Wedding Photography in India is seasonal work, with muhurtams (auspicious days) occurring only during certain times of the year. Often, I talk to fellow photographers during off-season of weddings or during a break in work and ask them how they are doing. A familiar reply is “I’ve been sleeping/watching movies/going out with friends”. And I can completely relate to their activities. After finishing a hectic wedding season with several sleepless nights, all you want to do is lounge at home watching TV and meeting friends for a drink. But during this free time, you also have the opportunity to try out new things and improve yourself, without impeding the relaxation activities.
Balancing family life with work life is a big part of my schedule but I also manage to find time to read new books and articles to update my worldview, and find new sources of inspiration to take my work to the next level. I want to share some of the things that I feel all of us can do to keep ourselves occupied in our leisure time.
There is no better way to learn more about the world than reading. You can do it from the comfort of your own home and learn about life in far away lands. Fiction, non-fiction, crime, etc, any genre is fine. What is important is to start a habit of reading and a penchant for learning. Over time, you will start focusing on topics that interest you and find books that will pique your curiosity. Not only will you be learning more, you will also constantly find ideas for photostories when reading.
While I personally aim to read one book a month, it definitely gets a little difficult during busy times to stay on track. My genres of choice vary from time to time and currently, I am keen on reading about Indian history. The last two books that left an impression on me were ‘The Last Nizam’ by John Zubrzycki and ‘Capital’ by Rana Dasgupta. Both showed me a perspective of India (one on Hyderabad and other on Delhi) that I was not previously aware of and opened up my mind to new ways of approaching documentary projects.
Photobooks also form a part of my regular diet of books and I’ve built an extensive collection over time. They tend to be a little more expensive than regular books but I run a small photobook reading library at my house regularly so all the people in Hyderabad are always welcome to drop by and sift through my collection.
If you want ideas for which books to read, start by going through Bill Gates’ reading list. And if books seem little daunting, you can begin with long form journalism. There are plenty of excellent articles available online. Take the time to browse through the websites of New Yorker, NYT, Atlantic, Wire, Caravan, etc until you find a topic that catches your eye.
Wedding and event photographers have unusual work schedules that is often at odds with other family members. Late nights and early mornings are normal while midday might be the time we get to spend at home (when everyone else is at work). Attending family & friends’ weddings is usually tricky as we might have a shoot on the same day and time. This constant clash leads to less time spent with loved ones and friends so it becomes important to consciously make time for them.
Showing my work to my parents and wife is a fruitful exercise because it reaffirms their belief in my work of capturing beautiful moments and memories that will be cherished by families forever. As a self employed person, I don’t have any joyous news of “promotions” or “employee of the month certificates” to share with my family. Instead, all I have is my photographs and testimonials from clients.
Another key point (which I am yet to personally embrace) is exercise. Eating regularly at Indian weddings inevitable leads to an unhealthy diet. Added to that, unusual work timings means a regular workout schedules is next to impossible. I still haven’t found the discipline or time for fitness activities but I know my friend, Amar Ramesh, does a great job at keeping in shape. Staying fit is important for our work because we end up carrying heavy cameras & lenses, standing for extended periods of time while shooting weddings. If you get tired or feel weary, you will end up affecting your work adversely and that is something we all want to avoid.
Inspiration is a large part of the life of a photographer. And no, I’m not talking about following a few people on Instagram or reading Petapixel. I am talking about finding real and genuine sources of inspiration, of amazing work done by people who have gone out of their way to create something that will elicit emotion. And it isn’t limited to just images either. Photographs, books, music, movies, articles, and even the people around us are all great sources of inspiration for our work. You have to constantly keep your mind open. Inspiration rarely occurs on your beck and call. It comes from unexpected sources, unlikely places, and at unpredictable times.
There is a particular incident that clearly stands out in my mind. I once spent a couple of days trying to come up with a killer concept for a fashion photography client. I had plenty of initial ideas but still felt that something was missing. And in the briefest of moments, I saw my wife sip a cup of her tea and somehow, it all came together. The subtle lighting from the window, the colour of her top, the rings on her fingers and the posture of her hands – they proved to be the perfect idea for the shoot and my client loved it.
Here is a good list of photographers to look up for inspiration. You could also take the time to watch movies (in all languages) that have won awards in the last 20-30 years and watch TV Shows with solid scripts and good production . In recent times, I have found ‘The Crown‘ and ‘House of Cards‘ to be excellent.
Being self employed means that you are your own boss and also your own employee. Photographing weddings is one thing but balancing your books is a completely different skill set. Fortunately, hiring a chartered accountant is relatively inexpensive in India and you can rely on them to manage your accounts. And if you have a reliable one, they will remind you to ensure that your taxes are filed on time.
For photographers, you mostly need to only worry about two types of taxes – service tax (soon to be replaced by GST) and income tax. Service tax is paid on all income (above a one-off threshold of 10 lakhs) and income tax is paid on whatever is left in your bank account after all business expenses are taken into account. Bear in mind that tax only works this way if you are registered as a sole proprietor and there are different approaches if you are registered differently. Please speak to a qualified CA to get credible advice.
Savings is a whole new ball game. When I started off as a full time photographer 5 years ago, I never saved anything. All my income was used to travel or buy new equipment. Over time, I have learnt that saving for a rainy day is important and since our work is seasonal, it is critical to manage cashflow. There will always be unexpected expenses – repairs for equipment, healthcare/family emergencies, etc. And you also need to save for capital expenses – upgrading your camera, buying a car/house, etc. To encourage saving, every Indian citizen has an annual tax free allowance of 1.5 lakhs for investment. You can read more about ways of saving here.
If you don’t plan well today, you’ll end up with meagre savings and a bad retirement. Even the great Elliott Erwitt has to work at the age of 88 to fund his living. PDN has a good article about finances for photographers.
Travel broadens the mind. Travel nourishes the thirst for excitement. Travel fulfills the curious heart. Our great nation has plenty on offer for everyone. With the right planning, you can traverse across India inexpensively. We are blessed with a great (if slightly tardy) railway system that covers most of the country and a 30 hour journey on a train is a unique experience in itself. I often find that long train journeys are the best places for pondering life and coming up with wild ideas. You are temporarily detached from society and have nowhere to go to until the train reaches the destination. Unsurprisingly, this creates a great environment to look at our own lives from a third party perspective. If trains journeys are not your thing, you could always use buses or even go on a roadtrip. Pick up a copy of Lonely Planet India for ideas and suggestions.
Visit friends in as many places as possible. Not only will you be able to (hopefully) stay with them, you will also get a personalized experience of the place you are visiting. Along with a local’s perspective which is often vastly different from what the guide books/travel blogs suggest. Its time to start messaging all those long lost friends on Facebook. And while you are staying with them, make sure you offer to take some good portraits of theirs.
If you have the budget for international travel, the New York Times’ annual list of 52 places to visit can be your bible. Yes, it is a little biased and yes, it is written with a western traveler in mind. But it is still one of better global lists out there. And in the 2017 edition of the list, our very own Agra is #3 and Sikkim is #17.
There is no better way to further your work that by doing personal projects in your own time with your own money. When you don’t have a client or a commercial commitment, you are free to do as you wish. You have the freedom to experiment with new genres and have zero negative repercussions in case the output doesn’t come out well. If you have always wanted to do a fashion project, contact a few boutiques to see if they are interested to work with you for free and get your friends to model for you.
Documentary photography interests me a lot personally and I am constantly working on a project – either in the shooting phase or researching phase. It is quite easy to start documentary work and you can start by photographing the people around you. Shoot a day in the life of your siblings/parents. Document the problems in your locality and maybe you can even get it published. Street photography is another genre that has picked up in the recent times and all you need is a good pair of walking shoes to roam the streets with your camera, photographing anything that you find interesting.
Try shooting with film cameras. Limiting yourself to 36 images per roll (or 12 in medium format) forces you to develop a new perspective and significant patience – both skills which will prove to valuable even during your commercial assignments. Film cameras are easy to buy on eBay and the Pentax K1000 is perfect to start off, it should only cost you around Rs.5,000 for the camera and a 50mm lens. You can buy film online or ask friends to get them from abroad. Kodak Ektar 100 is a nice colour film at 100 ISO and it is available on Amazon India for around Rs.1,000 per roll. Once you are done with shooting, you need to get it processed and scanned. I send all my film for processing to Idea Creative in Mumbai who charge (at the time of writing) Rs,400 for processing & scanning per roll. Postage charges extra.
That’s all for now folks. If you’ve had the time and patience to read this entire article in one sitting, then you definitely will be able to pursue some of the mentioned activities!
Currently listening to – Ikk Kudi from Udta Punjab
Currently reading – Photojournalists on War by Michael Kamber