Sunday October 7, 2012
Sanjitpaal Singh captures nature’s magic
By LIM CHIA YING
An award-winning lensman shares the stories behind his images.
THE amazing “crown shyness” effect of the forest canopy at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia had rarely been captured with a fisheye camera lens when a Malaysian photographer decided to explore the possibility – and the stunning result bagged second place at the prestigious International Photography Awards 2012, in the Nature: Trees category.
Crown shyness describes how the topmost branches of trees in a rainforest naturally “shy away” (ie, grow away) from each other so the leaves can receive the maximum amount of sunlight (pic left). Local lensman Sanjitpaal Singh’s image captured the unique effect of “cracks in the sky” this phenomenon creates, similar to those you’d see on the ground when soil dries out too much. His technique lent depth and an unusual twist to this natural occurrence.
“While I could have done a panorama shot, I was more inclined towards a single frame that would show this glorious phenomenon in its entirety, which is where the fisheye came in,” says the soft-spoken Sanjit, as he’s more popularly known.
The second place win is a huge achievement for the 30-year-old considering that he was up against professionals from around the world. In fact, this year’s International Photography Awards (IPA) received over 10,000 entries from more than 100 countries representing six continents, so Sanjit is clearly elated to have made his mark.
To make the image, Sanjit used his Olympus E3 with a 8mm fisheye lens, and recalls furiously clicking as many shots as he could while the light was good.
“A clear blue sky definitely helped a lot. I tried out many different angles and had to sift out what I thought was the best image that fitted what the judges were looking for.
“I think the judges liked it because crown shyness has never really been shot this way before, which probably makes (the image) different. Also, the fisheye lens is mostly used for shooting architecture and landscape images rather than something like this,” says Sanjit, who has been a nature and wildlife photographer for more than a decade.
This second placing isn’t the only good news; Sanjit also received honourable mentions in two other categories – Nature: Flowers for his entry entitled Dandelion and Nature: Landscapes for Mystic. He never expected to do so well in such a prestigious competition, so it came as a pleasant surprise that his “work is getting somewhere”.
“My intention was to showcase the beauty of Malaysia – there’s nowhere I would rather do photography than in my own back yard.
“With wildlife, for example, you could definitely shoot in Africa but that country is a hot spot for animals that most of the world already recognises. Not many people, however, really know what Malaysia has to offer, which is why I want to focus my work here.”
While his passion is capturing nature and wildlife on film, his living comes from other aspects of photography, such as photojournalism for travel magazines as well as studio and commercial shoots – which he considers tough because “the client is always right and there are always tight deadlines to meet!”
As a boy, he was intrigued by documentaries on television showing animals and plants – he jokes that these were the next best thing to the Lion King cartoon that he wasn’t allowed to watch by strict relatives in Singapore where he spent a big chunk of his school holidays (with his grandmother, because his parents were busy).
“I remember the minute I picked up my first camera, I didn’t want to ever let it go,” he shares.
In college, he enrolled in one semester of photography where film was still utilised but he is mostly self-taught, he says, because there weren’t many photography courses offered a decade or so ago. He would tag along with his seniors during his stints with magazines to learn on the job, cutting out photos to research how a certain image could be shot, and volunteering enthusiastically for nature assignments.
“The peace, serenity and elements of nature are special; it’s unlike architecture in the city that basically stays constant. Every time I venture into a forest, a different species of bird will fly past or a different flower would bloom; these are surprises that await!”
His travels to forests all over the country are mostly self-funded because corporate sponsorship isn’t there for individual photographers like him. It doesn’t help that appreciation for nature photography is low among Malaysians, he says.
As it is, wildlife and the weather are highly unpredictable and a photographer can emerge from a whole day spent in a forest with nothing to show for it. “Sometimes you can come back from the whole week with only photos of the rain!”
“It’s a pity that many people don’t understand the nature of this line. There’s a lot of hard work, patience, passion and fighting spirit needed on the part of the cameraman to make it in nature photography – not forgetting the physical demands of getting the best shot.”
Sanjit says he has seen BBC photographers working in the most extreme of conditions just to capture that perfect shot and moment – from diving into the cold waters of the Arctic to hiking up treacherous mountain trails.
For him, anything from traversing Sabah’s beautiful Danum Valley to climbing the Klang Valley’s steep and challenging Klang Gates Quartz Ridge just to spend an hour shooting high-altitude flora is all in a day’s work. And he does all that while lugging 20kg or so of equipment with him.
After all the time spent in the wilds, Sanjit has his fair share of “jungle tales” to share. He emphasises that prior study and research are crucial and that one must always stay alert and be respectful when dealing with nature.
“You just have to be sincere and respectful (when going into the forest), and know that funny, unexplained things can happen especially at night. That’s why I try to go in the mornings and make my way out early for day shoots.
“One of the weirdest things happened to me while I was on Pulau Tiga Sabah years ago with my girlfriend (who is now his wife). We wanted to go across to the other side of the island to capture the sunrise. But we kept coming to a point with no trail in sight; that’s when we realised that we had been going around in circles inside the forest. It wasn’t meant to be that time, but I’m still hopeful of returning there one day to shoot what I had planned,” he says.
Not that Sanjit avoids night shoots completely; he likes making stunning images illuminated with torchlight. He prefers a torch to using a flash, as the latter does not give him the natural feel he looks for, he says.
Birds, another favourite subject, are easiest to spot and photograph if one takes note of their breeding season, and takes the simple steps of looking out for a fruiting tree and listening intently to the sounds to determine the best time when the birds move out in the morning.
Sanjit credits his wife, a conservation biologist, with being his best critic: “She is able to see in images what I can’t sometimes – like how an aesthetically pleasing photo may not necessarily convey any message, or speak to the audience. And I take heed of her advice,” he says with a smile.
In 2006 and 2007, Sanjit was shortlisted as a semifinalist for the highly acclaimed BBC-Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award, the Malaysia One Earth Award (in 2009) and the Veolis Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2011. And since 2008, he has been sponsored by Olympus Malaysia, with engagements that include conducting talks and workshops and producing short documentaries on behalf of the company. (He’s currently planning a school photography workshop at the Forest Research Institute next month.).
These days, he is kept busy with his advertising job on weekdays and can only indulge in serious nature photography on weekends or days off. He is also spending time as a panel judge for competitions; for last year and this year, he was made the head judge cum facilitator and presenter for the Putrajaya Wetland Biodiversity Photography Competition.
I ask what a judge looks for in a winning entry, and he smiles, replying that the images have to be sharp, creative, and composed in line with the competition’s theme. “A competition is very specific in its guidelines, and the judges’ biodata are usually laid out, so contestants can pick out the kind of quality, preference and criteria that the different judges are looking for,” he reveals. “At the end of the day, it is also basic photography techniques that apply.”
He’s unperturbed that he won’t receive a cash prize for that brilliant runner-up placing, adding ever so modestly that the best reward already came in this interview with me.
IPA competition director Jade Tran explains via e-mail that, while the IPA would love to award the creators of all outstanding works with cash prizes, it only gives out four cash prizes each year, for the International Photographer of the Year, Discovery of the Year, Deeper Perspective Photographer of the Year, and the Moving Image Photographer of the Year, which is a new category introduced this year.
For the competition this year, which is the IPA’s 10th anniversary, finalists and subcategory winners were chosen by the largest jury pool to date: more than 80 international photography professionals. The winners of the four cash-awarded categories will be announced at the 10th Annual Lucie Awards tomorrow in Los Angeles.
(The Lucie Awards are a signature programme of the IPA, which is a sister effort of the Lucie Foundation.)
An enhanced version of this story is available through The Star Editor’s Choice, a free downloadable app for tablet devices.