Life Behind The Lens With Wildlife Photographer Yashas Narayan

Yashas Narayan is one of India's ace wildlife photographers and specialises in capturing big cats in their element. But what goes behind photographing the elusive stars of the jungle In an exclusive interview with Outlook Traveller, he tells all
Life Behind The Lens With Wildlife Photographer Yashas Narayan
Life Behind The Lens With Wildlife Photographer Yashas Narayan

Yashas Narayan, a photographer based in Mysore, India, is renowned for his stunning photographs of Asiatic wildlife, with a focus on big cats like Tigers and Black Panthers. He has worked in partnership with leading organisations such as WWF and Samsung, having been featured in a Discovery Channel documentary. His current portfolio comprises three collections titled "South India," "Black Panther," and "Ranganthittu." Narayan also offers private tours, including expeditions to see Black Panthers and to explore Nagarhole forest, where he has been studying a single Black Panther for years. He draws inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita and believes in living life to the fullest. When not chasing after animals, he enjoys listening to music by Eminem and Linkin Park and counts Tom Cruise and Christian Bale among his favourite actors, he reveals in a conversation with Outlook Traveller.  

Was there a specific incident that piqued your interest in wildlife photography

My passion for big cats started about 14 years ago when I was on a safari in Bandipur National Park with my parents. Call it coincidence, but those happen for a reason, too, perhaps, because we witnessed a particularly unexpected scenario ripped straight out of a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. It was a resplendent, menacing Tiger chasing a Leopard of a lithe build, who managed to climb up a tree. Due to his weight, this Tiger couldn't get to the top of the tree, but he kept circling the tree, growling in frustration. For nearly twenty minutes, our striped protagonist was trying to slingshot itself up the tree to catch the leopard but could not do so. The Tiger's fascination eventually faded, and soon enough, it left as we witnessed the leopard getting down and waltzing into the thickets. We were stunned watching this burlesque performance, our first time seeing a Tiger and Leopard in the wild. This was an experience of a lifetime where the comedy of the situation was infused with a definitive, visceral feeling felt only when you're out in the wild. That moment is where it all began, my strong passion for the big cats.

Was your love for nature inculcated in your childhood

I grew up in Mysore, a city near several wildlife sanctuaries. My parents enjoyed visiting these sanctuaries during my summer vacations, where I observed the interactions between different species. I also fondly recall watching The Jungle Book&nbspon Doordarshan every Sunday morning as a child, with Bagheera and Baloo being my favourite characters. Years later, when a black panther appeared in Kabini, I became obsessed and spent six years tracking this individual cat.  

Have you gotten involved in any dangerous situations while photographing wild animals 

We always take precautions and know our limits when we are around wildlife. We rarely get into scary situations. But the one instance I can recall is when I was working with crocodiles for a brand project. I had to take pictures of a crocodile on the phone, so obviously, we had to be closer to the subject.

We were in a small boat in a river particularly notorious for having massive crocodiles. After a few hours of searching, we found a crocodile basking on the rock. We started approaching slowly, pausing in between, giving it time to feel comfortable with our presence. Often it used to growl and hiss when we got closer. I remember being so close to this magnificent reptile that I could hear his long drawls of breaths and the heaving of its belly while it stared at us with a steady gaze. Hearing this sound was a nerve-wracking experience. The fact that we were on a boat in a river filled with hundreds of crocodiles made it an unforgettable experience. I eventually got the shot we wanted of a crocodile with its mouth open. Even though I have been around these animals for so many years, I believe it's always important to respect them. 

Is there any particular wild animal you love capturing on your camera

Leopards and Black Panthers are my favourite animals. Smart and elusive, they are the most challenging to track, and I appreciate how they make me want to be at the top of my game. These cats lead a life of refugees in their own land, which tigers dominate. Also, they are the most adaptable cats because we see them in the jungles, villages and mega cities like Mumbai. I admire the ability of leopards to survive anywhere. They are also stunning to look at&ndashtheir sleek bodies with rosette pattern fur, long whiskers, and green eyes make them the most beautiful among the big cats for me.

Take us through your preparation that precedes the moment you press the "click" button. 

A wealth of effort goes behind taking pictures in the wild. Finding subjects is certainly not easy, especially when dealing with big cats. It's very important to be focused on safaris while tracking cats. I have to check every tree for hanging tails and resting paws of leopards while also keeping an eye on the bushes below for hidden faces of the tigers lurking in the thick bushes and tall grass. The jungle keeps giving us clues about the presence of big cats in the form of pug marks and alarm calls. I have to connect these hints, strategise our safaris and make the right move at the right time with the presence of mind to get the desired results. Once a cat has been located, there's very little time to take good pictures before it disappears. In this short duration, I need to think about the required shots, positioning myself for a good background, foreground, and angles considering the natural lighting conditions to make the best pictures possible in the field. 

How did it feel to be the first Indian to be covered by Discovery Channel at such a young age

As a child, I spent so much time watching wildlife documentaries on Discovery Channel, which significantly influenced me to build a strong passion for wildlife. When I learned that the Discovery Channel wanted to feature me in their project, it was a huge moment for me.

We spent a week in Ranthambore shooting for this film. I've always been behind the camera, and this was my first time in front of the camera. So there was a huge pressure at the beginning, but I had a fantastic team on and off the field who made it easier to work with. This project gave me insight into everything that went into creating a documentary and was a great learning experience about so many new things. The aim of this film was to promote "Project Cat," an initiative by WWF and Discovery Channel to raise awareness about the importance of tigers in our ecosystem and ways to conserve them. I'm honoured to have played a small role in this great cause and thankful for this incredible opportunity presented to me.

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What's your favourite time of the year to travel for photography

The jungles are the most beautiful when transforming between two seasons. January to February is a period of transition from winter to summer. The jungle starts shedding leaves and changes into vibrant colours. The early morning mist and soft evening golden light add beauty to the jungles. Also, the big cats love to move in cold weather and are most active during these two months, making tracking and photographing them easier. 

May and June is a period of transition from Summer to Monsoon. The rains bring new life to the brown and dry jungles, making them lush green. The lush green backdrops and divine golden light also create great photo opportunities. It's also an amazing experience to listen to the sounds of cicadas and toads echoing through the tall trees. 

Cover photo credit Yashas Narayan 

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