UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


On Assignment: Alley Cat

When Indian photographer (and Strobist reader) Nayan Khanolkar first graced the halls of Lighting 101 as a newb in 2010, he hardly could have known what just the next few years would have in store for him.

Fast forward to 2016, when he finds himself setting up his Nikon D7000 and a few speedlights in a local alley in suburban Mumbai to capture one of the apparently free-roaming leopards that frequent the area.

Curiosity piqued? Good. Read on...

It's The Why That Matters

Admit it. We as photographers love to obsess about the "how" of a photo being made. But in reality, it is almost always the "why" that is more important. So before you get the how, let's explore the why of Khanolkar's amazing shot (seen above) of an wild urban leopard.

Khanolkar began his Urban Leopards project to study how the big cats are adapting to living within Mumbai. With over 18,000,000 residents, the city is one of the busiest metropolises in the world. As you might expect, there is a backstory. Around 2011, two areas in Mumbai developed problems with leopards attacking people.

As one also might expect, the local media went berserk with that story. (Not to judge. Pretty sure that would be lead the nightly newscast here in the US, too.) Around the same time, villagers in northern India trapped and caged a wild leopard and burned it alive.

With the media hyping the news, Khanolkar took it upon himself to look past the sensationalization and try to learn more about the root causes of the encounters. He believes the attacks were primarily caused by the random translocations of the leopards. Basically, wrong place, wrong time. So he set out to study the more than 35(!) wild leopards known to live in his native city of Mumbai alone.

Upon digging, he learned that the native tribal residents of the city actually had grown to coexist with the leopards—while the people who lived in nearby high-rises mostly just feared them. Khanolkar decided to try to document this shared space and coexistence between the tribals and the leopards.

Khanolkar said the Warli Tribals of Mumbai worship nature—including big cats—and even have images of leopards on their walls. He learned of the leopards' nightly routes and spent months to get this once-in-a-lifetime photo.

Except the photo above, which won a Wildlife Photographer of the Year award form the Natural History Museum in London, is not a one-off. It's part of a series.

Click on any of the following links to see and learn more.

Living With Leopards—Conflict or Coexistence
Luna—The Urban Leopardess
Chandri—A Tragic Story
Mumbai's Urban Leopards
Leopards of Mumbai—A Conflict History

It's the why that leads you down a path to have a chance to make a photo like this. The curiosity about the existence of the leopards. The digging to find out how they are viewed by the different communities. The desire to illuminate this relationship and maybe change the way your countrymen think about the big cats.

The initial thread that you start to pull that leads to a great photo is almost never photography-related. It's something out of the blue that interests you and won't let go.

It's the broader, non-photo curiosities you really want to nurture. Because you never know where they'll lead. And in the end, the camera is simply the tool you'll use to satisfy those curiosities for both you and your viewers.

How He Made This Photo

So, are you ready for flash model numbers? Maybe some juicy f/stops?

Not yet.

First, you'll have to find the paths that the leopards are using, via simple wildlife IR-triggered cameras. Then you can go in armed with info, rather than just asking questions and favors.

For instance, when Khanolkar approached the people that lived near this particular alleyway, he had evidence of six—SIX—different leopards using this lane. Khanolkar said that left the owner of this house speechless. (I'll bet.) But it also helped him to convince the tribals of the importance of documenting the cats' existence.

Khanolkar said that his biggest problems were not technical, but rather revolved around the security of his remote gear. A camera was stolen, in fact, just a day before he got the winning image. And this was even with the locals helping to guard his gear.

Camera, exposure, lighting, etc. problems are usually easily solved. It's the non-photo, unknown-unknowns that will generally stump you.

But once his camera and lights were set, it was easy to test with the humans transiting the alleyway. The camera, an aforementioned Nikon D7000, was fitted with a Nikkor 18-105 zoom lens. It in turn fired three Nikon flashes—an SB-600, -700 and -800.

Khanolkar lit the photo on three planes—leopard, background and doorway—to create depth and mimic the feel of the local artificial lighting. He also did something to the flashes that was crucial to the result of the photo: he gelled the leopard and background flashes with a 1/4 CTO for warmth (this was further enhanced by the warm environment). And he used a 1/2 CTO gel on the doorway to mimic incandescent lighting.

Why a 1/2 CTO? That's a great trick to get light to look to the camera the way your all-compensating eye sees incandescent light in reality. This is a great tip for those of you experimenting with using color to create realism.

This warm palette both brought the different planes into a unified color family and made the photo feel much more natural. Conversely, ungelled speedlights would have ruined the feel. White light would have made the scene look, well, more lit—and less realistic.

Khanolkar notes that he got a little extra warmth from the unavoidable, accumulated soot on his homemade flash housings, which he also scratched up to diffuse and soften the light a bit.

The camera was triggered by the leopard as it passed by, courtesy a TrailMaster infrared trigger.

The final result, again:

Khanolkar credits his flash chops to the influences he picked up on this site and from others—in particular, Joe McNally and Greg Heisler. He also name-checked the (excellent) book Light, Science and Magic for helping him to gain a much better understanding of light itself.

Finally, Khanolkar cites National Geographic photographers Frans Lanting, Steve Winter and Paul Nicklen as big influences.

Parting Thoughts

First, please do make your way over to Khanolkar's site to see more of his work. In particular, click on some of the story links above to see his other work. It is a wonderful testament to what a motivated photographer can discover, and teach others.

Second, to those among you who are new to this and just learning the difference between a snoot and a grid spot: you could literally be doing stuff like this much sooner than you think. Stick with it.

And finally, at the risk of repetition: we deal a lot with the "how" on this site. But it's the "why" that not only is more important, but also will lead you to more interesting photos than the "how" ever will.

All photographs ©Nayan Khanolkar, used with permission. Please do not reproduce them without his approval.


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