Wildlife Photography from Keerthana Balaji’s viewpoint

In The House

30 Asiatic wild, red dogs single out a baby elephant from a herd of seven. Wildlife, in its raw form - Dholes slavering, snarling, advancing and retreating. Elephants charging, thumping and ear-flapping. A rare moment, a photo op, and 21-year-old Keerthana Balaji wasted no time in out her camera and hence “Mammoth Skirmish”. Heavyweights in the world of environment and conservation judged the entries for the Sanctuary Asia awards, where this grabbed her the second prize.

So, here for you is our conversation with Keerthana Balaji - a 21-year-old, with ATR almost in her background, who wields a Canon Rebel T2i with skill, and is dedicated to conservation photography.

First, for those who aren’t associated with photography, or wildlife photography for that matter, please tell us who Keerthana Balaji is?

I am a 21-year-old with a flair in designing, art, music and photography. I am the co-founder and the visualiser for an advertising firm named “Tungsten”, based out of Pollachi (the place I hail from) and a magazine, “The Pollachi Papyrus” which is aimed at conservation through responsible tourism.

So, wildlife photography. Do you do it professionally or is it a passion and a hobby sort-of a thing? Because I think I read somewhere that you posted your entry on Sanctuary Asia fan page randomly, not expecting anything. 

You read it right. Photography has been my passion, however, wildlife photography is a very recent passion for me (it’s just been a year).

Here is my first 2-question combo for you: How did you get into this kind of photography? Was there an inspiration or a photography-related schooling? Where did this begin? If there is a story, please share it with us. Also, can you recall your first “Wow!” photograph? Please tell us a bit about what it was and how it happened.

I did my B.Sc in Visual Communication, so photography was a part of the curriculum. I always loved travelling and was into photographing people along a lot of random stuff that I found interesting. It was after I came back to my hometown and started Tungsten. I got to meet a lot of interesting and inspiring people, photographers, conservationists, and scientists. The experiences they shared made me envy them and since I always loved being out of a crowded city or a town, I thought I could develop a new hobby. 

With that followed my first bird-watching trip to Valparai with Dhanu Paran (the 14-year-old colleague of mine) and the pictures of hornbills taken by him, Mr. Prakash Ramakrishnan’s award-winning leopard pair pictures, Mr. Kalyan Varma’s Aerial shot of the Anamalais (actually, when I think of the pictures at which my jaw drops, there’s a huge list!).

The first self-satisfactory picture for me was when we were just returning from our first trip into the wilderness with my team before the launch of our first issue. We went to Topslip (Anamalai Tiger Reserve), with a wishlist of birds to photograph along with leopards, tigers, and elephants. I had to return back home as I had some urgent work to attend to, so me and my friend dropped off the rest of my teammates and while rushing back through the worn out roads, I saw this beautiful red-fronted bird sitting out on a perch. The Malabar Trogon, one the most beautiful birds native to our rich forests. I clicked a satisfying picture and my friends were really mad at me as they missed it due to the trek. That was such a rich trip; we saw everything, including elephants, leopards and many more except a tiger.

Wildlife Photography

Here is an elaborate question. What is Keerthana’s style of photography? Why is wildlife so important for you and how do you, as a photographer, help in conserving it? I mean, there must be something that you want a viewer to take from your work. What is it?

Everybody’s got their own style. It’s not just about the picture. A photograph to me is about the memories I get to relive for the rest of my life. Sometimes the picture may be bad, but might have a story to tell or a memory to relish. It’s about preserving those moments.

I believe that once a person experiences that moment where one feels like they are in the heart of something so pure and understands that everything God has made has a meaning and a purpose to its existence, it makes us appreciate life. Experiencing wildlife is important to me because it makes me fall in love with it every time I enter a pristine place and look at inspiring creatures. And when we develop love towards something, we have the urge to save it and keep it close to us. And it’s only through that admiration that the responsibility to preserve and conserve comes. And conservation is not a selfless deed. It’s the most selfish thing to do. When we protect the forests, we protect ourselves. So, when people look at a picture of mine I would be extremely happy if they develop a sense of love and affection towards wildlife and selfishly protect it.

The award-winning photograph that you clicked, well, I will have to say it’s one of the most amazing pictures that I have seen. I would want to know why you think that it won. According to you, what separates a great photographer from an average one? 

Well, thank you. To be honest, I did not know that it was an award-worthy photograph. But from what experts said, it was technically correct. And I believe that it was the moment. It’s a rare sight. A natural history moment, as they call it. Apart from that, both elephants and dholes have tried so hard to survive and they are the species that have bounced back. So getting to photograph an intense moment between them might have been a factor too.
To me, it’s about the purpose behind a photograph and where and how it is being used that differentiates between the good and bad.

Talking about the winning photograph, please share with us its story. How did it happen?

I was on my way to a client meeting in Valparai on June 3rd, 2014. We got to see a mob standing on the parapet walls and pointing towards a huge pack of dholes and screaming. So, me and my partner parked the car and tried controlling the crowd. Just when we were entering, a herd of elephants walked into the scene and the dholes tried attacking the calf. Elephants (being elephants) formed a protective circle around the calf and the tuskers charged at the dholes repeatedly. Dholes yipping on one side and elephants trumpeting on the other, it was one hell of an experience to witness that moment between the animals. But it truly felt like being in a Rajnikanth movie as the people were impossible to handle.

Sanctuary Asia Award

Is that you favourite picture? If not, can you tell us about the one that is?

Well, of course it is my favourite picture! It is that incident which propelled us to come out with a magazine. And it is that photograph that gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of inspiring people.

Now, I have a few technical questions for the aspiring and inquisitive photographers. But before those, there is an important question. Family, Academics, Wildlife Photography – How are these balanced? What is your family’s attitude towards this? 

I am exceptionally blessed. I have a family which trusts me and supports me in everything I do and friends who constructively criticise me. I love what I do. Tungsten was my dream which happened way too soon than I had imagined. The magazine helps us sensitise people and it is definitely a tool to conserve what we stand on. And the luckiest part is that my trips to the jungle are actually a part of my work.

Moving on to a bit more technical part. I have wanted to avoid this question, but other photographers and enthusiast would expect this. What cameras/lenses do you use and why?

I still use my canon t2i rebel and a 55-250 and a 75-300 mm lens. Why? Because I want to earn my own camera and it will take a while for me to save up for it  

How do you plan the entire thing? I mean, what’s your pre-photo and post-photo workflow and how does it all happen?

I do not plan. I try to make the most of what I have. However, I keep dreaming of some shots that I would like to take.

Speaking about post-photo workflow, what are your thoughts on touched-up and processed images vs. raw images? Which ones do you prefer?

I prefer raw images. In certain cases, some level of post-processing actually helps to understand a moment better. For a person who has nothing to do with wildlife or photography, they will notice a picture only if it’s appealing. And if a photo can attract a layman and inspire him, there is absolutely no harm in minimal post-processing.

Lighting and weather conditions seem to be a crucial aspect of a successful picture in the wild. How do you handle these unpredictable events?

True. I am not a fan of flash photography. So in low light situations, it’s better to use a tripod or a monopod or a bean bag. Anything that can keep the camera locked. In such cases, the pictures are sharper, provided adequate natural light is used and the noise is controlled.

Locations. Is there a specific reserve or area that you click it? And why?

The Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Reason 1: It’s like my backyard. I live here and it’s convenient. It is not explored much, and almost all the endemic species of the Western Ghats live here. The scapes are beautiful and anyone who comes here will fall in love with it because it’s different every minute.

So now that you have an esteemed and revered award in your field, is there anything that you’re aiming for next?

To be honest, I did not dream of an award. But I am fortunate, encouraged, and glad that I received it. The only thing I would love to achieve and be super proud of would be if I can influence people to get into conservation and make them responsible.

The final one. If not wildlife photography particularly, a lot of people wish to get into photography, in general. But then, they are nervous regarding the career opportunities, slim chances and a platform of a refined competition. Also, there has always been a family and societal pressures against such offbeat career choices. Any tips or advice?

We are Indians. Though every Indian loves a particular form of art, we are still a society which cannot appreciate a non-money making artist. If a person can make money by doing well, it’s best to do it. No career is good if it’s not sustainable. Finding a sustainable way to follow our passion would be wise. That’s what my professor taught me.