Photography at the Edge: Parag Bhatt’s Passionate Pursuit of Wildlife Wonders

Exploring the Wild Through the Lens of Parag Bhatt, Award-Winning Wildlife Photographer

Photography is more than capturing images; it’s about capturing the essence of life in the wild, a skill that Parag Bhatt has mastered over his illustrious career. This interview offers a window into Parag’s world, where each frame tells a story of nature’s intricate beauty and the delicate balance of the ecosystems he photographs.

From his first forays into the African savannah to his latest expeditions, Parag’s work illuminates the challenges and exhilarations of wildlife photography, portraying his deep commitment to conservation and his relentless pursuit of the perfect shot.

  1. Inspiration Behind the Lens: What initially drew you to wildlife photography, and how has your perspective evolved over the years?

Ever since my childhood, I have found photography quite interesting. My inspiration for picking up the camera was my father, who was himself a good photographer. I have worked with him in our darkroom, and I was always amazed at how prints would come alive in a hypo solution within a few minutes of being enlarged.

On the other hand, for gravitating towards wildlife, I would give credit to my mother. She was born in Mombasa, Kenya and grew up in East Africa. As a young boy, she told me stories about how wildlife roamed freely in East Africa in those days and that they frequently encountered animals on their road travels. This created a lasting impression on my young mind and I was always keen to go to East Africa to see wildlife and photograph. So, for my first trip into the wilds, back in the year 1994 I went to Kenya & Tanzania.

  1. Memorable Expeditions: Can you describe an expedition that tested your limits and taught you a valuable lesson about nature, photography, or yourself?

I have always said that a wildlife photographer needs to have immense patience but quite recently my patience was tested on a game drive in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, when over two days we spent 16 hours on one sighting of a buffalo singled out by a pride of lions. The buffalo was driven into a waterhole about 4 to 5 feet deep which the lions would not dare to enter but had surrounded the bovine and would not let him out.

He tried to get out of the waterhole on many occasions but was relentlessly attacked and driven back into the waterhole. It was a game of patience for the lions as well as the buffalo; who tires first was the question. Finally after a 16 hour wait, 4 hours on day 1 and 12 hours on day 2, we left the scene only to come back the next morning and find that the buffalo was finally killed in the middle of the night; the horns lay as proof of his existence.

In the struggle, one lioness in her prime was also found dead. So, the lion pride also paid a heavy price. After spending 16 hours, I did not manage to get any decent shots. So, in this situation, a lesson that I learned is that even after being patient, one can encounter failures.

  1. Capturing the Wild: With the world as your canvas, what makes a destination stand out to you as a photographer? Share your thoughts on what makes a place truly remarkable for capturing wildlife.

I generally look for a location that has a diversity of wildlife. Kenya stands out in this regard and also for the fact that the most famous game reserve viz. Maasai Mara Game Reserve is a savannah (grassland) and you get some amazing perspectives there since you do not have any obstruction. Moreover, one can easily see in the distance and take some habitat shots as well. The sunsets there are spectacular, and the skies are just so dramatic. It is truly a photographer’s paradise.

  1. Subject Affinity: In your vast array of subjects, do you find yourself particularly drawn to any specific species? What story do you aim to tell through their portraits?

Elephants by far intrigue me the most. They are a very social species and give some amazing photo opportunities when they are in a group. They interact with each other, the calves are very playful, kick up a lot of dust which adds drama. Capturing them having mud baths is also very interesting. When in a herd, depending on its size, they normally walk in either a straight line or together.

Both ways, one gets very interesting perspectives. I have captured and witnessed some amazing moments while capturing them in Kenya. By capturing the herd of elephants, I aim to portray a large cohesive & formidable group led by the matriarch; an impressive sight to behold.  Lone bulls or a bachelor herds are also interesting to photograph. They are normally quite calm if they are not in musth. I have shot some amazing close ups of such bulls, one of which was a People’s Choice Award and another one was an honourable mention; both in the ReFocus B&W Awards.

  1. Evolution of a Photographer: Your journey from an amateur to a seasoned professional must have been filled with significant milestones. Could you share some insights into this evolution?

Initially, like everyone else who embarks on this journey and is new, I was thrilled at observing wildlife and taking snapshots of animals and documenting them. Over a period of time, I was not happy with my outcome and felt there was a lot of room for improvement. So I started reading about composition through the various books I used to pick up regularly from the bookshops and then tried to apply those principles in my photography. After a few years into the journey, it dawned on me that I needed to stand out in the crowd (mainly due to the proliferation of digital cameras) and started making a serious effort towards improving my images, be it the use of available light, composition, and perspective.

I critique my own images and always attempt to improve upon them after every visit into the wild. I also observe images of renowned wildlife photographers and learn from those. Over time I have been able to capture some spectacular shots which have also been challenging. For example, on my trip to Svalbard in 2022, I had shot the polar bear with all the water splashing around the head & torso.

This shot which won an honourable mention in the ReFocus B&W Awards, was quite challenging to execute. Firstly, the waters were very choppy and our small rubber boat aka Zodiac was bobbing around. Secondly, the polar bear would go under water at a certain location and after about 20~30 secs would come up in a completely different place. It would then shake off the water in an instant. To aim the long lens in the direction of the bear, focus and press the shutter to nail the shot was quite a task. It took many shots to come up with something which I really liked.

  1. Overcoming Obstacles: Wildlife photography is not without its hurdles. Share an experience where you faced and overcame a significant challenge in your pursuit of the perfect shot.
Late last year, I was in Amboseli National Park, Kenya to shoot elephants. That is what the park is famous for. I wanted some very unique perspectives of these creatures and it was only possible to get these if I shot them up close. This involved among many things, predicting their path from a distance of at least 300+ meters and then placing the camera on the floor and shooting remotely, keeping fingers crossed that they follow the predicted path and do not kick the camera set up. This involved many trials and finally I managed to nail a few shots, one of which won an award as well. Reflecting back on this journey, I can certainly tell that it was quite challenging to shoot the majestic elephants in their natural habitat, but I remained patient and with time captured the perfect shot.
  1. Fascination with Animal Behaviour: Observing animals in their natural settings offers unique insights. What behaviours have captured your attention, and how do you prepare to photograph these moments?
Knowing animal behaviour is the key to capturing good photos. A lot of information on their behaviour is passed on by the guides and drivers in the field. Slowly but surely, one also learns in the process and is ready to capture the moment perfectly. As an example, cheetahs usually sit on termite mounds for a vantage point. When they can’t see any prey and get down from the mound, they usually stretch and yawn. If you see a bird pooping, you can be pretty sure that it will take off in a while. Moreover, when two male lions meet, they generally rub their heads, sides or body with each other. I have witnessed some of these behaviours very closely and strived to capture them swiftly.
  1. Guidance for Beginners: What pearls of wisdom would you offer to newcomers in the field of wildlife photography?
My advice to budding photographers would be to:
  • Know your equipment & technicalities thoroughly. You don’t want to fumble with knobs & dials and don’t know what settings to have for a shot when the opportunity arises.
  • Look at the background before you press the shutter button since the background makes or breaks an image. In many cases, it is possible to move a bit from your position and get a good background
  • Try and get an eye level or below eye level perspective for an impactful image. For this, you may have to hang out from one side of the vehicle when getting down is not permitted or where it is permitted, then lie on the floor of the jungle to get the desired perspective.
  • Try to get an eye contact with your subject. This involves continually looking through the viewfinder and pressing the shutter when the animal looks at you.
  • Keep the composition guidelines in mind while composing your image.
  • In wildlife photography, sometimes, opportunities appear in an instant. Grab them; my advice would be to be opportunity centric rather than species centric. This is particularly true for the Indian jungles, where photographers run after the tiger and in the process miss out on many other opportunities that nature offers
  • Initially, I would recommend going on safaris with experts in the field to shorten the learning curve
  • Above all, Practice, Practice & Practice. Critique your own images, study images of renowned photographers and try to improve. That is the only way you will improve in your journey as a wildlife photographer
  1. Technical Toolkit: Your choice of equipment is a vital aspect of your work. Can you delve into your photography kit and explain how certain pieces of equipment are indispensable to your art?
A good camera (now mirrorless rather than the DSLR) with high frame rate & high ISO capability is recommended since most of the shooting happens either in early morning or late evening when light levels are relatively low and generally one has to shoot at high ISO levels. For the same reason, a lens with a large aperture of f/2.8 or f/4 is recommended.
  1. Human-Wildlife Coexistence: Your photographs often highlight the delicate balance between humans and wildlife. How do you approach this theme, and what impact do you hope your work has on this global conversation?
For a wildlife photographer documenting human wildlife conflict is an interesting yet challenging task. One needs to be an observant to beautifully capturing this dynamics. Balance plays a vital role in showcasing the human and the wild stories. While documenting the human wildlife conflict I ensure I am capturing the beauty of the wildlife showcasing them as at ease in their natural habitat while coexisting with the human. I also try to show the complex relationship between human and the wild through my photographs. For instance, I captured one such photograph in Masai Mara Kenya. The photograph portrays how the usage of plastic negatively impacts our ecosystem. The photograph showcased a lion cub chewing a plastic bottle while sitting beside its mother. Plastics pose a significant threat to the health and survival of wildlife globally and the photograph tried to get attention to the harmful effects plastic can have on animals. I wanted to convey the message that we should have effective waste management techniques to avoid such incidents and reduce the harmful effects of plastic pollution.  
  1. Reflecting on Achievements: As you look back at your career, what are some accomplishments or moments that you are particularly proud of?

As I reflect back on my journey I am proud of the shots I have captured. I am also happy that I had my first ever solo exhibition in December 2023 at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai. The exhibition was a grand success and attended by some renowned names like fashion photographer Vikram Bawa, singer Roopkumar Rathod and many celebrities of South Mumbai.  

Apart from this, I am happy to have received two Honourable mentions & the People’s Choice Award in the ReFocus B&W photo competition. I have also won a Runner Up prize for my photo on The Tortoise Family shot in Kaziranga National Park as part of Assam Wildlife Tourism promotion. I have been featured in leading photography magazines such as Smart Photography magazine and was 1 of the 20 wildlife photographers selected amongst about 3000+ for the 1st series of Times Passion Trail. A series of tiger fight images, ‘Mother-Daughter Duel’ from Ranthambhore National Park, have been featured in UK Dailies viz. Daily Star, Daily Express & Daily Mail in their print & online editions.

Prittle Prattle News composed this article as an Interview.
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