(The following is excerpted from Winning Digital Photo Contests, a new book by Black Star Rising contributor Jeff Wignall.)
When visiting a country where religion is a visible part of daily life, you’ll find that pictures of religious activities reveal cultural insights better than photographs of landmarks and landscapes. Rituals, festivals, and people dressed in religious garb personalize faiths otherwise unfamiliar to us.
In terms of photo contests, pictures like this are uncommon and always interesting, so they are well worth pursuing.
Be Tactful and Show Respect
You must be tactful when photographing religious events; exercise discretion and always show respect. Even at large public events, like the colorful shot of the Chhath Festival photographed by Indranil Sengupta beside the Taj Mahal in India [below], you have to use diplomacy and always defer to the spiritual nature of the subjects or activities.
Ask someone at your hotel if it’s acceptable to photograph the event, and even then, follow the lead of others around you. If you see your subjects taking pictures of one another or if other tourists are shooting, the odds are that photography is accepted.
Although language may be a barrier, by offering a warm smile and pointing to your camera, you’re likely to get permission to take someone’s photo — or it may get you waved off and then at least you’ll know.
Ask Permission — and Smile!
The worst thing to do in a situation like this is to try to be surreptitious. As you can probably imagine, strangers with cameras at religious events or at holy sites could easily be viewed with mistrust or suspicion, and at the very least, if you shoot at the wrong moment or against someone’s wishes, you might be viewed just as another ugly tourist.
If you want to photograph inside a church or mosque and you aren’t sure about the rules for picture taking, it helps to have a local guide secure permission for you — although most houses of worship post rules about photography in multiple languages. Or you might just ask a friend (or a concierge) to write you a simple note that asks permission in the local language.
Taking these extra steps can gain you access to photographic subjects that your competition will assume to be forbidden. In this way you will differentiate your photos from the masses, and the judges will reward your dedication to (and interest in) the subject.
Also, if you are working from a distance or with a long lens, as photographer Dilip Kumar Ganguly was in his shot of two young lamas [above], it’s best to be very obvious with your camera. It’s not likely that those two happy faces would object to being photographed, but being up front will make you feel more confident and your smile might even help start a conversation or get you invited to areas that might otherwise be off limits.