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Wildlife photography in India and why it is so screwed up!

You know, it’s easy to say that you should follow your passion and make a living out of it. Everybody says if you turn passion into profession, you can be happy in life. But is that true? Firstly, there is lots of difference between passion, hobby and doing something because you enjoy doing it. Passion is an extremely strong urge from within to do something compulsorily, no matter what happens. That could be the soul’s way of aligning you with your life’s purpose. Regardless of whether you have the means to do it or not, you will do it by hook or crook (only if you listen to yourself though). Hobby is a pastime that one indulges in occasionally. It is meant to be a form which one is inclined to and strives to better himself or herself in it. But unlike passion, there is no strong urge from within to practice or improvise on it. Thirdly, doing something just because you like doing it doesn’t make it a passion or hobby. Drinking cannot be passion even though the bottle urges you to be there at 6 PM SHARP. It can’t be your life purpose to just drink! It can’t be your hobby either because you’ll have to be in your senses! 🙂

My passion is motorcycling and doing almost everything related to it. Another passion of mine is photographing the most neglected and abused elements on Earth- Nature and Wildlife. Clicking a picture of those is my way of cherishing the moment. I am a self taught photographer but I did attend a wildlife photography workshop during my college days because I needed something to get started with. Once that was done, I got good at it quickly and began to explore more and more. When my work began to get noticed, I got suggestions of pursuing wildlife photography as my career. Wildlife photography today, especially in India is like the parliament. It isn’t heading anywhere, there are people who are trying to raise its standards but aren’t able to do so because there are other people pulling it down by doing it for free/ for cheap. Then there’s a lot of ego clash about who clicked the first photo of a particular specie and got popular, who stole somebody else’s image, bla bla bla… Not only does it end there, there are dickheads who express an extremely low level of competence and ethics as they attract wild animals by killing other animals and using them as prey, just for that perfect shot. Then there’s the demand-supply dynamics. The market demand in India for wildlife photographers and their work is the opposite of the demand for goods you’d see in the FMCG industry. To top that up, there are clowns who just had a brush with wildlife photography yesterday, head out to buy huge lenses without even knowing how to use them properly, then suddenly everybody wants to get that perfect shot of the black leopard, everybody who just began yesterday suddenly invest almost a million in gear and then invest another million in wildlife resorts, just to have an awesome presence on Facebook, India Nature Watch, flickr etc. Yes, all that circus means your ego will receive a warm oily massage that’ll only help it grow fatter. As the ego grows fatter, they’ll indulge in a lot of other shitty circus tricks I haven’t mentioned here. Eventually, all this will only result in a person’s memory card count overtaking his sperm count!

Wildlife photography in India
courtesy- some meme page

But this circus Mumbo jumbo has had a far greater effect on the fraternity as a whole. Firstly, the prices of Wildlife safaris and resorts has increased by many fold due to the sheer demand. I don’t hesitate in saying that jungle hospitality market is where tourists and travelers are looted openly and it still faces shortage of space. There are cheaper options but, conditions apply. A weekend of stay and 4 safaris on an average costs a single person a minimum of 15,000 INR! Secondly, this mad race in wildlife photography has led to the inherent stressing of almost all creatures in the jungle. You still see idiots today using flash with a 500mm f/4 mounted to their toy. Overall, the number of jeeps that go into reserves to serve these faggots are usually more than 10 to 15 in number, so if there’s a tiger by the side of the road, there’d be a dozen jeeps nearing it in a line with lenses popping out every now and then, which definitely pushes the tiger back into the bush. In fact, tigers have become extremely tolerant that they don’t bother much these days, especially after seeing jeep drivers spitting out tobacco on the forest floor, hearing babies cry out loud or by looking at imbeciles sticking their heads out of the jeep to get a death selfie with a tiger. Not to forget, I was once in a jeep in Nagarhole national park with an editor of a reputed (not sure though) wildlife magazine who ordered the driver to drive close to a huge male Elephant because he wanted the Elephant to mock charge at the jeep, just to get that so called ‘wild action’. I’m bad with names so I don’t know what the editor’s name was but I know the magazine’s name.  It’s weird though that the magazine’s website has taken down names of their editors, probably they all prefer mock charges.

Wildlife photography in India
Some Wild action eh!

Further to that, this circus has had the demand for DSLR cameras and lenses rocket all the way up to the moon, so they do come with a hefty price tag! DSLRs were like a serious thing in the past but now, it’s just another Jolly Rancher! To me, a good camera does 90% of the job or probably even more in getting an excellent image. A lot of the non professional idiots having access to good photography gear and a bit of textbook photography skills, offer their images to publications and media houses for peanuts or sometimes nothing. All that the idiotic photographers want is a bit of fame so that they can show off their ‘artistic work’ to relatives and friends at a stupid kitty party! This has a direct impact on real wildlife photographers who intend to earn a living through the art as they have to settle for lesser prices when dealing with media houses. In short, the industry grows at a dim pace. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to know the amount a wildlife photographer is paid in India for an international magazine’s cover shot as you are bound to feel disgusted.

Wildlife photography in India
Too much gear? Wow, you must be a pro!

But out of all the after effects of this madness, what has literally suffered is the essence of wildlife photography. I’m not saying that there aren’t nature lovers out there, they are an endangered species themselves. I see the art fading away as it is rarely backed by feeling, but is backed by the need and hunger to be appreciated by others. Making the situation worse are those extremely user friendly editing tools and apps out there that have the ability to change the Bengal Tiger’s color to KTM Orange or turn a Gorilla into a nude, hairless celebrity! I hardly see people inquiring about the moment of a photograph uploaded on wildlife photography forums, all that most are concerned about is ISO, shutter speed, what gear, what shoes, what underwear, etc. The icing on the cake of fakery and illusion is the amount of praise an extremely edited photograph gets! Does an increase in saturation, contrast and sharpness make a good photograph? Today, Wildlife photography is exactly like Nature and wildlife itself, it needs to be conserved! If the art fades away, all that will remain will be bitter science. Yes, the present day scenario of wildlife photography does help in conservation and in spreading awareness but you still read of wild tigers being poached or caged in zoos, rhinos being shot with AK-47’s and what not. Photographs do the job of moving people internally but it’s up to the same people to transcend the internal push into external action and I say that out of personal experience. Nature & Wildlife photography can do wonders in transforming a person, only if you’re willing to observe and live the moment while you get that unfeigned shot of yours (not in burst mode, please!).

Wildlife photography in India
highly edited wildlife image= fake shit!

I’m not saying I’m perfect, I have been through the phases I’ve mentioned above. I have shot a tiger with my camera that had my index finger pressed on the shutter button constantly till the cam ran out of breath, I’ve made HDR photographs of almost every image I clicked, I’ve increased saturation of green junglish landscapes that made people color blind, I’ve cropped out the jungle habitat in images just to zoom in and make a shot seem boring, etc. But, when I began to tread my own path, I stopped listening to ace wildlife photographers and publications that dictate terms on how much you should crop your image or if you have to place a bird towards the left of the image or towards the right of the image. What they say does make sense many a times but not all the time. I recently saw an advert on Facebook on how you could learn editing and correct your image with a tiger’s picture on it. I’d say that such adverts aren’t any different from those idiotic fairness cream ads on TV! How can one learn photography if you’re manually controlling the way you want your image to be seen after it is shot? You may become a good image editor in the process but, if you don’t bother to artificially correct an image, then you’ll remember to not make the same mistake again which will make you a better photographer! I think it’s also important to question everything, but it’s more important to unlearn after learning in order to find your own unique style, else what separates your from a lot of other jokers in the same field ? Almost everybody thinks the bedroom concept ‘bigger is better’ fits well with regard to DSLR lenses in jungles as well (according to an ancient practice pertaining to one’s so called ‘chi energy’, bigger and harder is not always better in bedroom too. Ha! I bet you didn’t know that). Anybody today with a lot of money can capture the eye of the Tiger with a blurred background, anybody can photograph the Asian Paradise flycatcher’ s feathers in detail but then what makes you, YOU? To a layman, your work may seem like you work for an international wildlife magazine but to other people in the same field, it is no different that what they click themselves!

Wildlife photography in India
One of my mistakes- heavily edited pied kingfisher image made back in 2012.

I chose to follow certain things that could make me a better, realistic nature and wildlife photographer according to me and not according to any other person or publication:

  1. I stopped participating in wildlife photography competitions. Firstly, I’m still in the process of learning and unlearning, so I rather concentrate on what I think that’s good for me than somebody else judging it. Secondly, my trust over these competitions just disappeared. Not that they aren’t just, but you and I know that the IIFA and Oscars awards too get very surprising so, I might as well not waste me time and theirs. 🙂 Thirdly, there are competitions that ask you to pay for each image you submit and that to me is the most ridiculous thing to do. A good photograph is like an asset, which you’re giving away. Imagine you paying for a plot of land you already own, only to prove to others that it belongs to you! They get hilariously stupid too, for instance this one
  2. I stopped following photography rules. Yes, rules do aid in getting an excellent image but sometimes, the image stands out when you break the rules. I still don’t know who made them though because how can an art have rules or laws? Isn’t that highly ironical?

    Wildlife photography in India
    Some random quote but it still makes sense!
  3. I only edit my image if it is required. The thing many professionals inject into the newbies is the OCD of editing images. Agreed, the camera isn’t smart as us as it doesn’t capture certain things in the same color and light as we look at it. So I try my best to recollect how a certain moment looked in real to me, then edit the image to bring it to a result that matches the actual picture on my mind, or at least bring it close to what I saw. What if the image you clicked appears exactly the same as what you perceived through your eyes? Well, then you don’t need to edit it. Unnecessary editing to me is like a beautiful girl applying make-up that only ruins her original looks!

    Wildlife photography in India
    A little cropping from the left and the rest remains untouched
  4. I stopped shooting everything in burst mode. My camera is always in burst mode as jungles are unpredictable but that doesn’t mean I use it extensively. Burst mode helps when there’s a lot action going on, it doesn’t help when there’s an asiatic lion sleeping peacefully by the trail. What’s the point? The animal is stationary in one place but I still hear cameras going going mad like assault rifles! Oh yes, you wanna show off and look cool eh!
    It’s always better to take a few still shots if the animal is stationary, that would help one in living the moment, save camera memory and battery life.

    Wildlife photography in India
    It isn’t a real canon people! click wisely else you’re just going to wake that cat up.
  5. No matter where I go, I will shoot with kit lens or 55-250mm lens. It’s been a year since I ventured out into the wild as I was busy riding along the highways of India on my motorcycle. But later this year, I do plan to make time and money for it and do it with a totally different perspective. A 250mm zoom is highly versatile and light to carry but doesn’t have as much reach and ‘/f’ factor as those lenses the so called professionals out there use. I intend to rely more on my creativity and ideas than relying completely on gear. I know this could get frustrating, nonsensical and may take a lot of time before I actually figure out a way to do with limited zoom or not, but I still want to do it this way.
    P.s big lenses won’t fit well on my bike anyways 🙂

    Wildlife photography in India
    My trusty old 250mm captured some peacock moves! I deliberately wanted that habitat around the love scene.
  6. I don’t have a role model in wildlife photography. I’ve hardly had role models till date if I can recollect. Most photos I’ve seen of many professionals are heavily edited whereas I would get inspired to look up to somebody who does the opposite. Wildlife art is a different thing and shouldn’t be brought under wildlife photography as per my perspective. Camera traps too do very little in capturing my interest. They’re awesome in what they capture images but still, you haven’t been present in that moment and instead, the camera captured it for you. It’s ‘soulless’!
  7.  I have more respect for wildlife and bird watchers than wildlife photographers because they don’t get the urge to capture so many images, all they want to do is to watch and live the moment. I don’t envy them but I do know that they have the most amount of fun.
  8. Travel less to tiger reserves! if there came a day tomorrow where we could vote and choose if tiger tourism should be allowed, then I would choose the option ‘NO‘. We’ve got to admit that there’s tourism coming in the way of conservation and it needs to be controlled before a tiger loses its mind and kills some tourists. I get angry when I see too many idiots flocking together, so imagine the plight of a tiger and other species when they see so many of them in jeeps almost everyday! Tourism can only do one thing- make a tiger so popular that it is literally fed by the Forest Department to keep it alive in old age just to lure in tourists like in the case of Machli or it gives way to tigers like Ustaad being put into jail. Imagine if nobody knew of Ustaad and Machli, the forest department wouldn’t have given a damn! We need to allow nature to take its course when it comes to these cats or for that matter, any specie. Yes, the popularity these cats have gained helps in conserving them in a huge way but at the same time, tiger tourism has gone overboard by a huge margin that gives conservation a sadistic, psychotic twist. Hence, I would visit them as less as possible, just so that I don’t contribute to the existing madness.

    Wildlife photography in India
    A common scene you’d witness in a tiger reserve and a then a Tigress goes back into the greens (look in center)
  9. If you’re starting out new but still want to tread your own path, then I suggest you don’t pay a bomb amount to people having a name in the industry to have your pictures reviewed or consulted but rather join forums where people actually help you improve. I joined a forum called Indiawilds.com where I uploaded my shots and had them critiqued by people who’ve been around for a longer time. What I noticed is that you get genuine feedback comments on your images and not just “Awesome shot, thanks for sharing” type comments. And yes, they don’t charge you to have your images reviewed! But how do you know what suggestion to abide by and what not to? Well, you just have to trust your intuition!I feel a that a journey that has to do with wildlife and nature is one that should be a very personal and intimate one. It shouldn’t be allowed to be judged by anyone, it shouldn’t be interfered with artificially, it shouldn’t have guidelines or rules and it definitely shouldn’t be considered as a race. It needs to be like the elements it pursues- natural and raw! So coming back to the question I put across in the beginning, well I’m not sure If I would’ve been happy by converting my passion for wildlife into profession considering the present day scenario I’ve mentioned above. I definitely wouldn’t want to be told what to photograph, I wouldn’t want to edit nature photographs for a magazine as per their instructions (yes, some are highly edited), I wouldn’t want to begin wildlife photography workshops because I’m still learning and also because I don’t prefer dumping half a dozen people into a jungle. In other words, I wouldn’t prefer to put a monetary price on the satisfaction I get while photographing animals in the jungle, if that satisfaction is eventually threatened as a result of the monetary interference. You gotta choose- money, appreciation or satisfaction?

P.S. most info I’ve posted above has been received through my observations in the jungles, through some reading and through interactions with people from the industry.

33 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Very well written.. Reflect my feeling.. Just be part of nature..
    Regards,
    Jungle Enthusiast/Animal lover


  2. // Reply

    Excellent article. I am also one of the idiots who bought a full frame dslr & some lens to shoot wildlife. However as i grew old i found that mostly a camera becomes a distraction to a journey. Once i have a dslr in hand i feel like i have to shoot something. I have curbed my idiotic instincts to a great extent (with great difficulty), no longer feel the urge to click a great picture. In the madness of clicking pictures we loose the feelings to the beauty of the surrounding nature. Sadly what you mentioned is true that we human have forgot to explore the beauty of a forest. We city people make too much chaos & noise and simple ruin the essence of a forest. i have started travelling to lesser known forests and hilly areas where tourists don’t flock too often. Got tired of seeing people everywhere !!!


    1. // Reply

      Hey Suman, thank you! I’m glad you realised that this indeed is madness, unfortunately a lot of them get carried away because a lot of their so called mentors push them to be this way. It is best to stroll in unexplored regions where there are few or nil distractions. Just one request, if you do post picture of the unexplored regions, do not disclose location on any social media forum 🙂
      All the best!


    2. // Reply

      Suman, that is the story of my life too. I have also packed up my camera to soak in nature to the max on holidays and trips to the wild.


      1. // Reply

        Manoj, you have started living life. We must appreciate the beauty first, clicking a picture should be secondary only as a purpose of bringing with us recorded memories from a trip. Unfortunately we humans with dslrs have set some kind of meaningless competition of who can click what. I have deep respect towards wildlife photography. But we must first learn the nature, it’s habitats and explore. After all life is a journey.


  3. // Reply

    Well captured today’s sad state of wildlife madness… Certainly i agree with you for most of the points…
    Regards


  4. // Reply

    Outstanding write up. You spoke my heart out. Thanks for sharing something that would help me unlearn some things I accidentally learnt looking and reading about pro photographers. Thanks a lot.


    1. // Reply

      Wonderful read that was, a tight slap on those who fake with ridiculously enormous lenses and chase for only big cats and not letting co-travelers enjoy nature during safaris. Funniest part being those pros photos are just ordinary as compared to some talented kids. Happy this article leaves few with red faces.


    2. // Reply

      Haha thank you people. You can do your bit to help people, share this article with them and wake them up!


  5. // Reply

    A write up coming straight from the heart. This is definitely the case for now on every Tiger reserve on the weekends. I have been going to Tiger reserves for over 15 years now, and can easily see the decline in standards of Gypsy drivers, guides. I have good friends who own up big long lenses. They are doing a lot of the nature and wildlife protection. They are also weekend visitors, but being honest to yourself and feeling the integrity within, is the most important.

    I like your observations around a bird watcher. It is the case for me also. Being a gadget loving person, I am guilty of eyeing the next better Binoc series of the currently owned one 🙂

    Seeing things from drivers and guides is also a story to be told. On interacting with them, they need to feed their family and raise them to good standards, after getting exposed to all the materialistic wealth from visiting photographers. They are willing to “strech a bit” for their guests in return of some grease.

    Being consiously aware and letting go of some frames should be ok.


    1. // Reply

      Thank you for sharing your observations Sarthak. Drivers and guides definitely need help but in a few cases, I noticed the interference of greed. After all they’re just humans too, but still.


  6. // Reply

    Thanks for this. To me the most important part is that photographers should respect nature.


  7. // Reply

    A nice article indeed. Reflects the current scenario well.

    I could agree to most of the points mentioned by you.

    You might be surprised but I have stopped visiting Tiger parks after 2009 and you might be surprised a bit more to know that I changed my camera kit twice after 2010 🙂
    Today I own 300/2.8 (and a couple of more 2.8!!) still I dont have many common birds’ full frame images and I have never intended a trip, may it be a weekend trip or a long photography tour, with a ‘wishlist’ in mind..

    To me, a common bird in the light I like is better than a rare species in the light I dislike for photography.

    I have also tried to not to use camera when I am visiting the place for the first time with an intention to enjoy and feel the place first before capturing it in the frame.

    And to surprise u more, I have till date ‘never’ participated in “any” of the competitions but I surely give my images to some cause where Nature Conservation is intended.

    once again, nice to read an article which I could very well relate with my own likes and ethics.

    Keep sharing your ideas,

    best regards,
    Dhaivat Hathi


    1. // Reply

      Hello Dhaivat, thank you so much for sharing your ways of doing this. I’m not surprised, you speak a true nature lover’s language. Congratulations to you for not letting your ego interfere with nature and wildlife, I’m sure it has helped you develop as a person and it will continue to do so. All the best 🙂


  8. // Reply

    Ssaajan,

    You really put your heart out in this article. I have totally done some of idiotic stuff myself and not at all proud of it. The sheer excitement and competitiveness to get that stunning shot pushes photographers over the line is what I have seen firsthand from articles such as yours. Somehow photography is being looked at as a money making business, not that anything is wrong with it but the way some folks sell their crap, so called photography skills, is just unethical and to the most part plain stupid. Taking up a limited gang of 15-20 (limited…..seriously) folks to wilderness on a tiger safari wouldn’t really teach them anything but excessive competitiveness leading to unethical conduct like stepping outside of the vehicle, getting too close to wildlife, basically monkey business. I have even seen folks taking selfie with a mama-bear with 2 cubs from a distance of 10 feet or so. Thank god that the bear was either not in mood or was too hungry to eat berries.

    The core problem I think is the lack of education in photography, not the logistics but as a practice. Learning/teaching about camera, light, equipment and techniques is great but how to practice photography without interfering with nature and without affecting anything that surrounds you is where efforts are required and I think experienced photographers who are looked up by beginners need to step up do their part in extended education.

    Keep up the good work!! Go #motorcycling !!


    1. // Reply

      Hey Neelesh, thank you for expressing your views. You’re right about education and one thing these workshops could do is to take their students out for the first Safari without cameras to just observe and learn, people have forgotten the art of sitting and observing things as they are.


  9. // Reply

    Lovely and very precise, You speak a Nature lovers mind ,Thank you, Yeah too many monkeys prowling around with their expensive toys and not sensitive at all about wildlife. Well written thank you.


    1. // Reply

      Thank you Lloyd! haha, these monkeys need to be tamed 😀


  10. // Reply

    Ssajan, a brilliant, brilliant piece and straight from the heart- not just yours, but mine too. I have been wanting to scream from the rooftops, the thiughts that u have penned down. In fact, i even suggested to a leading ‘wildlife’ magazine, that if they really care abt conservation, they must totally do away with wildlife photography awards. Of course, nobody bothered. But i m glad that there is still someone who shares my thoughts and has also put them down on a public forum.


    1. // Reply

      Thank you so much! There’s no point in telling publications and magazines, they’re busy chasing money and fame themselves.

      If you really want to help people know this during the early stages, share this article and help them awaken or perhaps, start your own blog and spread the word!


  11. // Reply

    Well written, I remember my guru C. Rajgopal


  12. // Reply

    Food for thought, a spontaneous call put up at the best. Super article, much appreciate your notions.


  13. // Reply

    Beautifully written. Though I’ve never been to India would love to go. I’m not a photographer, so I don’t know much about all the technical stuff. But i agree how people are sooo greedy and intrusive into
    the animals environments it is extremely upsetting. Would love to see some of the animals in the wild, but now don’t know how would be able to do it if I ever travel to India. I love India sooool much, the country,
    the people and the animals. Always felt I was Indian in my soul ever since I was about 5 years old!!!

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