His is a name which elicits respect and awe, particularly amongst photographers – Thanjavur Nateshacharya Ayyam Perumal, better known to everyone as TNA Perumal. He took to the camera during an era when photography was very nascent; when it was still practised as an art that required tremendous patience and unflinching dedication. It meant understanding not just the tools but also the subject.
Mr. Perumal strived to make pictures which arrested the viewer’s attention – extraordinary images, many of natural history. A classic example is the time he used his knowledge of electronics to set up camera traps for flash photography, to produce path-breaking flight images, especially of owls.
Leopards happen to be my favorite animal to photograph. A couple of incidents are etched in my mind – in Bannerghatta forest and Bandipur.
Before 1960, Bannerghatta forest was a regular haunt of leopards. One day, my friend Krozen, a Dutch radiologist from W.H.O, asked me to take him there to try his luck shooting with his magnum rifle. We took the help of village shikaris in selecting a likely place to prepare a ground hide and tie a live goat as bait. We sat in the hide before sunset and the villagers left, making noises hoping to distract the leopard. Soon the goat started bleating continuously in the darkness and then suddenly stopped. Sensing something, I asked Krozen to be ready while I flashed a torch in the pitch darkness towards the goat. We were treated to an incredible sight – a full-grown male leopard facing the goat. Both were still for sometime before the leopard quickly jumped and ran into the forest as Krozen was trying to fire a shot. I stopped him from taking a shot at the running animal, to prevent it from being wounded. When I asked him why he didn’t pull the trigger before it ran, he said “the beautiful sight overwhelmed me and numbed my finger.” This is a natural phenomenon that happens to sensitive shikaris when they encounter animals at such close quarters.
Photographing a leopard eluded me for a long time. Then in Bandipur, I was with friends in a noisy jeep in the evening safari drive. At around 6 pm, it was almost dark, when near ‘aaney katte’, a leopard walked up and hid in the bushes. We waited quietly for it to reappear and after some time, it did, moving into the forest. We reversed the vehicle, reached a junction, and waited for the leopard. He reappeared at the junction and started moving opposite to us. We followed him, driving parallel to him, taking photos whenever he paused. He allowed us to be as close as 20 yards from him. Suddenly a Sambar ahead of us honked. The leopard froze like a statue, which helped us click in that low-light condition; it was a clear view of the animal against the forest. The leopard then took a left turn and melted away into the forest in true leopard fashion. This unexpected opportunity gave me the photographs I had been waiting for.
Mr. OC Edwards, a school-master teaching at Bishop Cotton boys’ school in Bangalore, was a pioneer bird photographer in India. I met him during my wanderings in the jungles of Bannerghatta and am grateful to him for taking me as his student in nature photography. He popularised the technique of using an air-release remote control for photographing birds in nests, keeping the camera close to the subject and releasing the shutter from a distance using the remote control. All my schooling in photography was under him, a perfectionist and practitioner of ethics in bird photography; his principle – “welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph” was always practised. Meticulous processing of films and making black and white prints was his specialty, which he taught me, along with how to find a bird’s nest, identifying birds by call, their seasons and behavior and ideals of bird photography. He used to say “think before you click and don’t compromise on the quality of the picture”. Our discussions were also about international developments in nature photography.
I am fortunate to have known all these four stalwarts – each of them was a unique personality and a passionate wildlife photographer. I am grateful to them for their interactions and sharing of their views, from which I learnt a lot. I also had the privilege of working with them. BNS Deo was always interested in knowing about developments and innovations in film technology, camera technology and wildlife photography. MY Ghorpade set himself very high standards; his reflexes were fast, like a master shooter, with a keen eye for a photograph. Hanumantha Rao’s name is synonymous with wildlife photography in India. M. Krishnan was a master naturalist, painter, a complete photographer, and a crusader of conservation, with a unique writing style.
The honours from Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain (FRPS) for nature photography, the spontaneous announcement of a fellowship by the delegation of Pakistan Salon Group, and the Lifetime Achievement Award 2011-2012, by the Government of India, give me a feeling satisfaction.
Owl photography was a challenging effort. My first owl picture was taken at Bannerghatta hills using air-release remote control. Since owls are nocturnal, their behavior is not easily observed; especially, photographing them at nest involves suitable techniques.
Read about more details of this technique and about the making of Mr. Perumal’s iconic Barn Owl image, here:
In Africa, animals are in large numbers and larger in size; isolation of subjects for photography is a matter of chance. Light values are better in Africa than in India. Opportunities too are more in Africa; seeing and photographing a lion there is easier than seeing and photographing a tiger here.
To me, jargon used in digital photography is more confusing than the technique. I do miss the feel achieved by film technology, but the advantages offered by digital photography far out-weigh film: instant previews, low-light photography and scope for instant corrections in the camera itself. It took some time for me to understand and adapt myself comfortably to digital photography.
I use a longer focal length macro lens, diffused light and positioning of the camera parallel to the subject plane. I also prefer to use a tripod.
As already mentioned, welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph. Consciously observe for signs of distress amongst animals. Keep a respectable distance between you and the subject.