Elephant Photography in Corbett
Mesmerizing stretches of grasslands that extend till the horizon, lush green and dense saal covers that tell a compelling natural tale and a sparkling river that garlands this entire forest belt, the mysteries of Corbett National Park are never-ending. Though I consider the striped cat as the ghost of Corbett, one subject that actually spices up the mysticism of Corbett is the Asiatic Elephant.
A unique combination of majestic yet raw power, family bonding, animal emotions – these unsung rulers of Corbett are extraordinary subjects to shoot in the wild. A decent elephant herd in Corbett can keep you engaged for hours as this is one subject that allows your to experiment and innovate continuously. Having shot elephants in this stunning landscape over the last few years, this note talks about different aspects of shooting the gentle giants of Corbett.
The typical good elephant sighting (from a photography perspective) can be broadly classified into 2 categories. If we take the Dhikala zone as an example, you may encounter bull tuskers or a family herd on the 30 odd kms main road stretch that opens up in the Dhikala grasslands. Such stretches can also be seen in the saal forest belt of Kamarpatta which is again a good stretch for elephant. Sightings on these patches automatically lead to some outstanding frames for the saal cover give a natural frame which looks great vertically as well as horizontally. The challenge however is the light.
According to me, one of the key elements of shooting elephants in the wild is maintaining distance. Though elephants at time allow you to come closer but the risk and danger of a mock charge has an impact on the shoot. Close range shooting is definitely an adrenal rush for photographers but it acts as a big hindrance as well. The slightest movement in the vehicle (if you wish to change bodies or angles) may provoke the elephants and the following mock charge will invariably result in shaky pictures specially in the patches of road mentioned above.
Using a combination of long and medium tele-photo lenses you can create amazing elephant perspectives from a distance. In case of an elephant sighting with the saal backdrop I normally maintain a distance of 30-50 meters from the subject. My most preferred lens in the 70-200mm f2.8 for it can account for the lack of light and still maintain the sharpness. However I have used the 100-400mm in the past and with proper bean bag support you can create superb pictures as well. Your ISO in this case would depend on the time of the day but typically you should be hovering in the range of 400 to 640. Another important factor is the angle from which you are shooting. If your vehicle is facing the elephant, you would probably have to rest your beanbag on the gypsy rod which elevates the angle. I would however prefer the gypsy to be turned the other way round so that I can shoot using the backseat support which is a lower angle.
If you are carrying multiple bodies, I would also recommend to keeping a wide angle ready from the elephant(s) would cover the distance in no time and before your driver moves further away you can quickly target frames as soon as the subject is within the 15 odd meter distance.
Regular Corbett visitors would know that elephant herd crossings on the saal patched main road just before the Dhikala FRH are frequent. Typically in the morning the light is very low in this patch. But the beautiful forest backdrop is inducing enough to try some shots. A few experiments with slow shutter on this patch can create some very interesting perspectives.
Moving to the other broad category of elephant sightings in Corbett. It’s a known fact that the Dhikala chaur is the best area to shoot elephants in India specially during the months of March to June. The short green grass, plenty of ambient light, soothing neat backdrops make it a hot-spot for photographers. Some of the best action shots of elephants have been created in these grasslands.
Again I prefer maintaining distance and using a combination of lenses because of the reasons already mentioned. Typically a long telephoto like a 500 or 600mm gives you nice images with wonderful backgrounds. Medium telephotos can be used when the herd is crossing the road to reach a different patch of the grassland. Talking of the grasslands, I have observed that the light is conducive in the morning in the mota saal area and the rest of the areas of the chaur like the Kaal road and the areas near the reservoir are well lit in the evening.
With change in angles you can also experiment with back-lights in the grasslands. In fact, if you are passing by the High Bank area in the evening, it would be a good idea to check the presence of elephants in the evenings for this area for me is a great location for silhouettes as well.
I believe that elephant photography in Corbett can be very engaging but requires focused attention. If one wants to specifically go for dedicated elephant stock, probably you should park the big cat thought for those days. Though there are sizable herds of elephants and their sighting may not be cause of concern. However photographing elephants like any form of wildlife photography is again a game of patience and luck as you need to find them in the apt vegetation and light conditions to work on and create innovative images. Who knows that with your mind engulfed with elephant frames, you may have that unexpected cat encounter as well!