Revving up my Thar’s engine for Ladakh, away from Delhi’s smog and congestion, is something I’d like to engage in more often than I do. Including halts, the four-night trip to Leh, via Manali, Keylong, and Sarchu, is strewn with sights that are spiritual fodder for any photographer’s soul. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why I am thrilled to lead photography trips here even after a decade. Gushing glacial waters; storied, centuries-old monasteries and the playful energy of monks who inhabit them; hulking mountain ranges, sometimes dredged in snow, other times parched and cocoa-coloured. The landscapes and everyday life in Ladakh make for frames fit for both your digital album and memory book.
“They look like choco-chip mountains!” Frank curiously remarked as we drove past the massifs flanking the Sarchu-Leh route. It was the American photographer’s first time in Ladakh. When it comes to landscapes, such singular observations are what translate into unique compositions, making the same mountain, lake, or a pretty bungalow (bottom right) shine differently in different frames. For good landscape shots you need a wide-angle lens (ideally a 24-70mm or 14-24mm) and for a bracketing, or time-lapse effect, carry a tripod. If you are averse to lugging bulky attachments, and understandably so in a high-altitude region like Ladakh, stick to hand-held mode. However, if your surroundings allow, identify a sturdy rock that can double as a makeshift tripod. To capture details sharply, say a cluster of peaks or a rock’s texture, maintain a minimum aperture of f8. If you like arresting reflections, August is a good time, for that’s when random water bodies spring to life. For mirror images, like the one I took close to Nubra Valley (feature), the lower you angle the shot, the better. This is also needed to do justice to the enormity or the scale of your surroundings. The good thing is, the region isn’t too windy this time of the year. So water surfaces remain smooth, making it possible to seize stillness with relatively greater ease. To make one subject look larger than life, like the photo where the focus is on the man in the foreground leading a camel caravan (top right), do a half squat or even better, go down on your knees. As for weather conditions, they can be as tricky or favourable as elsewhere. But patience pays. Case in point: I shot the Stakna monastery (left) at 1 p.m. Luckily, at that time, a thick overcast diffused the harsh afternoon light, and the minute I saw a cloud swallow the sun, I got my peak afternoon shot bathed in soft light. Nature can sometimes be the best filter you could ever ask for.
For a peek into Ladakhi culture, monasteries are your best bet. No guide will tell you this—go to Thiksey monastery at 6 a.m. sharp, to capture a beautiful prayer ceremony the locals call Chos. Go to the terrace to watch two monks play the dung chen, a Tibetan trumpet (middle left). It’s a centuries-old tradition to wake up the valley. Use a zoom lens and open up your aperture (in the 2.8-5.6 range, depending on your lens) to get the monks in focus and the background somewhat blurred. Next, climb down to dukhang, or the main prayer hall, where 50 monks chant in chorus to the beats of cymbals and drums. Remember to readjust your camera settings, since you have left the bright light on the terrace and are now in a dimly lit room. So ensure you are at the lowest aperture your lens allows, and pump up that ISO to maximise brightness. Shortly after, when the salty Tibetan yak butter tea is being served (bottom left) and you’re done capturing it, leave the hall, stand on the porch, and readjust your camera settings similar to what it was on the terrace. From here, you can click teenaged monks, swinging kettles in one hand, minding maroon robes with another, running up and down the stairs (top left) for endless refills. For traditional dances like chapskyan—named for chang, a local barley beer, which dancers carried in a special lamp-shaped jar on their heads while dancing in the king’s court—your aperture must be wide open at f2.8. This will draw focus on the first dancer (bottom right) in the queue, paling the others. Outside the monastery, the Shanti Stupa (top right), perched on a hilltop in Leh’s Chanspa region, is another cultural landmark, best shot during sunset with sharp shadows rendering ample drama to your frame. To give the sun a starry effect, like I have, keep your aperture at f16.
Ask politely and people say yes. Smilingly so. Opportunities to click portraits in Ladakh present themselves even when you are not seeking them. Inside dhabas, at arterial crossings, within the confines of tiny agricultural villages such as Turtuk. Annexed to India after the Indo-Pak War in 1971, this hamlet opened to outsiders only in 2010. Despite decades of isolation, locals here are extremely hospitable and warm, including children. Even before you enter Turtuk, you will see the little ones plucking apricots and flowers, like the seven-year-old I spotted along the way. Her innocent smile made for a captivating close-up (top left). The best camera setting for portraits is a focal length between 70mm and 150mm and a low aperture of f2.8, and focusing on the eyes is the best. Further down the same stretch, from my car’s window I snapped an old man (bottom left), with a long lens (300mm) this time, given the distance and also to keep the focus on him rather than the towering hills in the backdrop. A quick stop at a run-down, dimly lit teahouse yielded another portrait, of a boy eating Maggi (top right). If you find yourself in a dark space with one central subject you’d like to capture, open up your aperture to its maximum. In rooms with windows, request the subject to move closer to the window to make use of the natural light. Once you are inside someone’s home or place of work, don’t whip out your camera immediately. Make eye contact and small talk, and you will notice how they ease up. For instance, I spent 15 minutes chatting with a seamstress (bottom right) in her tailoring shop in Turtuk before she agreed to be clicked. Bottom line? Respect people’s personal space and culture. Memorable portraits will follow.
Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is former Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.
Abhishek Hajela is the recipient of the prestigious International Nikon Award. He curates and leads experiential photography workshops globally, and also works closely with the semi-nomadic tribes of Rajasthan.