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Hornbill Festival Photography Guide – 12 Top Tips!

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It’s a dog-eat-dog world for photographers at Hornbill Festival. 

Admittedly, Hornbill Festival photography is a spectacular array of colours, textures, tribes, and culture.

So you, and everyone else will want to snap every second of it. It’s like a dream through the lens and you won’t want to stop.

But, there are some things to make you aware of before you attend if you’re a photographer;

  • There will be crowds of people each day
  • There will be other photographers and some may not be very friendly
  • There will be affiliate sponsor signage everywhere
  • The sunlight disappears from 2pm

That means that, if you want to take amazing photos, you will need to get crafty and a little creative.

Strategically planning your day and knowing where to go at what time will ensure that you get those all-important captures.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival

A little disclaimer before we begin this Hornbill Festival photography guide: I am not a professional photographer by any means and so we will not discuss the best aperture or focus settings here. No, no.

This guide is to make sure you make the most of your time at Hornbill Festival to get the best photos and avoid as many people in them as possible!

So, if you’re ready for it, let’s kick off this Hornbill festival photography guide!

If you were after more information about Hornbill Festival itself see here.

photographers guide hornbill festival

Important Hornbill festival photography tips!

1. Get up early: Go in the morning for the best natural lighting

A photographer’s ultimate secret. The early bird catches the worm or in this case the early to rise, photographer, catches the Naga tribes in the Morungs….without the masses of tourists!

As the Kisama Heritage village is shrouded in shadow from about 2pm – you don’t have a lot of space to work with. So, make sure you go early in the morning. From around 8am – 1pm.

The lighting at this time is perfect. Sure, you can work miracles in Post-edit but nothing beats natural lighting!

I used to get up, ready and leave my camp for around 8am.

A lot of the tribes will arrive on buses/coaches at 8.30am. So, you have then around 30 minutes to an hour to capture the tribes as they’re getting ready.

photographers guide hornbill festival
See that big shadow? this was 1pm. As the sun goes down under the hills, the whole stadium is shrouded.
photographers guide hornbill festival
This was the stadium around 3pm
photographers guide hornbill festival
…And this was the showground in the morning! See the difference in colour!

2. Head into the morung’s before the crowds

After my morning caffeine fix at Nagaland Coffee (which is amazing by the way), I would head into the heritage village huts and take my photos

You’ll find the tribes practicing and getting ready for the day. Perfect timing.

You will be joined by other photographers but it’s not half as many as in the afternoon.

I would go in and ask to take pictures of them with the traditional backgrounds. The tribes are super friendly and will move where you want them too for your photo – but please ask nicely!

I saw a lot of photographers talk rudely at them and order them about. Your photo, and the person posing, won’t get the best out of that moment if you do that. I’ll cover more on this below.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival

3. Shadow other photographers

If you’re an amateur or someone wanting to learn like me, then try and do what the professionals do.

If I walked into a Morung and saw a photographer setting up their photo, I’d jump in and just shadow behind them.

Or, after they were done, politely ask if I could take the same.

I met loads of awesome photographers at Hornbill who were giving me amazing tips for composition and working my camera, where to go and what was happening each day.

Don’t get intimidated – see it as the perfect opportunity to network and learn!

photographers guide hornbill festival
This guy was already posing, so at the end I asked for a cheeky photo too!
photographers guide hornbill festival

4. Visit the tribes when they’re sat in the showground

After I’d captured the tribes in their huts for a while, they would all make their way down to the showground.

Follow along and capture them here. Not only is this an awesome photo of the whole tribe together, but there also won’t be many people in the photo. It creates some awesome depth.

Although the showground looks cut off, it’s actually open for everyone to walk around until the VIP guest arrives.

So, make the most of it and get involved! I couldn’t resist getting in this photo lol.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival

5. Use the time while everyone waits for the VIP

Out of all the moments to capture the tribes, the time that they were in line were some of my favourite pictures.

You can work the focus to make some amazing depth and capture all the tribe in their traditional dress.

Again, you’ll be joined by so many photographers but just pick your moments wisely.

On arrival of the VIP, you will be hushed along as the VIP will walk along the middle and into the showground VIP booth.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival
hornbill festival guide 2018
photographers guide hornbill festival

6. Wait for the first person to sit in the inner ring of the showground – but NOT before the VIP arrives

As this is a government organised event which is funded by a lot of sponsors, VIP guests are invited each day to kick off the festival.

These are politicians, CEO’s, ex army heroes. Even the president of India, Modhi, attends each year to kick off the celebrations.

NOTHING, I repeat, nothing can happen until this important guest arrives. They’re also notoriously late.

There’s a red carpet that the VIP will walk on to the VIP booth. Once this happens and the news and film crews have captured it AND the guest has made their (rather long) speech.

The shows can begin. Make sure you don’t sit in the inner ring until the first show starts. You will be hushed along by security and it’s seen as a sign of disrespect.

Usually I waited until the first person ran in and sat on the red carpet, then I would follow suit. It’s like lemmings after that. But, don’t leave it too late as you may find it fills up!

Also when you’re sat here bring a hat, the sun is so strong and you’ll start burning. But it will be worth it for photos like this…

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival

7. Ask (nicely) for the tribes to move for you if needed

To take portrait photos, you need to ask them to face the camera for you.

They’ll be so busy preparing for the shows and they don’t stand around waiting for people to capture them.

But, the good news is they’re super friendly and don’t mind. Just (please) make sure you ask nicely.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival

I called a few photographers out as I found their attitude repulsive.

‘Move!’, ‘Face this way!’, ‘Turn!’, ‘I said here not there!’ were some of the things said.

This is not acceptable behaviour and let’s be honest, you wouldn’t like it being said to you.

If you’re not being paid by the festival to photograph, you have no right to order people about. Be kind and ask politely!

If you’re after a good chunk of their time, a tip wouldn’t go amiss too.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival

8. Get extremely creative in composition

The arena is so beautifully picturesque with thatched huts meaning to bring an air of Nagaland authenticity.

But, you’ll find crowds of tourists everywhere (wearing all sorts of distracting colours) and affiliate signs plastered from sponsors. Doesn’t make for a pretty photo.

So get really creative in your composition. Experiment with different angles, work with the backdrops that you have. I know it’s obvious but it can make or break your picture.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival
See? SO many signs… lol

9. Show people the pictures you’ve taken of them

What I loved more than actually taking the photos was showing them! Not only does it build an awesome relationship but they get to see all your hard work and see how good you’ve made them look.

Some would ask to see but most of the time I would show them. I was so happy to see their reactions.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival

10. Don’t be a photographer w*nker

Okay, so this is some real talk here. I couldn’t believe the attitudes of some photographers at Hornbill.

Some were really lovely and talked to other photographers and others were just plain rude.

I would get scolded for moving a slight inch as I would unknowingly stand in ‘their photo’. Then they on purposefully would stand in front of my camera or even push me!

I mean, we’re all trying to work with the situation, back off.

As a photographer, you would expect them to work their camera around it. But, no. So, just make sure you’re not in any photos! Or develop thick skin.

photographers guide hornbill festival

Don’t order people around and act like your sh*t don’t stink. You may have a big camera but develop a sense of heart.

The people you’re filming have attended this festival to celebrate their culture.

Not to add themselves to your portfolio and for you to make a name for yourself. Be grateful they want to participate and work with you.

Apparently this is tame compared to other festivals but, for me, the vibe was bad enough.

Of course, I’d do it all over again as I enjoy photography and I know what to expect this time.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival

11. Be careful of your equipment

Nagaland was one of the dustiest places I’ve been in India. The whole time I was there, I swear I was covered in a thin layer of dust.

The buses, the roads, the air were all saturated with it. Be careful with your equipment!

Make sure you get lens hoods and keep your camera and lenses protected in your bag when you’re not using them.

I gave my camera to someone to take a picture of me and it dropped in the sand! I was devastated.

Be warned there is no camera shops in Kisama and when I looked in Kohima, no such luck.

Thankfully, the arts and photography centre loaned me a paintbrush to save it – or I would have been screwed.

photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival

12. Don’t forget to have fun

Sometimes it’s always good practice to stay present and look out from the lens.

Enjoy this amazing festival for what it is and enjoy some of the experiences you can have.

Sure, the pictures will be there for you look back on but you want to make sure you remember the fun you had too.

hornbill festival guide 2018
hornbill festival guide 2018

After my ‘proper’ photoshoots, I’d meet some of the tribes and get talking to locals.

I was eager to discover a culture alien to my own and actually appreciate what the festival was here to do; teach people about the amazing state and people of Nagaland!

So pick up and play a local instrument, talk to the tribes, get cosy around the campfire, eat the amazing Naga cuisine.

Drink rice beer, get involved In the chili eating contest, rock out in the evening and experience the beauty of Hornbill Festival. Happy photographing!

hornbill festival guide 2018
photographers guide hornbill festival
photographers guide hornbill festival
hornbill festival guide 2018

With thanks to Camp David Kigwema through India Trail for hosting my stay. All reviews, thoughts, opinions and photos are my own. 

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Save these Hornbill photography tips for later!

photographers guide hornbill festival


Wednesday 23rd of October 2019

Lovely article Sophie, really helpful information. We are newbies and this information have prepared us mentally what to expect and what not. In a simple language, every information is concise and crisp. Thank you so much for that.

Sophie Pearce

Sunday 3rd of November 2019

Hi 2 itchy feets, thanks for reading and I hope you have an amazing Hornbill Festival! Sophie x


Monday 16th of September 2019

Hi there! Liked your article a lot. However I have to say I disagree with shadowing other photographers and 'jumping in to take the shot'. A lot of probably took a considerable amount of time to set that up and build a rapport with the person in front of the camera to set up the shot, similar to what you said about respecting the locals and talking to them rather than plain objectifying them to take your pictures, I'd say the same courtesy extends to other photographers as well. Wouldn't be fair just to shadow people you don't know, haven't spoken to, to just take the same shot in a few seconds which probably took them some time/effort to set up. Just a thought :) Great article though! Lots of helpful information :)

Sophie Pearce

Monday 16th of September 2019

Hi there Lavanya, thanks for your feedback. Of course, I don't mean just hang around them like a leech and stalk their photography haha! I always asked if it was okay.

I'm not sure if you've ever been, but it's not the sort of place where you email models and build up a rapport. There's no set up involved, the tribe are in their hut and it's an in the moment shot! You probably have max. 5 mins if not less.

The people at the festival are there to celebrate culture and happy for you to take photos, so all the photographers were walking around and taking random shots. It's just that it's easier and takes up less of the tribes time to take a photo in the same moment.

I also think that photography is so subjective and so your portrait photo would never be the same as another's. It's an art and its individual to the person who sit behind the lens.

As I said before, photography is brutal at this festival and most of the photographers I met couldn't give a crap about anyone else but themselves and their paycheck so they probably won't notice anyway. It's not about glorifying photographers and their precious time but celebrating tribes and their culture.

You'll know more when you get there and experience the cutthroat agenda of some photographers here. I'm surprised their egos could fit on the bus back home. Sophie x


Sunday 1st of September 2019

Thank you so much Sophie Pearce for sharing great article. We are planning to do there this December. I bookmarked your article for my reference. Keep up the good work

Sophie Pearce

Sunday 1st of September 2019

Hi Uditez, thanks for reading and I hope you have an awesome time at Hornbill Festival! Sophie x


Thursday 19th of April 2018

planning to go there this December. loved your tips! you have a good site going on here, keep up the good work :)

Sophie Pearce

Thursday 19th of April 2018

Thanks so much, such nice feedback! Oh, you're going to have SO much fun! Hornbill was honestly one of my fave experiences in North East. Happy Travels, Sophie x