Diwali, or the “festival of lights” as its otherwise known, is India’s largest and most important festivals. Derived from the Sanskrit word, Diwali is literally translated as “row of lighted lamps”. The festival is also known as ‘Deepavali’, which is the South Indian spelling for the festival. ‘Diwali’ is a North Indian modification, although both spellings are generally understood. The auspicious holiday which is typically celebrated in November, and marks the triumph of good over evil. Celebrations typically run over 5 days, where in many families and friends gather to share food and visit temples.
However in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to keep many countries in lockdown, and break plans for any mass gatherings – last year’s Diwali celebration was a very different experience for most. So how was one of the world’s largest and brightest festivals celebrated with this new dynamic in play? National Geographic photographer Ashima Narain, guides us through her experience.
Alpha 7R IV | FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM | 70 mm | 1/100 sec | F2.8 | ISO 500
In the leadup to Diwali markets are typically brimming with lights and decorations for people to spruce up their homes. This is because of the belief that the Goddess Lakshmi will only enter and bless bright and clean home with her gifts of wealth and purity. In this image, a customer is reaching for a toran, which is a symbolic string hung above the arch of the entrance door to greet the Goddess, ward off evil, and shower blessings on those who pass under it.
To safely take this photo in a crowded market, I chose the Sony Alpha 7R IV paired with a 70-200mm F2.8 GM lens at 70 mm, 1/100 shutter speed, ISO 500. This long lens paired with a high shutter speed allowed me to stay safely away from the shoppers while maintaining a high focus and resolution despite the shallow depth of field. There is also usually a crush of people at the markets, but this year stricter rules and less crowds followed, which was a surprisingly nice respite from the usual sea of people.
Alpha 9 II | FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM | 70 mm | 1/80 sec | F4.5 | ISO 800
To prep for the festivities ahead, many Indians purchase new clothes and jewellery. Men dress in traditional kurtas and, and women show off their best ethnic wear like colorful silk sarees and lehengas (skirts). Bright and colourful clothing is often worn to reflect the festival of lights.
In this image a husband helps his wife put on the finishing touches of her outfit. As these were my neighbours, I shot this from the outside – through their bedroom window, to maintain a safe distance. I love the mix of colours coming together from the two different lighting environments – I from the outside in daylight, and the couple from the inside, bathed in tungsten light.
To achieve this dynamic range I chose the Sony Alpha 9 II with a 24-70mm F2.8 GM lens set at 70 mm. The 24-70mm lens allows me to zoom in on my subjects from afar, but still keep all the details of the scene unfolding in front of us and allow us to feel close to our subjects. Though we are viewing them from a window, it still feels like we are a part of their family. All the details of her dress, and how her husband is carefully helping her clasp her gold necklace on can still be observed.
Alpha 9 II | FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM | 34 mm | 1/80 sec | F3.5 | ISO 320
This image showcases part of a traditional pooja thali setup, which is a metal plate of offerings for the Gods and Goddesses. Sweet treats, such as laddoos (ball shaped sweets made of flour), pedas (milky sweets) and gulab jamuns (deep fried doughnuts) are typical snacks prepared for the festival.
As the main festivities and prayers during Diwali happen at night, I chose to shoot with the Sony Alpha 9 II with a 24–70mm F2.8 GM lens set at 34 mm at a ISO of only 320. Sony’s low-light capabilities are shown off well here as I purposely wanted to use a low-light aperture with no flash, to show off the natural beauty of the candlelit settings.
Alpha 9 II | FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM | 16 mm | 1/80 sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000
Here we can see the whole intricacy of pooja thali setup in full. Every Diwali, all of my family and extended family will gather together for the first night of festivities, but this year, we kept celebrations small. Here we see my sister Ruchi, supervising the children while lighting the diyas (candles) – although they seemed to be more interested in blowing them out! This charming scene was shot with the Sony Alpha 9 II with a 16-35mm F2.8 GM lens at 16 mm with a shutter speed of 1/80, and ISO 2000.
A wide lens allows me to capture all the moments happening in this scene – from my sister’s loving gaze, my cheeky niece trying to blow out the candle, and her cousin’s shocked reaction. The fast shutter speed and high ISO also allow me to focus on the moment as quickly as possible, which is important in festival photography as beautiful moments can literally pass you by in the blink of an eye. The high ISO allows me to bring in as much light as possible and showcase the natural and beautiful glow of the diyas.
Alpha 7R IV | FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM | 32 mm | 1/80 sec | F3.2 | ISO 1000
Once the pooja thali is set up, families perform an aarti where they pray for the prosperity and health for their families, loved ones and their communities. Above all these traditions however, Diwali celebrates and fosters family connection. It is a time where families come together to spend time together. This image, of my husband guiding and holding my daughter’s hand as she does the aarti highlights the tender emotions between the two.
As a festival photographer finding and capturing that emotional connection is really important. To achieve this photo I used the Sony Alpha 7R IV with a 24–70mm F2.8 GM lens set at 32 mm. I used a 1/80 shutter speed with ISO 1000. Even in low-light, the Sony camera produces a sharp focus, and you can clearly see the adoration my daughter has for her father reflected in her eyes, which are softly illuminated with the surrounding candlelight.
Alpha 9 II | FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM | 61 mm | 1/80 sec | F2.8 | ISO 1250
In this photo, my son is carefully lighting up a diya to symbolise the weakening of evil spirits and vanquishing the darkness. As Diwali is the festival of light, during this time all of India’s night skies are dotted with these captivating small lights. Lighting a diya is a daily ritual in most households during Diwali.
To take this photo I shot with a Sony Alpha 9 II with a 24–70mm F2.8 GM lens set at 61 mm. This allows me to zoom in on my son’s expression as he lights his diya. I shot with a 1/80 shutter speed at ISO 1250, and used the Sony Eye AF feature to quickly hone into my son’s eyes. Even against the swaying chandelier, the Eye AF feature was able to focus on his eyes instantly. I used the chandelier surrounding him as a surrounding foreground that captures the mood of the moment as the chandelier catches the diya’s light.
Alpha 9 II | FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM | 16 mm | 1/60 sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000
Alpha 9 II
Alpha 7R IV
FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM