Sunil is a retired Air force aviator who served the Indian Airforce for 34 long years and proudly held the title of Group Captain. He hails from Thiruvanthapuram, Kerala and has been to every nook and corner of the country with over 6000 hours as a transport pilot. Sunil does not consider himself to be a professional photographer. In fact, he does not do photography for any professional, commercial or monetary benefits. Photography is a passion for him which he pursues for a very personal and benignly simple reason called ‘happiness’. it is more to explore the creative aspirations of his mind that went unexplored owing to his professional commitments. His endeavour has been to showcase wild life and the natural world in a light never seen before!
I happened to connect with him on 500px, where I have been following his stunning work for a long time. 500px is one of the most premium and popular photography portals for serious photographers with over 15 million members. Sunil became one of the first few Indian photographers to top the 500px popularity chart and also among the rare few to get a pulse score of 99.9 With his hard work and consistency, today he has more than 30k photographers following his work from all over the world. Impressed with his photography work, I decided to have a Q&A session with him to know more about his style, techniques, learnings and motivation for photography. Here is a snippet of his response to my questions which I am sure you would find very helpful and inspiring.
How did your photography journey begin?
Photography came much later in my life as I was about to retire. It was basically to keep an interest or passion alive to pursue after retirement. I bought my first camera before retirement while serving on my last posting at New Delhi. My journey to the world of photography began there without any prior knowledge about the craft. Everything I know and did is fallout from that decision and what I learned thereafter.
I joined 500px in 2017 which was the real game-changer. Topping the 500px popularity charts is considered a remarkable achievement in every photographer’s journey. In order to get noticed, it became necessary for me to produce world-class images on a consistent basis and this propelled me to explore the possibility of creating a whole new genre. I thus became the pioneer in creating a whole new subcategory under nature and wildlife photography which I call a fusion of art and wildlife. I thus travelled into uncharted territory and developed my own creative processing strategies. I mastered few techniques of my own. So it was a journey to challenge my own self. I must admit that initially, I learned a lot from online classes and Youtube videos.
How did you boil down to one specific genre?
Being an aviator, my natural connection to photography began with an affinity for photographing birds in flight. So I began my journey with the Nikon D750 and 200-500mm zoom lens. At that time, it was the only affordable option I had. Subsequently, I widened the scope to nature and animal wildlife photography and occasionally to landscapes. The gear up-gradation happened progressively over a period of time. Today I use the Nikon D850 FX DSLR and a fleet of seven lenses to cover the entire spectrum. This genre further progressed into creative fusion, digital art and complex composite imagery. So today I remain comfortable within the sub-genre that I created within the broader umbrella of nature and wildlife photography.
Your inspirations in wildlife photography?
To be honest, I have no role models as such. I was actually busy carving out a niche for myself, but yes, inspirations are many. There are many professional and expert wildlife photographers on 500px whose work helped me in elevating my standards. Also, the works of Rathika Ramaswamy, Nagesh Chindanur and Sudhir Shivaram did inspire me during my initial years.
Your three favourite spots in India for bird photography?
Because of my professional disposition, I couldn’t travel much. National Zoological Park in New Delhi was my favourite. The natural habitats of Sunder Nursery in Nizamuddin and Lodhi Garden comes a close second.
Your most preferred camera and lenses for wildlife photography?
I use the Nikon D850 and I find that comfortable for my needs. I used the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR Zoom lens and still continue to use the same. Basically, it was because of affordability. Since my needs were purely personal and there were no financial returns, I didn’t opt for a costlier Camera gear. But if I were to upgrade today, I would prefer a Sony or Canon mirrorless system. I also use the 14-24mm f/2.8, 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.8.
What is your style of photography and image processing?
When I photograph birds and animals I always try to capture their emotions and behaviour, and that has been one key element in most of my photographs. I shoot with a vision and planning and use post-processing techniques to emphasize colours and light in creative ways.
If you have to share three key learnings in photography, what would it be?
- Identify a genre that suits your style and comfort and stick to it. Improve upon it till it becomes your signature style.
- Remember that photography is the complete process of planning an image to the act of capturing it on camera and then to the process of post-processing an image for final presentation.
- Photography is a complex and elaborate subject. There are subsidiary disciplines that require elaborate learning. You are therefore a student of the craft all the way. Have the courage to experiment and learn as you go along.
“This portrait of the African Elephant struggling to find its way around in a dust storm was shot at the National Zoological Park in New Delhi. The largest land animal on the planet, brought to its knees by flying grains of sand. That is the irony in nature. I processed this image to maintain the monochromatic tones of sand to convey the mood of the moment.“
“Capturing a peacock in full spread flight was one image I always dreamt of. This aspiration finally came true at Sunder nursery in New Delhi. I shot this at dusk and had to resort to some careful post processing to bring out details.”
“Maximum of my efforts in photography has gone shooting in flight images of the storks and pelicans at the artificial island inside National Zoological Park in New Delhi. There will always be days when strange events unfold in front of you. This laughing Pelican landed at the lawn in front of me and I was able to capture this unique in-flight posture and the big grin.“
“Animal emotions are one of my favorite subjects in photography. This photograph of Kings Fury is always close to my heart. Not only was the expression very explicit, the flaming eyes conveys the intensity.”
“This silhouette frame of the Sika deer family at dawn was captured at the Bindawaas sanctuary in Haryana. I was fortunate to capture the sunrays filtering through the canopy and the mist, creating this magical feel and the reflection.”
“White tigers are the rare mutated variant of the Royal Bengal Tiger. They are now extinct in the wild and survive only in sanctuaries and Zoological Parks. Inputs from other photographers gave me the knowledge that White tigers do climb trees. This rare sighting happened on my 34th visit to their natural habitat based enclosure. He not only climbed but also posed for me. A tribute to my perseverance I guess.”
“Blue mizzle is one of my favorite pictures of all time. This photograph of the Norwegian white Geese bathing under summer rain was captured at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi. This simple and beautiful frame still adorns many walls across the globe owing to its popularity on 500px.”
“I am giving a preview to one of my unpublished images. This endearing image of the loving babbler bird protecting his love under his wings in drizzle is one rare moment I photographed sitting at my home during the pandemic. Animal behavior which is closer to ours that we can relate to, makes an impact in every viewers mind. This I believe is one such image.”
If you loved his photographs, I insist you must visit his 500px account where you can find many more such jaw dropping images and keep yourself updated with his latest post.
I hope, this interview contributes to your learning in photography like it did to mine. For me, among many other things to learn, there are three major key takeaways. Firstly, “it is never too late“. You can start, learn and master photography at any age. All you need is the zeal and passion to achieve perfection in your craft. Secondly, “you need not always go to an exotic location (like Masai Mara) or a far-off national park to click good photographs of birds and animals, particularly when you are just starting“. If your aim is to learn and master your art, you can start with a nearby forest, zoological park or anywhere you are likely to spot interesting birds or animals in and around your city. Thirdly, “it is important to define your niche (rather sooner than later) to master your craft and achieve perfection in that”. Jack of all genres, often ends up becoming master of none.