How I got the shot: photographer Renato Granieri on his assignment in Bhutan

Contributing photographer Renato Granieri conveyed the importance of tradition in the Himalayan country with his photo story from our December 2021 issue.

By Renato Granieri
Published 2 Nov 2022, 06:03 GMT
Hundreds of people gather to witness the five-day festival in the grounds of Rinpung Dzong, a ...

Hundreds of people gather to witness the five-day Paro Tshechu festival in the grounds of Rinpung Dzong, a monastery and fortress in Paro.

Photograph by Renato Granieri

Tell us about this image

Held each spring, the Paro Tshechu Buddhist festival is one of the country’s major annual events. It’s held to commemorate the birth of Guru Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Bhutan, who introduced Tantric Buddhism to its people. Dancing and playing music while wearing traditional costumes is an important part of the cultural life of Bhutanese people, performed to convey religious messages and display righteous ways of living.

I spent two full days at the festival to collect as many images and as wide a variety of shots as possible. With this particular shot, I waited for the dancers to have one foot up to give the image some symmetry. I sat low and shot upwards in an effort to capture the power of the performance.

How did you achieve the shot?

Before I embark on a trip, I tend to look at other people’s images of the destination to get an idea of light conditions, composition opportunities and the best equipment to take. For this shoot, I used a telephoto lens (70-200mm) and a wider lens (24-70mm). This shot was taken with the latter, which allowed me to get close to the dancers while keeping a wide background to show the spectators. I wanted to include the audience and convey the importance of religion and tradition, which are the central values of the festival. I was astonished by the vibrant shades of their outfits. A big aperture allowed me to slightly blur the background, making the spectators appear as a colourful tapestry of celebration.

What were the challenges at play?

I initially thought the crowds would be the main obstacle, but the locals turned out to be very friendly and always allowed me to be at the front. Instead, I soon realised the light could have been an issue: at certain latitudes, the sun can be quite harsh in the middle of the day. Fortunately, I’d started my first day at 6am in order to get an idea of where the light would fall and where the best angles were. The ceremony went on all day and all night, giving me plenty of opportunities to capture different shots.

What advice would you give someone starting out in travel photography?

Look for inspiration from other photographers and do your own research before you travel to a destination, especially if it’s your first time there. Online sources, tutorials and other learning materials are easy to access. Also, look at travel magazines and publications to get a sense of what an editor might look for in a travel photo story.

What drew you to this story?

I’d always wanted to visit Bhutan, mainly to take photos of the locals and their way of life. It’s a secretive mountain kingdom where people have very different values to our own — so much mystery surrounds the place. I was also intrigued by their many festivals; I wanted to celebrate the beauty of these traditions and communicate the energy that powers these events. Then, I received an assignment from a UK tour operator to join one of their trips to the destination.

Was this shoot typical of your career as a travel photographer?

Yes – I specialise in wildlife and travel. For me, travel photography is a link to remote destinations that have strong cultures and traditions, where I can still appreciate simpler ways of living. 

Published in the December 2022 issue of  National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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