Interview With Award Winning Wildlife Photographer Sudhir Shivaram
Today I am glad to introduce you to the award winning wildlife photographer Sudhir Shivaram. I am a huge fan of his photography, and I am happy that he found some time to answer a few questions about him and his photography.
About Sudhir Shivaram
Sudhir Shivaram is a renowned wildlife photographer in India. His long and passionate association with photography began in his student days. What started out as an exploration of the enchanting world of the camera gradually gained direction and came to focus upon wildlife photography — in particular, bird photography. Sudhir is deeply committed to the cause of wildlife conservation and follows ethical practices while photographing his subjects in the wild. He believes that wildlife photography is not underscored by photographic hardware and skills alone. A deep understanding of and concern for the wild environment ought to be an integral part of a good nature photographer’s ‘eye’ in order to be able to convey the spirit behind a picture.
His pictures are noteworthy for their technically sophisticated and evocative character, generating appropriate moods to move viewers. This green evangelist campaigns for wildlife protection around the world and gives freely of his time and images to raise awareness about nature and wildlife. He also talks about his work and the state of wildlife to young people across the country hoping to inspire and win their commitment to this cause so dear to him.
Sudhir is one of the brand ambassadors for Canon India and is part of the Canon Professional Photographers Panel aimed at providing value added services for the Canon customers. In order to share his passion for wildlife photography and the extensive knowledge he has acquired in this field, Sudhir holds photography workshops and photo tours to help both beginners and advanced photographers enhance their skills and understanding of nature and wildlife photography.
Being part of the India Nature Watch team, Sudhir makes some free time coordinating the activities of this online forum which has over 7500 users who share their joy for nature and photography. He works full time as General Manager in an MNC heading a small software division.
Congratulations on winning the 2012 Sanctuary Asia Wildlife Photographer of the year award. Could you share how you got the image?
Thank you for the wishes. The image was taken at Kabini backwaters in the Rajiv Gandhi (Nagarhole) National Park. During the evening safari at Kabini, we came across this Leopard which was on a tree with a spotted deer kill. We spent around two hours photographing it and finally had to leave at 6:30pm in the evening. Since it would have consumed the kill overnight, we knew that the Leopard would be around the same place the next morning.
The next morning we visited the same place and found it resting on a different tree. Its belly looked filled. It was relaxing there and was least bothered with the presence of so many jeeps. We stayed with it for the whole morning and photographed it in different lighting conditions. In the afternoon we came back to this place and still found it on the same tree, sleeping. This Leopard was on the same tree for a whole 12 hours from morning to evening.
Why did you select that image for the contest? According to you, what makes an award winning shot?
The mood, lighting and the habitat is what I liked in this image. The theme of the contest was “Call of the Wild”, and this, according to me, depicts the theme. I personally like this image as it has a painting feel to it.
It’s a difficult one to answer about what makes an award winning shot (from a competition perspective). I participated in a competition after a gap of more than 3 years. For me, personally, every image is an award winning shot if it meets the some of the following criteria:
- Capturing an image which represents the wildlife in their natural habitat and does not show any kind of undue stress on the animal.
- The image should convey a story and a message.
- It has to be a natural history moment.
- It has to be unique and out of the box.
- The photo need not be a close portrait of the animal.
- An image showing the habitat and convey the mood of the forest / environment
How did you get into wild life photography?
I owe this to two of my very good friends - Chaitra Ramaiah and Rajesh Puttaswamaiah. In fact it was Chaitra who took me to BR Hills and introduced me to Wildlife. He himself is an excellent wildlife photographer and a good naturalist. All three of us used to frequent the forests around Bangalore and Mysore. During the initial period in 1996, we used to be out in the jungles almost every weekend. Thanks to my twin sister Sunitha who presented me the Canon EOS Elan IIE and the Canon 75-300 IS Lens. That set me up for Wildlife Photography. Later joined India-Nature-Pixs , a Yahoo group and met more like minded people. My interest in nature grew and I have never looked back again
What inspires you about wild life photography?
Nature itself is so amazing that I can spend the entire day in the forest without making a single image. The kind if surprises you get in nature and the number of things it teaches you is fascinating. The other important thing is – Wildlife is not just Tigers and Leopards. The behavior of every single living being in the jungle is different and needs to be studied. To be honest, I am not a Tiger person. I do not go into the jungles to look for Tigers or Leopards. So many times I have spent a lot of time with common subjects like Spotted Deer or Sambar Deers. Of course, the forests have the other favorite subject of mine – Birds. Many of the forest birds are so colorful that you forget about the worries or your concrete jungle and enjoy the beauty of nature.
The joy of watching birds and animals in their natural habitat and observing their behavior arouse a lot of interest in nature. Capturing those moments and sharing with friends and family helped me to spread that joy of nature. My passion towards wildlife grew and I got involved in a lot of conservation related activities and projects. I contribute my images free of cost for this purpose and is used by a lot of NGO’s and other organizations all over the world. This makes me happy as I am able to contribute back to nature in a small way. But above all, the ultimate inspiration is my own satisfaction of being one with nature!
What kind of equipment you use now, and what did you start with?
Equipment upgrade is one of the hottest topics of discussion between photographers. I started with a very old German camera. Complete manual exposure and it had split focusing mode for focusing. My first DSLR was gifted by my twin sister – the Canon EOS Elan IIE and 75-300 IS lens. Later my wife gifted (50%) me the Canon 100-400 L IS Lens. Then the rest of the upgrade followed -> Canon 10D-> Canon 30D -> Canon 1D Mark III -> Canon 1D Mark IV and finally now I use the Canon 1DX. On the lens part, it has been 100-400 -> Canon 500mm f/4L IS -> Canon 800mm and finally included the Canon 400mm f2.8 L IS II to my kitty. I started the first lens rental in India for wildlife photographers (based out of Bangalore) that opened up the Pandora box where I had all the key L series lens from Canon which I could use based on the requirement.
What are the difficulties faced by a wildlife photographer on a regular basis?
Wildlife photography is all about opportunity. You need to be at the right place at the right time with the right kind of equipment & settings and with the right kind of people. There are multiple factors and challenges faced by any wildlife photographer:
- Getting the suitable vehicle with a knowledgeable naturalist / guide and an experienced driver in any of the National Parks and Sanctuaries is one of the biggest challenges a wildlife photographer faces. No matter what kind of equipment a photographer has, if the logistics is not proper, then you end up with no good photographs.
- Most of the action in Wildlife happens late in the evening, which means less light. In this situation you face challenges with equipment where focusing will be very slow and you may need to increase your ISO to get a decent shutter speed to capture any kind of action. Fortunately, with the improving digital camera technology, dealing with ISO is something which can be handled. But focusing speed is more related to the aperture of the lens being used as you need a lot more light to enter the camera for faster focusing to achieve. And that comes at a cost.
- To be a good wildlife photographer, you need to be a good naturalist and understand and follow the ethics of wildlife photography. With increasing affordability of DSLR camera equipment, the number of people aspiring to take up wildlife photography has increased dramatically over the years. This has resulted in dilution of the ethics of wildlife photography, thus discrediting the entire community at times.
- From a financial standpoint, the cameras, lenses and accessories along with travel are expensive. No matter how good you are at this, you cannot make a lot of money. It takes several years to build the credibility to make a mark in this genre of photography. The bottom-line of Wildlife Photography is – We are in it because we love it, not with the hope of making a lot of money.
What are your thoughts on raw images vs images that have been worked on (photoshop)?
There is a very thin line between image correction and manipulation. I have been doing photography for close to 20 years and started with black & white photography during my college days. I have spent time in the dark room developing and processing the film negatives. In today’s digital world, that dark room is basically your computer where you need to process your images. The dynamic range of the camera is limited by the sensor technology, whereas our human eyes can perceive a much larger dynamic range. As the term says, RAW is literally RAW – It’s a data file and not an image file unlike jpeg. You need to process that RAW data to get the RGB values to match to what you saw in the field. And that’s where image processing comes in. My fundamental principle of processing is to show what was seen in the field – nothing more, nothing less. There may be occasions where you may have to remove a distracting twig or play around with the image to show the details in a better way which could not be captured in the field due to various factors. Of course, if you start manipulating your images beyond the normal adjustments, then it is no more photography but digital art. But again, there is nothing wrong in doing so if that is your line of interest. In the end, photography and processing are subjective and you want to please yourself.
What are the techniques you use?
Wildlife Photography is all about being at the right place at the right time, with the right kind of equipment and techniques. There is no one single lens available to cover all aspects of Wildlife Photography. You need to get the best from what you have. I typically carry my Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens mounted on the 1D Mark IV and the Canon 400mm f2.8 L IS II on the Canon 1DX. This combination gives me the flexibility to make close up images or capturing action and behavior. I have used the double decker technique where I use both the set of equipment at the same time to capture the same scene with multiple focal lengths.
How do you plan a shoot?
Photography, in general, is all about pre-visualization and planning. Most of my images are pre visualized and well planned and I go after those concepts/subjects and execute. There is a huge difference between taking images and making images. Anyone can take an image, but to make an image require a lot of knowledge, both on the technical aspects of photography and your subject. There are more than 10 different tasks you have to do before releasing the shutter. Some of it has to be done in advance (like exposure setting and most of the camera settings) and the rest, which is composition, will depend on the kind of subject and opportunity you get.
There are various factors involved in isolating your subject and capturing it – The equipment being used, your distance from the subject, the angle of approach, the background associated and the kind of subject being photographed. One of the key aspects in Wildlife Photography is to understand the behavior of your subjects. The circle of fear is part of that. Once you are able to break that circle of fear and the animal knows you are not a threat, it will continue its normal business and that helps to capture the behavioral aspects. All animals do display emotions, especially when they are in a group. Patience and perseverance are keys to capturing these emotions.
Which is your favorite image? Could you explain the background story behind it?
My “Tiger Siblings and Gaur” has been my all-time favorite image. Many of my friends who are into Wildlife mention that it’s probably the best Tiger image photographed in India. It was photographed at Lakvalli Forest Range, Bhadra Tiger Reserve. Sighting a few Spotted Deer was itself a challenge in this forest during those times. We were lucky to sight the Tigers and the Gaur and their interaction. For more images and the complete story – Tale of Two Tigers and a Herd of Gaur
The images proved to be of extreme importance from a conservation point of view when Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) discovered that one of the Tiger had travelled all the way from Bhadra to Dandeli Anshi National Park over a distance of 270 Km. This was the first time in history of Tiger study that photographic evidence was there to support that a Tiger could actually travel over such long distances. It was believed that the home range of Tiger was 60 sq km. This opened avenues of study, because there was human habitat en route and the Tiger could not have travelled as the crow flies. You can read more on this here:
Do you have any tips for aspiring wildlife photographers?
There are two important points to be noted to become a good Wildlife Photographer:
- You need to understand the fundamental concepts of photography which includes exposure, focusing, composition and execution. You need to move away from taking images to making images. There is a huge difference between the two. Most of the images I make currently are with the concepts of pre visualization, where I frame the image in my mind and then execute it based on the opportunity I get.
- The second important aspect in Wildlife Photography is to become good naturalist first, and then, a Wildlife Photographer. As conveyed before, it is important to understand the animal behavior and never cross the line. Understand the circle of fear and see how you can break that to make great images of the animals without causing any kind of stress on them. Remember, no image is worth compromising the safety of the subjects, and yourself.
Find Sudhir Shivaram on the web: