The true splendour of the swampland is to be discovered in the incredible variety of its flora and fauna. To the exploring eyes, this enchanting world is revealed beneath the green mantle of the mangrove forests. From spectacular sunsets to engulfing wildlife encounters – the Sundarbans offer a nature photographer an experience of a lifetime. Every individual’s approach to photographing the nature will differ, but your enjoyment will be enhanced by knowing how to get the best out of your equipment. In this article, I’ve listed the top 7 photography tips that, I hope, will help you to bring home back some of the most astonishing frames from the land of ” Bonbibi “.
Before getting into the tips and tricks, let us first find out the challenges one has to face while photographing in the Sundarbans:
- Because of the muddy terrain, the only way to explore the Sundarbans is by boat. The numerous rivers and creeks that criss-cross the habitat also keep gypsy safaris out of the equation and walking inside the forest is prohibited, except for the watch towers.
- The engine of the boat can’t be stopped inside the park. So, you’ve to take shots from a moving object (i.e. motor boat). Your focal distance will keep changing continuously.
- If you’re super lucky you’ll get close shots, but due to the shy nature of the animals living here, you’ve to photograph them from a distance in most occasions and in most cases, a short time span as well.
- The Sundarbans has a notorious reputation for providing extremely tricky lighting conditions. In such circumstances, you’ve to expose the scene properly (or as much as you can).You can’t just depend on automatic modes of your camera.
Now that you know about the difficulties, let’s get straight into the top 7 tips on photographing from a boat in the Sundarbans!
Tip 1 – Using a higher Shutter Speed :
To counter the vibration generated from the engine of the boat, you should use a higher shutter speed. Experience taught me that the safe limit is a shutter speed of around 1/800s while using a longer telephoto lens. Anything below that and you run the risk of getting a blurry shot. Don’t be afraid to opt for a higher ISO value if the situation demands. As they say, a noisy but sharp image is always better than a blurry one.
Camera sensors with higher resolutions (megapixel count) will accentuate shakes much more than a camera with lower sensor resolution. For instance, if you’re getting considerably sharp shots with a 20 MP camera at 1/500s, you should ideally go for a minimum speed of 1/1000s while using a higher resolution sensor like a 36 MP camera to get sharp results.
Tip 2 – Using Short Bursts
Instead of spraying and praying, use short bursts. You always stand a chance of getting an out of focus or blurry frame while pressing the shutter button in single shot mode. If you, say, fire a burst of 3 shots, your second shot will always be better than the first one due to the camera’s mirror mechanism. Unless you’re using a superfast camera like the D6 or the 1DX MK III, short bursts will allow the buffer to clean up faster and your camera will be ready to fire almost every time.
Tip 3 – Handholding the Lens
Handheld photography is the way to go in Sundarbans. You can use a bean bag (bring an empty one, we’ll fill it up for you) or place the tripod/monopod on a life jacket (we’ll provide the life jacket) if you’re uncomfortable handholding a big heavy telephoto lens and you’re ready to shoot. But handholding the lens will give you maximum flexibility and you stand a better chance of capturing the best moments! About 99% of my wildlife images from Sundarbans are shot handheld.
Tip 4 – Metering the Scene
The most underestimated but powerful part of the modern digital camera system is the various metering modes. An entire tutorial can be done on this subject, but as I am trying to keep this article short, my advice to you is to use the evaluative (Canon)/Matrix (Nikon) mode in the Sundarbans. You can set the proper exposure by using the exposure compensation if you’re operating in aperture priority mode(I highly recommend that as well).This will get the job done in most conditions, but sometimes, situations can occur where you’ve to use the spot metering. Follow your photography mentor’s instructions on such scenarios.
Tip 5 – Shooting with Back Button Focusing or BBF On
I am a huge advocate of the back button focusing method. This is absolutely a life saver in places like the sundarbans. Generally, by half pressing your camera’s shutter button, you focus on a subject. With the BBF, the shutter button is only used for taking pictures. The focusing ability is being shifted to the AF-ON button on the camera’s back (Check your camera model to set up BBF).The advantages of using the back button focusing are many. When the shutter release controls all functions, focusing simultaneously engages the Vibration Reduction (VR)/Image Stabilization (IS) system. When using AF-ON or back button focus you can observe or follow a moving subject, constantly adjusting the focus, without engaging the VR/IS mechanism until the moment the shutter release is depressed. While this might seem trivial, when observing wildlife over extended periods, waiting for a specific moment to trip the shutter, driving the VR/IS continuously can drain battery. The back button technique only uses the VR/IS for brief periods when the shutter is actually released, maximizing battery life. By starting with AF set to AF-ON only while in AF-C (continuous) mode, you can essentially combine multiple focusing features without touching many buttons on the camera. With a static subject you can focus on the subject once, and recompose. There is no need to move focus points. If the subject starts moving, the camera is ready to track focus with the same settings. This allows you to cover the action while also getting in between moments like portraits and detail shots with the same focus settings. I frequently start with this combination of settings with sports, lifestyle, and portrait work.
Tip 6 – Choosing the Right Lens
Ideally, you should pack three lenses in your camera bag. A wide angle zoom (eg-16-35/24-70), A short telephoto zoom (70-200) and a long telephoto (400/500/600mm).You’ll find yourself using the long telephoto most of the times. In the evening or just after the sunset you’ll witness some of the most magical sky scapes in this part of the world which will force you to bring the wide zoom out of the camera bag. With crocodiles and occasional habitat shots, the short tele zoom will come handy. Bring a macro lens if you have one. The watch towers will allow you to capture some macro stuff.
I highly recommend using a lens with Image Stabilization (IS/VR/VC/OS).Set the image stabilization switch to the panning mode if your lens permits to do so (VR Sports for Nikon, IS Mode 3 for Canon).
Tip 7 – Positioning Yourself Properly
In Sundarbans, the way you position yourself while shooting matters a lot. In certain situations you’ve to stay on the upper part of the deck (eg- while shooting a bird on a higher perch) and sometimes on the lower part of the boat’s deck (eg- while photographing the crocodiles resting on mud banks).Ask your Photography mentor/Naturalist/Boatman before taking the position.
Photographing from a moving boat in the Sundarbans can be very challenging. I hope that these tips will make your trip a success. I run wildlife photography tours & workshops that are specially designed for photographers, where you can learn more skills and tricks on the aspect of photography and post processing. To join me on my upcoming tours, please get in touch with me.