Stories from the field: 10 wildlife photographers share their most memorable shot and the moment that led to it
Years of practice, strategic planning or sometimes sheer luck — there is no known single formula for what can make a brilliant wildlife photograph. Although began as a genre to document and study the wildlife in their habitats, wildlife photography has, over the years evolved into an art form in itself. And the masters of the art — from Frans Lanting, Nick Brandt to Sandesh Kadur and Shaaz Jung— go to extreme lengths to get that perfectly timed photograph, oftentimes risking their lives in the process. Ahead of World Photography Day, we speak to ten Indian wildlife photographers who share with us their most memorable capture and their stories from the field. (GALLERY)
A tale of two tails - Shaaz Jung
In photography, the art of subtlety can be very effective. Our aim is to draw the viewer in and tell a unique story. We spent the morning with a melanistic leopard and his leopardess. This courtship can last up to seven days and I was eager to capture something different. I noticed how she used her tail to entice him and that gave me a wonderful opportunity to capture something different. This was photographed in Nagarhole Tiger Reserve when I was filming for National Geographic.
(Shaaz Jung is a wildlife photographer, cinematographer and big cat specialist. Known as the ‘Leopard Man of India’, his creative and technical abilities when photographing big cats have gathered him over a million followers on social media.)
Water Dance - Rathika Ramasamy
There are a few images that are so lively that it captures your attention almost immediately. This is one of those action-packed images — a picture of two Oriental Darters caught in a territorial fight, one of my most unforgettable photographs. While some animals and birds live in groups, there are some others who want to have a territory of their own. If anyone tries to infringe on their territory, they get annoyed and will fight for dominance in their space. The Darters' fight to protect their territory is thrilling to watch but is not easy to catch sight of. I got a chance to capture the fight between these two Indian Darters at Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. On opposite sides of a lake popular among Darters for fishing, I noticed two of them perched on trees, drying their wings. They kept looking at each other. In a sudden movement, both dove into the water. As they got closer to each other a couple of moments later, they started fighting, splashing water all around them. For anyone new, I thought the scene would have looked like they are doing a water dance.
(Based out of Chennai, Rathika Ramasamy is a freelance photographer and has been called ‘the first Indian woman to strike an international reputation as a wildlife photographer.’)
First Kill - Shivang Mehta
It was a dull morning around the lakes and there was no clue of Krishna and her cubs. Throughout the morning we scanned every area but clever Krishna succeeded in dodging us leaving no traces behind. I was having a discussion with Shakir (my guide) who suggested we should try in the evening. I looked at my watch, and told him, “Let’s do one last round of the lake.” As soon as we boarded the vehicle, a message flashed on the wireless handset at the forest checkpoint. The forest guard rushed towards our vehicle informing, “Krishna was seen heading towards the lakes.” We drove towards Rajbagh and saw a storm of vehicles and lenses pointed in one direction. There was no way I could have gotten any view of what was happening and we decided to stay away from the crowd and wait. “Tiger!” screamed Shakir. Young Pacman (Krishna’s male cub) was stalking right behind us and before I could realize, he pounced at a Chital fawn inches away from the vehicle.
He was hardly 12 months old that time and his hunting tactic was totally flawed as he grabbed the Chital from the back rather than its neck. Tigers normally choke their prey by grabbing their neck and here was one inexperienced cub who made a mess of his first kill. The forest resounded with the desperate squeals of the young Chital. The helpless prey was trying to escape from the claws of a tiger who was not able to give it a peaceful death! Pressure on Pacman intensified and he finally decided to give it a final try by crouching down to tear apart the hinds of the Chital. The Chital wagged its tail and blinked its eyelids while it was being eaten and slowly breathed his last. Pacman emerged out of the carcass with a blood-red face as his sister walked towards him to share the meal.
(Shivang Mehta is an award-winning photographer, founder of Nature Wanderers and author of A Decade With Tigers and Chasing Horizons, Leopards and Shepherds of Jawai)
Lone Elk- Amoghavarsha JS
There have been several moments in nature, where magic just happens. One such incident for me was in Northern California when I was at the Point Reyes National Park to witness the sunset, and out of nowhere came a herd of California Tule Elks. And one, in particular, walked past the ridge along the coast. So the sea, the sky and sunset of all marmalade colours with the silhouette of this lone Elk - it still remains a very special image when the wonder of nature just unveils in front of you. This one other time, I wanted to photograph a particular bush frog called the Blue-eyed bush frog in the Western Ghats. This frog is only found in the rainforests in the monsoons and only at night. We would try and follow its calls every night, walking through thick rainforests, in torrential rains with a gazillion leeches. It took us almost a week to find it and photograph it. It definitely was one of the most difficult shoots in my initial days and taught me a lot about what it takes to photograph wildlife, especially when are you in search of a rare story.
(An award-winning filmmaker and wildlife photographer from Bangalore, Amoghavarsha has worked with the BBC and National Geographic.)
The elusive beast- Sudhir Shivaram
I got into wildlife photography in 1996 and for the first ten years, I had not sighted a Tiger in the wild. Even though I was visiting the South Indian jungles almost every month, 'The Tiger' had always been elusive to me. It was in October 2006 when I visited the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary that I came across my first Tiger. It was difficult to see even spotted Deers then, as villagers were being relocated from inside the core area of the forest and there was a lot of disturbance. During the morning safari, I saw a few Indian Gaurs crossing the road quite far away and asked the jeep driver to stop. I started shooting it with my long telelens. Due to the narrow vision, I could just focus on the Gaurs and shoot. The driver saw my lens direction and asked what I was shooting. I said the herd of Gaurs. He then asked me to forget the Gaurs and shoot the two Tigers sitting on the safari track in front of us. I had totally missed seeing the tigers. That was one awesome sighting I can never forget. That’s been one of my best ever wildlife moments.
(Named Sanctuary Asia's Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2012, Sudhir Shivaram is presently a full-time photography teacher and conducts wildlife photography tours and workshops.)
Image of a lifetime - Vikram Potdar
I had gone to Kamchatka in far Eastern Russia in 2011 to photograph the Brown Bears. There was a place called Kurile Lake- a completely inaccessible and remote region. To reach Kurile Lake, one needs to fly on a helicopter from Moscow to Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky which is the capital of Kamchatka regions. For 4-5 days, we were shooting from the lakeshore where they had a 25 feet high platform. But I never went on that because for a smooth background, I always preferred shooting from a low angle. But one fine day, I saw that a rainbow was starting to form and I thought of shooting a habitat wide-angle image with the rainbow, bears, and the birds flying around. As I composed a picture in my mind, I thought if the bear comes right below the rainbow, I will get the image of a lifetime. The bear granted me my wish and stood exactly below the rainbow. Right after I got the perfect picture, the bear moved ahead and the rainbow vanished. From seeing the rainbow getting formed, changing the lens, climbing up the platform, clicking the picture and the rainbow vanishing, it all took two minutes. But in those two minutes, I could get the perfect image.
(Vikram Potdar is one of the first Indian wildlife photographers to have visited all six continents and two polar regions for the passion of wildlife photography.)
Don’t turn around - Kalyan Varma
I think for me the hardest subject to photograph has been trees. They are grand when you see them, but it's very hard to capture the grandeur. A couple of years ago I was in Borneo and this tall Kumpassia tree caught my attention. I wanted to photograph it and tried many ways but failed. So I finally decided to photograph it against the night sky and lucky for me a flash of lightning in the background helped and I was able to light paint the tree. In another instance, one of the scariest encounters I have ever had in the wild was with a leopard. It was in the night and I was setting up a camera trap tied to a tree. Since there was a dead deer nearby, I hoped sometime in the night a leopard or tiger might show up. What I did not realize was that there was a leopard sitting on the same tree where I had gone to set up the camera trap. As I was turning it around, I heard a growl and looked up and there was a leopard a meter away with its mouth wide open. I dropped everything and ran for my life. Thankfully the leopard jumped down too and ran in the opposite direction. Thinking about that night still gives me goosebumps.
(Kalyan Varma is a Bangalore based wildlife photographer, filmmaker and conservationist. He has worked for various BBC Shows including Dynasties on Sony BBC Earth.)
Chasing the chimp - Latika Nath
We were in Gombe on the occasion of Jane Goodall’s 80th birthday. We set off on a boat across Lake Tanganyika. Carrying a backpack with my cameras, we began a trek up the mountainside in search of Chimpanzees. After walking over 45 minutes we came across a band of Chimpanzees sitting on the path. It was a big group and we watched in delight as they groomed, explored and communicated with each other. Suddenly with a signal from one member of the group, they all got up and went off the path straight into the bush. Our guide signalled us to follow and we went into what looked like the densest undergrowth and brush with zero visibility. We followed our guide and began to climb up the mountain. We had to drop down and do snake-like wriggle and crawl into small tunnels under vegetation, and the slope got steeper and steeper. Meantime the Chimpanzees had decided to hunt. The air was filled with the most chilling screams. An hour later we were up the mountain, hanging from vines and using them to haul ourselves up. I looked down and realized that we were perched on the vertical face of a cliff and there was no means of going down or being able to put our feet on anything firm. It was not a reassuring predicament to be in – had we slipped or fallen, I doubt they would have been able to find us easily. Another couple of hours of tearful climbing later – we finally got to the top. And to our delight, there was the group. They walked a little, settled down all around us and we got some amazing time with them. This award-winning photograph of a baby chimp was taken on that day!
(Author, photographer and wildlife conservationist, Latika Nath was awarded the title 'The Tiger Princess' by the National Geographic.)
Smallest but significant - Sandesh Kadur
With a successful photograph, you can relive that moment that led to it for years to come and share it with many others as well. When we were filming for BBC’s Planet Earth 2 in Kaziranga National Park, we had miserably failed at getting a camera trap shot of a tiger in the grassland. Either animals like elephants, rhinos, buffalo, bear, or just moisture would spoil every single attempt. But one day, after we re-designed the set-up, things fell into place and the moment I opened the camera trap box, we got the image of a tiger coming in to feed on a rhino carcass - that was it, that was the moment we had been waiting for and the moment was now captured forever. Whenever I look at that shot, it reminds me of all the failure that we had to undergo in order to capture that shot. Another time, while working on a story about clouded leopards, I got attacked... by a mosquito, which led to me having cerebral malaria. It’s the closest to the feeling of death that I’ve ever experienced and I will caution everyone to stay safe from the smallest of wildlife. It’s often the smallest that has the greatest impact!
(Sandesh Kadur is a Wildlife Film Maker and Conservation Photographer known for his contributions to BBC’s Planet Earth II. )
The Eternal Couple- Mithun H
The woods are mysterious and unlocking it is my passion. You could be waiting for days and months and years for that perfect shot. But when it happens, those few seconds are magical and one to live for, after all that time. That is the beauty of wildlife photography. I can still close my eyes and relive that moment every single day of my life.
There was certainly a lot of waiting and patience that went behind this photograph. I had waited for six days in the same spot for this. I could hear the Saaya, the Black Panther and Cleopatra, the Leopardess mating about a 100 metres away in the thick undergrowth but could not see them due to limited visibility. They had made a large kill and would not move until it was over. That is where the knowledge and years of experience of following and tracking the Panther came in handy. I just had to wait at one of his favourite paths since that was the place he would bring her since that was the edge of his territory, and this he did after 6 days. It was a fruitful wait though. I could wait for six years for a moment like this.
(Mithun H is a Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer, who tracks big cats and is known for working on ‘The Real Black Panther’ for Nat Geo Wild)
On the occasion of World Photography Day on 19th of August, Sony BBC Earth brings forth the work of the most talented and respected Indian wildlife photographers who document nature’s most mystic stories through their lenses.