Getting the perfect shot

Sri Lanka is famed for its wildlife, with travellers from around the world flocking to our shores to take in sights of our majestic creatures. An integral part of promoting our natural heritage is wildlife photography. Without wildlife and nature photographers, both professional and amateur, we would be unable to effectively market our wildlife, and we would be significantly limited in understanding the diverse animals that inhabit Sri Lanka.

Being a wildlife photographer is something of a calling. You need to be passionate about wildlife and willing to spend hours waiting to sight an animal to get that perfect shot.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is one of Sri Lanka’s leading wildlife and nature photographers, and has authored and photographed over 15 books documenting Sri Lanka’s wildlife. His most recent book, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka, is the first portable and affordable photographic field guide with near-comprehensive coverage, with 96% of all land and marine mammals recorded in Sri Lanka.

In addition to his work as a photographer and author, Wijeyeratne has been responsible for publicising Sri Lanka for its leopards, the gathering of elephants, and blue whales, and has researched and developed almost every significant wildlife tourism product. The Sunday Morning Brunch caught up with Wijeyeratne to learn more about his latest book, how he works as a wildlife photographer, and how wildlife photographers can practise their craft responsibly.

Below are excerpts of the interview.


Tell us about your latest book, A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka, and how it came together.


Sri Lankan naturalists have been fortunate that there have been several books on its mammals published in the past. This makes it all the more surprising that there has been no photographic field guide which covers all or nearly all of its mammals. By definition, a book that is a field guide also has to meet two criteria. Firstly, it has to be portable. Secondly, it has to be something that can be used in the field. In the case of marine mammals, for example, it means that you need images of animals as you would see them.

An illustration of a whole blue whale or sperm whale may tell you what the animal looks like, but is of limited use on a whale-watching trip. Obtaining images for a photographic book that was useful in the field meant that it was a collaborative effort with images from 41 photographers that eventually covered 96% of all mammals recorded in Sri Lanka.

A huge plus of A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of Sri Lanka, published by John Beaufoy Publishing, is that it is also affordable. I really hope this book will stimulate more interest in research and conservation of smaller mammals.


As a wildlife photographer, what goes into getting the perfect shot?


To be a good photographer in a discipline, you need two complementary skills. Firstly, you need a good understanding of the subject matter, be it sports, fashion, news, or wildlife. Secondly, you need to have a good grasp of photography. Firstly, for wildlife photography, it helps if you are a good naturalist. Secondly, the skill set has two elements: Technical skills and creative skills.

Technical skills mean you need to understand how to use your equipment and understand the basics of photography, such as the interaction of shutter speed, aperture, and the ISO (or what was known as film speed), as well as how the aperture affects the depth of field and how shutter speed affects your results.

Creative skills require you to understand how to compose a photograph that is impactful or aesthetically pleasing. With a close-up subject such as a butterfly or dragonfly, moving six inches to avoid a distracting highlight can make a huge difference to the image you take.

What you photograph and how you photograph it is driven by what inspires you and whether you have a specific objective. For example, if you are shooting for competitions and exhibitions, you may want your subject backlit with beautiful rim lighting. But if you are shooting for a photographic field guide, you will want the subject uniformly illuminated. If you had the choice of how to position yourself with the light, the two different objectives will result in photographers positioning themselves very differently in relation to the subject and the source of light, with very different outcomes.


You’ve led the charge on popularising whale-watching in Mirissa and Kalpitiya, back when whale-watching was not something Sri Lanka was known for. How did you see our potential and how did you build awareness?


There are many elements involved in bringing a wildlife tourism product to a market, and this is covered in more detailed articles I have written. But to keep it brief, with the whale-watching, I knew there was a huge appetite to see blue whales, which before the publicity blitz I led starting in May 2008 was also one of the hardest mammals in the world to see.

A key element was to understand the concept of what I call the “three Es”: Encounter rate, encounter zone, and encounter time or season. For the blue whales, together with naturalists like Anoma Alagiyawadu from Jetwing Lighthouse, I collected data on the encounter rate. At the time I published my first international press release, I stated the encounter rate was over 90%, which was a phenomenal result. With more data, I would now more cautiously say it is over 80%.

I also did a lot of background research to ensure this was the best chance in the world to see a blue whale. We understood where the encounter zone was – close to the continental shelf – and we knew what time of the year you could see them and why. Having got the basic building blocks together, I developed material for the press with the Jetwing Eco Holidays team, which with the help of the wider tourism industry (including the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau) was circulated worldwide.

It was a similar process of ground-truthing the data when I explored Kalpitiya’s potential for whale-watching. Interestingly, it was the efforts of the tourism industry to publicise whale watching that resulted in international film crews looking for local marine biologists to feature in their stories.


The Sri Lankan leopard (panthera pardus kotiya)


What are you working on at the moment?


I am now working on a book that brings into a single book, in a simple and compact manner, multiple species groups I have covered in the other John Beaufoy Publishing titles, such as birds, mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, herbaceous flowering plants, and trees. I have also invited a number of other naturalists to contribute guest sections to give them an opportunity to showcase areas of natural history that they are working on.


How can wildlife photographers practise their craft sustainably without disturbing the animals they’re photographing or the environment?


A lot of it is common sense and good ethics. There are three aspects I will briefly mention.

Firstly, think about how you can reduce your environmental footprint. Think of environmental maxims, such as “reduce, reuse, and recycle”.

Secondly, think about how you can give back. Even if you do not have time to volunteer or take part in street marches, perhaps you give back by doing something simple like being a member of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka. The strength of numbers and membership subscriptions can help those who lobby for conservation.

Thirdly, in the specific case of wildlife photography, remember the welfare of your subject always comes first. Disturbing rare birds and other animals can have catastrophic consequences. Keep your distance, and if the animal does not come to you, or you cannot get close without risking harmful disturbance, give up on taking the shot.


How can wildlife photographers contribute to conservation efforts?


Any image that draws attention to biodiversity or inspires support for conservation is a help. Admittedly, a terrific image of a leopard is more eye-catching, but a good wildlife photographer can also take some beautiful images of butterflies and dragonflies in urban wetlands in Colombo, such as at Diyasaru Park, Beddagana Wetland, and Talangama Wetland, to illustrate how rich in biodiversity these places are. They are an asset to the capital for education, recreation, tourism, and biodiversity conservation.

A specific way that wildlife photographers can help is in the genre of conservation photography that uses images to tell stories and educate people. For example, a story can be on how conflict can be reduced with the endemic purple-faced leaf monkeys that live around cities such as Colombo, by encouraging architects to avoid tiled roofs in monkey hotspots. Tiled roofs are easily damaged by monkeys and raise the ire of homeowners. Photo stories such as this take a lot of thought, time, and effort to put together.


Photos © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne