Debashish Dutta has passionately pursued tiger photography for over a decade, finding deep solace in the wild. An incident from Debashish Dutta’s initial days in wildlife photography perfectly illustrates the quicksilver quality of the pursuit. Armed with a camera, its settings poised to capture a tiger sitting in a shadow zone, Debashish Dutta came across a leopard. The animal, legendarily shy, was basking in strong, clear sunlight. Not one to miss a chance, Debashish Dutta took some photos of the animal, only to later find out that the settings didn’t work well in the bright light and the photos weren’t up to the mark.
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Such is the technical specificity demanded by this brand of photography. But Debashish Dutta has remained undeterred, having photographed tigers, and more recently, birds, for over 14 years now. “90% of what I did, and do, is self-taught,” he says.
The Pursuit for Wildlife Photography
He started out in 2003, looking to blow off some steam accumulated due to a busy, successful corporate job. This was the time of film cameras and telephonic bookings to wildlife resorts and parks. Debashish Dutta was born and raised in Bhilai, Chattisgarh, and so there was also an old love for the wild coursing through his veins. These factors pooled together to put him on track, and he has never looked back since then. “I have been to the Bandhavgarh National Park (Madhya Pradesh) some 10 to 12 times so far. In the past year or so, I have been focusing on bird photography mostly, because it is near my home (in Gurugram), also the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary is close by,” he says.
Like a lot of early starters, Debashish Dutta had to hone his skills largely without a mentor, though encouragement from friends and other photographers was significant. “Once you click your first picture right, you suddenly get to know exactly what you need to do,” he says. Debashish Dutta uses a Canon 7D, admitting that it is an expensive hobby to pursue. The equipment cost can run into several lakhs, with a basic 70-200mm lens needing back-ups of other lenses and aperture adjustment support, aside from paraphernalia like bags and tripods.
“In wildlife photography, the minimum thing you need is a good zoom, to clearly catch the details of the subject and the surroundings. You cannot go near the subject, they will either run away or attack you,” he explains. But for all his deep interest and expertise, Debashish Dutta does not romanticize the pursuit too much. In fact, he insists that in a DSLR environment, wildlife photography is no rocket science. “You can click, check, delete, re-adjust, click again. Earlier, we could at times go through 2 or 3 rolls before getting one good picture,” he says.
After a few years of studying the complexities of camera settings, Debashish Dutta switched to a digital camera, given the long processing time and the lack of lens-changing options meant that the film camera had to be retired. “You don’t get too many chances in the wild. Something may come in front of you for a minute, or even for a fraction of it. If it is a bird, then it could be a fraction of a second! So, in 2005, I got myself a DSLR,” he recalls.
Over the years, Dutta has undertaken multiple trips to various national parks and sanctuaries. In terms of photo opportunities, he prefers Bandhavgarh, Tadoba (Maharashtra), and Kanha (Madhya Pradesh), with their defined boundaries of vegetation and habitation allowing greater chances of spotting animals. This is in contrast to the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, where the vast area is dotted with a cross-section of geographical features, making spotting difficult.
As Dutta’s photography skills have evolved, so have his goals concerning his hobby. “There can be two distinct lines of goals,” he starts. “One, what is the type of picture that you want to take? Is a particular animal’s expression of primary importance, or is the composition of the entire environment in which you are taking the picture important? In the former, the focus will be on the face of the animal, while in the latter, you will try to place the animal in the entire ecosystem you are trying to capture. The one goal I have for the next time I set out is to capture the composition of the ecosystem of the animal.”
This aim of Dutta highlights another beautiful aspect of wildlife photography – capturing raw moments. For him, this would mean taking an early morning photo of a tiger, with the soft light falling on the majestic animal’s face; or, in somewhat opposing conditions, capturing a tiger just jumping on a kill. “The other part of my goal is that I also want to be recognized as a good photographer. Ultimately, I want to get so good at it that I get published in the National Geographic magazine and win an award for it. I haven’t participated in any of the competitions so far because I do not think that I have reached that level. I also do not think that I have the requisite equipment to get me that kind of a frame. So, you see, these two goals are connected, but they run parallel to each other. Only when I get ‘A’ perfect can, ‘B’, the ultimate goal of being published be achieved,” he says.
Talking about ‘A’, which is capturing that right picture, Dutta admits to the grand play of luck in the field of wildlife photography. He recalls a time when a few team members and he waited for over 3 hours to get that once-in-a-lifetime kind of picture, only to have to share the moment with a vehicle which wheeled in at the last moment, having had to wait just about 10 minutes to get that same exact picture. “You can never predict,” he breathes in between a chuckle, “that this time when I go in is when I am getting my best picture. That never happens; it is all highly uncertain. That’s wildlife!” What made the wait fruitful, however, was that it yielded Dutta the best sequence of photographs he has ever clicked.
One of his most fascinating early memories is that of a wildlife trip with his family, which included Dutta’s then-toddler daughter. While watching from a cover-less gypsy, a tigress walked up a bit too close to the vehicle, immediately making the riders nervous about an impending pounce. But the animal just turned away. “Have you ever heard of a tiger jumping on a gypsy?” Dutta asks in retrospect. “It happens only when someone does something stupid, and the animal begins to feel threatened.” This incident, and later his many encounters with animals, strengthened his feeling of absolute safety in the parks. “The guides, by the way, will never do anything stupid, because that could get them banned immediately, for a year. The rules are stricter for them as they are employed directly by the forest.”
On Dutta’s trips to Bandhavgarh, his frequent guide was one named Raghavendra Sharma. Born and raised in Bandhavgarh, he could point to the presence of a tiger at a spot simply by observing the faint movement of grass blades (caused by the swaying of the tail) in the area. “My respect for Raghu was sky-high,” Dutta says. “That eye for detail, it is still etched in my memory. It is the kind of knowledge you cannot acquire in the cities, or in books, it comes simply from experience.”
Wildlife photography also asks for an intense level of sensitivity towards the animals, and the defence mechanisms they have developed to deal with encroachments. In an incident that Dutta recalls, a tigress, along with her 2 cubs, was crossing a Bandhavgarh ‘meadow’ covered in tiger grass, while on a nearby road some forest guards were cycling. They stopped on the road when they saw some Gypsy vehicles, but a guide asked them to get on to the vehicle or else the tigress won’t pass. “Tigers are extremely scared of human beings who are walking. One, because poachers walk, they don’t come in vehicles. And two, they are scared of the weapons that these guards carry. So whenever they see anyone walking, the tigers just silently sit down and not move at all.” The tigress, especially because she was with the cubs, did just that. But the moment the guards climbed onto the vehicles, she got up and walked on.
From Wildlife Photography to Bird Photography
His interest has now expanded to include bird photography, a hobby he indulges in every weekend, close to his home in Gurugram. Like any nature-lover, Dutta finds his photographic pursuits immersive and relaxing, “The moment I enter the bird park, I forget the rest of the world.” But Dutta is also realistic, realizing early on that this is a pursuit that isn’t going to pay, or not pay much. Like wildlife photography itself, a career in it is also riddled with uncertainty. So he suggests coupling photography with academic pursuits, like in research or botany, to make sure that it remains lucrative. “Get hands-on, try everything, understand the basics, and only then go for the upgrade,” he advises on the equipment.
Though Dutta finds it difficult to set a timeline to his ambitions, he does have a list of things he would like to achieve. “You can control the decision-making process, and then decide based on that process, but you cannot control the outcome,” he says. “What I have planned is that in the next 1 or 2 years, I want my equipment to be absolutely right, to the level of fixing the small gaps that are still there. By 2018, I should have all that equipment in place, and if I have some good shots by then, in 2019, I will definitely participate in competitions.”
Dutta’s #livingit mantra is simple – Pick something that is your true interest, and pursue it with sharp focus. “One important thing I have learnt about wildlife photography is that at all times, you are supposed to look at the animal only through the viewfinder, and not with the naked eye! If you get over-excited and start admiring it, the animal will be gone. The moment you suspect your subject’s appearance, the camera should be at your eye!”
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