How to Photograph Thaipusam at Batu Caves

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As one of the Kuala Lumpur's top attractions, you should make it a point to visit Batu Caves while you're in town. However, there is one time of year when the site is especially popular, and that's when Tamil Hindus go there to celebrate Thaipusam.

Batu Caves had long been on our “must visit” list, and the festival was a perfect reason to go. We find it hard to resist a cultural experience like that. It's loud, colorful, and festive. But you'll need a strong stomach for the experience and we'll explain why down below.

For us, the biggest question was, how do you photograph a site you've never visited before, especially with more than one million people in attendance?

This following the challenge of getting up at 4:00 a.m., only to learn the hard way that the MRT subway doesn't run that early in Kuala Lumpur. Time for Plan B: Find an Uber driver who is awake that early and willing to take us to the city's outskirts.

It took a while, but we managed.

Visiting tips

If you plan to photograph Thaipusam at Batu Caves, the predawn hours are full of activity. Unless you really need your beauty sleep, try not to miss them.

Here are our top suggestions to give yourself the best chance for a successful day of photography:

  1. Get an early start. Be sure to arrange transportation beforehand as trains do not run at 4:30 am
  2. Bring your fastest lens, no matter the length, for the early morning shooting.
  3. Work from the front towards the back, standing near a good light source to get the best images.
  4. Avoid getting in the flow to the top of the stairs, allow them to have their time of worship
  5. Photograph the scene and don't become a part of it.
  6. Don't be an intrusive photographer, but always be aware of what is happening around you.
  7. Bring extra batteries, but leave the tripods home to avoid hurting others within the sea of people.
  8. At the end, be prepared for a massive sardine line to board the train. Better yet, pay a little extra to have private transportation waiting for the journey back.
Thaipusam 2017

Shooting before sunrise

How did we deal with the low light and activity? Good question. First, we used 1.4, 85 mm and 2.8 24-70 mm lenses on a full-frame camera.

Next, we got an overview of the area. Fortunately, there's a bridge that offers an excellent view.

During Thaipusam, millions of the faithful carry their offerings and burdens up 270+ stairs to a shrine in a cave. The line was already more than 1 mile long at 5:30 am.

Masses of people at Thaipusam 2017, Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Our vantage point was between a sea of people moving in both directions. This spectacular night shot of Batu Caves shows a throng of people queueing to climb those stairs on one side of us, and coming back down on our other side.

We worked our way through the crowd until we found a well-lit, out-of–the-way place to stand amid the stream of faithful going up to the caves. (This would be about 100 yards before the stairway, right next to a light pole.)

2017 Thaipusam, Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Here, the two ladies in the lower right are about to be pushed out of the way by the burden-laden worshiper coming up behind them.

The darkness and motion add to the challenge to capturing the scene. Take your fastest lens and bump up your ISO to give yourself the best chance. By all means, shoot a ton of images because focusing in low light is a big challenge.

The noise is in the shadows, but at 5 am, there is mostly darkness. Relax a bit and focus on the color you are capturing instead. You will need to pay special attention to lens flare at this time of the morning.

Thaipusam 2017, Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Flowing with the crowd to photograph Thaipusam

It is important to keep in mind you are there to photograph Thaipusam. You are not there to be a part of the ceremony. Flow with the crowd.

Pay attention to what is happening around you. There's a lot going on!

Keep your eyes moving and be ready to instantly snap a shot, because it is gone in an instant. In this case, we were facing the procession towards Batu Caves, moving with others in the same direction.

Self-Mutilation at Thaipusam 2017, Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Part of Thaipusam is self-mutilation as a form of suffering for the gods. They believe they are expressing gratitude for what their gods have done for them. This is the part I did not want to see, but it is part of the festival.
Carrying a burden at Thaipusam 2017, Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
As the sun started to rise, things got easier. We were finally able to photograph the people behind the burdens. This guy who is carrying the burden is also pierced as well.
As the light came, the crowds grew. Thaipusam 2017
It is essential that you not disrupt the natural flow of the event. A zoom lens can bring you closer to the action without interrupting the believers.
Over a million people crowded in the Batu Caves area for Thaipusam 2017
This photo gives you an idea of the crowd for Thaipusam at Batu Caves. Here, devotees bathe at the river. Beyond the wall at the left, participants dress for the occasion, prepare their offerings, and perform rituals that include mutilations and piercings. Then they proceed to join the line to the cave. The line moves across the lower bridge, flows around behind us in a very large loop and crosses the river again at the upper bridge. The main entrance is out of view to the right. In all, it seemed about a two-mile trek to the top of Batu Caves.

A gaggle of photographers

One thing we noticed on this particular shoot was the tremendous number of photographers, all there to photograph Thaipusam, all vying for the perfect position to get the perfect shot.

As the sky lightened, it revealed mmore opportunities to capture scenes in every direction. Better chances to capture people who were before hidden behind the darkness of their burdens. The light exposed their faces and the images found their way to sensors throughout the crowd.

preparing for then journey at Thaipusam 2017
It would seem there are almost as many photographers as there are believers. How many photographers can you count in this scene? Comment below what you find.
Mother having her head shaved as her daughter looks on, both in tears. Thaipusam 2017
Even with so many people trying to get that great shot, you can capture unique moments. Here, the mother was sacrificing her long hair to the gods as her daughter looked on. Both were in tears and it would seem both were making a sacrifice.
Carrying a burden for the journey to Batu Caves. Thaipusam 2017
Down by the river, you need to be prepared for the massive cloud of incense smoke that will cloud your pictures. However, you can use it to your advantage in your photos and let it add to the mysticism of the event.
Made up for presentation to the gods. Thaipusam 2017
These two characters were all dolled up for the occasion and seemed to enjoy the photographic attention. I was one among about 20 photographers. I watched them work the flock of cameras, facing each one separately as though they were there just for that camera's sensor.
Heads shaved, father and son prepare. Thaipusam 2017, Batu Caves
Here, an intimate moment between father and son preparing to join the swarm of people up to Batu Caves for Thaipusam. I'm not sure they noticed I was even there.
Drum core final practice before leading worshipers to Batu Caves.
A drummer glances over to the gathering of cameras during his final practice before joining the migration.
Preparing offerings for Thaipusam 2017
Many hands work together to prepare the offerings. In this case, one pair hold the cloth covering of a silver jar, while another pair holds the jar. A final pair ties on the cloth cover.

How NOT to photograph Thaipusam at Batu Caves

Good and bad photographers are not always judged by their images alone. We may judge a photograph by the quality of the image, but a beautiful photo does not reveal the character of the photographer.

A good photographer not only captures stunning images, he does so in a manner that is not rude, intrusive or endangering those around.

Please respect those you are photographing. Don't become a part of the scene, just capture it.

Shoving your lens into the face of a child is tasteless. Thaipusam 2017
This guy was less than 8 inches from these children's faces, working down the row. After imposing his lens upon the boy, he turned to the next little girl for more practice in rudeness. At this point, their mother saw what was happening and quickly ushered her children away.

It is both thoughtless and inconsiderate to shove your camera lens in the face of another, especially one who is there to worship in a religious ceremony that is sacred to him. These people are not here to model for the photographer. It is doubly rude and unacceptable to do so to a child.

Keep in mind: In some countries, it is illegal to photograph a child without permission of the parent.

Photographer moving along with the crowd in respect of the faithful. Thaipusam 2017
Here we see a photographer working to photograph Thaipusam properly. Notice how he moves as part of the crowd and doesn't disrupt the scene. He is obviously observing the things around him, anticipating possible moments that he can capture on his camera.
The faithful posing for photographers at Thaipusam 2017
Elsewhere, some of the participants welcome the attention of the photographic crew. This man holding his child was thrilled with the attention. He stopped his preparations to pose for picture-taking.

The next several photographs are proof that you can get great photos without invading others' private space, simply by using a nice zoom lens and moving around the scene.

It is always important to work the scene very hard to get all angles, but to also expose yourself to possible moments to click.

Young girl waiting to journey to Batu Caves
Young boy adjusts his head dress for Thaipusam 2017
By moving a few feet to the left, I was able to capture this boy adjusting his headdress before taking his part in the ceremony.
Playing hide-n-go-seek with a baby to photograph Thaipusam 2017
This is my favorite photo from our Thaipusam trip to Batu Caves. Not because it is a great image, but because of the memory associated with my depressing the camera button. Hide-n-seek with this child was a great memory, as was his enjoyment before I captured this fantastic shot.

After working from the stairs through the crowd of more than a million people and ending up at the starting point of the flowing ocean of faithful followers, the sun had become strong and we'd exhausted 3 batteries each. One last parting shot of the cave-mountain and it was time to push through the crowd to take the train back home.

Morning is half gone, time to leave Thaipusam 2017, Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We hope this helps you prepare your own photographic adventure to a crowded place you've never been to before. If you have some more advice, boy, would we like to hear it! Just comment below.

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Written by Dan

Professional photographer specializing in street, food and travel shots at As We Saw It travel blog. “Photography is unique in that it captures light in all forms, and since the Bible says YHVH (God) is light, photography captures Him in many forms.”

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