How does a brief sighting with one of the most enigmatic cats trigger the beginning of an educational adventure in nature photography and the challenges of wildlife conservation?
To get an answer to that question, I talked to the Indian nature photographer Neelutpaul Barua, who lost his heart to photographing the big cats in our world. Neelutpaul, a risk management professional in daily life, loves to spend his free time photographing nature and wildlife which proves to be immensely satisfying. At the NPOTY contest 2020, he was highly commended in the category ‘Mammals’. Time to find out what drives this passionate photographer.
Neelutpaul Barua grew up in the remote tea gardens of Assam (India). His tryst with the pristine beauty of Northeast India early in life, had a huge impact on his journey as a nature photographer. He has acquired a fair bit of the art and science of photography on the way. But the more rewarding part has been the awareness and realization of how precious our natural world is. Over the years, he was fortunate enough to travel to forests in India, Africa, and Russia, photographing different species and educating himself on challenges around wildlife conservation.
Tiger Rajbehra Male (R1), Bandhavgarh, India, Neelutpaul Barua
“It is only fair to say that I am biased towards big cats. For two reasons; firstly, it is the subject that marked my foray into wildlife photography. I was always intrigued by nature and my first rendezvous with perhaps the most enigmatic big cat is where it all began. I remember my first tiger sighting. It lasted no more than 30 seconds but it proved to be a turning point in my life. And secondly, there is nothing more exciting than tracking this elusive species in the wild. Especially the Royal Bengal Tiger that has introduced me to a world beyond the concrete jungles we live in today.
Spotted Deer, Bandhavgarh, India, Neelutpaul Barua
The more I learned about tigers the more intrigued I became and from then on there was no looking back. I meticulously started planning all my vacations to visit tiger reserves. This allowed me to witness and document tiger behaviour. Within a year, I started to consider the idea of showcasing my experiences in the wild and a collection of photographs was the most plausible answer. That idea set off my journey into photography. Later on, my interest widened gradually towards other denizens of the wild. I have a long wish list to travel the world and document wildlife in their natural habitat. I certainly hope to tick off quite a few from that list in the coming years.”
A Doting Mother
Brown bear cubs, like all other young ones, are extremely playful and curious and the mothers have to find ways to curtail their bursts of energy. Generally, female brown bears with cubs do not approach large congregations of bears fishing for salmon to avoid risking their cubs being killed by another bear as brown bears practice infanticide. This mother had a long day providing for her and the cubs. When she sat down close to catch some rest, the two cubs continued to play amongst themselves. By lying down on the ground I could capture an eye-level frame that vividly captured the expression of a watchful mother and the carefree nature of the cubs. Kamchatka Brown Bear (Ursus arctos beringianus), South Kamchatka Sanctuary, Russia, Neelutpaul Barua
Ever since I decided to take up photography seriously, I was lucky enough to find Sachin Rai, Canon Maestro and an award-winning photographer, willing to be my mentor. Apart from his technical skills, his knowledge of natural history is noteworthy. I admire the works of nature photographers like Paul Nicklen, Will Burrard-Lucas, Federico Veronesi, Rahul Sachdev, Gurcharan Roopra, Marco Gaiotti, and Tom Way. Studying their work has been very inspiring and informative for me.
Lo and Behold
I saw this family of three on quite a few occasions during my time in Ndutu, Tanzania. In the morning the exuberant but naive cub darted towards a herd of wildebeest and spoiled any chances the mother might have had for a kill. However, lo and behold, in the evening when I saw the family, they were feasting on a wildebeest calf. I lowered my camera from the vehicle with the aid of a monopod and used Canon’s Camera Connect app to remotely control and trigger for a ground-level perspective. Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Ndutu, Tanzania, Neelutpaul Barua
Nature photography is characterized by quite a few variables. In the wild, most of the time it is impossible to control all these variables. Given their unpredictability, one must execute flawlessly to generate the desired result. The light, subject, subject behavior, and habitat, all present different challenges. And don’t forget the role that luck or disappointment plays. I make sure to do enough homework on the topics I pursue in a particular destination. While I have a wish list for taking certain types of photos in a particular destination, it doesn’t necessarily have to be successful if one of the variables turns out unfavorable. That is why I am always open to uncertainty and enjoy the spontaneity of the moment.”
“In my opinion, a photo should evoke an emotion. Ranging from ‘awe’ of the subject matter, the thrill of spotting a rare species to the brutality of the raw nature. The emotion must further arouse curiosity and serve as a goal to recognize and protect nature. By creating storytelling pictures, I try to create interest and awareness for our limited natural resources.
Cape buffaloes do fall prey to lions. However, the tables turned this time around. A herd of close to 100 cape buffaloes chased this lion that ended up taking refuge on an Acacia tree. Power is often on the predator’s side but today his weight was pulling him down. Knowing he could not hang in there for long, he continued to snarl at the herd with the hope of a safe passage. But he was clearly outnumbered by the buffaloes that stood their ground. Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, Neelutpaul Barua
Photography is both a science and an art. My attempt is always to find the balance. I love to capture animal behavior and animals in their natural habitat and do not limit myself to a particular style. Both the golden light and the lack of light work for me. Both add drama to the moment in their own way. I also pay attention to common species that tend to be overlooked. I try to frame these species in the perfect setting in an effort to get the attention they deserve.”
Sleeping Lioness, Ndutu, Tanzania, Neelutpaul Barua
“In my opinion, the natural world is much more alluring than the man-made world. Furthermore, protecting forests is the most cost-effective way to prevent droughts, reduce flooding, and limit the impacts of climate change. With my pictures, I hope I can ignite people’s love for nature and make them realize that we have reached a critical stage where reducing human footprint is the need of the moment.”
Female brown bears have a gestation period of 180 to 266 days and the cubs are born in the dead of winter in dens while the female is still in hibernation. The cubs are fully dependent on the mother since males take no part in raising their cub. Photographing brown bears at the Kuril Lake in Kamchatka is one of a kind experience. While most bears maintain distance from humans, there was an instance when I saw this female with cubs come very close to where I had set up, knowing other bears tend to stay away from humans. Once she was done fishing, she came back to her cubs. She gracefully lay down and immediately one of the cubs started to suckle. So there she lay staring at the sky, embracing her cub. It was the cubs’ first tryst with the world outside. I decided to lie flat on the ground and use the proximity to compose for impact by using a wide-angle lens that could capture this heartwarming rare moment along with the habitat. While this was a much-needed rest for the mother who had been fishing all this while, it was an equally welcome treat for the fledgling. Kamchatka Brown Bear, South Kamchatka Sanctuary, Russia, Neelutpaul Barua
“In nature photography, apart from the personal reward for myself as a photographer, presentation of the natural world in all its grandeur is central. In addition, I am a great supporter of ethical photography and believe no photo must be made by disturbing the animal. The other key elements in my photography are patience and awareness of animal behavior that helps me make memorable photos.”
I had been following this large herd for some time. As I patiently observed different individuals, I noticed these two young and playful elephants beginning to spar. Sparring or play fighting is a common behaviour in elephants. As they play, they begin to understand their own strength, build self-knowledge and learn the tactics they will need to use as older males. Anticipating more action, I positioned my vehicle to make sure I not only capture this behaviour but also do so in the golden light. Their gigantic frames stood so tall in the resplendent golden hour that they seemingly cast a shadow on the otherwise mighty mountains in the background. I opted for my telephoto lens to exclude any distractions in the frame and capture this picture postcard moment. Amboseli National Park, Kenya, Neelutpaul Barua
A Cape Buffalo in the Serengeti, Tanzania, Neelutpaul Barua
At the end of the interview, I asked Neelutpaul Barua the following question: “if you could ask another nature photographer one question, who would that be and which question would you ask?”
Neelutpaul answered: “Sergey Gorshkov spent 11 months in search of the elusive Siberian tiger. This effort required extremely high levels of patience, commitment, and passion. I would like to ask Sergey how he stayed focused and motivated despite the tough conditions and disappointments he had to endure along the way?”
Kamchatka Brown Bear, South Kamchatka Sanctuary, Russia, Neelutpaul Barua