A tale between the lens and wildlife

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Ranthambhore : 20 day round-up

It is February and Ranthambhore has already started loosing some of its charismatic winter colors. Days are warm and sunny consistently and the dense fog and gloomy weather conditions have given way to golden morning mist over the lakes. All these dramatic changes in the last 20 odd days have had an impact on the sightings of the 2 devoted mothers and their doting cubs. While T19 (Krishna) has been keeping photographers busy around the lakes, T39 (Noor) made a reappearance in the park after a 20 day disappearance and if the weather continues to warm during the days, the sighting trends would surely improve further in the coming days.

The last 20 days, I was focussed on the lakes and had some memorable encounters with the lake denizens. The female cub of Krishna always surprised me with her antics. She is bold and independent and would climb on trees, induce the other siblings to indulge in play fights, stalk deer fawns and one fine afternoon she pulled off a stunner by swimming right across the Rajbagh lake like a Sunderbans tiger in the company of crocodiles who had literally surrounded her during a 50 meters lap. We had named her Machali junior because of a fork mark on her cheek which bears resemblance to her famed grandmom – Machali. She is certainly the dominant princess of the lakes.

News and rumors around new born cubs of T41 have also raised the hopes for summers and overall Ranthambhore is gearing up for some exciting tiger action starting March.

Here is a brief photo-diary of some Krishna and cubs moments in the last fortnight:

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Sarus & Winters Flavors of Bharatpur

Bharatpur is always a magical place for photography in winters. As I sign off from Keoladeo here are some of the magical moods of Bharatpur in winters.

Happy New Year

Wishing you all a very happy new year.

Warm wishes for 2015

Warm wishes for 2015

Canon EOS 7D Mark II : A Field Review

T28 (star male)

It is Christmas today and in case you shutterbugs want to present yourself with the aspiration and much talked about Canon 7D Mark 2, here is a brief field report of my experience with this latest APSC launch by Canon. I had the privilege to rough out a demo Canon 7D Mark2 provided by Canon India over a period of 15 days in Ranthambhore and Kanha in varied light conditions and shooting scenarios. This review is by no means a detailed technical review which has already been done by a host of online forums and portals. It should purely be considered as a field review of my experience using this body and since I deal with varied photographers on a daily basis, I would also attempt to suggest the need of a Canon 7D Mark2 for different strata of lensmen.

5 years back the Canon 7D had taken the market by storm. A robust, well built magnesium alloy body with 19 AF points, the Canon 7D which shot at 8fps was built for wildlife and sports photography. Priced at around USD 1699 in September 2009, Canon literally captured the amateur market as the Canon 7D had become an obvious choice of enthusiasts wishing to pick up their maiden camera for wildlife. Along with the Canon 100-400mm and the Canon 300mm f4, the amateurs and serious amateurs swore by this combination for years. At times I was amazed to see the rapid uptake of this combination during my safaris in various parts of India and I certainly believe that this affordable combo played an instrumental role in the uptake of wildlife and nature photography in India in the last 5 years. The Canon 7D also acted as a great back up body for the Canon 1D Mark4 and Canon 5D Mark2 users of those times.

However the Canon 7D had its own pain points in the form of low light performance, loss of details, color rendering etc. It was also said that Canon has essentially given this camera the look and feel of a pro body but the performance is way below standard and the ISO performance of the Canon 7D was always a subject of debate. Some photographers believed that being a cropped sensor Canon could have reduced the megapixels of the Canon 7D to around 12mp which would have improved the noise performance in low light situations. Over the time, Canon 7D – despite of its limitations – had become like an essential element of your camera kit.

A lot of hopes were pegged on the Canon 7D Mark2 which is expecting to wipe off the Canon 7D woes and having used the 7D extensively during the 2009-2011 period, I was also eager to unfold the 7D Mark2 mystery as I grabbed hold of this light weight body in early December in 2 of India’s leading tiger reserves – Kanha and Ranthambhore.

My first impressions of the Canon 7D Mark2 were positive.

  • A 65 all cross type focusing grid through the view finder opens a world of compositional and framing opportunities for you. Specially helpful while showcasing the habitat and the environment of your subject
  • Toggling between focusing modes on high end machines like the Canon 5D MarkIII and Canon 1Dx is a task. It is normally a 2-3 step process. The smart nob provided next to the thumb joystick of  the Canon 7DM2 was a delight to use. It definitely helps a lot if you want to go from spot focusing to the various zone focusing (expand 4, 9 points) while looking through the view finder
  • The view finder console also enables you to see all your camera settings – WB, metering modes and a smart alignment scale on the top to ensure that your horizons are always in line.
Dissection of the Canon 7D Mark 2 view finder

Dissection of the Canon EOS 7D Mark II view finder

65 cross type AF grid through the view finder of the Canon 7D Mark 2

65 cross type AF grid through the view finder of the Canon EOS  7D Mark II

Winter wildlife photography in India is definitely a joy for photographers. The early morning mist mingles with the morning light to give some dramatic colors which make even the most common subjects look photogenic. However a lot depends on the camera you are using as the winter light in the morning is very soft and requires a camera with good low light performance. The Canon 7D Mark 2 was put to test to shoot barasinghas (swamp deer) in the open meadows of Kanha on day 1 and the results were at par with the Canon 5D Mark III which was used to shoot the same subject. However the light wasn’t very soft at this point of time and most of the images were shot at ISO 400-500. Here are some of the results.

Canon 7D Mark2, Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 400, f6.3, 1/500)

Canon EOS 7D Mark II , Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 400, f6.3, 1/500)

Canon 7D Mark2, Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 400, f7.1, 1/640)

Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 400, f7.1, 1/640)

The following evening, light in Kanha was superb. A jackal emerged from the dense saal canopies of Kanha towards an open patch of grasslands and the Canon 7D Mark2 was tested in routine good light conditions and the details and color rendering was spot on. I felt there wasn’t any comparison that could be drawn with the Canon 7D as till now the Canon 7D Mark 2 was performing at par with my high end bodies like the Canon 5D Mark3, Canon 1D Mark 4 and Canon 1Dx. Infact I was enjoying using the focus points toggling button and the view finder console more than the three top of the league machines lying in my bag. Here are the results:

Canon 7D Mark 2, Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 100, f5.6, 1/500)

Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 100, f5.6, 1/500)

Close up of the image above. Canon 7D Mark2 details were spot on.

Close up of the image above. Canon EOS 7D MarkII details were spot on.

I am not in favor of excessive cropping of images as according to me framing and compositions need to be in-camera as much as possible, but in this era of digital photography when cameras are a part of this megapixel race, cropped composition is a trend followed by a lot of photographers. Packed with 20 MP, the Canon 7D Mark 2 retains sufficient image details when cropped by as much as 60 percent. Here is a cropped version of a spider’s web from Kanha National Park.

Cropped Composition - approx 50% cropped

Cropped Composition – approx 50% cropped

Giant wood spider web in Kanha - full frame on a Canon 7D Mark 2

Giant wood spider web in Kanha – full frame on a Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Canon 7DM2 – ISO performance

The above mentioned facts were some obvious improvements which were expected from a Canon 7D upgrade. The big question however still remained in my head : how will the Canon 7DM2 fare in a tricky light condition? Can it be trusted like the big brothers – 5DM3 and 1Dx when it comes to ISO performance?

As I was traversing through the saal tracks of Kanha National Park with this question pondering in my head, the opportunity I had been waiting for came on a platter. A full grown male Bengal Tiger was caught taking a nap in the middle of the road. The light conditions were poor and it was time for an acid test for the Canon 7D Mark2. Being attuned to a 1Dx and 5DM3, I started shooting at 3200 ISO straight away and the results were definitely not at par with the top of the line Canon bodies. I then slowly experimented with varied ISOs ranging from 800 to 1600. My lens was a combination of a Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 and a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS2. In all circumstances I was a bit skeptical going above 1600 ISO which according to me was the maximum threshold in the given light condition. The results were remarkable at 1000-1600 ISO specially among the entire gamut of cropped sensors available in the market till date.

Given below are some of the results:

Canon 7D Mark 2 and Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 1000, 1/320, f 3.5)

Canon EOS 7D Mark II and Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2
(ISO 1000, 1/320, f 3.5)

50% crop of the same image

50% crop of the same image (unedited RAW)

Drawing parallels for the Canon 7D Mark2 with heavyweights full frame sensors like the Canon 5D Mark3 and Canon 1Dx would be an unfair comparison as the latter do have a superior low light performance and definitely have an edge when used at ISO 2000-3200. However amongst the cropped sensors including its predecessor, the Canon 7D Mark2 does work brilliantly between ISO 1000-1600. I do recall that years back when I was on a Canon 7D, the brain was tuned not to boost the ISO above 800 (640 at times).

Using the in-camera live view feature

In the middle of this testing phase for the Canon 7D Mark2, I shifted my workstation from Kanha to Ranthambhore and while I was still looking for a good opportunity to test the 10fps of this body, my first day in Ranthambhore gave me an opportunity to try something very interesting with the 7DM2 : The Live-view feature.

Using the live view for still photography is not something we regularly do since we are more comfortable shooting from the optical viewfinder. However, a DSLR live view feature is definitely useful when the subject is still and not in motion and you have the luxury of time to compose and frame in a manner that the subject lies beyond the reach of the focus points of your DSLR. Even in high end full frame bodies like the 5DM3 and 1Dx, using the live view can become a bit frustrating at times. You need to press the AF repeatedly to fine tune the focus and at times you need to focus manually as well after magnifying your subject to 100% to ensure the focus is precise. The Canon 7D Mark2 live view feature is an absolute delight as the camera is built to focus automatically. Even when the subject occupies a small part of the frame, you can just magnify by 50% or 100% and the camera will automatically focus on the subject. Ofcourse, this works brilliantly when you are shooting videos and unlike most of the DSLRs including the big Canon machines, the 7DM2 hooks on to the focus automatically.

Here is a tiger image shot on the Canon 7DM2 using this live view feature:

Canon 7DM2 on a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 1000, f5.6, 1/320). Shot using camera live-view (bean bag support)

Canon EOS 7D Mark II on a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 1000, f5.6, 1/320). Shot using camera live-view (bean bag support)

50% cropped view. The focus on the tiger was spot-on. Time taken to focus on the tiger using the live-view was just a few miliseconds.

50% cropped view. The focus on the tiger was spot-on. Time taken to focus on the tiger using the live-view was just a few milliseconds.

The Canon 7DM2 – 10fps test 

At 10fps, the Canon 7DM2 was slated to be a mini Canon 1DM4 (the 1Dx predecessor shot brilliantly at 10fps). I encountered a fast jackal fight sequence during my Ranthambhore field days. The situation was tricky because of the presence of foreground grass which I purposely did not want to avoid in order to check the AF of the 7DM2 specially on a burst mode. The subjects were back lit as well. It was an awesome experience shooting this action sequence with the 7DM2 and 400mm f2.8 combo. Of the 5-6 frames that I got, none of the images had soft focus. It was more like using a 1Dx which can be relied on blindly in case of fast action and precision when it comes to focusing.

Darter take off. Canon 7DM2, Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 200, f5.6, 1/1000)

Darter take off. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2 (ISO 200, f5.6, 1/1000)

Jackal fight - Ranthambhore National Park. Canon 7DM2 and Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2. ISO800, 1/1250. f6.3

Jackal fight – Ranthambhore National Park. Canon EOS 7D Mark II and Canon 400mm f2.8 IS2. ISO800, 1/1250. f6.3

So what’s my verdict on the Canon 7DM2?

I am not a tech or camera guru to give any verdict. I am just an artist who tries to create images from whatever equipments are around me. However here are my suggestions on the basis of which you can base your Canon 7D Mark2 purchase decision:

  • A fast DSLR which can perform well in low light is a basic pre-requisite for wildlife photography. In case you are planning to learn wildlife photography and want to pick up your maiden DSLR, the Canon 7D Mark2 is a must for your kit. It has some built in features of high end Canon cameras like the 5DM3 and 1Dx and given the price point Canon is marketing this product at, it would definitely aid your photographic visions.
  • For serious amateurs and pros who already have a range of Canon DSLRs in their kit, having the Canon 7DM2 in your kit is a good option. A lot of times we need range in order to create the exact frame we have visualized and instead of putting on a teleconverter which would impact your aperture as well, you can just swap bodies and use the 1.6x cropped sensor of the Canon 7DM2. In good light situations, you wouldn’t miss your top of the league bodies for sure.

My overall verdict for the Canon 7D Mark2 is a definite yes for all kind of nature photographers. Canon has carefully dealt with the issues of Canon 7D and am sure photography would be great fun for young amateurs wishing to step in the field of wildlife photography armed with this new Canon machine.

Ranthambhore – November Stripes

Winter is setting in at Ranthambhore and the change in weather has impacted the sightings which were in full swing throughout the month of October. However the 2 star mothers – T19 and T39 still are making brief appearances along with their cubs. Here are some glimpses of Ranthambhore this November.

T39 cubs

Ranthambhore Playmates

Sultan

Common Kingfisher

Ranthambhore - winter habitat

Ranthambhore – winter habitat

T39 cub

T39 cub

Action Heats up in Ranthambhore

2 breeding females, cubs and a lot of photographic opportunities lie ahead in Ranthambhore this season. Have you planned your visit this season?

Vijaya – The Warrior Queen

(Obituary published in the November issue of Saevus Wildlife)

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4 year old Vijaya was a bold, buoyant and a beautiful tigress. Like all striped kings and queens of Bandhavgarh she was a favorite for lens-men who yearned for her 1 shot. It seemed all rosy till the summers of 2010 but as the monsoons approached Vijaya’s ambitions grew bigger and bigger. She wanted to own one of the most pristine areas of tiger estate of Bandhavgarh – the stretch ranging from Chorbehra, Chakradhara right up till the Bandhavgarh fort. She wanted to be crowned as the new queen of the Tala range of the forest.

The thought was good for this has been the dream territory of any tiger of Bandhavgarh. Legends like Charger, Seeta and B2 owned this piece of land because of its abundant prey base, yearlong presence of water, superb hunting ground and lots of shady comforts for rest after a tiring day in the forest.

Kankati in 2011

Competition understandably was quite tough for young Vijaya as 10-year-old Lakshmi (Langadi as she was locally called) was the limping tigress of this area and despite her physical limitations she was managing to rule Vijaya’s dreamlands. Lakshmi’s weakness apart from her sore leg were her young 10 month old cubs and since she relied on livestock kills her movement was restricted in the peripheral areas of the forest.

The rains of 2010 turned the fortunes of Chakradhara. Vijaya knew of the soft cords of Lakshmi and she advanced towards her in what seemed like a lost battle for Lakshmi. However the aging mother put up a fight and the beautiful looking Vijaya lost her eye in this fierce battle. Vijaya’s aggressive streak was evident from this battle as in her fury of anger she not only killed Lakshmi but consumed more than half of her body. It all happened in a dark night of Bandhavgarh and all the forest department could find the following morning were the mortal remains of Lakshmi. The orphaned cubs are still fighting to establish themselves in Bandhavgarh.

With just one eye and a huge territory that she won, survival for ambitious Vijaya seemed tough as tiger history across India has very few warriors who have been able to survive with such critical physical limitations. There was not a change in the attitude of lens-men too. The once beautiful female of Tala range was now being avoided because she wasn’t photogenic enough.

When love seems like war

Vijaya, however, had her strategy laid out. She knew that in order to survive and retain this estate she would need the company of a dominant male who could give her adequate protection. She hit the nail on its head by making the right choice as she eyed Shashi (Bamera male).

The dominant male of Bandhavgarh with genes of a legendary family in the form of Charger (his grandfather) and B2 (his father), Shashi (locally known as Bamera male) was expanding his territory at an astronomical rate. He cornered his dad in one area of the park and acquired his legacy and added more land which he acquired on his own to roam about freely in more than a 100 square kilometer area. His rule was unquestioned and he was already the king of Bandhavgarh National Park.

His frequent ventures in the Chakradhara and Chorbehra areas brought him close to Vijaya and in summer of April 2011 they were seen together for almost a week. Their 1 week honeymoon raised hopes for Vijaya’s legacy and she was set to be crowned as the next queen of Bandhavgarh.

The news of Vijaya’s pregnancy was eagerly awaited as the timing of mating was perfect and it seemed that she would deliver before the forest closes for monsoons. Surprisingly within a couple of months the couple was seen together again in first week of June 2011. Was the previous mating just a strategy by Vijaya to bide some more time with Shashi or did the April honeymoon end up into a failure? There are some mysteries in the mysterious world of tigers that are hard to solve.

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Post the mating in June the forest closed for monsoons and the forest season post the rains started with a lot of anticipation. As the days of October 2011 passed the search for Vijaya was on and it was a sheer delight to hear the news of Vijaya licking her small 2-month-old cub on the rocky area of Chorbehra. Rigorous elephant patrolling revealed that she was raising a family of 3.

Under the shadow of a father like Shashi the cubs had minimal risk of being killed by another male of the region. However tigers were not the only threat to these young siblings. Vijaya’s area had good movement of leopards and now the question was if Vijaya could see off the crucial period of the first few months when tiger cubs start exploring the world of tigers in the wild.

The cubs were mostly in the bamboo thickets around Chorbehra and their sighting was infrequent. Vijaya was again gaining popularity amongst lens-men who knew that she was another legend in the making. Summers of 2012 was a season everyone was looking forward to as by March 2012 the cubs were growing up well. Mom Vijaya was now the supreme ruler of Chakradhara and her efficiency of hunting was at par with any other fully fit tiger. From large sambhar stags to wild boars she was hunting every prey though with some amount of difficulty but her perseverance was unmatched.

My mommy is the strongest!

Through the month of April the cubs were seen more regularly. One of the cubs was already showing signs of less dependency and always used to be away from the siblings. At times all 3 were seen together but most of these times mom Vijaya was out for her hunting expeditions as satiating hunger of ever growing tiger cubs is a tough ask.

Finally in the first week of May 2012, Vijaya did something that is not a regular sight in Bandhavgarh. Early in the morning as the cubs were playing in Chakradhara grasslands, Vijaya made a deep throated growl and her entire family followed her. For the first time since they were born, Vijaya boldly displays all her cubs together as she marched alongside them. They marched like an army right up to the Vishnu statue and after seeking the divine intervention she climbed the hills of Bandhavgarh fort.

The cubs survived through the monsoons of 2012 but with the springs of 2013 some new challenges unfolded for Vijaya for her protector – Shashi – the king of Bandhavgarh started loosing his battles with males intruding in his territory and was gradually pushed out of Chakradhara. During the months of March-April 2013, Vijaya boldly stood her ground with her battalion of 3 beautiful looking sub-adult cubs and even tried to deceive this mysterious new male by mating with him and making an attempt to draw him out of the reach of the cubs. However this futile attempts to shield her family went in vain as in May 2013 one of Vijaya’s cubs was found dead in the fort area. This was followed by the death of another cub in the subsequent days.

Kankati cubs play sequence June 2012

A number of theories came into place post the death of the cubs. While the forest officials claimed that the cause of the death was the mystery male, another section of local naturalists believed that since the body of the cubs was partially consumed in the same fashion as Lakshmi a few years back, Vijaya – the brave mother – herself decided to sacrifice her family in order to retain her territory for she knew that survival would be tough outside this prime territory specially with her physical disability. The male cub from this litter who was also declared dead however separated from his mother and had set out on an independent journey in the adjoining areas of her mother’s territory.

The hysteria around Vijaya died down for a prolonged period post the monsoons of 2013. Her sighting statistics dropped drastically and the entire focus shifted towards Rajbehra where a female was raising a litter of 4 cubs across the hill.

As the saal bloom dried with the temperatures rising during the summers of 2014, Vijaya made a dramatic comeback by walking down the fort hills, with tiny little cubs. The scarcity of water in the upper areas of the fort forced her to come down to the low-lying areas with natural water bodies in order to beat the scorching heat of May 2014. The queen of Bandhavgarh had again fought her battles against all odds to come up with fresh blood for the park. The meadows of Chakradhara were looking forward to be the playground for yet another litter and Vijaya was all set to be etched as one of the legendary tigers of India at par with Machali because of her resilient spirit. As the park closed for monsoons in June 2014, she had a challenge to face a tough period of 3 months and feed the 3 little striped souls.

Kankati cubs 2nd litter May 2014

Tragedy struck again in Bandhavgarh when the forest department reported that a decomposed body of a tigress was found and a post mortem report revealed that Vijaya was declared dead. Post search operations by the forest department, 2 cubs were declared dead as well. While the entire wildlife fraternity of India mourns the death of Vijaya, her journey and her life showcases some of the true characteristics of this creation of God called The Tiger. A specie which has braved against all odds and continues to strive and survive amidst dwindling forest covers and increasing human habitation. A specie that can adapt brilliantly to changing environmental scenarios and has the grit and willingness to survive. Vijaya’s contribution to Bandhavgarh will be remembered for the longest time and stories of this one eyed queen would echo in my memories whenever I will be traversing through the woods of this tiger heartland of India.

Could her death be averted?

Though Vijaya died in a territorial fight with an intruding male but could her death been averted. For a minute if we close our one eye and try to live that minute with that partial blackout, we would probably want that minute to pass at the earliest. The warrior queen of Bandhavgarh spent 4 long years with this handicap. Tigers are killing machines but their hunting capability goes down drastically in case of any physical ailment. Physical limitations are the main cause of deaths of tigers in old age but in Vijaya’s case it was something she was living with these limitations every day. With the birth of cubs, the hunting pressure on a tigress increases as she has to feed the cubs on the regular basis and take care of her own dietary requirements as well. Having closely observed this tigress for the past so many years, hunting was definitely a painful process for her and there were days when she went without food for days and weeks. The family was going through this stress in the summers of 2014. When a 18 year of tigress in Ranthambhore can be fed and kept alive because she qualifies as an iconic tiger of the park, could partial baiting of Vijaya (specially in the initial months post the birth of the cubs) averted her death? Food for thought for Saevus readers…

© SHIVANG MEHTA

Shivang Mehta is a nature photographer and has spent more than 150 field days in Bandhavgarh documenting Vijaya’s journey since 2010.

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