On the 28th of April, 1819, John Smith of the 28th Cavalry Regiment of the Madras Presidency stumbled into Cave no. 10 of a complex that has since come to be known as the Ajanta Caves. He was on a hunt and was following a tiger, but what he had in fact managed to do was rediscover a Buddhist cave complex whose construction began as early as the 2nd Century B.C.! Abandoned and overgrown, the caves contained some of the finest examples of early Indian art, especially painting and 30 caves were eventually uncovered. The Ajanta Caves, now in the Indian state of Maharashtra, and under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, are a world heritage site and a major tourist attraction. But photographing the Ajanta caves, especially what remains of the paintings can be a challenge.
They are called the Ajanta CAVES and caves are usually dark. Some amount of daylight does enter the Ajanta caves, but that’s far less light that is needed for photography. There are also a few artificial lights, but they are dim, dull and yellow since bright lights cause colours to fade. On top of that, while photography inside Ajanta caves is allowed, the use of tripods and flash is PROHIBITED!!! So how do you get great photographs under such terrible conditions? Here are my suggestions based on my experiences inside the Ajanta Caves.
TIPS AND TRICKS
GET THERE EARLY
Ajanta opens at 9 am (tickets - Rs. 10 per head for Indians, Rs. 250 per head for foreign tourists, children below 15 years of age enter free, Rs. 25 for video cameras, free entry on Fridays for all, closes - 5:30 PM, closed on Mondays, but open on all National holidays) and that’s when you need to be at the gates. If you’re in Aurangabad, it takes about 3 hours to get there by car, so start at 6 am and have breakfast on the way there. Plenty of options for that on the highway, or just carry packed food like cakes and sandwiches. If you want to see all the caves and photograph all of them, it will take all day. In the middle of the day, take a break and go down to the restaurant near the eastern gate for lunch.
GET THAT OVERHEAD SHOT FROM THE AJANTA VIEWPOINT
Everyone has this shot of the caves from high above. This is taken from the Ajanta Viewpoint. Your chauffeur would know how to find this place. There’s a quiet little restaurant there as well and most important, restrooms! The view is mesmerizing. This was where I first saw Ajanta from. You can walk down to the caves from the viewpoint and it’s something I recommend you do. The steps can be a little steep and at some places a little scary, but move slowly and you will be down in 15 minutes. The other option is to take the car from the viewpoint to the car park and take the bus to the caves from there, which takes much more time. The climb down also allows you to soak in the place a bit more and if my nearly 60-year-old mother can do this without incident, so can you. You can get some great shots on the way down as well.
DUMP THE GUIDES, GET A BOOK
There are no guides at Ajanta or, at least, no one who will show you all the caves. There are caretakers at every cave, who speak no English, and will show you around the cave they are in charge of in return for “tips”. We thought it would be a better idea to get ASI’s book on the Ajanta Caves. The book, which costs 60 rupees ($1), is hardbound, all glossy, and contains a detailed description of Ajanta, cave by cave. It was a bit of a struggle for my sister to figure out directions since the book uses terms like “on the North wall”, but we did fine. We went slow, took our time and explored every single cave. If you just have to have a guide, take one from Aurangabad with you.
START FROM THE END
Ajanta’s caves are numbered 1 through 30. This numbering is based on the serial order in which they are approached if you entered from the Eastern entrance, that is, from the where the bus drops you off. The entire complex is semi-circular in shape, and caves 21 through 28 face the East. Makes sense to start from there, since it is morning and some amount of sunlight will be entering the caves to make your job a little easier. If you’ve taken the stairs down from the view point, you will walk across the nearest bridge and enter Ajanta from cave no. 7 (which sadly has collapsed). Get your tickets here, get your baggage inspected and walk to your left till the end of the complex and begin your exploration.
SHOOT WIDE OPEN
I’m talking about your lens aperture here, not you pants! There are basically only 3 ways to get proper exposure.
1. Slow down your shutter speed, but too much of that will give you motion blur
2. Raise your ISO, but too much of that will give you noise
3. Open up your aperture, but too much of that and you will lose depth in your photo
But think about it, if you’re taking a photo of something flat, such as a painting on a wall, how much depth do you need? If you’re going to shoot the landscape outside, you need a lot of depth because you need everything such as the bushes that are near you to that tree on top of the mountain to be sharp. For landscapes, you can shoot at f/9, but inside the caves, shoot at the largest aperture available to you. Kit lenses and cheaper wide angles will often perform better when “stopped down”. So, if the largest aperture available to you is f/5.6, stop down to f/6.3.
USE APERTURE PRIORITY MODE
You want to get your shots fast, without having to worry about all the different variables involved in taking a photograph, right? The simple way to do that is to put your camera in aperture priority mode (AV in Canon cameras) and put the ISO in auto. That way, you decide the aperture to use while your camera decides everything else; what ISO setting to use, what shutter speed, everything. The camera will also try and keep the shutter speed fast enough so that you get sharp images. If you’re shooting outside, and you have a large subject, such as the entire cave system from one side, or the gate of the cave, on a bright day, f/9 is good. Inside, shoot as wide open as your lens allows. If you have decent light, and you’re using a kit lens, stop down by one stop.
There are several reasons why you should be doing this. First of all, there will be a tremendous amount of noise in your photos; you want to have the flexibility to fix that in post processing. Second, ASI uses yellow lights inside the caves, so the paintings don’t fade. The disadvantage this has is of adding a yellow-green cast on everything; you’d want to fix that as well. Besides, all it takes is memory space. Why wouldn’t you want to shoot in the best format possible? As a compromise, shoot in jpeg and RAW and you can compare the results later.
Upgrading your equipment is the least practical and most expensive thing to do, which is why this set of suggestions comes last.
DUMP YOUR ZOOM, GET SOME PRIMES!
Prime lenses are lenses with a fixed focal length; no zooming. Why use primes? Because they are smaller, sharper (in general), lighter, cheaper and offer a very large maximum aperture. The wider open the aperture, the more light enters your camera. If you’re using a crop sensor Canon camera, I recommend you get the following lenses –
1. EF-S 24mm STM f/2.8 “Pancake”
2. EF 50mm STM f/1.8
3. EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM
If you think 200mm may get a bit too tight for close ups of the paintings, you can get Canon’s 135mm f/2 L, but it is a bit more expensive. If you need a wider lens, I recommend the EF-S 10-22 f/3.5-4.5 USM (expensive) or the EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM (cheaper but almost as good). There is also the curious 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM lens. It has excellent image quality and a constant, large F stop, (in most zoom lenses the aperture gets smaller as you zoom in) but because if it’s high cost and the fact that it can only be used on crop sensor cameras, most people stay away from it. If you’re using a Canon full frame such as the 5D Mark III, you have far more options for zoom lenses with a wide maximum aperture, such as –
1. EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM (expensive) or EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM (cheaper)
2. EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM (very expensive) or EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
Apart from these, the EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM and the EF85mm f/1.2L II USM (expensive) or the EF85mm f/1.8 USM (cheaper) will serve you well. Don’t have the money to buy lenses? No problem, make do with you kit lens, especially the EF-S 18-135 IS STM. You will end up pushing your ISO higher, and will need to process the noise out of your photos, but unless you’re planning huge prints of your images, it should be fine. But do consider getting the 24mm pancake and the 50mm f/1.8 STM. They are super cheap and well worth it. You can, of course, explore cheaper options in third party lenses, but I have no experience with them and many who have used them complain of things like inconsistent manufacturing quality hence I stay away from them.
GO FULL FRAME
For the uninitiated, a full frame digital camera is one with a sensor the size of a 35mm negative. Most consumer level cameras have smaller or crop sensors. Full frame cameras perform much better under low light conditions. They have much lower noise at higher ISO. Noise is the grainy gunky crap you see when photos are shot under less light that needed. The disadvantage of full frame cameras is that they are more expensive, larger and heavier, and realistically speaking, I don’t expect anyone to invest in a camera just for one shoot, but it is one way to get cleaner photographs. For Canon my recommendations would be the 5D Mark III (expensive) or the 6D (cheaper). For Nikon, D810 (expensive) or the D610 (cheaper). Sony’s new a7r Mark II is a remarkable camera as well, but Sony’s low noise monster is the a7s Mark II. If you cannot get a full frame camera, get one that has decent high ISO performance. I use the Canon 70D and as you can see, the results are acceptable. Among the compact cameras that are available today, Canon’s G5X and Sony’s RX100 (the current Avatar is the Mark IV) perform well under low light and may do a good job in the Ajanta caves.
CONCLUSION – FUN AND RESPONSIBILITY
DON’T FORGET TO HAVE FUN!!! That is the most important thing about any outing, whether you’re photographing or not. I like to think of photography as a dance. If you’re worried about being graceful, you probably won’t be. But relax and let the music flow through you, and things will automatically fall into place. The Ajanta Caves are a world heritage site. Some of these paintings are older than Christianity itself, and represent the arliest surviving examples of Classical Indian art. Go slow, stop and stare, allow yourself to be overcome by wonder. There is a general tendency to belittle amateur photographers these days, thanks to the fact that every second guy seems to have a camera now. But in March of 2014, historian William Dalrymple stumbled upon paintings in caves 9 and 10 that had previously been ignored and which are now being said to be from an earlier epoch altogether. Almost 200 years after they were re-discovered, we are still learning new things about Ajanta! So even if you are an amateur, and even if you think your photographs aren’t very good, the task of documenting Ajanta is a noble and worthwhile pursuit. There is still more left to be discovered.