India’s national parks are a unique and challenging experience; especially for those who visit them with a camera.
Blessed with pristine landscapes and abundant wildlife it offers countless photographic opportunities. But the million dollar question is, how do you make the most of them? Most people can only dream about giving up their day jobs to become wildlife photographers. Here is a man who is living that dream. Meet Shivang Mehta; he gave up on his Journalism and PR career, to sweat it out in the field of nature and wildlife photography. Through photography, he wanted to show people the importance of a healthy environment and strong natural reserves. Having set up ‘Nature Wanderers’, he regularly conducts field photography training camps across India, Sri Lanka and Africa (in association with Canon India). Excerpts:
When did you first realise your inclination towards photography and how did you start pursuing it seriously as a career option?
Photography for me was a by-product of my inclination towards wildlife and nature. I have always pursued my passions since childhood. Writing was a medium of expressing my thoughts, and I adored it. That explains why I picked journalism as a career option while my college mates at SRCC chose to be MBAs and Post Graduates in Economics. Similarly when I started exploring the wilderness of India, my interest in nature and wildlife gradually grew. It made sense for me to capture these fine intrinsic moments of natural history for my personal records. These records were then shared with people and organisations who were in need of such material. After a while, circumstances made it difficult for me to juggle my corporate life and the jungle life. That’s how my career took off in the direction of nature and wildlife photography.
Most wildlife photographers keep their spouses away from the limelight. You work in close co-ordination with your wife (Kahini Ghosh Mehta), on all your photo safaris, photo tours and workshops etc. How do the two of you get this right?
The credit for me choosing this profes-sion goes to Kahini because she got me closer to wildlife and nature. Her childhood and upbringing has been eco-friendly, as she hails from Chhind-wara – bordering the Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh. I started exploring the wilds with her before marriage.
Kahini and I have always been a team. Our first meeting was at a media house where we worked together. Then we began exploring jungles together and decided to operate and manage a small campsite in the periphery of Corbett National Park. During that period, we had the privilege to work with some superb naturalists and field experts. The little field knowledge we have is because of those interactions. We enjoyed showing the beauty of Corbett to our guests (some of them were great photographers), and then slowly we started living our lives behind the lens. Our company – Nature Wanderers and the work we currently do is all a by-product of the years of fieldwork we did in Corbett.
For you, is field craft and knowing the animal behav-iour more important than the technical aspects of photog-raphy? How do you then bal-ance the two, to avoid making any cliché images?
Photography as a science is no rocket science. With a plethora of info available on the Internet and with magazines like SP, picking up the technical aspects of photography is a cakewalk. You can get it right if you keep reading and playing around with your camera. However when it comes to nature and wildlife photography (or in fact any other genre of photography), field work becomes the most critical element of your journey. Specifically, when I think of wildlife photography, field wildlife knowledge definitely helps you to becomes a better photographer. With time your anticipation skills improve and you are able to predict the behaviour of the subject. Therefore improving your visualisation abilities. You cultivate an intuition about the frame and moment. As you sink deeper into this, your urge to be there on the field in order to realise some of your dream frames increases.
However as a wildlife photographer I always believe that nature is full of mysteries and learning on the field (be it the photography part or the field wildlife knowledge part) is a never ending process. Every day teaches you something and as students of Mother Nature, we should always be grateful to her for unfolding her mysteries one by one!
Do you have a single image or collection of images that stand out as a career highlight? What makes it more special than your other images and why?
Purpose or goal based photography always helps me perform better as it keeps me focussed. The purpose or goal can however be subjective. I have spent days and months running after elephants in Corbett, hours shooting a small Cicada clinging to a tree branch and years shooting tigers across national parks of India. Every project I undertake is challenging because my attempt is to create images that tell a compelling story – be it a series or a single image.
As of now I have fond memories of the Cicada photograph I took in Bandhavgarh in 2011; which was also in the top Sanctuary Asia wildlife photos for 2011.
Do you always wonder from where do tiny droplets of water fall on your body when you are patiently waiting for a bird shot or a tiger in the forest? You look at the cloudless sky to check if it’s drizzling. Here is the very interesting reason for that…
Cicadas are the culprits. Clinging on tree tops, Cicadas apart from making the loud buzzing sounds drink tree sap. Tree sap is the principal food of cicadas. They take the necessary nourishment and water from the sap, with waste matter and fluid accumulating in a rectal pouch. If it is necessary, the waste can be released and disposed of all at once through the anus!
Can we have the story behind the favourite image?
Here is a Cicada caught spraying in Bandhavgarh (Image featured above). It took quite some effort to shoot this, as this guy was at a distance and even the biggest lens was not effective enough to get the shot. The subject was near, but too far and small for the long telephoto. It was too far for a macro lens as well. Experimenting with various combination of equipment, I finally decided to use the cropped sensor of a Canon 7D and mounted a Canon 100-400mm lens along with a 2x converter to shoot this one. The frame was perfect but at 400 ISO the shutter dropped to 1/20 which was not good enough.
Using a remote trigger we tried to time the shot with the timing of the spray. The first 10-15 odd attempts were unsuccessful. Finally, we decided to use the interval-meter and let the camera take a shot every second for a minute or so. This was the one spray shot that we got right in the series.
Your work seems to be governed by a very simple principle – catch-ing the perfect moment. Does the perfect mo-ment come easily or you have to shoot a lot to get it right? In fact, how long do you wait for it to happen?
Moments are short and quick and they don’t come easy while you are on the field. This is where subject knowledge comes into play. Normally while shooting subjects or a series I work on for the first time I do a lot of field research. This is done to figure out the behavioral aspects and the moods that will appeal in the photo-graph. Then comes the location research. Light for instance is the most deter-mining factor while shooting wildlife. A proper location study when combined with the subject study will reveal what is the proper time frame to shoot the subject in the desired light. The waiting time is something which can-not be defined. It may take a couple of days or weeks.
However if the quality of ground work and field work is good, sooner or later you will get there. Patience is the only key. Some days are golden and some are just full of dust with no result!
Some photographers advertise photography courses where they prom-ise that all you need is just one outing/lesson, and in a day’s time you can take astonishing photos like a true professional. Shivang, you have spent the last decade as a wild-life photographer, are there any short cuts in progressing from taking snapshots to making a good wildlife photogra-pher?
There is absolutely no short cut! Field work and field work alone can help you to grow as a photographer.
People accompany me for photo tours and attend my workshops and after the first dose of 3-4 days, they hardly pick up their cameras for days or months. As facilitators we can only give the initial push. We can lay the foundation in the form of photo tours where you can come repeatedly and shoot. But you cannot progress as a photographer if your camera is lying idle at home!
I don’t buy the excuse that once back from a forest, an amateur gets busy with the hectic work schedules and there is no time for photography. Wildlife around cities is something which is a very good practice ground for both amateurs as well as pros. It is important we become sensitive to city wildlife and spend our weekends exploring such areas. India is studded with natural jewels. It is a pity if we are unaware and insensitive to this natural wealth we have!