I found myself living a wildlife photographer’s worst nightmare a few years ago, when I moved to Bengaluru to pursue a research career in molecular ecology. While the work at the National Centre of Biological Sciences (NCBS) was exciting and immersive, I was grounded to a desk for the first time – unable to leave the city, waist-deep in work, browsing longingly through old photos. I was craving for a forest, and the idea of adhering to set boundaries – more importantly, of not being near tigers, leopards or chital – was stressful. In hindsight, it was the best thing that has ever happened to the photographer in me.
I grew up on a farm close to the forest that became Kipling’s muse – Pench Tiger Reserve – with tigers and leopards roaming around almost in our backyard. My family loved and respected nature, and I grew up listening to tales of hunting, of jungles and man-eaters from the village elders. It was in this milieu that I chose photography as a tool to share moments from the wild.
By the time I got my first camera, I had already experienced the thrill of standing two meters from a tiger, of walking on a forest trail without a torch and accompanied only by the distant sawing of a leopard, of sleeping under an open sky without being able to see a single star because of the million fireflies that had lit up the sky. Photography was just an extension from the exposure I got to wildlife. To me, at that time, wildlife photography could only mean dense forests, and charismatic and endangered wildlife.
Years later, at work in the scenic NCBS campus, my inclination to explore nature drove me to peer about the garden around my lab. That’s when the real meaning of wildlife struck home. By definition, aren’t a grasshopper, a mantis, and even an ant part of urban wildlife? My interactions with international students at the institute just underlined how, in comparison, we live with a bounty of natural heritage – even our cities are filled with wildlife that we have grown to take for granted.
The learning I took away from these years is that you don’t have to be a regular at a tiger reserve to be a wildlife photographer. You can nurture your skills and your knowledge while sitting in your backyard, a garden or even a lake in your city. My challenge was to find a new perspective on the life we see – and ignore – everyday. I realised that it was no longer about the camera gear, it wasn’t about the subject – it was purely about the perspective. It was about how a photographer sees these subjects in his surrounding habitat. Undoubtedly, for me, it was an intensely personal experience.
Scroll down for photos from my strolls around the NCBS campus.
Defined as “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light”, bokeh brings drama to the image, particularly when you add it with contrasting colours.
Nocturnal beauties: the moon and the owlet. The owlet is a resident at NCBS.
Photography is always about light, and playing with external light gives you the power to explore a new perspective. In this image, I used an external torch to backlight the subject instead of illuminating it fully. The result was unexpected – the juvenile cobra turned out to be transparent. One can actually see its anatomy, blood vessels and the heart.
Damselflies are all about their bulging eyes but its interesting sometimes to shift the focus and highlight something else.
The external flash is very useful but can be too intense. It is important to choose the source of external light. In many instances, such as this photo of a balloon frog, I prefer torchlight as it gives the freedom to illuminate the subject as much as needed to create different images.
When you spend a lot of time photographing one subject, such as this Praying Mantis, your mind automatically starts composing afresh. It’s always fun to use the habitat to frame your subject.
We made a million lamps, in turn a million suns for these tiny creatures. The sun provides us with energy and these lamps, attracting different insects, provide prey for this mantis. Silhouettes are always tricky and challenging, but definitely satisfying. In this image, the mantis is backlit by a path lamp in the NCBS campus.
The web was constructed at a height of around three meters, and was anchored between a tree and the building wall. The wind blew the gossamer web upwards to present this flash-aided view.
It’s not just insects and birds that we share our space with. Some interesting, as well as shy, reptiles such as this Russell’s Viper also live with us. Even though this snake has a bad reputation from the human deaths it causes every year, it makes for a very nice subject when photographed with shallow depth of field.
Photographing a subject like this water boatman (an insect which is found in fresh water) can get tricky sometimes. It swims just under the surface of the water and has to be photographed from above. Fortunately, at this instance, some nitrogen bubbles exploded and created ripples, which added to the image.
Weaver ants display great cooperation when building their intricate treetop nests. In this image, the ants (genus Oecophylla) were trying to build a bridge to the lamp below. Some ants were already on the lamp and some were descending from the tree.
NCBS is India’s prime biology research institute, located in Bangalore. All the images above are taken in this campus over a period of two years, from 2010-2012.
First published in the digital version of National Geographic Traveller India. See the story on natgeotraveller.in