“Copying other people doesn’t help you grow,” clarifies Hiren Vekaria when I query him on what photographers could do to develop a visual style. “It’s like copying someone else’s homework,” he adds candidly. And incredibly, just two years since he bought a professional camera, he’s establishing a very recognizable style of his own.
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I don’t shoot the same subject consistently enough to develop a signature style of my own. And back in the years when I shot sports, there was really no scope for doing this. Even when I shoot casually for myself, the edit depends a lot on the mood I felt at the time of the shoot. I’m not discouraging anyone from trying to visually stand out with a recognizable look, but it’s something that could take months, if not years. How do you do this with wildlife photography though? There are so many photographers in this genre today, and while not everyone is an expert at tracking down elusive species, what’s the best way to make the common ones look unique in your work? Hiren Vekaria feels that having a certain post-processing style is a good place to start. It’s more than just about capturing the moment; it’s also about being able to express the mood in that image.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Hiren Vekaria
Hiren told us:
The Z6 and Z6ii have amazing specs, shoot super fast in continuous mode and produce beautiful raw files for me to work with in post processing.
The Phoblographer: Hello Hiren. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Hiren Vekaria: I’ve been into photography since I was a kid. My dad always had a camera when we were growing up, and he loved having his picture taken. I still remember a holiday to Portugal when I was about 15 where it was 30 degrees, and as soon as we got to our apartment, he put on a shirt, his suit and got me to take pictures of him all over town. I always seemed to have an eye for the shot from a young age.
As camera phones progressed, I used what tools I had to enhance images and make my shots stand out. In 2019 through a serendipitous conversation with a friend who runs his own audio and visual business, I mentioned that I was going to Uganda and Kenya to see the mountain gorillas and the big cats in the Serengeti. He had one question, what are you going to shoot with?
My phone was not the answer he was looking for. He convinced me to take his Panasonic Lumix GH5 with me, along with a couple of lenses. I’d never used a proper camera before, and mirrorless was a whole new ball game. Needless to say, I’m glad I took it. However, I didn’t have enough time to get my head around the modes, shooting style, and there were a lot of awful pictures.
Fast forward a couple of months, and my CEO at work and I were having a conversation about David Yarrow, one of my favorite wildlife photographers. I told him about his work and what I enjoy about his shots, and he paid attention to this a lot more than I expected. A couple of weeks later, my CEO was fortunate enough to go to see David speak at the Natural History Museum. The next day he came over to my desk, handed me one of Yarrow’s newest photography books with a personalized message and signature. This was a turning point for me; I knew it was time to invest In my own gear.
The Phoblographer: How did you decide on a camera system for your wildlife photography?
Hiren Vekaria: In November 2019, I was ready to buy a camera. I’d done my research, watched countless hours of YouTube comparisons, reviews and heeded David Yarrow’s advice and decided I was going to go with Nikon and the powerhouse that is the D850. I headed off to Wex Digital in Aldgate and asked the assistant to get me one. “Why, out of interest, are you going for the Nikon D850?” they asked. I was a bit surprised by the question. I told the assistant my reasoning and was shot down with facts and research. He told me the D850 was a great camera, but the way forward for someone new like me was to go down the mirrorless route. All my research, time, knowledge had been thrown out the door. He recommended the Sony A7 to me, but I was adamant I wanted to stick to Nikon. How could I be the new David Yarrow and shoot Sony? The alternative would change everything. He showed me the Nikon Z6. As soon as I held it, I knew it was special. It felt like an extension of my arm, seamlessly connecting. I sat in the shop for two hours, reading reviews and watching videos. I wanted it and had to have it today.
I asked the assistant to get it for me. But luck wasn’t on my side. It was out of stock! He could have it delivered in a few days, but I wasn’t interested; I needed it there and then. I left the shop, headed to Curry’s on Oxford Street, and got myself a great deal. It came with the 24-70mm F4 Kit lens and the FTZ adaptor, which lets me use any of the old F mount lenses that Nikon has produced over the last 60 years. I appreciate quality service and, over the next few months, went back to Wex to pick up my extras, a 50mm 1.8 S, 200-500mm Nikkor, and my Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod. Not forgetting the relatively expensive Sony XQD cards, always have a backup!
As the shots started to improve, people asked me to do private shoots for them, and after 18 months, I added another Z6 II body, 70-20mm 2.8 S and a 24-70mm 2.8 S. I also added the Godox V1, which is a beast of a flash and the off-camera trigger. The most surprisingly brilliant purchase of all, though, is probably the camera bag, the Peak Design everyday backpack. It’s a great bag to hold your equipment, especially when it’s worth thousands of dollars.
The Z6 and Z6 II have amazing specs, shoot super fast in continuous mode, and produce beautiful raw files for me to work with, in post-processing.
The Phoblographer: When did you decide that you wanted to specialize in wildlife photography?
Hiren Vekaria: I’ve always been fascinated by animals, big cats, Africa, and everything in-between. Who hasn’t watched David Attenborough and been engrossed by the documentaries he’s produced over the last 60 years? Being able to see gorillas in their natural habitat and cheetahs, lions, rhinos, and elephants in Kenya was mesmerizing, and I knew I needed to go back and take shots once I had mastered my equipment.
The Phoblographer: It’s not just a photo of a solitary animal; many of your images have a cinematic feel to the moment you’ve captured. How long did it take to hone this skill?
Hiren Vekaria: As with most things, patience reaps the rewards. I never expected to get the perfect shot the first time around. There have been many occasions where it was a waiting game. Wild animals are just that, wild. You can’t direct them; you can’t always predict their movement or reactions to things, so you have to be ready. My shots tend to be taken at eye level or lower. Any budding photographer should know that the best shots draw you into the image, and being at eye level is the best place to be for most shots. Take a look at the tiger picture where it makes direct eye contact with me. This could have been a completely different picture if I was standing up and shooting. Instead, I was virtually on my knees as he walked towards me. It took me a year or so to fully find my own style of shooting and editing. It really is a lot of trial and error.
The Phoblographer: When you’re out in the field shooting, do you tend to think of how you’ll post process a set of images? Or is this something think about after you’ve returned home?
Hiren Vekaria: I’m always thinking about the best version of a shot and how much the background, foreground, crop, angle, etc., will affect the image. I try moving, and the best way of practicing this is to shoot with a fixed focal lens. If you have to move, you’ll become a better photographer.
The Phoblographer: Some might say that retouching a wildlife image is depicting a feel of something that wasn’t real. Is retouching a necessary evil?
Hiren Vekaria: This one is hotly debated and always will be. Do I edit my wildlife pictures? Yes. Are they representative of the natural colors found in the wild? Absolutely not. Why? Because photography is art, and as an artist, it is my representation of what I have seen and how I want it to be seen by my audience that matters. If I wanted to be a photographic journalist, minimal editing would be required. However, my shots are not going to be printed in newspapers or National Geographic; they’re going on Instagram, Facebook, or being printed to display on peoples living room walls. If I wanted my pictures to look like everyone else’s, I wouldn’t even need to edit them. I don’t want my pictures to look like everyone else’s. To me, it defeats the purpose of making them my own. If you have 100 Tiger pictures with the same colors, tones, and feel and throw mine in the mix, I’d want people to be drawn to mine over the other 100, not just for the shot itself but for the way I’ve edited it to make you feel.
The Phoblographer: A lot of wildlife images tend to be similar in look and feel. Perhaps this is because we are inspired by the works of experts and tend to subconsciously copy this in our shoots. How can we develop a recognisable style of our own?
Hiren Vekaria: There are a handful of photographers who you can tell apart from everyone else. David Yarrow, Shaz Jung, and Varun Aditya, as soon as one of their pictures shows on one of my social media feeds, I instantly know it’s them. I did try to emulate their editing styles when I first started but realized rather quickly that I needed my own. Copying other people doesn’t help you grow. It’s like copying someone else’s homework, you’ll get by, but when really tested, you’ll fail, and I can’t afford that.
The Phoblographer: Being aware of a species and its behaviors always helps, but have you ever been outdoors and captured a species you weren’t expecting to see. What was that experience like and how did those images turn out?
Hiren Vekaria: I’ve shot a lot in Richmond Park over the years, and I’ve always been comfortable keeping my distance at over 50 meters. On one occasion, in Bushey Park, a lone deer was hidden in the shrubbery, and I hadn’t noticed him until it was quite close. He got up, turned to me, and started to charge. I wasn’t going to outrun him, and there weren’t any trees around, so I stood my ground, made myself big, and he stopped around 15 meters away. I backed away slowly and got to a safe distance, and then took one of my best shots of him posing straight on at me.
The Phoblographer: Is there ever a sense of feeling like you’re missing out on the moment while photographing? Have there been any a moments where you’ve wished you’d have set your camera aside?
Hiren Vekaria: It depends on the moment. I’ve been in situations before where my wife, who fully embraces my photography passion, has had to tell me to put the camera down and just enjoy the moment. One is after a 4-hour trek in Uganda’s mountains to find wild gorillas. I just kept shooting. We only had around 30-60 minutes to spend with them before we had to leave, and she reminded us why we were there–to see them in real life. I put the camera away after about 15 minutes and just soaked the experience in.
The Phoblographer: Where does that inner drive come from again and again, to lie patiently in waiting to capture an elusive animal?
Hiren Vekaria: I want to take the perfect picture. It’s as simple as that. I know what I’m capable of and what I can achieve, there is nothing stopping me except my own hesitations and limitations. If I have all the skills needed to do it, I just need to keep going.
The Phoblographer: If you had to provide just three tips for our readers to improve their wildlife photography skills, what would they be?
Hiren Vekaria: Practice. I can’t stress enough how much my first three months involved me going out with my wife or alone to parks, zoos, and the streets of London, getting to know my camera, my lenses, my settings, the exposure triangle, and in the long-term, editing.
Get low. Eye-level or lower is the aim; your shots will come out better and more powerful.
Enjoy yourself. In the pursuit of the perfect shot, there have been times where I’ve been annoyed, angry, or frustrated. These days I’m a lot more relaxed after I realize I do this for the enjoyment, not for the Facebook likes or the extra Instagram followers. If you enjoy what you do whilst you’re doing it, you’ll appreciate it more.
The Phoblographer: What would be your ultimate destination to photograph a species of wildlife?
Hiren Vekaria: I’d love to go back to the Serengeti! Tanzania and Kenya are on the hitlist. They have the big five, and I’m already planning the trip when restrictions are eased!
All images by Hiren Vekaria. Used with permission. Please visit his Instagram page to see more of his wildlife photos.
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