Wildlife photography is not as simple as carrying a telephoto lens and shooting whatever you see on the way.
It is also about mutual respect and respect for space since you are trespassing into the territory of the animal. If you get a chance to spend some time in the wild with a good wildlife photographer, you will get to know the nature up close and personal. Harshad Barve is one such seasoned photographer who understands the fragility of nature and takes care not to disturb its fine balance. Here he shares his experiences as a naturalist and a wildlife photographer.
Your profile mentions that you are first a naturalist and then a photog-rapher. Could you elaborate on your journey so far?
I was born into a farmers’ family (although my father was a banker, he is now a full time farmer), I was close to wildlife since my childhood days as my farm was located at the foothills of the Melghat Tiger Reserve. This allowed me to venture into Chikhaldara and Melghat many times. I fell in love with wildlife, especially Tigers, at a young age. Wandering in the woods was obviously my favourite pastime and it taught me how delicate nature’s balance was and how all species were important for our survival on this planet irrespective of their size. Being a student with no income for myself, the only tool in my kit was a pair of binoculars and I was very happy to watch the wonders of nature unfold in front of my eyes from a far away distance. After settling down in my professional life as an Electrical Engineer, I eventually took up photography. My aim was to create great images and showcase the beauty of nature without disturbing wild life. I still enjoy watching wildlife, even if I can’t photograph them and I still get a tremendous satisfaction from those experiences and moments as well. That is why I feel I am a naturalist first and photographer later.
What are the special preparations you make while going on a wildlife outing?
I make sure that I have done my full homework. I try to get all possible information about the location by reading and talking to people who have gone there. I will always hire best possible naturalist of the location rather than best possible accommodation. I will make sure that my equipment is in top condition and I have sufficient number of memory cards. I try to travel light and compact. Planning for a wildlife trip is like planning for a war—you have to be methodical and have all contingencies identified in advance. That comes with experience and I am still learning as I go.
Wildlife is a very special genre in the sheer raw experience it presents. Could you share with us few such experiences while on wildlife trips?
O man! Where do I start? There are so many experiences to share. I think of my days in the jungle like days on a golf course. You play/travel the same routes, but each day/experience is different. As for memorable experiences, it was like nirvana for me when I first saw the Jewel of Jungles—Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher. The colour palette on this tiny bird blew me away. I still remember the goose bumps I felt when we were charged by elephants in Manas and Kabini. I have no words to express what I went through when a big male tiger charged us in Bandhavgarh. But apart from this, I have fond memories of amazing nature too. I still remember the innocent eyes of three tiger cubs who were just three months old when I first saw them in Bandhavgarh NP. I was blown away by the attitude of a two month old tiger cub who walked in front of my vehicle in TATR (Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve) without any fear. Great One Horned Rhinos taught me that humility exists regardless of size. A female Black Rhino female, a critically endangered specie, who was grazing along with her calf in Masai Mara was another ultimate scene to witness. This May, when I was in Tanzania to see the great migration, I witnessed one of the greatest spectacles of nature. We were expecting a gathering of Wildebeest in western Serengeti. In a couple of hours the number swelled from few thousands to nearly 500 thousand. The river crossing of Wildebeest and Zebra in Masai Mara was another spectacle that is worth remembering.
All your images bring out a conservation aspect into the frame. We are able to expe-rience some of your thoughts while watch-ing your photographs of tigers—the ones that have been lost to poaching. What role can a photographer play to spread aware-ness among the public, and how do you plan to do your bit to save the wildlife population?
Let me tell you, I am not the typical conservation man but I try to evoke people’s emotions about the fragility of nature through my images and my own thoughts. When you have less than two thousand tigers left, photographers must try to make an impact. Conservation is not all about running an NGO and seeking help. In my humble opinion, the tiger who is sighted most and photographed most will have the greatest chance of surviving in the wild, due to the publicity and limelight it garners.
As an individual I try to spread the message of conservation by giving my images for this purpose. Helping local people realize and understand how important it is for them to see that wildlife survives. Big Cat Tours, a joint venture with a good friend of mine, does have policies to help conservation and promote sustainable tourism. We do not promote sources who are not keen about saving wildlife (in India and Africa), and also book eco-friendly locations in India and Africa. For example, if a specific camp is located in the critically endangered Black Rhino habitat in the Masai Mara, they should forget about getting any business from us. Acting responsibly in such situations is also directly helping protect wildlife and spread the message of conservation. We make sure that our money goes towards the right cause and the right people.
You have travelled to many plac-es in the world. Have you seen any distinct change in the be-haviour patterns of the animals across the globe? If so, what are the precautions you as a photographer would take while approaching the wild at different places?
Let me start by telling you that wildlife is w-i-l-d, no matter where you go. No matter how cute and cuddly animals appear, a lot of respect and space has to be given to any wild animal. For the most part, animals, including the big cats, are very peaceful and easygoing. However, one needs to be always aware that animals can become very unpredictable in certain situations, especially when they feel threatened for whatever reasons. The two animals I fear the most, and give extra special respect to are the leopard and the elephant. Leopards are fearless and stealth is a weapon they use very effectively. As for elephants, there is no way to run from them, once they decide to charge your vehicle. In terms of precautions, giving space to all animals, a lot of it, is the best way to keep an animal in his comfort zone. That way, one gets to enjoy the sighting and also observe and study the animal’s natural behavior. Basic common sense and a lot of respect can make safaris highly enjoyable. It is always good to study animal behavior and know what they are capable of.
It is said that equipment is not very important compared to the keen eye for detail. But in the case of wildlife, equipment is equally important. Also, different species require different kinds of equipment. So what does your typical kit bag consist of and why?
Let’s understand the fact that, it is the photographer who creates the images and that his equipment is just a tool. Neither can do much without the other, but it is the photographer who visualizes the scene and uses a camera/lens to capture it. Michael Schumacher can probably beat me 100 percent of the time while driving a Maruti 800, even if I am driving his Ferrari. That is because he is good at what he does. Riding his Ferrari is not going to make me a better driver. Same applies for Picasso’s brushes, one can buy them on ebay, but, what next? You get the point. As for lenses,I have used focal lengths ranging from 18 mm to 800 mm. I feel that understanding and predicting the behavior of animals and birds can produce the best of results, more than worrying about focal lengths. Placing yourself at the right location at the right time can get you amazing results, even if you use a 70-200 mm lens, rather than a 500mm prime lens.For birds, on any given day I would love to have maximum focal length with a fast lens. My choice for bird photography is 600mm. It is a heavy lens but produces amazing results.
For mammals, I have used focal lengths ranging from 70-200 / 300 / 200-400/600 mm.
Since my focus is on mammals right now, my kit has Nikon’s D3 and 200-400/f4, along with the D300 and the 50mm for animal-scape. The 200-400mm gives me a versatile focal length option with the prime lens, like image quality and the D3 gives me amazing image re-production with great FPS and ISO capabilities which allows me to photograph in the toughest of lighting conditions.
For someone thinking of taking up bird photography seriously, I will suggest to start from at least 400mm, and for mammals I would suggest a zoom lens with at least focal length of 70-300mm.
We do not usually mention post-processing of images while discuss-ing about wildlife photography. How important is post-processing in bringing out the impact in wildlife photographs?
A rough diamond that comes out of the mines of Africa won’t be bought by or appreciated by an end user until it goes though certain steps. It is the same with photographs, especially RAW images that come straight out of the camera. A certain level of polish and finish is required to make them presentable to the world. Post Processing or PP as we call it, is a sensitive topic which can create debates and conflicting opinions amongst photographers depending on who you ask. For me, PP means: no cloning, doing levels,curves adjustments and cropping and some sharpening. For noisy images, I apply some noise reduction to the backgrounds. If you ask me, there is a fine line between PP and digital manipulation, I am OK with PP as long as the original scene is not changed in a drastic fashion and new elements are not added. To me, any manipulation is OK as long as it doesn’t look significantly different than what is in the RAW file. I don’t think one needs to go into heavy post-processing to convert things into art. I appreciate artistic images created in-camera more than those that become artistic only in post. What I think about wildlife photography is that it is not always about the perfect image, but rather about the story, the emotion, the timeless moment that has been captured eternally, or the message that is conveyed without writing a thousand words to support the image. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words !
It is difficult to pick out one loca-tion for your photography. But every photographer would have a favourite location that he wouldn’t be tired to camp on for days. If you are asked to choose one location that is best suited for your style of photography, which one would it be? And why?
Quite simply, for me it is the Bandhavgarh National Park And Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, India. On an average, I spend more than 90 days of every year in Bandhavgarh. I would love to spend more time in Serengeti and Kaziranga as well. I can’t explain the ‘why’ part of the question, it is similar to someone asking me “why do you breathe” ? Sujith Gopinath