Kalyan Varma’s Eye for the Esoteric

Wildlife photography goes beyond just shooting portraits of animals; it’s about depicting their behaviour, habitat and ecosystem. For amateurs, the unexpected nature of wildlife and lack of experience can make it challenging to approach photography and capture images.

To deconstruct the basics of wildlife photography and the correct approach to shooting in the forest, prominent wildlife photographer Kalyan Varma discussed the key components of wildlife photography, his own experiences and an expert understanding dealing with wildlife.

How long have you been into wildlife photography? As a profession for the last 12 years and roughly 4-5 years before that as a serious hobby.

How many countries have you shot in?  My primary focus has been India because India itself has so much to shoot, you know. I have worked in Africa, South East Asia and Mexico too. So about a dozen countries outside India, but India is my favourite.

What photography gear would you suggest for first timers? So the thing is, you need a basic DSLR and a 300 mm lens, which are relatively inexpensive- the whole kit can be bought for Rs. 60,000- Rs. 80,000. You can do pretty decent photography with that. With all photography, you start from there and only when you find limitations in the gear you can upgrade.

What’s the best gear/ camera you like? Canon and Nikon are usually the market leaders but Sony also makes pretty competent products. And frankly, all the companies’ quality is pretty much the same. My advice for photographers is that pick a company your friends are using because you can borrow and exchange equipment.

What advice do you have for anyone planning a shoot in the wilderness? So the key idea for wildlife photography is to understand and know the natural history. You need to be a good naturalist before you become a wildlife photographer- you need to understand animal behaviour and its ecosystem to be able to showcase that. Wildlife photography is not about shooting portraits of animals; it is much beyond that. And unfortunately, you can’t just go for a course or read a book about it since that comes over time. 

Are there any places or schools for wildlife photography in India that you would suggest? No, there are a few international courses but I don’t think you need to go for them, frankly. With wildlife photography, you can’t read about it, it comes only by spending time in the forest.

What have you been working on recently? I am just wrapping up a yearlong project where we are trying to document all the rare cat species around the world. For the past year I’ve spent time photographing the clouded leopard, which is one of the rarest cats in the world. I filmed about 6 species but the series covers 40 species of rare cats.

What kinds of animals do you like shooting the most? I like primates and elephants because they are very intelligent and social animals and they’re always up to something. There is so much of us we can see in them- the family bonds and social structures. I would love to work on dolphins and whales in the future.

Have you been in a dangerous near-death experience while shooting? No, I frankly feel more unsafe in the city than in the jungle. If you have a good working ethic, you are never in danger. It is about giving respect to the animal and it won’t do anything to you.

What do you think are the mistakes first-timers make? I think it is the perception, a lot of people start out thinking it’s a very macho thing to do. It’s completely the other way around. You need to show how caring and fragile these animals are and then it’s a beautiful experience.

How long do you spend in the forest for a shoot? Oh, I have a bad record. For part of this series, I was shooting the tiger in Sundarban and they are notoriously shy. I spent one month in the forest and then got to see the tiger for only one hour.

Tell me the animal that first comes to your mind:

Hardest to capture: Nocturnal cats and small wildcats

Easiest to capture: Monkeys

Most stealthy animal: Leopard

What are your favourite places to shoot in India? Every place has its charm so it’s like asking a mother to choose between her children. It’s hard to compare one place to another but each has its flavour.

What distinguishes the best photographers? Most of the time, 99 percent of photographers photograph the animal reacting to the human being. The animal is not in its natural state, it’s angry, scared and it’s reacting to us. I think best photographs are when the animal doesn’t know you’re there, in a natural element. I strive to get that.

Camouflage expert: Bird called Frogmouth. It can be two meters away from you and it will take you two minutes to see it.

Most vivid colours: Peacock

Most dangerous animals to shoot: Human beings.

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