Published: 16th October 2017
From being demotivated in school to getting his pics in Nat Geo, this Coimbatore-based photographer can tell you how to take that perfect wildlife shot
Wildlife Photographer Varun Aditya talks about the daytime wildlife safaris and his midnight journeys through the dark woods and why it is important to break the rules to explore your best side
Photographers are a dime a dozen nowadays with their high megapixel smartphones and photo-editing apps with umpteen filters. And like most other photographers, Varun Aditya too turned his passion into a profession. But scrolling through his photography page, one can’t help but notice that this Coimbatore-based shutterbug never fails to lend a magical touch to every picture he captures. We caught up with the 26-year-old to talk about his passion for photography and the dedication it requires. Excerpts:
How did you start your journey as a photographer?
When I was in school, I was cornered, demotivated and discouraged by my teachers for being an average student. My parents were my only support and they bought me a DSLR in 2011. I would click photos and show it to them and they would show their ultimate motivation and encouragement. Posting my photos on Facebook and Orkut, at that time, fetched me a few likes and comments, which meant the world to me. This encouraged me to delve further into this world until my primary aim became to take a photo that can tell a story. Since then, I have taken up photography professionally and have now started an expedition agency called Expanded Expeditions, where I do photography tours in India and Africa.
My personal favourite camera is my presence of mind. I choose a lens according to what my mind tells me and also according to the nature of the place and subject I am about to capture
Varun Aditya, wildlife photographer
Does it make a difference being a self-taught photographer in the industry?
According to me, photography as a whole cannot be taught. The basics of handling a camera and techniques can be taught, but the rest has to be learnt from experience. A ‘click’ – the shutter sound itself is an emotion! It is critical because it freezes the entire moment. Isn’t that special? With the help of Google, YouTube I learnt so much. It was during my days in London I developed interest towards photography, where I pursued my MBA degree. But I still believe that one has to taste and explore to understand how to capture a better photograph. Try to compete with your own photographs and get inspired by others, but not compete! If we think the field is extremely competitive, that fear will stop us from learning.
The best shot: In the wild, a few of the cameras Varun carries are a Nikon D800E, Nikon D810, Nikon D4s, Nikon 35mm f1.4, Nikon 200-400mm f4, Nikon 600mm f4 and Nikon 200mm f2
Being a wildlife photographer, you must’ve had exciting encounters with animals. What safety precautions do you take?
‘Wildlife photography is risky’ — this is a myth. Bear Grylls of Man vs Wild, Steve Irwin and many others on TV make us think that wildlife is risky, that animals will attack. No, it is not true. In most wildlife sanctuaries and national parks you are not even allowed to walk. It’s actually a jeep ride! In India, we call it a safari and in Africa, they call it a game drive. Basic safety measures are to keep a distance and not disturb the animals. They don’t attack unless provoked, in fact, they are more afraid of us and they’re born to defend themselves.
Varun felt inclined towards moving objects during his college days in London. He started capturing birds and other mobile objects because he considered those as an interesting part of photography
Do you feel you have grown as a photographer since the time you started in this profession?
I was very curious to learn everything about photography at the beginning and I believe that art is endless. It is now getting even more interesting. I am much more curious to travel, to explore and find more storytelling perspectives to show you all.
What efforts go into taking the perfect shot? How long do you travel to take pictures?
I am greatly inspired by BBC’s Planet Earth. There was once an episode about the wildlife of Madagascar. After watching that I was inspired to capture the smallest chameleons in the world and other animals with camouflaging abilities, which led me to Madagascar recently.
Varun is most inspired by Bence Máté. Other photographers and artists that inspire him are Tim Laman, Will Burrard-Lucas, Cherry Kearton, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, David Attenborough, Steve McCurry, Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz and Ryan Brenizer
There is a lot of effort involved in taking the perfect shot. In Madagascar, we had to walk 14 km during the freezing night to find a particular species of chameleon. To capture its camouflaging abilities, we had to return to the same spot during the day. That means we had to walk 14 km again the next morning, in the scorching heat, to return to the same spot. But the satisfaction I get from taking the right picture is enough motivation to keep me moving forward.
How much do you spend on traveling and how frequently do you travel?
Photography is a very expensive hobby. A minimum of Rs 30,000 is spent on travelling to the national parks in India for 4 to 5 days and a minimum of Rs 1,20,000 is spent on travelling to any African national parks for the same duration. I travel at least once a month in India, thrice a year to Africa and once a year to a new location.
Varun had won Nat Geo's Nature and Wildlife Photographer award in the year 2016, Also being the First Indian Photographer to grab the award and a finalist of Windland Smith Rice Nature's Best Photography 2017. 17 photographs have been chosen as Nat Geo’s Editor's favourites, and his photos have been featured in Apple, Nat Geo Wild and BBC Earth
What equipment do you carry along with you in the wild?
Capturing the story behind the photograph is extremely important to me and hence, I don’t mind if it is raining, sunny or windy. This means that I never handle my cameras safely and they experience rain, and sometimes, scratches due to falls. Since I concentrate on the outcome of the photograph, I give importance to the composition and not the camera.
The easy dynamics: Varun chooses a lens according to what his mind tells him and also according to the nature of the place and the subject he is about to capture
Of all the places that you’ve traveled to, which has been the most fascinating?
I can never list my favourites in any order. Opportunities are very important and they can be created, but not always. Hence, I prefer places that give me the most opportunity. Initially, I started capturing the Purple Rumped Sunbird in my home garden, which is one of my most favourite places. The jungles of India are fascinating because they are so mysterious! And, of course, the opportunity to visit Maasai Mara and the Serengeti.
Last year, you won Nat Geo’s Nature Photographer of the Year award. How did that feel?
It is a perfect motivation and is the highest recognition a nature photographer can get. I’m happy and proud, but also motivated to work hard to take better photographs! For me, achieving little goals in photography is more important than awards. These achievements prove to be the most important steps that generally take one to the next level.
He's the best: 17 photographs have been chosen as Nat Geo’s Editor's favourites, and his photos have been featured in Apple, Nat Geo Wild and BBC Earth
Wildlife photography is not yet a socially accepted profession in India. Has your family been supportive?
I am extremely thankful to my parents for their support! And it is not necessary for wildlife photography to be accepted as a profession. It is enough if we realise that wildlife is precious and deserves to be respected. In India, no one has the time to enjoy the beauty of art. Like painting, photography is also an art which can be bought.
As this profession requires you to be close to nature, has it changed you as a person?
I believe that every single person on Earth loves nature. Nature is very close to us, but it is us who run away from nature. We fail to realise that peace is right behind us. Yes, of course, it has changed me as a person. Not just nature, but even photography has changed me. I believe that any hobby a person loves doing will change them. This is such a clichéd dialogue, but since I’ve experienced it, I would say, just do what you love! That will take you to places and will change you as a person.
Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
Break the rules. Never be scared to get out of your comfort zone and start something new. All you need to do is convey the message through the photo in a way that people understand. Don’t get scared of jargon like shutter speed, ISO and aperture. I strongly believe that everyone has a speciality and an inner talent. Listen to that gut feeling and start working right away. Thinking and imagining that you can achieve something one day won’t work until you move right now and plunge into action. Be driven by your passion. Do not be a believer of luck, but be a firm believer of trust. Trust your camera, trust the weather, trust the light, trust your subject, and finally, have immense trust in yourself. Explore, learn, think, click and repeat!