After a month in India, I flew from Mumbai to Kathmandu, Nepal. Outside of temples and a starting spot for mountain trekking, I was going in without much real knowledge of the city, especially for street photography. The internet was no help and I’d yet to meet a photographer that had shot there. So that was an experience in itself, but mostly a good one. Kathmandu is unlike any city I’ve been to, filled with culture, scenery and a unique atmosphere. With enough time spent exploring on foot, there’s plenty to find.
So here are my first impressions of Kathmandu, from my personal Street Photographer perspective…
7 First Impressions of Kathmandu, Nepal
(From a Street Photography Perspective)
1. You have to explore to find street photography opportunities, but it’s worth it.
When it comes to information online for photography in Kathmandu, outside of temples and Thamel, there’s basically nothing. So for street photography, I had to walk the whole city looking for places to shoot. Luckily, it’s not the biggest city, but it still took a lot of empty streets and time to find some good spots.
During my exploring, I found a large mobile fair in the middle of dirt that ended up being maybe the most interesting spot of the city for photography while I was there. In the middle of the city, there’s a large landfill full of garbage, cows and a small market. Right in the corner of this was a fair with multiple old school rides and fair food. The scene here was like nothing I had seen before and it got very busy. I’m not sure how often this is going, but if you’re in Kathmandu, it sets up on Ring Road directly south of the Shree Pashupatinath Temple. It’s a strange scene great for photos.
2. Plenty of character
Kathmandu has a unique and interesting character to it when walking around the city. There’s a ruggedness to it. Many of the streets are dirt roads, the buildings aren’t in the best shape, and the architecture and temples all over the city give it its own style. It feels old, but in a good way. The setting by the mountains adds to this atmosphere too. I can’t really compare it to another city, which is one of the things I liked most about it. This also makes it a more exciting city for walking around and seeing what you can discover with your camera. There’s a mix of Nepalese culture and bigger city, while feeling you are still far away from the more developed urban life. The city even has designated times where electricity is shut off in certain areas, but it’s all part of the experience.
3. Very dusty. Unique light, but can drop fast.
I’ve never been in a city as dusty as Kathmandu. The air is constantly filled with a haze of dust. It’s actually a unique atmosphere, as the dusty air gives a different look than fog. There’s a brownish tint and it can reflect the sunlight a little. At the same time, it can stop some of the light too. So when the weather isn’t sunny, it can get dark, especially in the more narrow streets.
Nepal’s air quality does rank 177th out of 178 countries, so much of the dusty haze is a mix of pollution too. People here wear those face masks even more than other Asian countries. I tried one out for the first time here because of the air, but had to take it off 5 minutes later. The face mask just didn’t feel like a good look when doing street photography :) So be prepared for the dusty air for both yourself and your camera. Exposure and the look of your photos will be affected, but you can embrace it for that different look.
When it gets cloudy, though, this can combine with the dust and pollution to really darken the city. At one point during the middle of the day, I had my camera at 3200 iso and still had to open up to f/2.0 to get decent exposure. At 3pm, that might be a first. So if the weather is bad, be prepared with your settings and lens. Or bring a flash.
4. Walking along the river is a good way to get light and find different photo opportunities.
The Bishnumati river runs right down the city just east of the center and the larger Bagmati River runs across the lower part of Kathmandu, and up along the airport. Both rivers are far from picturesque, as they’re filled with debris, trash, and pollution, but they can make good routes to walk along for some photography. They also do contain their own character, if not pretty. The Bishnumati river’s location is much more ideal, as it runs right by the city center where you’ll probably be exploring already, and where you’ll probably be staying.
People live along the riverbanks and you’ll find plenty of activity exploring around. Women washing clothes, men working, kids playing, small temples, dogs running around and plenty more can be found here.
The light can also be good here with the wide open space in front of the homes, as opposed to the narrow urban streets having their light blocked by buildings, telephone wires and prayer flags.
5. Shooting the Streets Can Cost Money
Kathmandu is unique in that many areas and streets have an entrance fee. This isn’t always a fee to go inside anywhere, but just to walk down a street. Unfortunately, many of these streets and sections are areas you’ll want to walk. And even more unfortunately, the fee for foreigners can be surprisingly expensive, relatively speaking. I’m talking as much as a hotel room for a night in the city.
These pricy streets, squares and blocks are all over the city and usually contain some older architecture, temples and monuments. Just in my exploring the city, I walked into at least 6 different streets with a price tag. Some being larger and pricier than others (Usually $5-$10, but as high as $15). Of course, some of the larger priced areas can’t be protected at every street or alley entrance so you might even find yourself entering for free with knowing it. Passes are available that allow you entrance at all locations, though.
6. Photo friendly, but without too much care.
I flew to Kathmandu after a month in India so I had gotten used to the non-stop curiosity and people requesting photos. While people are very photo friendly in Kathmandu, the curiosity is nowhere near that of India. People don’t ask for photos and don’t pay you too much attention here. It might have to do with all the tourism so they’re used to cameras. This has can lead to some asking for money after a photo, but only around Thamel and the temples.
7. A Tourist Starting Point
Kathmandu attracts lots of tourists. Not as much for the city, but for a starting point to the many popular mountain treks. Since Kathmandu does have plenty to see too, though, most visitors put a couple of days, or more, aside to explore the city. So there is a big focus on tourism and plenty of tourists walking the streets of Kathmandu, especially around Thamel.
That being said, all the tourists tend not to venture far away from Thamel or the more popular temples. So if you explore the city at all, you can easily get away and mingle with only locals.
A Timeless City Lives On
While the 2015 earthquake was devastating, it didn’t change the heart of the city. Much of the city escaped the damage too, while the ancient parts that were hit still live on with all the character of Kathmandu. It’s not a place you can really compare to any other. While it does possess a chaos somewhat similar to its big neighbor below, everything else about Kathmandu is too different from India to really compare. The dust filled air, aging temples, chaotic dirt roads and Nepalese culture are what I’ll remember most. Whether you’re going there for trekking the nearby mountains or you’re visiting Kathmandu specifically, it’s worth some days to really explore and get a feel for the city.
If any of you have been to Kathmandu before, tell me about your experience and impressions of the city and country in the comments below! And stay tuned for more on Kathmandu, including some of the best Street Photography shots I captured while there.
(from a street photographer’s perspective)