Although I bought my first DSLR in 2012, I only started dabbling in nature photography in 2015. After a few frustrating efforts trying to capture birds with the 55-200mm lens, I decided to take the plunge and buy my first serious lens – the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6, at the end of 2015.
Six months of using that lens, and clicking some average, a couple of lucky decent ones and a lot of mediocre images, I decided that it was time to learn this stuff firsthand from someone knowledgeable. Around that time, I came across a post on Facebook by a leading wildlife photographer in India that she will be conducting a bird photography masterclass in Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur. This is THE most coveted location in India for any bird photographer. I didn’t think twice, booked myself on it, and never regretted the decision.
I spent four days there, clicked a ton of photos, got a few keepers, and learned quite a few things. In this article, I will share a few selected shots (not all of them the best shots), certain ones accompanied by the lessons I learned – some from my mentor, and some self learnt too. One thing for sure – I fully enjoyed the four days, and would love to repeat this experience!
Disclaimer: The lessons are my own learnings that I feel like sharing. There may or may not be anything new or groundbreaking about them.
So, with that out of the way, let’s get started.
On the first day, after a brief revision of the basics of wildlife photography and individual guidance regarding what camera settings to use, we set out for actual on-site workshop in the park.
My first photo after entering the park, and that turned out to be a keeper. What a satisfaction!
- Just because you’re in a bird sanctuary does not mean that you are there to click birds only. You should keep an eye open for other natural beauties around you, and an opportunity like this will present itself.
I was the first one following our mentor when she stopped her rickshaw and told me to get down from mine. Then she whispered – barbet right ahead. And yes, there was this brown headed barbet right ahead on a tree trunk by the side of the road. Without thinking much, I aimed the camera and took a shot, thinking of it as a record shot.
I was planning to review the image on the preview screen, adjust the settings, go a little closer and take another shot. But the guy flew away, and to my disappointment, I had underexposed by at least a stop and a half.
However, this being a RAW image, I didn’t discard it, and tried to recover it in Lightroom, and it didn’t turn out so bad.
- Check your settings often, and when you see through the viewfinder, also take a look at the exposure meter! It’s there for a reason.
- Always shoot in RAW, and don’t discard an image just because of the exposure. I am glad I didn’t, since this is the only shot of this bird I have so far.
As many who have visited Bharatpur will know, there are hundreds of Oriental darters in the park, and plenty of opportunities to photograph them in different poses and light. This was the first darter I saw there, and it was very close. Initially it was sitting in this pose when I took this shot. Then it turned its back to me (You can notice his feet – he is already beginning the turn).
There are a few flaws in this image – the background is a little cluttered, the bird is quite tightly framed and most importantly, if you notice, the ends of his tail feathers have got cut at the bottom.
However, it still made to my list of keepers solely due to the awesome light on its neck feathers, beak, and right wing feathers.
- If you have a zoom lens, use the range. It’s not always necessary to fill the frame. When you try to do that (particularly when you’re not using tripod), it’s likely that the frame will shift a little when you press the shutter button – either due to your movement or the lens VR, and some part of the subject gets cropped.
The next lesson was literally forced on me… by our mentor.
We spotted a Sambar deer couple. The male was hiding behind a tree, but the female was in clear view. We readied our cameras, and, without thinking, I had my lens set at full focal length.
The deer was not very far away, and at 500mm I would have gotten a nice portrait shot. However, our mentor specifically told me to make this a habitat shot, explaining the importance at the same time. I turned the focal length down completely to 200mm, and took 3-4 shots. In this one, the deer is looking straight at us, so obviously this made it to the keepers list.
This one is a full frame shot, composed in the camera. I saw this on the laptop screen in the evening, and was not very pleased at first. Why? I shot this at f/8 – had I shot it wide open, I would have got a much creamier out-of-focus (OOF) background that everyone seems to be looking for.
But the more I looked at it, the more it started growing on me. Now I really adore the OOF but not obscure background. I think it’s perfect – providing separation of the subject, at the same time making the subject belong there. And need I say that the light is gorgeous?
- Do not succumb to textbook ideas about photography. It’s your work – think out of the box and present it as you like it.
The Sarus crane is one of the main attractions of the park, and when we sighted a pair in the late afternoon, all of us gathered at the spot to click them even though they were not that close. We still got a few nice habitat shots.
However, after taking a few clicks, it was becoming repetitive, since there was only this pair and very little action.
So, I decided to look down the path and noticed something different. I went down a little further and saw these magnificent guys sitting practically on the path. I sneaked up a little closer and took some shots. I didn’t really want to go very close and disturb them. The guys were already aware of my presence and eyeing me suspiciously – lucky for me, since I got the eye contact.
- Even when you’re busy clicking a celebrity subject, there is no reason not to look around for some other opportunity. Instead of a record shot of a rare subject (which also has a value of course), you could be rewarded with a unique frame of some other less exotic subjects.
Next morning, we were clicking near a small water body in the first morning light. The light was coming from our right, and everyone was busy clicking birds on our left, since they had great light on them. After a few clicks, however, I caught attention of this grey heron standing in the water on our right, meaning against light and around him, the water was shimmering. There was a bit of morning haze too, and I knew instinctively that I had to take a photo of that guy. He was a little far away, and I had to crop this frame, but I was the only one who got a backlit shot that day.
- Do not always go with the herd. Think different. It is very likely that instead of similar looking shots, you’ll take home something unique.
I have earlier mentioned “Keep your eyes open for opportunities around you, even if they do not coincide with the intention of your expedition,” and the next photo is another example of such an opportunity.
We were waiting near a water body in the park, and there was not much of an action going on around. So, I just started surveying the surroundings, and, a little distance away, witnessed this natural history moment – a dragonfly had emerged from its larval stage (I didn’t know these details at that time though). I took a couple of shots, and now I have a keeper photo with a wonderful background which is also an interesting natural moment.
First thing for a photographer after entering the park in the morning is to try and get a photo of the glorious sunrise, preferably with a silhouette of a bird.
On day 3 also we went through this exercise. However, as luck would have it, there was no bird perched at a convenient location. Our rickshaws were moving further on the road when we saw a flock of painted storks flying. Looking at their path, it was clear that they would fly across the Sun. Not wanting to lose this opportunity, I asked the rickshaw guy to halt, checked my exposure, focused on the storks tracking them, and clicked a burst while they crossed the Sun:
It was only after all this that I noticed my lens was still at 200 mm. Doh… I got an okay shot, but I could have taken a better one if I had zoomed into 500mm.
This was a big lesson, and I am glad I had the opportunity to correct it the very next day, when I got this postcard shot:
The next one was a little funny, and a lesson in how luck plays a major role sometimes. My friend and I were passing this spot pictured below when I noticed these tiger butterflies flocking on a bush. We were in the cycle rickshaw, and I was too lazy at this point to get down. When I showed these photos to my friend, he said, “Yeah, I went down and took a photo of them at eye level.”
We left it at that and came back. In the evening, when we were looking at our photos, he said to me, “Man, you got real nice bokeh here. Mine doesn’t look half as good”
What can I say – sometimes being lazy also has its rewards.
We had just finished our lunch, and were relaxing and having a chat, when someone noticed this parakeet couple romancing on a tree nearby. Everyone grabbed their gear and started clicking. This is one moment when I showed great restraint (Ahem..), and instead of clicking immediately, went on the other side, trying to find a better angle, and yes, I did find a better angle with a better background. Clicked a burst, and two or three of them had good composition.
- You do not need to start shooting the moment you notice something interesting happening. Sure, take a record shot – then try to find out a better angle to shoot the scene if it’s still happening.
After spending three days in the park, we had become familiar with the spots and possible photo opportunities. So, for the fourth and final day, I actually prepared a list of goals in my mind and set out to achieve them.
I, of course, could not achieve all of them, but definitely a good percentage and was rewarded by some images below that I had pre-visualized while setting the goals:
- When you visit a place for the first time, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the area, and scouting locations with better opportunities instead of starting to click right away. Take the help of guides if available. That time spent will be repaid in more than full afterwards.
And thus the workshop came to an end, but it provided a direction to my photography. All the lessons have stayed with me, and I’ve managed to add a few more along the way. Needless to mention, my photography improved leaps and bounds from that workshop, though there’s still a lot of scope for improvement.
Thank you for reading through. I hope you liked the photographs.
This guest post was written by Gurunath Prabhudesai, a Photography Life reader based out of Thane, India. Thank you to Gurunath for the excellent article and photos! Please check out his Flickr page to see more of his great work, including more recent wildlife and nature/landscape scenes.
Very good – thanks.
One point – you are taking more than just birds!
I say that because I think it’s relevant to lens choice.
As a non-travelling UK person (it’s not that I don’t want to – I can’t), I have fewer larger animals to take (unless they are captive), so I take mostly birds. I found that I had less need of a zoom lens (I had the 80-400mm, but sold it because it lost out to the prime).
I’ve gone with the 300/f4 (I have the old version) and a 1.4TC. This I do love. For wild birds I use nothing else. For captive birds I have the 70-200/f4, which is a delight. I have a D610 and D7500 so I can get from 70mm to 630mm with these lenses and cameras and can go for IQ and subject isolation on the one hand and action on the other. They plus my 18-35mm, 105mm (Sigma) macro and 18-140mm ‘dog lens’ (we have 2) cover all my wildlife and landscape needs (and one camera and 3 lenses (including the 2 most expensive) were used).
Thank you Nigel. Very valid points, and I did carry two camera bodies and three lenses at that time – my old D5100 with the kit lens (for landscapes – I didn’t have a better wide angle lens at that time), and also my 105 mm macro lens.
There are no very big animals in the park, and even the relatively bigger ones are quite some distance, so I could thankfully cover them with the 200-500. Of course, if I visit our tiger reserves, then it would be much better to take something like the 70-300 with me.
Hi, can you disclose the name of workshop and mentor?
Thank you. I should think so – It is Rathika Ramasamy. She holds only one workshop every year.
Thanks for sharing the advice and the beautifully executed pictures.
Thank you John. Glad you liked it.
Fantastic and well written article with good examples, Guru !!!!
Thank you Vijay.
My vote for best of the submitted articles so far. Well done!
Thank you Sean for the kind words of appreciation.
Very informative article and great photos
As a guy that has been shooting birds and critters for a couple of decades, I just wanted to underline the Nikon 200-500 lens. Mine usually lives on my D500, as I find the two a match made to work tother really well.
I would underscore the importance of good support, 500mm on a cropped body is a FOV of 750mm and that is a lot without good support.
Thank you for the comments. I think I forgot to mention. Most of these photos are shot with a monopod, though some are handheld too.
Thank you for sharing. Beautifully written and beautiful pics. I enjoyed reading your illustrated article.
Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.
Nice article. Thank you!