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Imagine living in one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. For wildlife photographer, Riddhi Mukherjee, this reality gives him the perfect chance to capture the awe-inspiring and oftentimes elusive wildlife of his native country, India.
An explorer at heart, Riddhi's drive to capture the world around him has taken him into the midst of India's most beautiful national parks and biosphere reserves, where tigers roam freely through mangrove forests and saltwater swamps. Throughout his career, his work has been published in the likes of magazines such as Lonely Planet, National Geographic and Sanctuary Asia.
This week, we had the honour of chatting with Riddhi about the important role that photography plays in protecting wildlife, his conservation work, what it's like to join him on a photography tour in India, as well as the finer points of wildlife photography.
Riddhi Mukherjee is a wildlife photographer based in India. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
Hello Riddhi, thank you for joining us this week! For our readers who are unfamiliar with your work, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Where is home and how did you become interested in photography? What was the path you took that ultimately led you into the exciting world of wildlife photography?
Hello, first of all, thank you for inviting me to this amazing platform. I live in a small suburb called Krishnagar, near Kolkata, India. My father and my uncle are avid hikers and nature lovers. Thanks to them, from an early stage of my life, I was exposed to the outdoor life in all its glory. Along with that came photography. It started in the world of film and moved to the digital process with time. The process of making a picture and the whole journey from seeing an image and composing it, to pressing the shutter, to making the final image used to fascinate me. It still does, to a great degree.
I took up photography to share my stories and document my travels at first, along with writing but now, I use my craft for more serious and pressing issues, like conservation and preservation of our natural heritage. As an artist, my goal is to photograph the natural world and show people that what we still have is awesome and it is rapidly vanishing. If we don’t take the necessary steps, if we choose to ignore our part, all of it will be destroyed soon.
elephant from Kaziranga. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
You’ve travelled extensively throughout the national parks of India. What is it about your homeland that makes it such a wonderful place for photographing birds and other animals? What is there to be found in nature here that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth?
India is one of world’s “mega diversity” countries. It is ranked ninth in the world in terms of higher plant species richness. At the ecosystem level, India is also well-endowed, with ten distinct biographic zones. From the snowcapped Himalayas to the large oceans, from high altitude cold deserts to the sub-tropical Thar desert, from vast open grasslands to the largest mangrove delta in the world, from virgin evergreen forests to dry deciduous forests – India hosts over 300 mammal species and over 1200 bird species. Being a cat species enthusiast, for me, the most striking feature about Indian wildlife is the presence of five big cats: tiger, lion, leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopard within the same country. The varying habitat makes photographing wildlife here a matter of absolute bliss and pleasure.
Rhesus macaque. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
Do you have a favourite national park or sanctuary which you love to visit for photography? What is it about this particular place that speaks to your heart?
Yes, I do! Sundarbans is and always will be my darling. This place has a certain eerie charm and I am no Kipling to be able to put that in words. Sometimes, I feel the forest seduces me. I’m in love with the forest, and if someone asks me why, I would like to say that the myths and the folklores, the animals and the people, the swamp tigers and the honey collectors make this place special to me. With Sundarbans, it was a love at first sight. Wild skies, lush green mysterious mangroves, small creeks that reflect the sky and wide rivers that bring the smell of the sea… I mean, come on! Is there anything on Earth that can beat this place?
Portrait of a tiger. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
Over the years, you have spent a lot of time photographing the tigers of Sundarbans. Can you tell us about what this experience was like? What is so special about these tigers and how did you capture their elusive spirits or personalities?
The swamp tigers are one of the most least studied and most misunderstood big cats. To start with, these cats are super elusive. So, we had to study their movement pattern and behaviour very minutely at first, to get a proper sense about the swamp tigers and thus, to establish a tracking/anticipating method which will allow us to get better sightings. A few people, including me, had to spend a lot of time and effort in the tidal forest only to understand their movement pattern – this is how elusive and rare these cats are. Also, understanding the terrain and the set of rules one has to follow in order to get even a glimpse of the swamp tiger played a crucial part.
Once those were established and brought into practice, we started getting success in the form of regular sightings. Armed with cameras, we started to photograph various aspects of their lives. It all ultimately comes down to showing respect to nature and understanding the species you want to photograph. It’s the same with the swamp tigers as well. I’ve been able to document many behavioural aspects of their secretive life. There is still a lot of work left, and we can only complete that with rigorous dedicated field work.
Sarus. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
Oftentimes, when photographing in swamplands, it can be very difficult to manage the shoot. What is it like to photograph from a boat? What are some of the challenges that you face on shoots like these?
Because of the muddy terrain, the only way to explore the Sundarbans is by boat. The numerous rivers and creeks that criss-cross the habitat also keep gypsy safaris out of the equation and walking inside the forest is prohibited, except for the watch towers. The engine of the boat can't be stopped inside the park. So, you’ve to take shots from a moving object (i.e. motor boat). Your focal distance will keep changing continuously. If you're super lucky you'll get close shots, but due to the shy nature of the animals living here, you have to photograph them from a distance on most occasions and in most cases, a short time span as well.
The Sundarbans has a notorious reputation for providing extremely tricky lighting conditions. In such circumstances, you'll have to expose the scene properly (or as much as you can). You just can’t depend on the automatic modes all the time. These challenges are tricky to overcome and if you are coming to the forest for the first time, you do need an experienced photography mentor to help you out in the field.
White-breasted kingfisher tossing a frog. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
You have a very intriguing style of post-processing, which brings out the drama of shadow and light in your photographs. Can you share with us a brief overview of your creative workflow? What are some tips that you can share with aspiring photographers who may just be starting to use editing software and aren’t really sure where to begin?
I do most of my post processing in Adobe Photoshop. I have two approaches to process an image. The first one, which I use the most, is the documentation style of post-processing. The aim of this workflow is to achieve a realistic final product which represents what I saw in the field.
The second one is the artistic approach, where I take the liberty to convey what I felt. Both of these two approaches go through two levels of treatment, basically. The first one is colour treatment, which involves white balance correction, split grading, saturation control, HSL adjustments for different colour channels and toning. The second step is luminosity adjustment, which is based entirely upon dodging and burning.
Snow leopard. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
My tips to anyone who is struggling with post production and/or contemplating about giving it a go, would be to start with a simple and easy platform like Capture One or Lightroom. You can achieve brilliant results with either of them. A good editor needs to have the finished product in mind (i.e. where do you want to take this image to). Don’t rush. Before starting to edit, ask yourself what needs to be done to the image to make it more presentable. Which part needs to be lighter, which part should be darker, which point you need to emphasise, which colour you need to saturate/desaturate – basic questions like these. Observing and studying paintings of the great masters like Da Vinci and Rembrandt helped me a lot to understand light and colour and their part in making an image. You can give it a shot if you want to.
Tell us a bit about the power of wildlife photography. What influence does it have upon how people view nature and the world? Can seeing the beauty of our planet make a positive change to our collective environmental consciousness?
The modern world, with all its rapid changes and drastically degrading natural resources, needs to protect nature more than ever. We are facing monsters like climate change and global warming and those are the Frankensteins we have made. We need to understand that unless we take our stand and actively join hands to protect Mother Nature, then we will be facing major issues. To do that, as wildlife photographers, we can approach it in two ways.
The first one is to document the beauties and the glories of our natural treasures. People only protect and take care of things that they love. If we, as artists, can make people fall in love with nature, our job is half done.
The other approach is to photograph conservation issues. We need to make people aware of what’s going on, what the threats are and how we can work together to take care of those threats. It indeed is very important that we, as wildlife photographers, adopt both approaches whenever necessary and spread awareness in whichever way possible. We are running out of time, very fast.
Star trails. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
There are some contentious issues in relation to wildlife photography, particularly to do with the respect that photographers show towards animals, nature and the places in which they photograph. Do you have a code of conduct that you abide by when photographing in the field? To what lengths do you go to get the perfect shot? How can photographers be more ethical in their approach to photographing wildlife?
One must understand that the subject comes first, always. No picture is worth a life and we need to show respect to the wild animals.
Personally, in field, I always ask the forest guides and naturalists about the safety measures and animal behaviours before approaching any subject. Also, I do a lot of research before going after a particular subject. I prefer to avoid using bird calls and external speedlights while photographing birds. One other thing I also avoid is baiting. As I said, no picture is worth a life and we must not harm a wild animal just to make a photograph.
Swamp tiger on a mud bank. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
I do push myself to make an image that would stand out but that never comes at a cost of harming an animal. I must admit that wildlife photography comes at a cost of disturbing an animal to a certain degree but I consciously try to minimise the amount of disturbance. There is also a line between disturbance and causing harm – we need to observe that with extra care.
”Ethical”, nowadays, seems like a very relative term but as wildlife photographers, we must follow a code of practice. The photographer needs to be familiar with the natural history of the subject, the more complex the life form and the rarer the species, the greater his knowledge ought to be.
He should also be sufficiently familiar with other natural history specialities to be able to avoid damaging their interests accidentally. Photography of scarce animals and plants by people who know nothing of the risks involved is to be deplored. If the photograph of a rarity is to be published or exhibited, care should be taken that the site location is not accidentally given away. Sites of rarities should never be disclosed deliberately.
Photographs of dead, stuffed, homebred, captive, captured or otherwise controlled specimens may be of genuine value but should never be “passed off” as wild and free. In nature photography, there is one hard-and-fast rule of which the photographer must at all times observe the spirit – “the welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph”.
You host a number of wildlife photography tours and workshops, where people can learn particular skills in relation to both shooting in-field and post-processing once they get home. What can aspiring photographers expect to see or do during one of these tours? Are they physically demanding or can anybody join?
The tours and workshops I conduct are designed specifically for photographers, though anybody can join them. I’ve chosen the places very carefully to provide the participants an enjoyable and challenging shooting experience.
When it comes to the wildlife safari and sightings part, I work only with the best trackers and guides, who are vastly experienced and have worked with renowned photographers and filmmakers in the past. Every small detail, from the choice of resort to the ethnic cuisine, from the safari vehicle to the transport route – is designed with one specific aim – to give the participants the most enjoyable and satisfying wildlife photography tour experience possible.
Swamp tiger. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
I lead very small groups, at max eight participants per group, to take care of their individual queries and problems personally. We do theoretical and practical classes for both photography and post processing. Before the workshop, I get in touch with the participants and discuss what they would like to know, what sort of challenges they are facing and how they would like to be taught. Every participant has his or her own set of questions and that’s why I always make it a point to look after each individually. Even after the tours and workshops we stay in touch and discuss. I am really glad that most of the participants consider me a good friend. What I try to provide is a very relaxed, informal, non-judgemental and fun environment to learn about the craft and explore the beauties of mother nature together.
Apart from the Spiti snow leopard expedition, none of the tours are physically demanding and everyone can join them.
Do you have any plans in the future to expand upon your photography tours or workshops? Can you see yourself providing educational videos on YouTube, for instance?
Yes, I do have many plans. Africa, for one. I’m eagerly waiting for that to happen.
Well, when it comes to YouTube I shamefully admit that I am super awkward in front of the camera. Once I win over that inner demon and gather enough courage to pull it off, I would love to come to that platform. Another luxury is time, which I cannot afford at this point. A few good friends of mine, who are creating some jaw dropping content for YouTube, have told me that the platform is a full time job and demands a lot of time. At this point in my life, with all the things going on, I simply cannot do that. Having said that, I would love to come on YouTube someday, hopefully soon, and make some educational content.
What kind of camera gear or equipment do you generally take out with you on a normal shoot? Is there anything that you’d recommend for other photographers, which has been particularly reliable or useful for you to have in your kit over the years?
It depends entirely upon the nature of the shoot. Generally, I carry two full frame bodies and five to six lenses: A fast wide zoom (24-70mm or 16-35mm), a fast wide (20mm or 28mm), a 50mm, a macro, a short tele zoom and a fast tele prime (300mm or 600mm). The most useful kit, in my opinion, is a multi-purpose knife which has come in super handy a number of times. It’s a complete life saver for me.
Tiger at a waterhole. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
COVID-19 has had a significant impact upon people all around the world. How has it affected your photography? Has it been a challenge to keep yourself motivated during this time? Do the rules in India still allow you to get out and about in nature to do what you love?
This is a very unfortunate and hard time for everyone, especially for us who are used to the outdoor life. At first, it brought everything to a complete halt. The stagnancy, in the beginning, was extremely frustrating to be honest. Then, I started researching about the subjects and places I would like to photograph next and that kept the flame in me alive. We also have a small home garden and a lot of birds come here every day. I started experimenting with them, trying to photograph them in different ways. These things, for now, are keeping me on track.
In India, the lockdown has eased a bit now and some national parks, like Sundarbans, are open. But travelling to these parks is still a challenge and too great a risk to take in these circumstances. I am an optimist, and I hope that everything gets back to normal soon.
What’s the best photography advice that you’ve ever been given? Do you have any advice that you’d like to pass on to photographers just beginning to take an interest in wildlife photography?
The best advice that I have come across is by the great American photographer Ansel Adams. He said that, “there are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs”. Ultimately, photography is an art, and art should transcend over rules and regulations.
For photographers who are just starting out, I would like to share another quote of Ansel Adams, “you don’t take a picture, you make it”. Learn about composition, learn about light, learn about your tools and shooting techniques. Study the history of the art of photography. For wildlife photographers, it is also extremely important to learn about flora and fauna and natural history. To be a good nature photographer, you have to be a good naturalist first. And keep practicing. As far as I have seen, there is no substitute for hard work and raw passion.
Red fox. Photo by: 'Riddhi Mukherjee'.
What do you see as the new horizons for wildlife photography in the future? Does technology play a role in the evolution of this genre? How can photographers adapt their style in order to stand out from the crowd?
With the rapid advancement of technology in the field of photography, we are seeing images that, practically speaking, were simply impossible to execute even a few years back. One field in particular that has seen a lot of exciting advancements is aerial photography. Even the entry level drones are really capable of producing high quality content these days. Along with that, action cameras, better sensors and super-fast autofocus systems in almost all modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras have really upped the game. But this progress comes with its own unique set of problems and challenges for the artists. Nobody is willing to witness the same old boring images and we really have to push ourselves hard and learn all the modern tools in order to produce relevant and engaging content.
In our field of wildlife photography, we are witnessing a fantastic range of opportunities that is now open to us. Whether making images with a remote triggered camera or making images from the air, using a probe lens or making environmental 1:1 macro images, now we are able to use high quality sensors in all of them and to add various, unique takes on our story.
Having said that, the fundamentals are still the same. A good composition, good light and an engaging story is still needed. We just have to find our story, study our subject(s) and use the tools we have in order to tell that story in the best possible way. The technology has empowered us to add different perspectives and takes to our story. I always believe that the style of storytelling sets one apart and not the technology.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today! Are there any exciting projects that we can expect from you in the coming year?
I’m really glad to speak with you. Well, I have started a project on the wildlife and conservation of Sundarbans, and I’m still working on that. It’s a huge, long term project but I think it will be done within two more years. Another project I’m really looking forward to is to photograph our natural heritage on black and white medium format film. Let’s see when things come back to normal. I’m waiting eagerly to go out and start making images.
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