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Sangeetha A Balakrishnan: At home in the Wild

If the start to a weekend is marked by plans of staying up late into the night with Netflix for company or partying and sleeping in for most people, there are still others like Sangeetha A Balakrishnan who set out in the wee hours of the day, armed with her five-year-old Canon 600D, a Nikon

If the start to a weekend is marked by plans of staying up late into the night with Netflix for company or partying and sleeping in for most people, there are still others like Sangeetha A Balakrishnan who set out in the wee hours of the day, armed with her five-year-old Canon 600D, a Nikon D500 – her latest acquisition, and a bottle of water. For the techie who has been working as an IT analyst at TCS Kochi since 2010, this is a typical weekend, where her feathered friends preen and pose, unassumingly so, while she clicks away.

Sangeetha A Balakrishnan is a techie on weekdays and a wildlife photographer on weekends. The shutterbug-techie on how her hobby turned into a serious pursuit of capturing the best that the creatures of the wild have to offer

What came first, the bird lover or the photographer? Sangeetha’s exquisite photographs which can lead one to think it is the shutterbug till she begins to talk about how her love for bird watching developed, quite by chance.

As a member of the Ecology Club at TCS, Sangeetha was always a part of nature camps where she heard about different species of birds and their behavioural patterns. In 2013, Sangeetha happened to come across a bird race event conducted by the club. “The event required identifying as many species as possible on a one-day trip from sunrise to sunset. My curiosity and excitement doubled and that was the beginning of bird watching,” she recollected.

After her first experience with birding, Sangeetha toyed with the idea of buying a pair of binoculars or a camera. “Anything that would allow me a closer look at the birds, and finally I zeroed in on the latter. Then  I could go back to the photos to identify the birds later on. I started operating it by reading the manual but it was never my intention to become a photographer,” the techie explains.

Sangeetha bought the camera from Thrissur and soon after, visited the Kole Wetlands nearby which comes in the Central Asian Flyway of migratory birds. “I got some pretty good images in my first photo walk-cum-birding session,” she says recalling the events from that day. She says the Kole Wetlands offer more freedom than any other place for bird photography.

What’s best, when she decided to indulge this new-found curiosity, her family’s support helped boost her confidence. They accompany her on some expeditions and she finds it interesting to show them how she works.

“They are very excited about observing wildlife. Now, they are aware of the birds and other wildlife around where we live,” Sangeetha smiled.

“To identify a bird was a big task. When we go for a clean-up drive from the club, we find many birds with different body patterns and behaviours. Once I get the name from the guide, I start researching about it. I rely on Google and a set of reference books. What season do birds migrate? Which ecosystem do they belong to? Likewise, you will have to find all the details of each bird to get it on your frame,” she said.

“Whenever I see a good picture, I think about how it can be captured; how a similar frame can be made possible again. Recreation is difficult. It is impossible to recreate a moment that has gone out of frame. All that you can do is try not to miss the right moment.”

According to the wildlife photographer, studying the various characteristics of animals and birds adds to capturing the right frame. “It is just like taking care of a baby. Once you get an idea of how the baby goes about his/her activities at what points of time, it helps. Similarly, once you are familiar with the activities of birds and animals, you can sense the right time to click a perfect shot.”

Getting a sharp picture with the best light and a background to match is a tough task, but she honed that skill over time. “It should develop gradually through practice; I don’t think perfection can come with mentoring.”

Wildlife photography is replete with danger. Sangeetha too had a story to share. “Apart from photography, I do a lot of bird surveys. It was for such a purpose that we, a seven-member group, went to Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. We were walking through the forest hoping to click some shots when suddenly a bear with two cubs (any animal with cubs are more defensive) came in the way. Everyone stood still for a while before the bear went off. I won’t bother taking a risk to capture a picture. It is the content in the frame that matters to me.”

Her regular locations include Periyar Tiger Reserve Thekkady, Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, Sholayar Reserve Forest, Thattekad Bird Sanctuary and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. She has also visited places outside Kerala such as Kabani, Mudumalai, Bharatpur and Bandipur.

Sangeetha started with a Canon 600D which is relatively easy to use and has many features that appeal to amateurs. Gradually, she shifted to Nikon D500 which is now a companion through all her ‘wild’ adventures. She uses editing tools like Lightroom and Photoshop, but only sparingly.

Sangeetha’s talent took her to many exhibitions, camps and photography contests, allowing her to pave an alternate career in photography. She belongs to PhotoMuse, India’s first museum dedicated to the art, history and science of photography. Through the pursuit of photography and photographic history, Photomuse documents, interprets and promotes the natural and cultural inheritance of humanity. With photography-based outreach and educational programs, the museum emphasizes education, conservation and India’s photographic legacy. In the International Exhibition of Photography which was organised in December 2017, Sangeetha’s image was recognised as a Significant Image among the exhibited photographs.

In April 2017, she contributed one of her unique shots to Kananasangamam Photo Exhibition conducted by Kerala Forest Department at Thiruvananthapuram.

Sangeetha spoke about the ethics of wildlife photography at National Youth Seminar 2018 organised by Kerala Youth Commission in Thiruvananthapuram. “When entering an ecosystem that belongs to wildlife, we are not supposed to disturb or harm the inhabitants,” Sangeetha reminded the young audience. “When we click an animal or a bird in its most relaxed position, that is when the photograph conveys the emotion, revealing its authentic beauty,” she added.

Switching from the world of tech to wildlife photography has never been a tough task for this Malappuram-based 30-year-old. She manages to make the most of a weekend after overtime too. “It’s all about time management. After work is done, I go out with my camera to places nearby.” From September to April she frequents Kadamakudy, Puthuvypin and Edavanakadu beach for the pleasant weather and beautiful frames that await her there.

Close to nature

An Onam celebration named ‘Kadonam’ is being conducted for tribal people residing in Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary since 2016. Organised by Munnar Wildlife Division in association with different nature-loving organisations, this year it was TCS’ Ecology Club that donated money for the celebration. As a member, Sangeetha has been a part of celebration for the past two years.

“It’s worth celebrating Onam with them, as we can teach them its significance. They were unaware of the sadya as they had never had more than two dishes for lunch all their lives,” Sangeetha shares, feeling content that she could be a part of such an experience.

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