Charm of Wildlife Photography – a sweet trap?

WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY is certainly that stream of photography which has no match for the excitement, thrill and action it renders to one’s heart and sense of satisfaction for one’s soul ! And wildlife photographers are ambassadors of `nature conservation’, play a major role as a crucial link between research and common man. Probably, these are the broad reasons wildlife photography entices almost everyone, even the ones who just hang one camera around their neck. And with the advent of digital cameras, the clan has grown multi-folds in last few years and growing by the day. Almost every photographer’s dream is to do wildlife photography, even if one’s primary profession is other branches of photography or a completely different profession. Why not? For it has glamour of its own! It surely has steep challenges, which many people love negotiating in real life and that is why it has earned that a tag of `niche glamour’. Wildlife photography is like wooing a beautiful woman! Not all will be lucky to get her, in spite of the best chase. Not everyone’s cup of tea..in nut-shell. 

There are many factors. One more reason for every man to love wildlife photography – instinctively just like every man worth his salt chases the most beautiful woman, same hormones drive every man equipped with camera and photography skill to test his luck chasing animal world. And a strong instinctive desire to live closer to nature and the spirit to explore life around has always coaxed man to record the natural history wonders, now with cameras. Some use it as a means of recording the nature and its phenomenons and some create soul-stirring art with it and some lucky ones make their living. Wildlife photography earns ardent admirers for those who perform and achieve. Also, nature has always wheedled most of us into its lap, where it has many wonders to unfold to those who care and dare to explore. This breed of photographers unfold the sensational mysteries of natural history as well. In fact wildlife photographers are ambassadors of wildlife conservation in true sense. Its the concoction of various instincts, desires, skills, hormones, etc.  that makes most photographers  drone all the time around wildlife photography.

Tiger is homing on to its pray, which is across water stream.

My purpose of writing here is to erode the illusions of most young budding photographers about wildlife photography. I keep getting requests and variety of questions about wildlife photography and related issues everyday. Most do not realize what makes a good wildlife photographer, how to go about it. The first and foremost thing is one has to assess one’s own potential first or develop i.e. one has to have easy access to wildlife, develop some natural history knowledge, minimum average physical fitness, not to mention suitable camera equipment (what one has and what one will need), financial strength to bear with its tall demands, etc. In spite of all this, all are not so lucky to make good wildlife photographs. Many get stuck with the compulsions of life (job and family), many can not decide which way to go and most are slaves of personal habits i.e. poor discipline, mixing it with pleasure, sleep, attitude, etc. I also feel many get fascinated by these long lenses, the fan club which wildlife photographers enjoy on internet forums, and it has macho tag for many.

And then one can say some are born lucky who have eye of a good artist and have good discipline, are in the habit of getting up early, the ones who don’t love anything other than wildlife photography, focused. Above all, fortunate to have enough money to support this expensive hobby.  So, that is how one makes few steps forward to one’s own niche, as one moves up one gets admirers too. Who won’t like it?

Praying Mantis

Also, we need to come out of another self-spun illusion that wildlife photography is all about tigers, elephants, rhinos and leopards. Most of us, at infancy stage, think that the treasure trove of wildlife photographs is only inside national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Though, I do not deny this fact that most of the wildlife today is in protected areas and thus flourishes only inside these heavens. The beauty and mysterious life the smaller creatures have is amazing and makes them a much better subject in my views. There is another perspective to it, viewers love to see what they haven’t seen or do not get to see as a routine in life. So, one can shoot smaller animals like insects in one’s backyard, nearest public garden, agricultural fields, bushes, road side trees, etc. It costs no money, no big effort of packing and driving to national parks, only needs inexpensive equipment (one camera body, macro lens, a tripod), to shoot beetles, butterflies, moths, praying mantis, etc. Other than this –  one just needs plenty of time and patience! Not to forget some cookies and a water-bottle, on a bicycle.

If you are looking at the bigger game for serious photography, then first of all, muster good money to buy you a good set of camera equipment i.e. two camera bodies with high speed of `fps’ and higher mega pixels, professional lenses which are in the range of US$ 10,000 each, the best tripods (legs only will cost US$ 1000 or more) ball heads (US$ 1000 or more), not to mention numerous expensive accessories one needs all the time. Next comes, expensive traveling which may be by air, train or road to reach (long distances) the well protected wildlife areas which have good wildlife to photograph and worth your camera. One needs advance bookings to check into a good lodge on arrival, which is safe for your equipment and looks after you well to ensure your comfort (you need that after day’s hard work), costing Rs 2500 and above per day. While you start unpacking your camera boxes, someone has to check the condition of your vehicle for the jungle safari, which will cost you Rs 2000 per day (must have gone up much more by now). If you are serious about wildlife photography and have suitable camera gear, then I would strongly suggest that there should be only one person in one vehicle, with one well trained assistant, at the maximum. O, I forgot to mention the entry fees for the vehicle, photographer, assistant, driver, camera equipment (this can vary park to park), hiring of a guide for each trip, etc. All this adds up to minimum Rs 5000 plus to do wildlife photography per day in any Indian national parks and sanctuaries, including the cost of your stay in a lodge. Not to forget all the `red-tape’ and petty skirmishes of the park staff and locals, you will face in this field, most of you may not even notice everything, but it happens. Then you may face some unpleasantness at the gate, just at the start of your safari and then those noisy unruly tourists from Delhi, for home its just like another circus.

If you really wish to do serious wildlife photography then you should be able to pull some `powerful strings’ for special entry and then everything works very well and like a well oiled gearbox … no noises. There shall be no restrictions on your entry, no limit on timings, areas or zones you will be allowed to explore, get the forest department guides to lead you, etc.  I am writing this out of own my personal experience. But that doesn’t mean that one can not do good photography without these `strings’. But when photographers from BBC and Nat Geo want to do photography they pull the best strings and get those results which set new standards in the field.

I am sure, you all will ask one question that if wildlife photography is so tough and the rewards are so meager and that too not many are lucky, then why there are still some wildlife photographers who invest so much of money and efforts for this. You must see what all has gone into making them as big wildlife photographers of name and fame, why they buy that equipment, try to take a peek at the hidden things `behind curtains’. Some of these few are lucky to have their well paying businesses, jobs and having time too, some have been lucky to be around wildlife areas, some own lodges, some are paid to become a lucky one. Nothing has come into being overnight and so easily as you all think, they all have worked very hard to their way up the ladder.

REMEMBER : Ideally, one should pursue that activity first which is within one’s reach easily, which means select a subject that is not far from your base (this way you cut cost on logistics, travel and no leave required from your job), your basic equipment can deliver good photos, etc. First brush up the basics of photography this way and reach a level when you do not make basic mistakes. One should be able to handle any tricky exposure situation in the field; I have seen people whispering about what settings I should use. If one is doing so, there is no bigger fool than the one who is paying to grope in darkness like a blind man. Everyone, makes mistakes and a humble start with basic equipment and makes one’s way up as per one’s own capabilities, efforts, patience and perseverance. Nothing comes free in this world !

Some are lucky to be working in the jungle lodges and resorts around national parks and wildlife areas, that means easy access to wildlife areas as a paid naturalist and most costs are reduced this way. Others have moved ahead like a turtle  slowly and steadily, through the standard grind of this passion/ profession. They all have toiled very hard patiently to reach where you see them shining like a star or sun.  Not realizing what made them shine,  we keep trying to emulate them aimlessly. One of the important things, one must have some basic knowledge of natural history, most important assets one needs to have, to make a significant dent in this field. Otherwise, you shall remain one of the insignificant ones in the crowd.

Now, if you are a basic photographer like me (with limited resources), then turn around and peep into your backyard, balconies, city gardens, bushes, agricultural fields, there is plenty of wildlife, i.e. birds, insects, lizards, butterflies, vegetation, etc. Let me remind you, this way, you will need equipment which will cost you only one twentieth of that which is mentioned above, even if you buy pro equipment (professional macro lens, 300mm lens with 2X, suitable tripod with ballhead, a flash, two camera bodies, etc.). If you are worth your salt, and everyone can not be, you will crawl up and the speed will commensurate to the size of your sincere efforts only. At the end of the day, I mean at some point of time, we all love to be rewarded which could be in terms of money (to support your expensive equipment and on-going upgradation all the time), publications for name, stock photos for sales, etc. In case of wildlife photography, I find that the sale is too less when we compare it to other branches of photography i.e. life style, travel, fashion, etc. BEWARE :: SUPPLY IS MORE THAN DEMAND !

Tiger Show at Bandhavgarh

My aim here is NOT to discourage you, its to throw some light on the path which most of you wish to tread in the years to come and you seek some guidance from the ones who have been there. You need an external support to sustain, if you wish to start working as wildlife photographer right from the beginning and nothing else.There are numerous examples, whose `first love’ is wildlife photography, but are fashion photographers which is so paying that it can buy them good equipment and can afford access to wildlife areas and can afford to take time off their primary profession. They do get rewarded well, as they have all that which helps them to get good wildlife photos.

Life is too short to do experiments, but some love experimenting like me. But then I am very clear what I want in life, happiness, not by achieving big goals, but by doing what I like doing the most. I drifted into travel photography, as its so easy, take one wide angle lens and walk in the streets or a fair or cultural event, go around a monument, etc. and shoot to your fill. I do nature photography which you can see as cactus photography, flower photography, snake photography, insects, etc. on my website and blogs.

Do you know one can do wildlife photography with wide angle lens as well? That means there is no specified camera gear for wildlife photography. But at the same time I pity the rookies with designer hats on head with no gray matter to reckon with (it seems) and cocky tails up skywards, scuttling around like headless chickens, zipping around the national parks having SLRS with 70-200 mm lenses, pushing and flogging their drivers and guides to get them a tiger yawning on the road and into their camera straight and nothing less. Trying to decipher the code of the `hidden world of nature’ with no knowledge at all, even the crackling noise of each dry leaf probably having a beetle underneath croaking for its mate, as if there is tiger around and these rookies raise their their tails up.  Every scream of any four footed is an alarm call for a tiger, guides and drivers of their safari vehicle giggle behind the woolen scarfs. It takes them just a wink of an eye to wean out `grain from husk’ and their effort to get you a tiger depends on where you stand in their list of photographers who are rated as worth their salt.

Tiger Chase …

You must hear the gossip and the expert comments on these whooshing jungle safari vehicles by these `expert wildlife photographers’, fake spirits are sky high and if there is adrenalin in the world then its only their veins with plenty, leaving the world dry by even a drop of it. But then what happens to these `experts’ – I see them gasping in Delhi (read cities) and having not even one single shot for years which fills their soul and makes their friends envy them. Alas, if they had woken at some point, they would have enjoyed the `symphony of the nature’ at least, which is at its best in the jungle. Neither they recorded (for want of gray matter and gear, which could make them see the right path to follow), nor they witnessed or enjoyed it.

My sincere advice here is that do not fool yourself, make an assessment and see what you can do under the given circumstances and how to move ahead. Best is to work with a seasoned wildlife photographer, as an apprentice and take a closer peek at this charming hobby/ passion. Do not move around like a headless chicken. Otherwise, you will face harsh reality after being a looser. Enjoy photography and do it for your soul and not to capture everything on this earth for competitions and exhibitions. If you are clear about why you wish to do it, you must. Nothing can stop a willing mind. Do not pursue wildlife photography just for its macho!

One must know what your present equipment can deliver and what it can’t, exploit that fully, first.

Before you jump on to expensive wildlife photography workshops and tours/ safaris,  prepare yourself as a photographer. And then next promotion should be as a wildlife photographer.

DO NOT JUMP THE GUN … And do not ape others …First, grind your photography skills and tame the camera!!!

Guard Your Precious Optics from the Tentacles of Fungus !

BEWARE !!!  Fungus is a silent killer of optics…

Trust me, when a photographer confronts those micro tentacles of fungus growing on any of his lenses, its like an attack that of the tentacles of `Portuguese man of war’. It will make any serious photographer sweat in pain, even in peak winters. Camera lenses are  the most precious treasure of any photographer and anyone true to his salt will not let it go to fungus so easily.

Photographer’s nightmare is lens with fungus!

Everyone, makes a serious effort to keep one’s lenses in pristine condition, especially from fungus. For the damage caused fungus to optics is irreversible. I am paranoid about my lenses. I hate even dust on my lens, you may ridicule me for this, but I do not change lenses in the field while shooting, very rare. I prefer to lose a shot than my lens or camera sensor to dust. In India, we have all the three major enemies of optics and electronics i.e. dust, heat, moisture! Well, if you are going to be an outdoor travel photographer, your optics are bound to take some beating by all these three enemies. But there are some measures to reduce the effect of these and increase the lifespan of your lenses.

Please take it seriously! It took me quite some time to figure out about the common mistakes we all make. When it comes to maintaining our camera lenses in pristine

conditions, we all make silly mistakes. Most of the photographers have knowledge about `Silica Gel’ being one of the best options to prevent fungus growth on optics, but make some some mistakes which deny the effectiveness of silica gel. Another most reliable option is a specially made dehumidifier for the purpose, though its expensive to buy and needs power supply all the time. Also not common in India.

The worse thing to do with your optics is to leave them on your cameras in your field camera-bags for long period, after you get back to base. Also, never dump them in a cupboard ever for long time, when not in use.

Fresh Silica Gel Crystals

Silica Gel 2nd Stage, needs attention for reheating.

Silica Gel Crystals at 3rd Stage. Ideally, the colour should not reach this stage. As this has been fully exhausted by moisture, also this indicates that there is more moisture than acceptable limits inside the container.

Do the following: if you want to save optics of any kind (binoculars, cameras sensors, CCDs and lenses).

Plastic containers with air-tight lids and should translucent, so you are able to notice the colour of the crystals.

  1. Buy big plastic jars (like the Cello company produces in India), wide mouth cylindrical shape, from a plastic merchant, which are airtight and translucent. The capacity could vary as per your requirements, one or two of 5 liters capacity and some 1 and 2 liters to accommodate small items separately. DO NOT buy opaque jars, one needs to monitor the colour of the silica gel.
  2. Visit a store, which deals in laboratory chemicals. Ask for Silica Gel (blue, self-indicating- course) big crystals.
  3. In India, I discovered (after 25 years of experience with silica gel) that Glaxo sells the best Silica Gel crystals for desiccation. I have tried all other brands and my expert friends also have the same opinion that all other brands are of very poor quality.
  4. The total amount of Silica Gel depends on the number of containers and the number of items of the camera equipment pieces. On an average, a professional photographer (having more equipment) should buy about 5 kilos to begin with or depending on your equipment. Must use 1 and 1/2 kilos in one jar of 5 liters capacity.
  5. Take the Silica Gel buckets/ cans outdoors and put it in a big strainer and shake it well to remove all the loose dusty particles of Silica Gel itself. There is always Silica Gel dust in all containers, so one must check the wind direction and stand facing your back in the direction from where the wind is coming in. And be gentle while doing this process.
    Note: Do not breathe this dust, these are Silica Gel’s fine particle and could sit in your lungs and may cause some medical trouble.
  6. Once you have shaken off the dust, then empty it into the plastic jars gently. Shake the jars a bit (gently) to ensure Silica Gel crystals settle down and shape into a leveled surface. Now, take a thick cotton cloth and spread it two-three-folds, over the Silica Gel, to prevent any scratches to the body of your cameras and lenses, when you place them over the Silica Gel crystals.
  7. Please avoid accommodating too many pieces together. Ideally, not more than two three lenses in one container. Basically, you should open only that item at one time, which you need. Do not expose Silica Gel to air when you can avoid, as moist air will come in contact with Silica Gel and be ready for re-activation soon.
  8. Please note that Silica Gel is re-usable so do not worry about investing Rs. 1000 (US$ 25 approx.) for the insurance of your optics and cameras against these deadly silent killers. Once any fungus sets in and stays on the surface of the lens for long time, the quality of the lens is gone forever.
  9. If you have to keep your camera and optics into the jars after exposing these to moist conditions (monsoon) then follow these guidelines - never place your optics into

    Lens being given Infrared (IR) Treatment to remove moisture from inside the lens, if the lens has been used under high humid conditions.

    the Silica Gel jars straight from the field conditions. Best is to use an infrared lamp; place it horizontally on the floor or a table and place your lens at a distance of one meter, facing directly into the infrared lamp. You may not remove the UV filter, but loosen it quite a bit, just hanging on to the lens by one thread or two, enough for the moisture to escape when heated up by the IR lamp. Keep the lamp `ON’ for 30 minutes. Now place your this piece of lens immediately into the jar, after removing its filters. Please note that there should NOT be any filters in front of the lens while placing it back in the jar, the lens cap is advised to prevent any loose particles to settle on the front element of your lens. Rear lens-cap should be loose enough, just hanging on to the lens precariously. So, the desiccated air could circulate all over to remove the moisture easily.

  10. Remove UV filters and keep them in the Silica Gel filled jars only. Fungus affected filters are as bad as using spoilt lenses.
  11. Here, I have one more thing to share. I suggest never use bags to contain silica gel and then place them in jars, one can not see through bags the lost colour of the crystals.
  12. Bread boxes are a very good option as they provide a very wide base to prevent getting toppled as single box. But stacking of more than two is not advisable, it will certainly increase chances of tumbling the box and then Silica Gel may cause some external damage to the piece of equipment.
  13. This method works very well and its the best for field conditions. In fact electric oven for baking bread is best suited for the job of re-charging the silica gel.

RECHARGING OF THE SILICA GEL CRYSTALS

Since, its the indicating type Silica Gel, it turns pinkish white (loosing all the blue colour) when it has absorbed maximum moisture from the container, it needs to be noticed immediately and can’t sleep over it even for a day.  If it has been ignored for more than a week then technically this means the process for fungus could have started, . In fact, one should take a serious note of it when it starts losing its blue colour. Act at once and recharge the silica gel, much before it turns fully pinkish white.

Do not wait for the silica gel crystals to turn pink fully, it should be light blue in colour when it goes back to the pan for re-heating. Therefore, when you see the colour of the silica gel has turned whitish blue or whitish pink, please do not throw the Silica Gel thinking its gone bad forever.

  1. Take a clean frying pan, free of greasy materials, i.e. cooking oils, ghee etc. Place it on a gas stove, low flame, and put the gel crystals into the pan and let it heat for some time till some grains start turning cobalt blue and keep tossing the crystals with wooden spatula gently  every 5 to 10 minutes. A kilogram of gel crystals may need 30 to 45 minutes to really get rich blue and into its pristine condition.
  2. Then spread it in an open metallic tray and let it cool for a while, before you place it into jars back. Make sure, you don’t leave it to cool off for long, it will get exposed to avoidable moisture again. Gather the Silica Gel when it is warm and not hot to damage the plastic jars.
  3. Repeat the procedure for rest of the Silica Gel, if you have more jars  .
  4. I have not yet tried  recharging/ reheating in micro wave oven.

DISCLAIMER: If you follow this method, be rest assured the lenses are 100% safe from fungus. But I hold NO RESPONSIBILITY for any kind of damage if it happens to your equipment, that will be only if you make some mistakes overlook some finer points in the process.

My Bitter Experience Taught Me This

I did a bit of research on this subject on my own when I was about to lose my 16x main lens for Canon XL1.

One fine winter morning, I thought of shooting with my video camera Canon XL 1. When I took out my camera and lens from the jars, I was horrified to see fungus on the front element of the 16x Lens lens. I could not believe this, for my lens was well preserved in a jar filled with 2 kilos of Silica Gel and still blue in colour. I was shaken, especially, when the Silica Gel was in large quantity and still blue, considered as the best to safeguard optics against fungus.

I knew for years, for sure, that this is the best `low cost and the most trust worthy’  way to protect lenses from fungus, and I lost all my faith in the method for the moment. But I was not willing to accept it as a fact. After some thinking, I told myself that I could not lose my faith in this tested and tried method, so easily. I sent e-mails and made frantic calls to my expert friends and seasoned photographers who lived in coastal areas and had more experience on the subject. All of them replied coherently that the `cheapest and the best’ method is desiccating type Silica Gel and nothing else.

I had to believe what I saw with my lens, a well kept lens had grown fungus. I repeatedly asked – what they trust the most? And one unanimous reply was that the most trusted is Silica Gel in an air-tight jar. So, I was forced to re-think. I kept thinking for a month and went into all the minute details of my upkeep process. And during this scrutiny I discovered that fungus was only on the front element and not anywhere inside the lens. It took me no time to discover that the UV filter being tight fit on the lens was the culprit, it had trapped some amount of moisture between the front element and the filter. So, friends, remove the filters when you are about to place the lens in a silica gel jar!

WHY NOT THE SMALL SACHETS OF SILICA GEL?

These small sachets are NOT to be reused. Do NOT reheat.

These small sachets are NOT to be reused. Throw these away. Do NOT reheat.

And the small sachets are used by manufacturers only for one time use. These sachets supplied by the manufacturer are to be disposed off soon after you open the packing and start using your equipment. Never keep them again in your equipment, as it gets loaded with moisture. I have seen many people carrying these sachets like a monkey mother carries dead baby for long.

When manufacturer is packing new lenses or any piece of photography equipment, its done under dust free dry conditions and the lenses are packed in polythene having no moisture content.

I have taken few hours to put this article together, for the benefit of friends, please make a print of it and keep it or circulate the link it to ensure benefit to others.

Let me know if you have any further questions. Also, do let me know when you get this mail.