The art of photography

Many blogs and web sites teach you the craft of photography: focus, aperture, rule of thirds, leading lines. The art is something we have to puzzle out for ourselves. At some point I realized that one aspect of the art is not to show what you want people to see, but what you want people to feel. If it is a sense of peace and serenity that you are after, hide the details. Show fog.

We were off early in the morning to grab a hot paratha at a bazaar which had sprung up at a road crossing. The sun broke through the mist as we passed by Almora and hit the forest just beyond. Beautiful sight. As I took this photo, I knew it would convey a sense of calm and peace. The sense of rush, the craving for breakfast, that was my own. It did not express itself in the photo.

The Pearl river delta cuts up the southern coast of China into islets. The mega city of Guangzhou sprawls across it. From the top of Canton Tower I took a photo which shows Guangzhou at its calmest: the hour of sunset. Barges pass along the river, evoking a certain timelessness, which the misty look enhances. Guangzhou has the same weather as Mumbai, warm. What you see is not mist, but the sense the photo evokes is still calm. Hide the hurry, and everyone thinks things are calm.

This was a morning when I was calm and content. Sitting on the deck of a hotel floating on the warm waters of Lake Inle in Myanmar, I was thoroughly relaxed. A chai in hand, camera at my feet, I wondered how to convey that sense. Evoke fog, my head told me. So I took a reflection of the clouds in the waters of the lake, broken by the lily pads that grow around the hotel.

Annoyed? No one will know. A day of bird watching in the mountains of Darjeeling district was interrupted by fog. The only things I saw were drongos, too quick to photograph in the bad light. But this barred jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) sat placidly in front of me and preened. You want calm and serene? Take photos of an owl. Better still, one of an owl in fog.

I had come down from the Philosopher’s Walk, crossed the Neckar, and was making my way to Heidelberg’s railway station. I had to get a coffee and a roll before my train rolled in. I was in a bit of a hurry, and sweating mildly under my layers of warm clothes. But the tree on the other bank looked wonderful. A pair of European Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) flew by as I took this photo. Lazy, calm, gliding circles, quite unusual for this squabbling and greedy species. That’s all you see here, not my need for a coffee. The art of photography is to exclude yourself and your own momentary feelings from the image, to retain only what you want to remember after many years.

Wide open spaces

Cliffs, ridges, waterfalls. That’s Khandala for you. Speeding along the expressway, I’ve often looked longingly at the meadows around the Duke’s Nose (that cliff was said to resemble Wellington’s profile, and the name remains even when the association is forgotten). The Family is rather blasé about it. She’s spent weekend retreats in one of those villas every year. This year I followed her into some of those places and saw a view which was new to me. I realized that I have to go wider than wide to capture the sense of what I saw. I had to take a panorama.

The meaning of a wide angle is clear to anyone except a photographer. Fussy lenspeople will talk of focal lengths and film sizes, and try to translate it to digital in terms of ratios. By this definition, most smart phones have wide angle lenses. But that does not take into account the software which chops or adds to images. I wondered a little about this as I took a photo of clouds drifting across the slope and the cliff. But only a little, since I was busy trying to figure out whether I should cross the haha (you see it as the brown line beyond the rock in the photo above) and get closer to the lip of the cliff. I walked up a bit further, and found the slope too steep and slippery and decided not to.

I moved a little and took another photo. This time catching the turn in the expressway just before it gets to Lonavala. If you ever wondered how high the monsoon clouds are, go to Khandala. They drift along the roads here, and drop off into valleys. Since this place is half a kilometer above sea level, that tells you how low monsoon clouds get. The fluffy white cirrus clouds that you can see in other seasons are about six kilometers up in the sky. I love the feel of the monsoon in the Sahyadris, the drifting fog that hides and reveals, the strange light, the startling green of these meadows.

Flying through the monsoon

We flew in bright sunshine at the usual cruising altitude of around 10 kilometers above sea level. Below us the unbroken sea of clouds was interrupted by infrequent towers of cumulonimbus anvils. The towers form as clouds condense into rain. The heat released as water changes from steam to liquid creates a local convection which churns up clouds into these anvils. In mid-August more of India should have had rains, so the scene outside my window told me that rainfall is spotty this year.

Then, as we approached Mumbai, the plane began to lose height. At an altitude of around 6 kilometers above sea level we began a dive into the monsoon clouds. I’ve not paid much attention to it before, but this time around I decided to take a time-lapse video, the one you see above. This condenses a little less than half an hour’s descent into two and a half minutes. I was astounded by the changes in the nature of the clouds as we ploughed through the turbulent layer. Not having paid attention, I’d thought of it always as a mass of grey churn. But now I saw that there is much more structure to it. Interesting.

Through clouds

The monsoon set in as a yearly phenomenon when the Tibetan plateau was lifted up by India crashing into the Asian continental plate. This was about 50 million years ago, when the earth was a hothouse, and the first ice sheets of the Antarctic were still 15 million years in the future. So, when it comes to descriptions of the monsoon, almost anything that can be said about it has been said already. Every so often I’m surprised by the aptness with which millennium old Sanskrit poems describe the monsoon. The one experience that is new, that perhaps the generations living now are seeing for the first time, is of flying through the weather.

Coming back from work recently, I spent an hour in the middle of rainclouds driven by monsoon winds. There is a constant turbulence, little sinking feelings in your stomach that you learn to ignore. Outside the window is a wonderful show of clouds and light. The poets of these sights are probably beginning their careers now.


I had seen totally unexpected landscape in the Thar desert: dry riverbeds with piles of broken rock, and vast stretches of level ground. Although large parts of the desert landscape was of this kind, there was a significant area full of sand dunes. I saw many dunes which were stabilized by plants specialized to grow in the desert, but there was a stretch of the great shifting dunes that deserts are famous for.

Dunes are formed by wind-blown sand. Sure enough, the air was dusty enough here that it felt comfortable if I pulled my tube scarf up to my nose to form a mask. Three kinds of sand dunes are commonly seen: barchans have horns facing away from the wind, parabolic dunes have horns facing the wind, and transverse dunes are perpendicular to the wind. What was I looking at? The great dune in the featured photo was clearly a transverse dune. I could sometimes see sand coming over its slip face. We were camped leewards of it. The ripples behind it were parallel to the edge. Eddies and gusts had formed smaller dunes, still pretty large, at its base. The photo above shows one of these. This was probably a blowout, or a parabolic dune. The horns at its end were not very long. In the picture above you can see that at the foot of the slip face the wind has tried to form yet another (tertiary) blowout dune. I guess this kind of fractal structure of dunes must be fairly common.

I woke up one morning to try to take photos of the dunes before sunrise, and found clouds blowing in. This was the first time I felt a strong wind. From the direction of the clouds it seemed that my guess was wrong: the clouds were blowing parallel to the dunes. The kind of clouds that you see in the photo are a high layer of cumulus clouds (altocumulus stratiformis). They form when ground-level winds carry moisture up where they freeze and then are carried in a different direction by high-altitude winds. So the direction of the movement of the clouds had nothing to do with the movement of the ground wind. In fact, because the ground wind had to be perpendicular to the movement of the clouds, my guess about the dunes had become more likely to be correct!

I had the warm fuzzy feeling which comes of the conviction of being right.

Across the Bay of Bengal

Ten days after cyclone Vardah travelled from the Andaman Sea over the Bay of Bengal to hit Chennai, we flew backwards along its track. The sky over Chennai was a clear blue. As the plane nosed up,Ocean and sky after a cyclone I saw a few banks of fluffy clouds near the horizon. The sky below us was clear as our Airbus 320 reached cruising height. The flight to the Andaman archipelago would take almost two hours. The sky below me seemed clear; only a few stray fluffy clouds occasionally interrupted my view of the calm seas. But when I looked up, there was a thin layer of cirrus clouds very far above the cruising altitude of the plane. They looked dark against the otherwise clear sky. You can see them in the upper half of this photo. You can also see a few wisps of white cumulus clouds against the blue of the sea in the lower part of the photo.

A coral atoll around one of the Andaman islands

The monotony of flying over the ocean was just beginning to lull me to sleep when the plane began its descent. As we came in over the outlying islands, cloud banks piled up ahead of us. The air was not as clear as it had been before. I realized later that clouds tended to mass up near the islands and coast in this season. As a result, the image of the coral atoll surrounding the island in the photo above was hazy, and I had to tweak the photo quite a bit to see the beautiful patterns in the water around the island. It was lovely to see the surf breaking far from the white sandy beach around the island.

The descent to Port Blair was fast, and I barely clicked a few more photos as we came lower. Almost the last photo I managed to take was a beach surrounded by corals. This is the featured photo. The water is so clear that you can see the coral reefs and the wide tongue of white sandy beach. I knew we were in for a great holiday.