Wednesday, January 17, 2018

TRADING PEN FOR A LENS

I haven’t blogged for a while. Why, for that matter, I haven’t lifted the pen, all of 2017. Ever since I picked up photography and the Canon 100-400 mm Mark II, a wildlife photographer’s dream lens, I have become a traitor. It may appear that I have ditched the pen for a lens. In my justification though, I can say this, that it is not a premeditated move. As I wielded the camera and began playing with pixels, words deserted me. The lens changed my way of looking at things. The new eyes altered my ‘view’ and even understanding of life and situations around. It made me observe deeply. You would be right in thinking that it should mean better vision for writing; unfortunately, time became a casualty. But I would be untrue if I were to blame time alone. The mind has shifted gear and is clutched differently, now.

As a nature writer, birds were my first love and muse, until the camera came into my life. I am blessed with a wanderer’s life and have had the good fortune of making home in some of the most alluring ‘holiday’ destinations in India. A decade ago, destiny took us to Kenya, world’s number one wildlife safari destination. Armed with a new tool of ‘aim-n-shoot’, I arrived in the African savannas of my wildest dreams. Ironically, capturing mammals and other fauna in the jungles of Africa gave my pen more power. It was here, in magical Kenya, that I started blogging my ‘earth letters’. I needed to get hold on the novel and wild experiences of a foreign land.

Thus, as I was stowing away safari stories, I was beginning to learn the basics of wildlife photography. My camera-wielding experience in the African context was limited as I had a simple digital compact, but my exposure to world-renowned wildlife photographers was at zenith. That I had access to stalwarts and their works, directly, was in itself invaluable. There cannot be a better training ground or tutorial for photography. On one occasion, the legendary Jonathan Scott of ‘Big Cat’ (BBC documentary series) fame came home for a treat of vada-pav and chai−that he professed to love. Over an evening, the unusually down-to-earth wildlife expert actually browsed through my snapshots and gave me tips on shooting wildlife!

It was these pictures of African wildlife that thrust me on the radar of a professional photographer in Vishakhapatnam, years later. A serendipitous inclusion into the ‘Men Only’ Photography Club followed. It could be a case of ‘spotting talent’ on his part or simply, bringing in a woman−as 'wild card’ entry−into an exclusive group; whatever the deal, I stood to gain in the bargain. I exhibited my Kenya Wildlife photographs as part of a group exhibition on World Photography Day (August 19) in 2014, in Visakhapatnam. It was a rare privilege to be featured alongside seasoned photographers and reputed photo-journalists. 

That gesture on the part of photographer-friend−Prabal Mohanty−eased me into the fold of card-carrying members of city’s premier photography club. Ever the gallant gentleman, it was again he who convinced me that it was high time I traded my digital compact for a DSLR. That I owed it to me to indulge myself. I graduated to a modest crop sensor camera but ­­a sophisticated lens. The Canon Mark II telephoto is an enduring lens that professional wildlife photographers swear by as the one indispensable tool in their bag.  After that, there was no looking back.

Someone said, ‘Photography helps you to see’, and rightly so. I moved away from birds to a more nuanced nature experience that now included leaves, trees, weeds, grasses, insects... I was witnessing Nature like never before making me almost wonder why I had not noticed butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, and wildflowers before.

The Mark II zoom aided me in this new journey. The short end of the zoom at 100mm became my trusted macro. The telephoto or the long end at 400mm may be just right for bird photography but can be frustrating when it comes to smaller or distant birds. This reality prodded me to relook at nature and surroundings in the desperate hope of coming away with a spectacular photograph. Thus, I would ferret out ‘low-brow’ creatures such as insects and weeds. For a photographer, it is a matter of self-respect to get and make at least one decent picture a day. Note the use of word, ‘make’: photographers don’t take pictures, but make them. Therein lies creativity and the rest of my story.

From being a mere tool for documentation of nature and backyard biodiversity, the ‘raw’ photograph became my canvas. I was not content to merely take a snapshot of the specimen or species; I aspired to elevate it to a stature of art, fine art. The subject was paramount, the light of immense significance and the composition critical. Professional photographers approach their art in various ways; some make their pictures fully in camera−settings, light, composition...; others compose pictures partially in camera, leaving the tweaking for later, to bring out the drama. There is a lot of debate and divergence of views on what is a true photograph and what is photo-art. How much editing is acceptable and how much is too much? Where do you draw the line? 

I was soon to realise, that in my case, all my sensibilities and faculties of observation, curiosity, learning, documentation, aesthetics and art seemed to come together in the photographs I take and make. A large part of the picture is what I capture in the frame, but post-processing or the ‘dark room’ became an indispensable component of the creative process. To quote “Guru” Ansel Adams: “You don’t make photograph just with your camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

I had found my m├ętier, finally.

That is not to say that I have bid farewell to writing; you can’t stop breathing now, can you! I just might not be doing the Yoga of writing, but rest assured it isn’t a skill that I am likely to leave behind.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” 

  — Ansel Adams 



Jonathan Scott of the "Big Cat" fame at my place in Nairobi

"Wild card" entry into the 'Men-Only' Photography Club in Vizag
The Mentor