A Journey To India

OP columnist William Neill’s recent trek on the subcontinent is the story of modern adventure travel

Shoemaker’s wife, Rajasthan. Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS

Traveling to foreign locations is cause for great excitement for most photographers, as it is for me each time I visit the colorful country of India. Even though I’ve been there several times over the past 20 years, I was eager to return knowing the many possibilities for great photographs. On this particular trip, I traveled to several new locations in southern India, as well as Rajasthan, which is my favorite place to photograph in India.

My trip was laid out by Destination Himalaya, a company that specializes in adventure travel (destinationhimalaya.net). I was traveling with my wife and two kids, so Destination Himalaya’s help in planning was invaluable. My itinerary was planned so that I would have extra time to photograph at each location.

I was traveling for five weeks, but most photo tours run two to three weeks in length. As with any good travel company, we were provided with local guides who took us to the best photo sites, introduced us to local people and provided language translation so that we could communicate back and forth with those we met.

My first adventure was in the state of Kerala, which is located toward the southern tip of India on the Arabian Sea. We spent three days on the MV Sauvernigam, a deluxe houseboat, floating our way through the backwaters of Kerala, which is made up of lakes, riverways and canals. While traveling the waterways, we saw scenic villages, lush rice fields and fishermen making their livelihood from backwaters. Not only was the houseboat our mode of transportation, but it also was our hotel. Our boat captain, Ragu, was a magnificent chef, cooking meals that often featured fresh seafood. We also spent a few nights at a beach resort, where I was able to photograph the vibrant fishing community there.

Farm huts in the desert at sunrise, Rajasthan. Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS Sunrise on the backwaters of Kerala. Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II
Asian elephant grazing on bamboo, Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka. Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS


Tiger, Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 300mm ƒ/4L

Also in the south of India, we visited Nagarhole and Bandipur National Parks, which are located in the state of Karnataka and are two of the many wildlife reserves throughout India. Every dawn and evening, the lodge’s excellent naturalists led tours into the parks and along the shoreline, mostly by boat, searching out the wildlife. This was important to help us be in the right places in the best light and when the animals are most active. I was able to see elephants, dozens of bird species, mongoose, bison, spotted deer and sambar, plus a rare sighting of a sloth bear and crocodile. The water birds were plentiful, easily viewed at close distances, and it was an exciting challenge to photograph their graceful beauty.

Of course, there’s always luck involved when photographing. We stayed at our resort for three days. This way, I had five sunrise or sunset trips into the park, which naturally increased my odds of good photographs. If you’re serious about your wildlife photography, schedule yourself to stay at least two to three days. The Nagarhole/Bandipur area is well known for its leopards, but we didn’t see any. However, winter isn’t the ideal season to see them. The best season for leopards and tigers is in the spring and summer months before the monsoon. The tiger image shown here was made in April, and it was about 100 degrees!

I’ve photographed in several great wildlife locations in India over the years, including Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan and Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, as well as Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal. I’ve had great luck seeing exciting and rare animals while in India, including many tigers, a snow leopard (not long enough to photograph, sadly!), an Indian rhinoceros and a leopard in Nepal.

Great cormorants, Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka. Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS

Making wildlife photographs is challenging anytime, anywhere, but having the right choice of lenses will improve your odds of success. On my India trip, I used the Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM zoom for most of my wildlife images. Since I was working from a boat mostly, this lens was perfect because of its flexibility. For wider views, I could zoom out to include wildlife and more of its environment. When a situation appeared for an animal portrait, I could zoom in very tightly to fill the frame. I also used the Canon EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM lens for wildlife.

Camels and drivers crossing sand dunes, Rajasthan. Canon EOS 50D

Although ƒ/2.8 lenses are great tools if you specialize in wildlife photography, they’re heavy, big and expensive. The smaller 300mm has worked fine for me.

The trip concluded with a journey to Rajasthan. I’ve always enjoyed photographing there, especially the desert architecture and colorful people. On this trip, we visited the Jamba region of Rajasthan for a fresh view of the area, away from the more heavily photographed areas of the state. Our base was the Dera Sand Dune Resort on the edge of a sand dune. From this base, we toured local villages by Jeep®, all organized by the resort to maximize our cultural and photographic experience. This location proved to be excellent for capturing portraits of the tribal people living in the harsh desert environment.

With the use of common courtesy and an introduction from our guide, I approached interesting people slowly, often without my camera. I wanted to learn more about their lives first and foremost. It’s important to establish a connection with people, even if brief. As I got to know them a little, I also looked for good lighting and backgrounds. If the situation was comfortable and conditions right, I would pick up my camera to photograph quickly, but casually.

Rajasthani girl. Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS

Too much intensity makes people nervous. Sometimes I directed my subjects, asking them to stand in better light or where a background was better, with less distractions. My favorite lens for people photography is the Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM. With this lens, I can shoot wide for an environmental portrait or zoom in tightly for a face shot without moving my position.

My equipment for this trip included two cameras—my heavy-duty pro model, the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, plus the light and fast Canon EOS 50D. I mostly used the EOS 50D due to its weight and convenience. I used four lenses for my photographs—a Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L II USM for scenics and street scenes, the EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM for portraits and general use, and for wildlife, as mentioned, my longest focal-length lenses, primarily the EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM, plus the EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM, as well as a Canon 2X extender.

When the expedition is all over, and I sit in the comfort of my home, the photographs are a great way to reconnect myself with the multitude of experiences along the way. All the efforts of planning and packing, if done well, tend to fade while the cultural interactions, friends made and, especially, the images are what I enjoy most about traveling. Good luck with your travels!

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.