My name is Aditya Singh and my close friends call me Dicky. I have had two contrasting lives till now and the change took place around 1997. Before that I was a regular guy whose father was in the army. We were brought up with a strong dose of hostel life and ended up being an engineer. After that I did a short stint with the Indian bureaucracy and quit as it was not to my liking. Then I did a lot of things for the nest two years and all of them made me a fair share of cash, till we (my wife and I) decided to move to Ranthambhore around 1997. In 1998 we landed up in Ranthambhore and the next phase of my life started. We started a small tourism business here and have been running it ever since. Here is a story of my journey in six phases from a wildlife enthusiast to a camera owner to a photographer.
During my early years in Ranthambhore life was great. We were mostly broke, had a lot of time, did a lot of safaris to the national park (almost one safari every day for the first four or five years) and basically bummed around. During this bumming period we did end up learning a lot about the park. I guess even an idiot will learn a lot if you send him to Ranthambhore for a thousand odd safaris and I may be many things but I am definitely not an idiot. Besides Ranthambhore was a pretty “liberal” park that had few visitors and amazing tiger sightings, at that time. Soon enough our lodge in Ranthambhore got a reputation as the hang out for the crowd that was serious about their wildlife and we started attracting a lot of photographers and the odd wildlife documentary film makers. Till the beginning of 2000s there were very few Indians who use to visit Ranthambhore. I guess wildlife tourism had not caught on in India. The few Indians who would visit were amazing people and most of them are still regulars in Ranthambhore.
Around the end of 1999 I got my first camera – a Canon EOS 5 film camera that was gifted to me by a great naturalist and photographer – Nick Garbutt. He has just got an award in the BBC Wildlife photographer of the year and was a well known name in the wildlife photography circuit in the world. I bought a Canon 70-300 mm lens for a few thousand and I had “equipment.” Till the middle of the year 2000 I hardly took any pictures. Then in May 2000 BBC sent a one man crew down to do their second film on tigers of Ranathambhore and to our delight the cinematographer / director was our old friend Colin Johnson. He had already done a great documentary on Ranthambhore for BBC and this was his second big project. My friend and naturalist Salim Ali was the guy driving him around. I got roped into the project as a Field Assistant and during the next two years we spent more time inside the park than outside. The theory that individual tigers can only be identified by their stripe patterns was gaining ground at that time and BBC caught on to it really fast. The film that they had commissioned was on a tigress we called Machali and this was the first time that a film was being made on one wild tiger. It was important for the project that they knew the individual tigers that they were going to film and the project needed still pictures to do that. That was pretty much the beginning of my wildlife photography.
My first lesson – Learn about your subject.
During the next one year we took a lot of pictures (a lot with a film camera was not like a lot with digital) and all of them were really bad, though at that time we thought they were great images. Now when I look at them I can not even imagine how I could shoot such bad pictures. Most, if not all, my tiger pictures were shots of the flanks or front so that we could identify the tiger. The date and time was always noted in a dairy and once the slides came back after processing, we use to number the slides with the date and time. I had no clue about camera work and use to put the camera on program mode, keep the focus point in the centre and shoot. Take a look at the pictures below – this is the kind of stuff I shot way back then (they may look very noisy and slightly blurred but they have been scanned on a very basic scanner a long time ago – the original slides are much better than these scans and some of these are still selling though not very well). We did get a few good shots but they were flukes mainly because we were always at the right position and right place.
By the beginning of the year 2001, I realised that my pictures were really bad and not getting better. I needed a GURU and the first person that I caught, Mr Nanak Chand Dhingra is still my guru, now one of my gurus. Dhingraji is a great guy and very liberal with sharing his experience and even equipment. He has his quirks but I can live with them. One of the first few things he told me to do would seem crazy to most people. He told me to buy 200 rolls of slides (they were not very cheap), shoot them all in the next few months and then burn all the rolls – WITHOUT GETTING THEM PROCESSED. I found it weird – why should I spend a lot of money (each roll was for Rs 100 to 150) and time and then burn all the original rolls without even seeing the end result. His logic was amazing. He told me that after I have burnt the original unprocessed rolls – I will realise that I spent a lot of money and time on wildlife photography and still do not have a single decent picture. He added that once I realise this then I would be committed. Believe me I did that and have taken a variation of this advise to heart since then.
My second lesson – If the pictures are not good delete them. Record shots are for scientific documentation not for photographers. It could be a rare sight but if it is not shot well forget it.
Dhingraji had another great advise for me – he told me that to get good “tan, man aur dhan se lagna padta hai” in other words to get anywhere you have to go after it with your entire body, mind and resources (read money). Believe me this is very sound advise. This stint with Dhingraji sorted out my sharpness issues. I learnt to keep my gear stable when shooting (bean bags, monopods and tripods helped) and learnt to keep the focus on the eye at all times. In one years time he had pushed me to a level where I was checking sharpness at 100% (those days we checked the slide with an 8X loupe) and deleting what was not sharp.
My third lesson – You have to go after it with the right gear (dhan), spend time on it (tan) and apply your mind to it (man).
It was time to upgrade my gear and I got a new lens. With film cameras you did not have to change the camera body all that often, in fact they were good for a decade or more. I got a Sigma 120-300 mm f 2.8 lens – a brilliant lens that I had with me till I changed from Canon to Nikon in 2008. I then got some book on nature and wildlife photography and read them like I was preparing for an exam – for the record I was a good student all my life. Two authors that I found great were John Shaw and Joe McDonald – both of them are top Pros who explain the basics very well. Around the same time I got my first digital camera – a Minolta Dimage 7 – which was a “state of the art” point and shoot digital camera at that time. My photography had improved considerable, in the sense that I could take a straight shot that could be printed. I was still struggling with exposure specially with backlighting and my composition was not really up to the mark. For the record slides were a very unforgiving media and if your exposure was out by over half a stop, you might as well throw the slide out of the window. Check the pictures below (all these are from the point and shoot digital as I don’t have the slides from those days with me right now).
I was on top of the world, as then, I thought that I knew Ranthambhore like the back of my hand and was getting there in photography. This usually happens to many of us, specially in India. I call it the “5 year high” – if you do something for 5 years you think you know it all. Little do you realise that you have barely scratched the surface. Now, 12 years later, I know that I know very little. The my next big booster dose was coming up. Theo Allofs stayed with us in Ranthambhore for two months and I got to go with him. Theo is top Pro and one of the most respected names in wildlife photography. He is also very blunt and calls a spade a spade, which meant me. Theo is not the teaching kind, the best that you will get from him are subtle hints at improving your photography but that was good enough for me. I am good at taking hints. What I learnt with Theo around was how the real Pros do it. Believe me, most of us may not have had the chance to see a real Pro at work, they are good – really really good. What Theo taught me without teaching me changed my approach to photography. I learnt this by just seeing him work. What he did teach me is that still photography is about one frame, or one single moment and what happens before or after that frame is useless. I was thinking of getting a grip for my Film camera that would boost the frame rate per second. With Theo I learnt that it is not about 6 frames per second or 8. It is all about 1 frame. You have to get one frame right and not 10 frames wrong.
Here is how Pros work – they go after a subject with a detailed plan and for a long time. Theo came here specifically to get a picture of a tiger charging through the lake and he got one almost two and a half months later. A Pro is technically brilliant, will rarely miss a shot, sees the entire scene differently from the rest and come out with amazing compositions. In other words, during a good photo opportunity they will get a wide variety of technically and artistically great shots, that you and me will not even think about. They handle the “luck” factor by spending far more time than you or me. If it happens they will get it right nine times out of ten.
My fourth and most important lesson till date – The technical part of photography is easy, what is tough is the artistic part. What you are shooting is not as important as how you are shooting it. Timing is all important as still photography is about one frame.
I started thinking better even though I was still not executing it as well as I wanted to. Words like “Think, See the scene and Stay with good light” started making sense to me. I took me another year or more to start executing it better. Around this time I got another camera body (a used Canon EOS 3), a good wide angle and a Sigma 500 mm lens. I started getting a lot of habitat in my pictures (out of choice – before this if I had habitat it was because I did not have a big telephoto lens) or getting really tight. I almost got over my exposure issues and my composition and timing started getting better and better. At least I though so. Check the pictures below and don’t go by the pathetic scanning of the original slides. I have checked all these with the 8 X loupe and they were all sharp. The original slides are with a stock agency and they have not thrown them away so they must be worth keeping, even if not worth printing.
Between 2000 and 2005 we did a lot of work with wildlife documentary film crews. I think I must have worked with five different teams during this period and all of them were long projects of 100 to 200 days or more. There is a lot that a still photographer can learn from filmmakers. Wildlife documentary film making production budgets are so scary that they have to have a brilliant team or they can loose it all. Wildlife cinematographers are brilliant and screwing up is an option that they just do not have. I have seen some really good cinematographers at work from very close quarters in Ranthambhore. Colin Johnson who by now was family and I had spent almost 600 days inside the park together by 2005 – these were 600 full days which meant that we left before sunrise and came back after sunset. I learnt a lot by just seeing what they will shoot and what they will not. Colin could spend hours next to tiger and not even bother to take the camera out because the “light was not good or the angle was lousy.”
My fifth lesson – Angle, Angle, Angle and Light, Light, Light.
At the fag end of 2004 I got my first Digital SLR, a Canon EOS 10 D and it was revolutionary. I could not see the results instantly and in full detail within a few hours of shooting the picture. The problems with film camera was that the film had to go to a lab for developing or processing and you could see the result only after you got the film back from the lab. In Ranthambhore there were no labs, so we use to send the exposed film roll to Delhi once in a few months. Which meant that I got to see the picture a few months later and by that time I had probably forgotten about the whole scene as I was going to Ranthambhore national park very regularly. I use to write down the settings (now stored on the Exif data) in a diary and number the roll so that when the slides came back I could check the settings – a very inefficient way of doing things but that was the only way then. Slide were a very unforgiving media – one slight error and it was thrash and I was thrashing them most of the time. What was frustrating was that you could not find out why you went wrong.
The fact that I could see the results instantly and check the Exif data to get the settings, changed my photography. I got my old books out again, brushed up my theory and went after it. In 2005 I went through three EOS 10 D and two of them were pretty much unsellable after I was through with them. I ruthlessly deleted pictures that were not good and my personal standard of what is good became better. I must have shot much more than a hundred thousand frames in 2005 and kept less than five thousand of them by the time the year ended. I spent a lot of time checking the pictures that I was deleting to find out what went wrong. This was an awesome year of self learning. I was interacting with a lot of enthusiastic and a few pro photographers in Ranthambhore and that did help a lot. Some times at the end of year 2005 I started understanding photography and started getting more and more pictures right. My exposure issues were pretty much over, my timing had become nicer and composition was getting stronger. I was shooting pictures but not making them. See the pictures below.
At this time I started submitting to Photo Stock Agencies for selling pictures. I had a very high rejection rate which initially was very disheartening, as I thought I was the cat’s whiskers but that dropped soon enough, as I further raised my standard of what was good and deleted the rest. As a result I had very few pictures in my collection to start of with and only the best of those would go for stock sales. When I started submitting to stock agencies, I faced another problem. I had a lot of rejection because of what they would call “processing error with a note that you can submit again” after reprocessing. In other words they were telling me that I could take acceptable RAW pictures (that is the only format I have ever shot in) but I did not have a clue about processing them. I was overdoing the processing bit without knowing about it. I got over this in a very simple manner. One day I got hold of Getty Image standards for processing digital pictures and it was an eye opener. In short, it said that if you do not get it right “in camera” and then try to fix it in a computer do not send us the image. Since then I am not much for processing. Almost all the processing that I do even now is at the RAW stage either in photoshop or in Nikon Capture NX 2 is while converting the files from RAW to Tif or Jpeg. Since stock agencies almost always need really huge file size, cropping was not an option and till recently I rarely ever cropped an image. Do it for sometime – stop cropping your pictures and see how your composition will improve.
My sixth lesson – Shoot it right and don’t try to get it right later. It has to be “in camera” and not “in computer.”
Submitting to stock agencies did not make me much money but it changed me as a photographer for the better. I still tell all beginners that if you are serious about it then get to a level where you can submit to a stock agency. It will not make you money but after you have submitted your fist hundred or thousand pictures to a stock agency and your rejection rate goes down to almost zero – you know that a professional commercial agency thinks that you are good enough a photographer for potential sales. When you have a thousand picture with a stock agency, then you can call yourself a “photographer” – a struggling photographer but a photographer none the less. By this time I had become a photographer. I had got a bit deeper than scratching the surface. Two years before this I thought I knew a lot about wildlife photography but now I knew that I had just started my journey as an “outdoor photographer.” I could now, finally after many years, shoot. I was not good but I had started holding my own. See the pictures below.
The the next earthquake hit me – Andy Rouse the boss and my guru. He came to Ranthambhore in late Feb 2008 and I spent a long time with him. Since I knew my P’s and Qs of photography it was even more of a learning while shooting with a top Pro like Andy. He is really really good. In two months time he left from Ranthambhore with pictures that got him 3 awards in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. Only Anup Shah had done that and he had spent far longer time in Ranthambhore. The best thing that Andy Rouse taught me is that photography is pure art and fun. Have fun while creating art – Keep it simple.
My seventh lesson – Photography is art and you have to have fun while creating art. Its as simple as that and keep it as simple as that.
Another thing that he did for me was that he gave me a big shot of confidence. He calls me a photographer, so I do know that I have arrived. I am definitely not in the rarified top league of Professional Nature Photographers, an extremely small club, but I have graduated from a “camera owner” to an “enthusiastic wildlife photographer” to an “outdoor photographer.”
Where am I now ? I am an outdoor photographer who does make some money with the pictures but it is not enough to make a living. Its is just about enough to sustain my photography. I probably could make a little more out of picture sales but that would take some amount of hard selling, which is time consuming and a pain in the rear side. In this sense I am not a professional though I could easily get a job as a photographer with many agencies. I am heading in the Professional direction and I will arrive there at some time in my life. I must tell you the journey is fun. I now like shooting anything outdoors – streets, people, my daughter, landscapes, big cats, stitched panos, time lapses – anything as long as it is fun for me.