Since the early 2000s I have been travelling to various parts of the country to watch and photograph wildlife. In India, this means a fascinating diversity of places and habitats to cover if one aims to see most of the species.
I photograph birds and mammals, but birds come first. I will happily pass a displaying tiger for a White-capped Bunting (true story). In addition to wildlife, I shoot landscapes, conservation threats, as well as the local people and culture of the area. Since the subjects are very different, so are the photographic objectives and the equipment needed.
I use Digital SLRs (primarily Canon) and accompanying Canon super telephoto lenses (400 mm. upto 800 mm.) to photograph wildlife. I use pro bodies, which are weather sealed and rugged, with the longest lens that the particular habitat will allow. I hardly use flash. Artificial light kills the dynamic range of an image (makes the picture ‘flat) and can frighten or dazzle birds. Modern SLRs have incredibly high ISO capability and it only makes sense to put this technology to good use! In my experience, publishable images (in magazines such as this) can be made on a routine basis with ISO upwards of 3600.
I always use support of some sort and handhold only when photographing birds in flight.
Situation: Open landscapes - Grasslands, desert, coasts, wetlands and more.
Equipment: 800 mm. lens + Gitzo tripod + Wimberley head (rig featured below) packed in a Lowepro Lens Trekker 600 AW.
Almost always, in these habitats, the light is great and there is not much distraction coming in the way. Shooting is mostly from a car, hide or stationary position on the ground. Hence I use the longest lens and the sturdiest tripod combination. Shooting from a vehicle requires a beanbag - a pillow or a cushion from the lodge does the job very well.
Typical examples: Kutchh (car), Bharatpur (foot), Desert National Park (car, hide), Chilika (bund).
Equipment: 500 mm. lens + Manfrotto monopod + Mongoose head packed in a Lowepro Pro Runner series convertible roller/backpack.
Usually, light is low and unreliable. The understorey (where birds are) is dark, and any lens above 500 mm. struggles to gain focus. Plus the field of vision becomes very narrow. In most situations, especially in the Northeast and parts of the Western Ghats, photography is on foot while trekking/hiking. Supporting the rig is mandatory because of low light, but a tripod is unwieldy and not practical. Hence a monopod coupled with high ISO shooting will usually suffice to make acceptably sharp images. I have found that a monopod also acts as a trekking pole in steep terrain. If light is decent, I would advice slapping on a 1.4x converter to enhance reach.
The 500 mm. lens is also advisable in situations like jeep and boat safaris where it is best to remove monopods and tripods and use the support of the vehicles door or boats hull. A beanbag will help. On boats it is best to use the cameras AI Servo Mode function, which will keep the subject in focus while the boat sways.
Typical examples: Northeast India, Western Ghats, mangroves of the eastern coast - includes photography on foot as well as from a vehicle.
Equipment: Leica digital rangefinder with Leica, Zeiss and Voigtlander lenses.
For non-wildlife work I dont use SLR cameras. They are bulky, boring and too intrusive. Plus, if you are carrying only one (SLR) body there is significant risk of attracting sensor dust by changing lenses in the field not to mention the chance of lenses falling. Hence I prefer the smaller full-frame mirrorless digital cameras that include Leica Rangefinder cameras along with ‘M compatible lenses, the new generation Sony A7 series that is nothing short of a technological marvel and the really compact cameras like the Ricoh GR that provide amazing image quality at pocket size.
I typically carry one body - currently the Leica M9 (current production model is termed the ME) with two lenses (one around 24-25 mm. and another 50 mm.) This helps me cover the wide range of situations from landscapes to dark indoors to portraits of people. If there are space or weight constraints I carry one 35 mm. lens.
I am always amazed at the Leica image quality for the simple reason that it literally reproduces what the eye sees. They offer the gold standard in optical quality. Additionally, the rangefinder concept provides for some real advantages in the field - they are less intrusive, composing images are easier through the viewfinder, manual focusing makes the process more creative and actually faster, one can shoot. with both eyes open, and they are much quieter than their bigger brothers.
I carry this gear in the amazingly versatile Tenba DNA 11 messenger bag that allows for really rapid shooting in the field. Other than the camera and the lenses, the bag snugly fits a 11" Macbook Air.
Like most photographers, I started with very basic cameras and lenses. And while I have written about a bunch of fancy equipment above, I do believe that the best equipment is that which you already possess. Over the last decade, I have shot with all kinds of photography gear, and this article lists what I have finally settled into using based on my personal experience as well as my comfort zone.
My experience dictates that when I encounter a photographic opportunity, the one question I must ask myself is, “Given the equipment at hand, how can I make the best possible image?"
Ramki Sreenivasan is a Bangalore-based technology entrepreneur, co-founder of Conservation India, birder and wildlife photographer. In his view, travel to natural areas fosters a better understanding and appreciation of the world we live in, especially the rapidly escalating threats to wild nature. Ramki recognises photography as a powerful conservation tool that can and should be used to defend our vanishing wilderness.
Author: Ramki Sreenivasan, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 10, October 2015.