How I got the shot: Prabir Mitra on capturing the spirit of Holi, the Hindu festival of spring

On his first assignment for National Geographic Traveller (UK) in 2019, the photographer captured the hues of India’s Holi festival, a time-honoured Hindu celebration of colour. Here, he discusses how the shoot unfolded behind the scenes.

By Prabir Mitra
Published 31 Jul 2021, 15:00 BST, Updated 22 Feb 2022, 13:28 GMT
During Holi, traditional musicians from Barsana come to Sriji Temple, Nandgaon, to participate in a musical ...

During Holi, traditional musicians from Barsana come to Sriji Temple, Nandgaon, to participate in a musical competition involving singers, drummers and wind instrumentalists.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

On assignment for National Geographic Traveller, photographer Prabir Mitra shot the photo story, Celebrating Holi festival in India's Braj region.

What drew you to this story?

India probably features heavily on lists of favourite destinations for any travel photographer. For many years I’d been planning to hit India’s streets to capture the true essence of the people, culture and vibrant colours for which the country is famous, and what better occasion than Holi? It’s a time when people from different parts of the globe come together to celebrate alongside the locals — this is what makes Holi a truly international festival. I jumped at the first opportunity I got to shoot it.

On location, what elements are you seeking out for a successful shot?

My task as a photographer is to kindle the same excitement in the minds of the readers that I experience myself when I’m on location. While shooting, I don’t adhere to a strict to-do list; I’m guided by the scenes in front of me. I ensure I’m conveying the mood of a place through landscapes, whether urban or rural. I interact with locals and get a good sense of the people and culture through portraits or candid street scenes and, of course, I incorporate shots of local cuisine. If I’m covering festivals, I’ll do my homework and shoot particular events at specific locations.

At the Banke Bihari Temple in Vrindaban, revellers are showered in coloured powder and petals as part of the Phoolo Ki Holi festivities. It’s a true feast for the ears, too, as the sounds of song and laughter ring out through the sacred Hindu temple.

Photograph by Prabir Mitra

What’s your favourite image?

One that captures the movements of the revellers at the Banke Bihari Temple in Vrindavan alongside a stationary marble statue, which creates a real contrast. While Holi is all about the mood, colour and jubilation, it was ironically a huge challenge to portray movement. To get the perspective I wanted I used a slow shutter speed, which was a difficult task without a tripod, but it would be near impossible to use one in this setting. I had to be particularly careful not to be pushed from behind the pillar of the temple I was leaning against, and I held my breath a while to get the shot.

What do you take into account while selecting your kit?

I always travel light. My kit generally comprises two DSLR camera bodies (Nikon D750 and Nikon D800; the latter has recently been replaced by Nikon Z6), with a 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom lens, a 70-200mm f/2.8, and a 20mm f1.8 prime lens. Aside from the cameras, I take plenty of memory cards, batteries, a set of Lee filters, a camera-cleaning kit, my laptop and an external hard drive for creating instant backups. All of this fits in a backpack, which I prefer to take as cabin baggage to ensure everything is kept safe. My tripod is the only item I’m happy to check in as hold baggage. 

Due to the nature of the event, I had to alter my kit to shoot Holi. Out on the bustling streets, I knew it’d be extremely difficult to change lenses or camera bodies. So, I used the most sturdy DSLR body I had, with the longest battery life, with an all-purpose short zoom and a rain cover, all of which was strapped to me, as if it was part of my body. I know the controls of my camera like the back of my hand, so I was able to adjust the controls without looking. Most of the time I wasn’t checking the LCD display either — it was covered in colourful dust. I used Op-Tech Rainsleeves to protect my camera, and I changed the covers each night after giving my gear a decent clean with my cleaning kit, ready for the next day’s shoot. 

How have you found inspiration during the pandemic?

The pandemic has hit everyone hard, and everyone differently. I’m a doctor as well as a photographer. With my doctor’s hat on, I’ve seen the devastation from ground zero and to be honest it’s been extremely difficult to escape the negativities it has brought about. I consider myself particularly fortunate as I have my creative outlet, photography, to distract myself from the harsh medical realities. Since March 2020, I’ve been actively involved in a self-directed photo project that documents the impact of Covid-19 on healthcare professionals. It’ll be the first of a series of such photo essays, available to view on my website

What’s on your wish list for when travel resumes?

The list is long. But one destination on my list is Utqiaġvik (formerly known as Barrow) in Alaska. It’s situated nearby the North Pole, inside the Arctic Circle, and I’ve got my heart set on spending time with the local Iñupiat people in their remote villages. Another on my list is the Carretera Austral, or Route 7, of Chile, which runs for about 770 miles from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins and traverses the breathtaking landscapes of Patagonia.

Browse the images captured in Prabir's photo story, below


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