Ladakh is a photographer's delight. With its dramatic landscapes, fascinating monasteries, and unbelievable night sky, even beginner photographers will leave Ladakh with hundreds of gorgeous photos on their memory cards.
The following expert insight and photography tips will help you to capture the surreal beauty of Ladakh and get incredible shots.
The most well-known photography composition technique is the Rule of Thirds. It is probably the first thing that a new photographer learns. The Rule of Thirds tells you how to frame your subject so as to create a balanced and structured photo.
The principle of the Rule of Thirds is to draw two horizontal lines and two vertical lines to divide the frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. These lines are the locations where you should position the subjects of interest in your image.
For example, the horizon should be placed either along the line at a third from the top or the line at a third from the bottom. The 4 locations where the lines intersect are points in the composition where you should place your subject (such as an animal or a stupa).
During your trip in Ladakh, you will have the opportunity to photograph various types of scenes: landscapes, portraits, architecture, wildlife… For each situation, you will need a suitable lens to capture the scene in the best possible way. Prime lenses are more complicated to use for most of the people. Therefore, zoom lenses are usually the best choice, especially while travelling, as they offer more versatility. You also need to consider the weight and volume of the lenses and DSLR camera gear you can take with you when you travel, especially if you plan to go trekking.
A wide-angle lens is a must-have to photograph the awe-inspiring landscapes of Ladakh. This lens can also be very handy for architecture photography in tight spaces. When choosing your wide-angle lens, make sure that it has minimum barrel distortion and fish-eye effect. Among the best wide-angle zoom lenses are the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S NIKKOR, the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM and the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 DG HSM ART Lens.
If you have to choose only one lens, pick a 24-70mm lens that can be considered as a “all-around lens”. Indeed, it is wide enough for landscape photography, yet it has the range to get tight for close-up shots and portraits. Most lens manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon, Sony, Tamron and Sigma have these 24-70mm full frame lenses in their catalogues.
A telephoto lens such as a 70-200mm lens is what you need if you plan to do wildlife photography. A telephoto lens can also be useful for landscape and architecture photography, for example when you want to capture details in the landscape such as a mountain range or an architectural detail such as a sculpture on a monastery.
A polarizing filter is very useful for landscape photography in Ladakh. A polarizing filter is used to reduce reflections, reduce atmospheric haze, enhance colour saturation, and add vividness and contrast to the pictures. It especially helps in boosting the blue of the Ladakh’s sky and it increases the contrasts with clouds. When photographing a lake such as Pangong Tso, the polarizing filter removes the reflections on the water, revealing the deep blue colour to the lake.
The most common polarizing filter is the circular polarizer (also known as “CPL”). It is made of a ring that is screwed to the front of the camera lens and another ring that can be rotated to adjust the intensity of the polarizing effect. Make sure to purchase the polarizing filter which fits your lens. The filter size refers to the inner diameter of the thread of the front of the lens. The filter size of a lens is always printed on the end of the lens barrel.
The ISO value defines the sensitivity of camera sensor to the light. Typical ISO values on digital cameras range from ISO 100 (low ISO) to ISO 6400 (high ISO). When you use a low ISO, the sensor is less sensitive to the light than when using a high ISO. This means that increasing the ISO will brighten the photo and a high ISO should be used when shooting a picture in a dark environment.
However, increasing the ISO setting on your camera also has a negative impact on the quality of the photo because it increases the noise. The noise is a kind of grainy veil on the image which does not look nice. Therefore, you should always adjust the ISO setting of your camera according to the situation and the brightness of the scene, but always keeping in mind that you should choose the lowest possible ISO.
Ladakh has many fascinating monasteries, and a tripod is very useful when doing photography in low-light condition. Without a tripod, your photos will either end up completely blurred (if you shoot with a slow shutter speed) or very noisy (if you shoot with a high ISO). In any case, this won’t be satisfying. With a tripod, you will be able to shoot with a low ISO and the slow shutter speed will not be an issue since your camera will be perfectly still on its tripod.
The other option in low-light condition is to use flash. However, it is often very difficult to achieve a good result with flash photography (especially if you simply use the built-in flash of your camera). Moreover, if you want to take pictures inside a monastery, flash is forbidden as it damages the paintings and murals. A tripod is also useful for landscape photography at dusk and down to ensure the sharpness of the picture.
The Tso Moriri region, in the South of Ladakh, is known for having one of the clearest skies in the world. Indeed, this remote area located at an altitude of 4,500 metres is free of any light pollution. Moreover, the high altitude and the very dry air make it a perfect place to observe the night sky and stargaze.
The Indian Astronomical Observatory is situated in this area, in the village of Hanle. Many people believe that they must go to Hanle village itself to see the amazing sky of Ladakh… but this is completely wrong! Indeed, whether you are in Hanle, on the bank of Tso Moriri Lake or anywhere else in the Changthang region, the sky is exactly the same. It’s not because you stand next to the astronomical observatory that you will see the stars better.
To capture the stars, Milky Way & night sky, you need a DSLR camera and a sturdy tripod. A wide-angle camera lens is more suitable, and you need to use a higher ISO setting (you could try ISO 3200) in order to capture the low light from the sky. It is also recommended to set the camera to a wide-open aperture to collect as much light as possible. You should also turn on the noise reduction function of your camera if available.
The grandiose landscapes of Ladakh can be challenging to frame and it is difficult to capture the impression of vastness in the photo. Incorporating a human element to your landscape photo will add a sense of scale. Adding a tiny human presence, a house, or even a tree or an animal, gives a reference and a context, and it helps to convey the sheer size of the surrounding landscape that you see through the lens of your camera.
Adding human presence to your photo is also a key element that you may consider in order to tell a story. Telling a story is very important in photography because the viewer will be able to connect more easily to the scene and better relate to it. It brings emotion and makes the photo unique.
In Ladakh, you will have many opportunities to take pictures of the people. Travel portraits are a great way to provide a glance into the local culture. You may take picture of a lady in the market wearing traditional Ladakhi dress, a monk in a monastery, a villager working in the field or a nomad with his herd. In any case, this will be the opportunity to interact with the local people and make a connection with them.
When taking portraits, you must be polite, respectful and you should always ask for permission to take someone’s photo. If you ask with a smile, Ladakhi people will almost always agree. During your photography tour, your driver will also act as a translator and he will help you to interact with the villagers.
Ladakh is a high-altitude desert: dust is everywhere. If you get dust on your camera sensor, this will result in small dark spots in every image (these spots are especially noticeable on blue sky). Even though these dark spots can be removed during the post-processing with a software such as Photoshop, this is time-consuming and best avoided.
Your sensor can get dust on it when you are changing lenses or anytime your camera’s body is open to the outside air. Always try to change lenses in a clean environment and protected from the wind. Make sure that the lens that you are planning to attach to the camera is cleaned. If needed, use a blower to remove the dust from the lens before attaching it to the camera. When changing lenses, position the camera downward and try to do it as quickly as possible to reduce the time when the inside of the camera is exposed to the outside air.
Finally, if you have dust on your sensor, don’t worry, you can get rid of it. The first method to eliminate dust from the sensor is to use a blower. A blower can usually remove most of the dust. If the dust is stuck and doesn’t go away with a blower, you could try to use a dry brush or wet cleaning. The sensor is a very sensitive part, make sure you use a suitable dry or wet cleaning product for DSLR sensors. You could also send your camera to a specialised shop for sensor cleaning.
Photography is a continuous learning process. Watching many photos from other famous photographers will develop your own photography skills. Slowly, you will understand what makes a photo a great photo. Before travelling to Ladakh, search for photos that were taken by professional photographers in the region. See how the captured images of landscapes, people, monasteries… It will give you inspiration.
Some of the greatest photo opportunities are unexpected but planning ahead is always a good idea to maximize your chances to get the best shots. When preparing a photography trip in Ladakh, you should also make a rough plan of what you want to see and what you want to shoot. For example, festivals and ceremonies in monasteries are a great place to take photos and you should check the dates in advance to include it in your photography tour in Ladakh.