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. 

Hoopoe in flight, with its feed – shot in Palace Grounds with a Mamiya C30 + normal lens. The trigger was activated with a remote air release. Note the young one waiting in the tree trunk, for the food.


He won international recognition at an early age, with many awards and fellowships to follow during his illustrious stint behind the camera.  He was honoured with the prestigious MFIAP (Master Photographer of French Federation de l’Art Photographique) in nature photography barely 3 years after the award was instituted. He is also the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for wildlife photography instituted by the Government of India, Photo Division, for the year 2011-12.  


Mr. Perumal, with the legendary photographer Mr. M. Krishnan.
1.  Shooting with a gun to shooting with a camera – how was the experience different?
Theory of rifle shooting and camera shooting happens to be the same – holding the camera steady, smooth release of the shutter without jerking, breathing technique while taking  the picture (holding your breath is the steadiest), aiming a long lens at the subject. This is why a person’s rifle-shooting experience made it easier to switch to photography.


Mr. Perumal with Sundaraj (nicknamed Black Panther). This leopard was shot in what is today the heart of Bangalore city (Model House Street near Nagasandra Circle), way back in 1957-58.


2.  You have had several encounters with leopards. Could you tell us about the most memorable one?
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.


Leopard in Bandipur


3.  You have interacted with some legendary photographers – Mr. OC Edwards in particular. How did interactions with him change your life?
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.


4.  You had the likes of Mr. BNS Deo, Mr. MY Ghorpade, Mr. Hanumantha Rao and Mr. M. Krishnan as a few of your contemporaries. How was it being a stalwart among stalwarts?
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.


Mr. Perumal with Mr. E. Hanumantha Rao


5.  You have received many accolades for photography. Which ones do you value the most?
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.
6.  Owl photography was a path-breaking effort for those times. How challenging was it to make those images?
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.


Great Horned Owl with prey


My first attempt was photographing a Great Horned Owl in Kalkere – the bird had nested in a rock crevice at about 20 feet height.  I erected a machan using wooden poles for fixing the camera and light-beam triggering units. I arranged the light beam in such a way that when the bird flew into its nest, it interrupted the light beam and took its own picture. It involved a lot of experiments in positioning the equipment to get the best shot. Though it was hazardous to work under those situations, the results were quite rewarding and helped in understanding owl behaviour, like how Horned Owls hide and hoard half eaten prey in the night to be used as food for the owlets in the morning. The Mottled Wood Owl was in an even more difficult nesting site, but my photo showed it carrying a bat, leading to documentation of the information that owls feed on bats.

Read about more details of this technique and about the making of Mr. Perumal’s iconic Barn Owl image, here:


Setting up the camera on the machan, to photograph owls


7.  You have photographed wildlife in Africa as well. Can you briefly compare the experience?
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.


Kudu pair, shot in Kruger National Park in 2013
8.  Transition from film to digital – how difficult was it?
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.


 In the field, with his digital gear
9.  You have dabbled in macro photography too. Can you share the technique you use?
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.


 Blister Beetles – shot in daylight, with a 200mm f4 Macro Nikkor lens and a reflector.


10.  Please share a note of wisdom on ethics of wildlife photography for all those into nature and wildlife photography.
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.

11(9) Mr. TNA Perumal in the field