it while driving.

The other side of India is a middle class society that resembles Europe and the US, though not quite as affluent. Only the poorest of the poor lack cell phones. TV
ads feature all the familiar consumer products as well as mutual funds and consumer credit. They present the Indian version of the American dream pure fantasy for most. A Blackberry ad shows a savvy businessman next to his private helicopter. An extreme rarity, even in the US.

India has an excellent education system, although it doesn't seem to be universal. People care a great deal about education. I was struck by the number of schools at all levels, particularly the universities. It bodes well for India's future. But the vast impoverished underclass
a remnant of the caste systemremains a profound problem.

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Images and text copyright (C) 2000-2013 by Norman Koren. Norman Koren lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he worked in developing magnetic recording technology for high capacity data storage systems until 2001. Since 2003 most of his time has been devoted to the development of Imatest. He has been involved with photography since 1964.