Mission Wide Angle

Some time in 2013, October if I remember well, I had taken my Uncle on a wildlife trip to Mudumalai. He was visiting India for only 6 days and was on a tight schedule. While he got back from Kodaikanal to Coimbatore with my cousin, I was getting back to Coimbatore from a holiday in Kovalam. After an 8 hour drive from Kerala, I met my Uncle at my cousin’s house and we started our drive to Mudumalai.

We woke up late the next morning and went for a drive towards Thepakkadu and Bandipur. We managed to see the usual wildlife on the main road with no luck with big cats or Sloth Bear, got back to the resort for lunch and a siesta. Later that evening, we went for a drive towards Singara Road and Moyar Road. This one time, probably the first time, I decided not to take my tele-photo lens with me and carried only my Nikon AF-S 16-35mm f/4 ED VR Wide Angle lens with the D3s. I made up my mind that if I spotted any animal, be it a Tiger or a Leopard, far or near, I am not going to regret the fact that I left my tele-photo lens behind and make best use of the ultra wide angle lens I voluntarily decided to take along. As luck would have it, we did not spot any tiger or leopard. But we came across a Bull Elephant, standing on a game track about 8 to 10 meters off the road. Being used to looking at wildlife through the view finder, especially with a tele-photo lens, the experience viewing with an ultra wide angle lens was very different. I was liking it, in fact loving it.

At 16mm on a full frame camera, I saw a bit of tarmac, the game track, the lantana and cacti in front of the elephant, the elephant itself and the cloud filled Nilgiris behind the pachyderm. Suddenly there was so much going on in the frame with the clouds moving and the elephant dusting itself off with mud. From the body language of the elephant I could tell he was not in a good mood, so before making him lose his temper I wanted to make a few images and leave.

I was mighty happy with the results. That’s when I decided I am going to carry the wide angle lens with me and look for interesting perspectives every time I step into the jungle. Ever since, I have had the opportunity to get up close to some animals a few times and shoot with my Wide Angle lens to get alternative perspective of the animal.

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Elephant on Moyar Road, shot at 35mm

The second opportunity came up about 4 months after my visit to Mudumalai with my Uncle. This time, it was a known elephant. I have seen this elephant for years now and spent a good amount of time watching him and photographing him in the past. The sighting was close to Sigur bridge on a friend’s farmland. Since this elephant was used to my presence, I took the liberty to walk up to him very slowly, of course after reading his body language and took cover behind a tree about 15-20 feet from him. He stopped feeding for a minute and was noticing what I was up to. After realizing that I was up to nothing but making noises with my camera, he went back to gracing. I seized the moment with this capture and was fortunate enough to get another personal favorite image.

Elephant at Sigur, shot at 35mm

Elephant at Sigur, shot at 35mm

As a professional photographer I frequently drive up to Valparai on work. The best part about working in Valparai is that I get to shoot wildlife while I am at work. On one such trip I had the opportunity to photograph a Nilgiri Tahr up close. Rather than me going to the animal, I was waiting for the goat to walk towards my car so that he knew I was not intruding his space. It took about 5-10 minutes but that’s beauty of it. I have learned, the more you wait, the better photographs you will be able to make in the process. Unfortunately everything revolves around the clock these days and everyone is in a hurry to get things done. But ultimately, shooting wildlife is not about rushing up. Of course, the waiting has to be backed with a fair amount of knowledge of the subject, otherwise one would end up waiting for nothing.

Nilgiri Tahr, shot at 16mm

Nilgiri Tahr, shot at 16mm

An Indian Gaur we encountered on the way to Thengumarada shot at 35mm on the Nikon D810.

Gaur at Thengumarada, shot at 35mm

Gaur at Thengumarada, shot at 35mm

Finally, one of my favorite images of an elephant that I photographed last week. Even though it was not a wild elephant, we did not change anything from the scene. We did not position the animal there, we did not ask people to move away, we did not do anything other than treat it as a wild subject and photographed it like how we would photograph a wild elephant. The lighting was utterly brilliant that day and it couldn’t have gotten any better.

Elephant at Thepakkadu, shot at 35mm

Elephant at Thepakkadu, shot at 35mm

Conclusion: Wide Angle lens for photographing mammals is Epic! A lot of budding photographers today are under the misconception that wildlife photography is all about shooting with a telephoto lens. A telephoto lens is just an aid to shoot animals up close when you don’t have the opportunity get close to the animals. It is certainly not a mandatory equipment to have to pursue wildlife photography. Bird photography, though, is a different ball game all together.

I have thoroughly enjoyed shooting mammals with an Ultra Wide Angle lens and I think a few of us should experiment with an alternative perspective when it comes to shooting wild animals.

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The Great Pied Hornbill

Valparai is a place that I have been visiting for the last 9 years. And every time I visit, the one photograph that I’ve always missed is that of the Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis). More than one thing fascinates me about this great bird, their sheer size, their vivid colors, the loud sound made by their flapping wings when they fly and their monogamous pairing. This time, I was lucky enough to get different photographs of both the male and the female bird. I have edited an image to bring the male and the female bird to one image with the intention of showing the basic difference in the sexes. Taken at Valparai on the 10th of April, 2014.

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Left: Female, Right: Male. Females are smaller than males and have bluish-white instead of red eyes although the orbital skin is pinkish. The most prominent feature of the hornbill is the bright yellow and black casque on top of the massive bill. The back of the casque is reddish in females while the underside of the front and back of the casque is black in males. The males have black marking on white tail and the females have white on black.

My “Kumki”

Kumki elephants are found every where today. When I mention the words “kumki elephant”, people sometimes have asked me if it was a sub species of the Indian Elephant found here, innocently so. Kumki elephants are basically captive, trained elephants to keep the wild ones from foraging into human habitation. They are also used for breeding. However, the Kumki I mention here is not actually an elephant, although it is of the same color and is big, has four wheels and is in fact four wheel drive, it almost goes everywhere an elephant can, it almost feeds (milage) as much as an elephant, painted elephant grey and carries about 5 to 7 people comfortably just as an elephant does. What I am referring to here is a Mitsubishi Pajero christened by me as Kumki.

After a long wait and a lot of thought, I decided to get myself an off-roader to suit my style of life. I am mostly found traveling to places where there are no roads virtually. The cars I had used earlier where sometimes damaged due to driving in such terrain and sometimes I have never reached the intended destination because of the road conditions. Even photographing birds was a challenge because they would just fly off if we get closer or the other sedan I have, couldn’t take me up close in cover. So, what I needed was a vehicle that can take me every where.

After looking at Land Rover Defender 110’s, 90’s, Land Rover Discovery, Toyota Landcruiser 80 Series, 90 Series, 100 Series, 120 Series, Nissan Patrol Y60’s and Y61’s even the all wheel drive Subaru Forester, I couldn’t narrow down on one vehicle due to a lot of reasons. The most later models were too expensive to be thrashed, the cheaper SUVs were really really old to be a reliable vehicle. The last thing I want is to be stuck in the jungle with a broken down SUV. Dejected is how I felt every time I came back with no SUV to own. One final day, I decided to myself, lets try one last time and if nothing works out, I’ll be back to taking my Honda City to the jungle again.

Got on to an online used car sales website and searched under the SUV column and I saw a Pajero listed on the top of the list. First off, I loved the color. I am not a big fan of the Dual-Tone Pajeros that they sell in India. The previous owner had painted this one dark grey and I loved it. I contacted the owner Antony James and asked him about the vehicle and he said that it is parked in his family home in Trissur, which is about a 2 hour drive from Coimbatore. I asked him about the color of the vehicle again just to make sure if it wasn’t the crappy dual tone, he said “Elephant Grey”. As soon as he said “Elephant” grey, I decided in my mind that this one was for keeps and immediately named him Kumki.

I’ve been having Kumki with me for a little over 6 months now and its just perfect. It saved all my other cars from being bruised and dented.

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Kumki at Anamalais foot hills.

We have stocked this one up with a kit, what we call the Pajero Kit which has 4 Chairs, 1 Foldable Table fitted with 4 stools, a 4 man Quechua T4.1 B tent, Coleman Camp Rest, a 1 liter Fire Extinguisher (gifted to me by my childhood friend Prabu), Camo Umbrella, Micro-pore masks, Gloves, 2 sleeping bags, 3 tent lanterns, one pair of Motorola Wireless, Knives, Shovels, Rain Coat, Blankets, Portable Stove, Cooking fuel that lasts for 8 hours, Plates, Cups (paper, foldable and aluminum) Bear Grylls Ultimate Survival Kit, Thermos Flask, Serviettes, Universal Powerpoint Adaptor, Extra batteries (AA, AAA, 26650, 18650, CR123A) 9 led UltraFire flood light, Pepper Spray, Insect Repellent Spray, Toilet Seat cover, Toilet Seat Sanitizer spray, Disinfectant Tissues, Snake Bite Suction Kit, and loads of tea, coffee, sugar, salt, instant noodles, Garbage bags and finally a first aid kit and a full fledged medicine kit.

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The Pajero Kit

This kit goes everywhere Kumki goes. And we are finally equipped with whatever we would need on a rainy day. Meet Kumki the Mitsubishi Pajero.

To Valparai in search of Lion-Tailed Macaques

The Lion Tailed Macaque (Macaca silenus), one of the most endangered primates of the world, is endemic to the Western Ghats. Almost after three days of no show, I got a call from a friend of mine saying there is a troop of LTM behind the tea estate managers bungalow he works at. Without wasting time, I immediately hopped into my car and drove off to shoot these Old World Monkeys. As soon as I reached the spot, my companion by the name Guru, ~ a local volleyball player who was famous among the young girls there~ walked me to the Lion Tailed Macaques.

Unfortunately, the main troop had already left the place before we reached. However there was a lone monkey still loitering around. This particular animal seemed very alerted and restless. Moments before I made this photograph a leopard was sighted in the vicinity and it was evident in this Macaque’s behavior.

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Lion Tailed Macaque in Golden Light

It never stayed in one place for more than five to ten seconds. I already had a few images in my mind that I wanted to make, and because of sparse light it seemed like a flop show. But, after staying with the LTM for about an hour, I could clearly see a pattern that he adopted to safely move and monitor the area, both from the top of the tree and the ground, looking for the leopard. He climbs on the tree shown in the above photo, sits on it for a while, climbs down only to walk for a bit to the concrete post to get on the roof of the building and this continued. Moments before he took the last couple of leaps to jump on the concrete post, I made an image. Fortunately it wasn’t a flop show after all.

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Moments before he jumped on the concrete post.

Finally, after a long time he climbed down to the ground, finds himself a rock to sit on. I was just a few meters away from him with my camera focus locked waiting for an action. He yawned, I was lethargic and missed the action. Mad at my self for missing the shot, I decided to hold the camera still and be alert until he moves. Equipped with the 9 fps of my Nikon D3s and my aching muscles holding the heavy camera for a while now, thinking to myself to never give up. Suddenly, I sensed a movement through my viewfinder and I went trigger happy without even realizing what he was doing. This time, it wasn’t a yawn. He was trying to get some debris off of his steel grey mane by pointing his head upwards and shaking it really fast. Bham! I managed to get some good shots of it. It almost seems like he is a faceless monkey.

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Faceless Lion Tailed Macaque

After an hour of restless behavior, finally after sensing that the Leopard had left the vicinity, he beat a hasty retreat into the jungle and eventually disappeared. The last 3000-3500, as listed by IUCN, of these primates roam the rain forests of Western Ghats.

Nikon D3s | Sigma APO DG HSM 150-500mm f/5-6.3 OS
Valparai | Tamil Nadu
26 Feb, 2014