If you search ‘Sudhir Shivaram’ on facebook, along with his profile what you come across is his page – Sudhir Shivaram Nature and Wildlife Photography. Boasting of 1.4 million+ likes, the page reveals a very active wall with spectacular wildlife photography captioned with tips and photography chats. All fielded by an affable and approachable man. He is lauded as one of the most influential persons in the ‘Top 10 Photographers of the year’ in India during Asian Photography 2017 awards and is a widely reputed, award-winning wildlife photographer and teacher.
Wildlife Photography – Click at First Sight
His liaison with the camera began in 1993 during his college days. Along with a few friends, he started a photography club. The merry band went trekking and capturing images and sharing it on the notice board. About 20-25 years back, this was their quasi-Facebook wall. Later, he moved to Bangalore. With forest reserves like Kabini, Bandipur, Nagarhole, Masinagudi at short driving distances, it is a veritable heaven for wildlife photography enthusiasts. Sudhir was expectedly drawn to the serene nature and beautiful locations and thus began his tryst with wildlife photography.
Tightrope Walk with Aplomb
A software engineer by profession, he lived the typical IT life. Work hard the entire week and travel over the weekend to recharge. As his interest in photography grew, he joined a yahoo group by the name ‘india-nature-pix’ of like-minded people who would share nature-related photographs, exchange tips, and reviews. What started with a manual Yashica camera with film rolls of 36, had now moved to Canon EOS 50E with a desire to capture the vibrant birdlife, his favorite subject. Gradually, his proficiency started attracting attention. People started reaching out to him for guidance and requests for lessons. Sudhir has always loved sharing knowledge. He, himself learned the hard way on his own in the absence of internet and no way to reach out to other experts. Poring over books, he meticulously studied the craft. With his technical background, the understanding of the technical concepts came easily. The rest was pure practice!
Eager to share, he approached his then organization HP and proposed photography classes on the premise. To avoid any violation, he offered to donate the nominal fee of Rs 500 to charity. With HR’s green flag, he started his session with 5-6 amateur enthusiasts. One thing led to another. To accommodate other students, the classes moved to his home and then with larger numbers moved to hotel conference rooms. Then, his students clamored for more. They wanted to go out with him and spend more time on the practical aspects hands-on. So, it began. Every weekend, he would pull out his Scorpio, board 5-6 students and drive to the nearby forest reserves where they could all work hands-on closely with nature and wildlife photography.
This whole endeavor grew by leaps and bounds. Increasing responsibilities at work where he was climbing the corporate ladder and burgeoning photo workshops kept him busy all days of the week. He was now the Director of the software division at his firm. It was time to decide. His wife gently coaxed him to jump the bridge and Sudhir finally made the leap from software to photography. It was 2013. He had been straddling both horses for over 13 years.
The Universe Conspires
“I gave myself 2 years to work at this dream. However, within 2-3 months itself, it picked up traction. Every class, every photo shoot that I announce has been sold out,” affirms Sudhir peacefully. Unsurprising, considering the passion and quiet determination with which he has been pursuing it without expectation of reward or remuneration. However, rewards have come looking.
He is Sanctuary Asia’s photographer of the year for 2012 and has also won National Geographic’s Yellow Border award in 2014.
How the awards came about are characteristic of his unassuming nature. As part of a photography event, one of the speakers was from National Geographic. She glanced at Sudhir’s portfolio and asked him, “Why aren’t you contributing to National Geographic?” Thus started his association. For one of his pictures that was sent, he got a call back from National geographic requesting for a written statement that the image was clicked in Bharatpur and was taken by Sudhir himself. Puzzled with this first-time request, he nevertheless complied and was informed that this is the standard process for an image that is selected as the cover shot. Taken aback as he was, it didn’t stop here. His image of the two pelicans on the water went on to win the Yellow Border award in 2014 which recognizes the best National Geographic Traveler cover shot across the 12 issues of a year in 14 languages. Sudhir had quietly brought home the very first Yellow Border award for India. Sudhir avers that he is not into competitions. “To capture good photographs, along with the technical know-how, what you need is an understanding of the subject,” says he. His other award from Sanctuary Asia corroborates this. The image arrests your attention with its vibrant colors, brilliant clarity and the sight of a majestic leopard completely tranquil, reposed free in its home – the wild. “We were at Kabini and had seen the leopard feasting on its kill the previous day. I clicked a few frames. Knowing the nature of leopards, with a full stomach and partially eaten kill, I knew it would hang around the same spot. We returned the next morning only to find the content leopard snoozing on a branch. He stayed on the spot for 12 hours snoozing giving enough time to compose the shot and I loved how it came out. It perfectly captures the theme of the contest “Call of the wild,” explains Sudhir.
At the Heart of it All
Given his profile and the halo of recognition, he is often plied with questions from beginners to practicing amateurs trying to break into the field of wildlife photography and photography in general. “Most of them are looking for a quick fix. Monetary success, Fame overnight, learn wildlife photography over a cup of coffee,” he laughs. The lifelong student of the craft explains, “Don’t go for fancy cameras and expensive equipment. Any entry level camera, Canon 1200D, Nikon D3300, would do. It is a complete misconception that better cameras mean better images. You have to get the core concepts right. While the earlier film rolls of 36 enforced that you think carefully before you click, the advanced cameras of today make it very simple. Bursts of 36 images at the press of a button reduce the thought behind the composition and leave everything to the camera. That’s relying on sheer luck”.
In his workshops as well, Sudhir is very meticulous. He carefully reviews the images captured and is clear about calling a spade a spade. It may be one of the reasons why students flock to him in droves. He now features as a “star attraction” in photo safaris to Africa. Sudhir explains that sighting wildlife is so easy there, shifting the challenge to composing the right picture. In India, Corbett is his go-to destination for any kind of photography. “The landscape is so beautiful that even a simple spotted deer image will be gorgeous” he exclaims. Kaziranga, Kanha, Ranthambhore and Bandhavgarh are other favorites while Kabini-Bandipur is a much frequented weekend destination.
Any place that he goes, there is tremendous homework. He gets in touch with his contacts at each of these locations – drivers, guides, finds out how the sightings are, identifies the maximum opportunity time-zone, re-confirms the light conditions, the frequency of sighting a week before leaving and then strikes. Before clicking, the image is pre-composed in his mind and he sets about capturing it. “At the end of the day, there is no such thing as good or bad photography. If you’ve conveyed the story you set out for if you’ve captured the moment convincingly, you have done your job,” he expounds philosophically.
A Veteran Reminisces
Closest to Sudhir’s heart is an image of 2 tigers looking at a gaur. He had been going to the reserves every week but had not spotted a tiger. After 10 years of this hide-and-seek, Sudhir found himself at the Bhadra tiger reserve out on a safari. His eyes focused on a herd of gaurs trampling across and as he positioned his camera, the driver gently nudged him and pointed a finger right in front of the jeep. On the safari track sat 2 tigers with their back towards the jeep, completely oblivious and intently observing the herd of gaurs crossing at some distance ahead. This magnificent image captures the tenseness of the moment perfectly as the tigers sit alert, the white spots on their ears gleaming as a blurred gaur crosses keeping its eyes on the pair.
When questioned about the controversial topic of photo editing, Sudhir responded pragmatically. “Photo-editing was always there. Earlier, we did this using chemical in the dark rooms. Now, we use software. There’s a thin line between manipulation and correction. Any adjustments to correct the image to exactly what the naked eye saw is what I go for. Nothing more, nothing less. If you go further, you cross into digital art which is a completely different field”.
So much more to do…..
Sudhir also gives away a lot of his photographs for free to raise awareness of the environment. “Environment through my lens – I am not sure if it will achieve something directly, but it helps to generate awareness, to get people involved,” he says nonchalantly. Along with this, he is currently contemplating a website to help photographers exhibit their images, guide them on commercial aspects of marketing and communication and possibly help them land some freelance work.
“Just helping others to make some money out of it. I have been a one-man army for too long. I now want to build a team to drive the workshops as well as the safari tours. Of course, they have to be dedicated to teaching,” he declares. “Knowledge is meant to be shared,” signs off Sudhir as he goes around sharing free podcasts, running web shows and live chats. Eager to catch up with him? Well, he has made it really simple. Head over to his Facebook page to meet this elusive legend of wildlife photography. Prepare to be awed!
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