Members of The Photography Clubs of Coimbatore frequently set out to hone their photographic skills and document the wildlife in and around the city. Esther Elias joins them on one of their bird spotting expeditions

At seven in the morning, 18 km from the heart of Coimbatore, a female Pheasant-tailed jacana shifted into view from between the water hyacinth on Sulur lake. In grateful appreciation, 11 cameramen adjusted apertures, shutter speeds and exposures to capture for posterity the glory of the arch-tailed bird.

A moment’s wait later: “And, there’s the male, a few steps away,” grinned Ajaikumar Ramamoorthy, founder of The Photography Club of Coimbatore (TPCC). “They’re very rare. Just one or two in an entire swamp,” he added, against a backdrop of camera clicks.

The members of TPCC were on their 105th Photography Walk, documenting the birds and wildlife of the wetlands of Coimbatore and surrounding areas. Two years ago, Ajai, a software engineer, posted an online call for company on a photography walk. Several months later, someone replied asking for help to buy a professional camera. Thus began TPCC, which now has 500 members.

“For the first six months, things barely moved. Then, we began these walks — twice a week from 6.30 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. in areas around Coimbatore, and, on weekends, a day-long trip, further away. Today, we have 15 to 30 regulars, all Coimbatoreans,” says Ajai.

Armed with cameras of assorted sizes and dressed in khaki jackets and military pants, TPCC is a bunch of businessmen, engineers and students with varying degrees of photography and birding skills. “People join us with just mobile cameras and zero knowledge of Nature and conservation. But, they have a fascination for photography and an eagerness to learn,” says businessman Vignesh Balaji, who has been with TPCC from its conception.

“I found TPCC on Facebook when all I knew about photography was from fiddling around with my father’s old SLR. But my knowledge grew with the group because we have a strict policy of posting details such as camera type, lens, exposure and shutter speed with every picture,” says Arjun CA, a design engineer. The practice helps people go beyond the ‘Like’ button on Facebook and understand how the photographer captured the shot, so that they can replicate the same, explains Vignesh.

Self-taught experts

None of TPCC members photograph for a living, neither is any of them formally educated in birds or wildlife. Nevertheless, their knowledge of both borders on expertise. “Once you photograph a bird, you’ll never forget its name and appearance. Your mental database unconsciously grows,” says Ajai. By now, members have shown me migratory pelicans from Australia, a spot-billed duck from North India and Eurasian coots tucked into the countless nooks of Sulur lake. Some can even tell gender from a distance.

TPCC has also tied up with organisations such as Environmental Conservation Group and Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History. Members share their database of images and information on bird sightings to help them in their documentation and monitoring work.

“I joined TPCC because I want to make documentaries on birdlife and this is the best place to learn about birds and framing landscapes because there’s so much specialised knowledge. Also, everyone shares because this isn’t commercial,” says Siva Prakash, barely awake from having joined the walk after a nightshift at office. Club members have also taken part in the recent tiger census.

Teaching kids

Between a painted stork posing to be photographed and collective excitement over resident Indian cormorants in flight, Ajai tells me the group is setting up an office in Arjun’s house. They hope to conduct exhibitions of their work as well as competitions among themselves. “We also want to team up with Government schools and teach batches of kids photography using basic cameras,” he says.

Photography is an expensive hobby, and Ajai says that members use each other’s equipment. “Those who skip a walk lend their cameras to those who go. The office will be a great place to store our collective stuff.”

Says Siva: “Photographing wildlife isn’t always easy because entering the forests requires permits that are hard to come by.” So, TPCC’s photographic interests include street photography, action photography, landscapes and portraits. Even in street photography and portraits, people aren’t always comfortable being photographed, says Vignesh. “We wait for events like temple festivals to do those. However, as action photographers, we’ve covered many rallies.”

Quite a few laurels have come their way. TPCC member Shakti Karthikeyan has been awarded by American photographer Scot Kelby for his contribution to the World Wide Photo Walk 2011. He hopes to take up wildlife photography professionally in a few years.

As we walk back from a serene morning interrupted only by birdcall, I ask Ajai if he would ever consider photography as a profession. “Never. It’s fantastic as a hobby but making a living off it would take the enjoyment out.”