They say in polite circles you should never talk about politics or religion. Politicians don't do much for me but I love photographing religion in all its forms.
I find it fascinating to be a witness to ceremonies and beliefs that have been a part of a culture for thousands of years. For me it really helps to establish a certain people and tie them to a way of life and tradition, something that I never really had in my own upbringing.
One of the biggest challenges about photographing religious events is being respectful, and overcoming the inherent shyness of photographing people. If your knees quiver at the thought of pointing your camera at a living, breathing person then the thought is probably multiplied tenfold when that person is involved in something so serious and important.
You know what the trick is? To be seen. Let people know that you're there and photographing. Have that camera wide out and in the open. Sit for a while and observe what's going on. Show an interest. When people can see that you are honestly interested in what's going on, they then understand that you would like to make an honest picture of them.
If you rush in like a bull at a gate and just start snapping away well...put yourself in the reverse situation. How would you like it if somebody rushed into your place of worship and just started photographing willy-nilly?
I had been sitting in front of this cauldron for about 10 minutes or so just waiting and watching as people came and went. I wanted to see what they did and to understand a little bit about the significance of the actions. I could see that they would place themselves in line of the smoke and then use their hands to wave the smoke over themselves, before heading off to pray at the temple.
So I knew my photo was going to need to show the hands in a reverent position with a hint of temple in the background to give a sense of place. So I had the correct lens on, the right aperture set and all I needed was the right subject and to bring the camera up quietly to my eye and take a photo. This gentleman came up to the cauldron and we made eye contact and smiled - a very important people photography tool and not as expensive as a new lens! He knew I was going to take a photo because he could see the great big camera around my neck, and his smile meant that he was OK with it.
And that's how an image taken in the blink of an eye actually takes quite a bit of time to set up. Time to digest what's happening. Time to work out what you want to convey. Time to work out how you're going to convey it. And then time to give a smile, a nod or a hand wave just to let everybody know your intentions.
Try these simple tricks and you'll find photographing religious events one of the most interesting and rewarding subjects in the world.