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.
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:
- Get an early start. Be sure to arrange transportation beforehand as trains do not run at 4:30 am
- Bring your fastest lens, no matter the length, for the early morning shooting.
- Work from the front towards the back, standing near a good light source to get the best images.
- Avoid getting in the flow to the top of the stairs, allow them to have their time of worship
- Photograph the scene and don't become a part of it.
- Don't be an intrusive photographer, but always be aware of what is happening around you.
- Bring extra batteries, but leave the tripods home to avoid hurting others within the sea of people.
- 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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