Everyone would love to travel to the farthest corners of the world with nothing but a camera and a tripod and capture the most amazing moments to showcase to the world. But not everybody gets to do this. Rathika Ramasamy has not only done this but has also been internationally recognized as one of the best photographers. Her passion and desire to capture and present to the world the amazing wildlife that surrounds us has won her many awards and accolades. She has also been on the panel for many National and International Photography competitions.
Her truly brilliant photography has been often featured on the covers of many magazines and also made its way around many exhibitions. Passing on her knowledge to aspiring photographers, she has conducted many workshops she conducts all over India. Her photographs are known to capture the drama of the wildlife around as she believes, that animals too, have emotions just like us. Having done Computer Science and then an MBA, she started following her passion for photography in 2003, and now is one of the foremost photographers of the world. She is someone who has truly done it all!
Questions and answers
As exquisite as birds are, they can also be fidgety, and tracking them down isn't easy. Does it ever feel like a daunting task to do so?
Wildlife photography is, in itself, a challenging genre of photography. Big animals are easier to photograph than birds. But there are a few times, like early in the morning, when they go for feeding on the fruit trees, where they stay at times for a minute or two. With practice, you can easily make it look attractive.
While doing wildlife photography, you have to focus on the eyes, and you also need to focus on the composition and also the lighting. Lighting is something that is never in our control, but we still need to get a good photograph inside the forest even when it is very dark. There will be less light, but that is for me to figure out and capture a good picture haina? *laughs* You need to be prepared a lot of walking because they will be sitting somewhere and then fly away to another place. So you will have to walk and walk and walk after them. It is a daunting task, but it’s part and parcel of photography.
When you get that perfect shot that captures the essence down to every detail that makes the photograph look so ethereal, how does it make you feel?
As I mentioned, sometimes, for getting eye-level shots of water birds, especially near water bodies, we have to crawl on the ground. It is very tiring, and there are often many cracks on the ground, but we forget about the pain when we can get that perfect, beautiful shot. We have to walk a lot, and it’s very challenging, but once you see the photograph, the pain and everything is gone, and you feel satisfied with the way you wanted the photograph to look. It’s a bonus for all the hard work. If you get a photograph, then everything will be forgotten. I feel happy. I don’t take one, I take a minimum of 10-15 continuously with different comfort and different settings, and when they come out as I wanted, I feel satisfied.
You were previously a software engineer, and later on, decided to take up your hobby with a career in wildlife photography. What is it about wildlife photography that drew you towards it?
Photography was a childhood hobby for me. When I was 14, I took photos while traveling and people as a hobby. But it was always a serious hobby for me. While studying too, I’ll have my camera with me. All my life, where ever I would go the camera would go with me. I was born in Venkatachalapuram. That place itself was very beautiful, and I fell in love with birds. I visited Bharatpur bird sanctuary for the first time; seeing those colorful birds, I wanted to photograph them. I was living in New Delhi, and around me, there were many birds, sanctuary-like Okhla bird sanctuary, even Bharatpur is only a couple of hours away. I went to Bharatpur for six months, and I realized I want to photograph them, and I wanted to document them.
One more important reason I wanted to do Wildlife photography was that every forest, every shoot is different. No two shoots are the same. I am passionate about birds and wildlife; that is why I am still doing it for the last 17 years. I still feel like it is my first day, and I’m as excited as I was during my first shoot. It is challenging, and it is not always easy to continue, but if you love the forest and the wildlife, as much as I do, you can do it.
How would you describe your early days in Wildlife Photography?
I started documenting wildlife in places like Bharatpur and Kaziranga with the main purpose of capturing beautiful photos and creating a portfolio. But after about 2-3 years, I realized that they also have different emotions, lifestyles, food, and breeding habits, which are interesting, and I wanted to capture.
I always looked for some stories. It was not about getting a proper picture, but rather each photograph had to convey something. I also started taking wildlife photography workshops. Before, it was about taking good photographs that would sell, but after some time, my perspective on wildlife photography changed. I became more aware of how important our forest, flora, and fauna is for animals and humans.
I have started spreading awareness about our habitat, forest research, and even climate change in schools and colleges. My perspective about photography has changed, I started documenting and knowing more about wildlife, and I started creating awareness since 2011, and I’m still doing it.
How important is research and planning before heading out on an expedition?
Planning is essential. We cannot go to any national park or forest without getting the required permissions and without knowing anything. Usually, in India and Abroad, the preparation starts 2-3 months before. For example, if I have to photograph a tiger in a wildlife sanctuary, I have to get permission from the field director and think about how I will shoot the photos. If you are going to take photos as a hobby, you have to book a year before, but for professional shoots, all the bookings must be made three months before. For doing bird photography, you will also have to find a local guy.
If I am going to Tanzania for the first time, I will need to plan and research to know about the best time to sight the birds and the climate. If we pre-plan, we can come home with a good photograph. It is also imperative to know the subject. If I’m going to shoot an elephant, I must know about the body language, habitat, etc. about the elephant.
Can you tell us something about your recent Andaman Expedition? Were there any specific memorable moments which you'd love to share with our audience?
Yes! The Andaman expedition, I think I went there in February, before the lockdown. It was a beautiful trip for me. Even though Andaman is a part of India, there are more than 60 species known as the Andamic birds that can be found only there.
There are many good places for photography, like water bodies and others. We had to get up early in the morning, and we would shoot till 10’o clock and then come back. We would go again in the afternoon. If you give them some time, the birds become a little friendly. My target species was the owl. There are 5 to 6 species of owls in Andaman for which we went on a night safari. In India, they do not allow night safaris, and even in Andaman, we weren’t allowed to go inside the National Park. But there was a buffer area nearby, where the owls would come in search of food. So at 6’o clock, we went there, and I was able to take pictures of different types of owls. We were walking in the buffer area, a part of the forest, and I was shooting everything.
Even when we went into the woods to shoot birds, we had to be careful because there were many parasites, insects, and snakes on the ground. I would come across snakes even on trees sometimes. You have to be very careful in rainforests, and it’s very tough. If the guide had not warned me about the snake, imagine what would have happened. There is a place called little Andaman, and I think it took two days to go there. We had to take special permission to go there, but we were unable to get approval. So I will be going to Andaman again as we couldn’t cover everything. So I will be going there again this year or the next year in January or February.
As a wildlife photographer, what are the challenges, risks, or barriers you encounter during a photography session?
In a photography session, the first thing is lighting. Getting the proper lighting inside the forests is very tough. For birds, especially, you need a lot of light. Still, we can manage to take good photographs with the available technology and by using a full-frame camera.
The next challenge is extreme weather. You see, for a tiger in Maharashtra, summer is the best time to shoot. The temperature will be 48-49 degrees and Corbett National Park, and if you want a good shooting, you have to stay inside, there will be no cover and all and no electricity. During the day time, you can be in the forest with food, but night time you’d have to go on without sleep and no cover, but that would be the best time, and you’d be getting lots of excellent photographs of tigers and a lot of sightings, so we have to get used to it. The same thing goes for birds. Winter is the best time in Delhi and Himalayas. The Himalayan birds will come down to places like Pangot and Sattal.
Another problem as a wildlife photographer is the heavy equipment we have to carry. Like last year in January, I had been to Sikkim. Sikkim has about 6 or 7 tops, each with different altitudes. I had to carry my long lens, which was approximately 4-5kgs, my tripod stand, which was above 6 kgs and also water bottles myself without any assistance. Whereas in other places and cities we can arrange for someone to carry our things. But here we had to take all the equipment ourselves. These are all the challenges we face, but that’s a part of wildlife photography, you can’t complain.
When we go into the forests, we have to sign an indemnity bond, that if something happens to us, the government won’t be responsible. Tiger attacks, elephant attacks, the government isn’t responsible; it is our responsibility. Even the tusks of elephants are very dangerous. When we go for bird shooting in the Himalayas, we find many little insects, whose names we may not know, but they bite you, and for 2-3 days, it will be itching. So for me, I usually wear full sleeves and closer fitting as well. But still, they bite. So we usually use insect repellants. But otherwise, we won’t be getting good photographs, you know.
Your photographs tell us about animals and birds from every kingdom, which one of them, in particular, fascinates you the most? Have there been any species that you wanted to photograph but haven't got a chance to?
For me, I see them as humans. Before taking any photos, I love to watch their interactions, only then we can capture the romance of the wildlife. I often have to go 2-3 times because once is not enough to get good photographs. There are no specific species that I like. I want to take photographs of even common birds like myna, sparrow, or even parakeets.
There are no particular species, but I would like to photograph the Green bee-eater, a very common bird in North India. Until last year I wanted to photograph the Himalayan Monal, which can be seen in North India, Uttarakhand and Sikkim. That is what I went to Sikkim.
Rather than a species, I would like to explore places like South Asia, Borneo, which is rich in flora and fauna and has many rivers and animals. In India. I am yet to cover Arunachal Pradesh, which is known to have 500 bird species. It’s a beautiful place but also tough to photograph there. But I still want to go there.
Patience plays a vital role in wildlife photography, what has been the longest period you've had to wait for a shot? Was that picture worth the wait, or were you disappointed with the shot?
In wildlife photography, it depends on the place and the species. We often go for shoots but don’t end up getting the photos of the species we wanted. Sometimes it is not the species that we want to photograph, but a particular activity performed by them.
For example, if I want to photograph beautiful birds mating, we have to wait for the breeding season. So we can get the bird, but for a particular action, we will have to wait. So sometimes, we as photographers have certain visualizations like lighting and position of the subject, for example, I want elephants in a winter background at Corbett national park, but elephants will only come down to the water bodies in the summer season, and at other times during the winter they will be in the forest. There are still some shots that I haven’t managed to get. Like in Corbett, there is a particular spot where I want a tiger’s shot, something I am yet to capture. You see, if you complete everything in one go, there won’t be anything to look forward to. There’s always a next time.
How long does the process of capturing the perfect shot, editing and fine-tuning the photograph usually take?
Usually, when we are in the forest, we are shooting from morning to evening, from 6 am to 6 pm. After shooting, we come back to our rooms and download the images, perfect that shot and go out the next day. On the field itself, I check the photos to see which ones are good. If the shot is the way I want it, I download the picture. I take one or two pictures, adjust the brightness, focus, and everything Quickly, I check if it is okay. When I am on the field, I don’t have a lot of time. And for posting it on the web, it only takes about 3-4 minutes. I do very little processing for wildlife. We hardly filter it, as I don’t want to spend too much time processing and photo shopping. Little changes are done, and it is ready. However, for printing, it takes a lot of time, a minimum of 10 minutes for one photograph, but I usually have other people to do the editing for me.
Can you tell us about your thoughts on the Kerala elephant killing?
Yeah, I couldn’t digest this news at all. Everyone seemed to be sharing it; of course, it was a pregnant elephant, and a lot of people started sharing the news and making it their ‘Whatsapp Status,’ and everyone came to know about it. It was ‘trendy,’ but this is just one of the instances.
Almost every month, other elephants are dying because of electric wires that people are reinstalling to prevent them from coming into their homes.
Due to development, people are building houses in the buffer areas near the forests, and these are the areas through which these elephants pass. Sometimes they don’t find water in the forests and come into the village looking for water. So, these animal conflicts happen everywhere, not only in Kerala. And all of us need to create awareness about how people are not supposed to disturb the natural habitat of animals. This is going on not only in the elephant community but in the case of tigers. In many places, tigers come out from the core area to the buffer zone, near the villages. Even leopards come out when people disturb them. People need to know that we are not supposed to disturb them. If you don’t disturb them, they won’t do anything. This is a terrible situation, but I hope it won’t happen again. I pray that it doesn’t.
Do you think photography as an art is underrated? How would you encourage more people to explore the world of photography?
No, I don’t think photography is underrated, I think, maybe, it was before. Now, more and more people understand the power of photography. As I mentioned, photography is a powerful tool. A single image speaks a thousand words.
More and more people are coming into photography, but the thing is, they come into it without any purpose, without knowing anything. Nowadays, everyone can show the photographs they click due to apps like Instagram, and hence more people are doing photography. But for me, you have to do photography with a purpose; whatever documentary/photography you are doing, it’s going to be a record for future generations. By looking at paintings made fifty years ago, we get an idea about the culture and how people lived back then. The same applies to photography as well, and it has to be done with a purpose. Even as a hobby, it has to document the cultures and festivals, places, and the lifestyle of people because this is going to be a part of our history.
Wildlife photography is the same. Whatever species you are photographing will be a document for the next generation .There were no photographs then, so with younger generations when we take pictures of an Elephant or Taj Mahal, who knows how it will be used as a document later on. So, everyone likes photography, reading, documentary, and print media, but everything should be proper. It should be quality work.
Which picture that you shot is the closest to your heart? Why?
I have so many pictures close to my heat, but if you ask me to choose one, I will pick the Darter picture. The Oriental darter looked like they were fighting, parasail fighting, which looks like a water dance. It’s my favorite photograph; it was used on many magazine cover pages. So, I feel like I want to see it every day. It’s a dynamic photograph. You can also watch it as an audience; it looks like they are fighting. It’s a still picture, but it still engages your eyes like they are dancing or fighting. So, any good photograph for me has to involve the audience. Do they have to think about what’s going on? What’s happening? If it’s open to interpretation for the viewers, then I can say the photograph is very successful. It’s one of the good photographs. For me as well, it is one of my favorites.
1. An item you should never forget during a photoshoot (except your camera and tripod) – my iPhone coz it also acts as a wide-angle camera, and I shoot my portrait videos from it.
2. Flamingos or parrots- Flamingos
3. Favorite wildlife documentary- Documentary about Amazon, It’s called amazon and something I don’t recall. I have seen the documentary 2-3 times. I love Amazon; I feel like it’s a magical place.
4. Photographers that inspire you- Arthur Morris, he is an American wildlife photographer. When he photographed the animals, the pictures speak to the viewer. Using high-key, low-key, that’s when it started as an art, but any photograph inspires me, John Shaw.
5. Your guilty pleasure- French fries. I know it’s not that healthy, but it also helps me when I go to places where I can’t find any food I like I can always have French fries.