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How to take Photographs when Riding an Elephant
Introduction - When travelling in Asia or Africa, it is always a special honor to be able to ride on the back of an elephant. The travel photographer can use his elevated position to obtain some really unique images. I have ridden on elephants in a variety of countries, and felt that some tips for the newcomer to elephant-back photography may be appreciated.
Elephant Basics - There are three species of elephant are living today: the African bush elephant, the African forest elephant and the Asian elephant. The latter is also known as the Indian elephant. You can see the differences between them at the Upali website. The three types of elephant are quite different in temperament. The Asian elephant is more amenable and controllable by humans, and thus the likelihood of riding on an Asian elephant is much higher. Asian elephants available for rides are generally encountered in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Singapore, and Thailand. African elephants can be ridden in South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Details can be found later in this article.
Advantages of an Elephant Ride - An elephant can take you into parts of the countryside that would be unwise or impossible to get to in a vehicle. An elephant moves surprisingly quietly, and will not frighten away the birds or animals that you may wish to photograph. When riding an elephant you get to see your surroundings from a totally new perspective. An average elephant is some three metres tall, so the photographer taking images from the back of an elephant can expect to gain a great advantage over a photographer who stays on the ground. He will be able to see over large trees, bushes and grass cover. He will be able to angle his camera more towards the ground whilst still covering a wide field of view, thus reducing the amount of sky in the image, and helping with a more interesting image composition. He will progress at a slow and gentle pace, ideal for viewing the countryside and the birds and animals living there. The photographer will be able to approach these animals much closer than would otherwise be possible, as the animals will accept the presence of an elephant as 'one of their own'. Finally, if the unexpected happens and a tiger, lion, or rhino is unexpectedly encountered, the elephant will provide protection and a means of safe escape.
Elephant Riding Styles - There are generally two ways to ride an elephant: on a saddle or 'howdah', or sitting perched on the elephant's neck. The latter is also known as bare-back riding. For a photographer these are quite different methods, and so will be dealt with separately.
Howdah Riding - This is the easiest method, suitable for all beginners, and particularly useful for a photographer. An elephant handler, called a 'Mahout' in India or an 'Induna' in Africa, will be in full control of the elephant. He will command the elephant to stop, start, and perform other manoeuvres as requested. He will be familiar with the route and the countryside, and may even assist in spotting game or pointing out items of interest. The photographer is thus free to leave the details of the journey in the Mahout's hands, and concentrate on his camera, and the recording of scenes of interest.
A Howdah is a combined frame and seating platform to help humans ride safely on the back of an elephant. They will generally seat from 2 to 6 persons at a time. You can see some examples of modern howdah pictures at the University of Guelp website. Don't expect anything as nice as the Royal Howdah shown on the left! This one can be seen at the Meherangarh Fort Palace Museum in Jodhpur, India. A traditional Howdah comprises of an open and flat platform with low rails surrounding it. The occupants will kneel or sit cross legged. This may not be comfortable for Westerners unused to sitting in this position for long periods, so the rails may be raised to allow the occupant's legs to dangle down the sides of the elephant's back. Alternatively, a more complex seating arrangement with a back-rest may be provided, facing front to back, or side to side. Rails will still be included for holding on to. In the times of the Raj in India there were Shikar Howdah, or Hunting Howdahs, which housed the sportsmen (sic) in a standing position. Although these may be glimpsed in museums, they are unlikely to be encountered in the field these days.
Bare-Back Riding - This is a much more 'hands-on' experience, and will not leave as much time available for photography as would the ride in a howdah. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful feeling to be in personal control of such a huge animal, and so if the chance presents itself, it should not be turned down. The beginner will either have a handler walking alongside to pass advice and instruction, or riding behind on the elephants back. Much of your time will be devoted to the learning of commands, and the correct use of the 'goad', so at this stage you may prefer to be photographed, rather than be a photographer. Once the basics have been mastered, though, the attention can be diverted away from the control of the elephant to the surroundings themselves, and with the elephant progressing through the jungle at a gentle pace, many opportunities will arise for superb photography. Unlike a horse or camel, there are no reins to hold on to, and the goad can be tucked into your belt when not needed, so both hands are available for camera control. You may need to use your feet, though, as a gentle pressure behind the elephant's left or right ear is commonly used to indicate the desired direction. The elephant will understand the words for stop, forward, and turn, but I will not detail the actual pronunciation of these or any of the other elephant commands here, as they will be dependent on the area that you are visiting. One additional command, best not forgotten, is the word for sit. You can then side off the elephant's back and regain your place on terra firma.
Mounting Up - For the Howdah rider, mounting will be an easy matter. Either the elephant will be brought to stand quietly next to a raised platform from where the rider will step into the howdah, or a ladder will be leant against the elephant's side so the rider can climb up from that direction. For the Bare-Back rider, mounting is a little more complicated. In Africa, the elephants are normally made to kneel. The rider then climbs on to one of the front legs, and from there on to its neck. The guide will be there to help if needed. In Asia, though, a different technique is used. At the correct command, the elephant will bend one of its front legs. The rider then steps on to the leg, which, at the command 'lift', the elephant raises further. The rider then pulls himself on to the elephant's neck by taking a firm grasp on to the elephant's ear. This causes no discomfort to the elephant.
Riding Preparation - There are many similarities here to both horse and camel-back photography, so the reader may find other items of interest in the horse and camel articles. As elephants are both higher than the other animals, and more complicated to get on or off, great care should be taken that all the items you have with you are securely packed in a daypack, or attached to your person with a strap or lanyard. In the case of your camera, you may wish to use both, as it is unlikely to survive a fall from such a height! You may find that a carabiner is useful to attach bags and camera cases to the howdah rails, if available. Protection from a strong tropical sun is needed, so a hat with neck covering, a chap-stick for the lips, and general sunscreen lotion should not be forgotten. Sun glasses are equally essential. If it is the monsoon or rainy season you will need suitable protection for yourself, your daypack, and your camera. Here I would suggest a fully waterproof 'wetbag', as monsoon rains can be surprisingly heavy, and likely to find their way past a standard camera rain-cover. A water bottle, some food, insect repellant, and a small first aid kit will be useful.Unlike the horse or camel rider who has to keep a hold on the reins at all times, you are likely to have both hands available for camera operation so it is safe, an indeed preferable to leave the lens cap on this time, rather than relying on a cloth in the bottom of the camera bag to protect the lens surface. Both hands are needed for correct orientation of a polarising filter as well. In the strong tropical sun you will find this a very useful addition to your kit list, though don't make the mistake of leaving it on the lens when inside a forest or jungle, as light levels can drop quite suddenly, even in the middle of the day.
What to Wear - When photographing from elephant-back, you should wear neutral or khaki coloured clothes. Any wildlife that may be encountered can be alerted or even frightened away by white or bright coloured clothing, so these should be avoided. As mentioned above, a wide-brimmed sunhat is essential. Long trousers are equally important, as though the elephant may look smooth and gray from a distance, its back is actually covered with short black hairs that are quite sharp and will damage the legs of anyone wearing shorts. Long-sleeved shirts are recommended, especially in the summer months, as they provide protection from the sun during the middle of the day, and are an added protection from mosquitoes and other biting insects in the early morning or late afternoon. A fleece or warm jersey may also be necessary at these times of the day. For the feet, you should choose trainers or other closed, comfortable shoes. Flip flops are not suitable footwear, as they can easily be dropped.
On The Move - The elephant's gait is slow and measured, though does involve quite a bit of swaying from side to side. Personally, I have always enjoyed the sensation of riding on an elephant, but you should be aware that some find the motion rather difficult, and even complain of travel sickness. You should hold on tight to the rails of the howdah to prevent being thrown against the side rails - a bruising experience. Despite appearances, the elephant can move quite fast if necessary, so the rider should always be prepared for a sudden change of speed. If the elephant is spooked or surprised, it may break into a trot or fast run. If this happens, the gentle side-to-side motion will change dramatically, and the rider may be thrown about the howdah rather violently until the Mahout can bring the animal under control again. Never leave items lying carelesly on the floor of the howdah, or they may be thrown off as the elephant runs swiftly through the jungle. It is unlikely that the Mahout could find his way back to where you lost them.
A more common occurrence on a typical jungle walk on elephant back is to be brushed or even whacked by a low hanging branch or palm frond. Elephants, though very clever, are unlikely to make allowances for the height of the passengers on their back. Your hat should be secured with a neck strap to prevent it being swept away, and all cameras and bags should be fastened to yourself or the howdah. It only takes a small twig to catch a camera strap and have it whisked away to smash on the forest floor before your reactions will register what is happening.
Photography from elephant back whilst on the move can be a real test of anticipation and coordination. As mentioned above, the elephant's gait is slow and measured, and involves quite a bit of swaying from side to side, and quite a sudden jerk as the elephant changes which leg is currently in the air. Trying to take a photograph under these conditions requires quite bit of practice. A wide-angled shot is easiest to take, whereas you may find that framing a telephoto shot is almost impossible when moving. Fortunately, an elephant can stop and start quite quickly, so whenever possible, I would recommend asking the mahout to stop the elephant when a telephoto shot is required. The same notes apply to changing lens - when the elephant is on the move, it would be all too easy to drop a lens or back cap, so either use two camera bodies - one for wide, one for telephoto, or ask the mahout to stop when changing lenses is required.
When To Ride - Often, on a busy vacation when trying to pack the most into your holiday experience, you are not left with much opportunity to choose just when a ride on an elelphant takes place, but if you have the luxury of time available on your side, you should always choose an early morning or a late afternoon departure, rather than an elephant ride in the middle of the day. Not only will the light be much kinder to your camera, producing much more attractive photographs than those taken at noon, but the strong tropical sun will be kinder to you as well, increasing both your comfortabliity and endurance. If you are intending to spot wild birds and animals, you are much more likely to see then at the edges of the day than its middle. The monsoon time is best avoided, as if you get soaked whilst on elephant-back you will stay soaked, though it is worth remembering that photographs can look particularly spectacular in strong sunlight against a dark cloud background, or just after a heavy rain shower when the water is still glistening from the leaves or starting to steamily evaporate from the hot ground. Always keep an eye on current shutter speeds whilst photographing, as light levels can vary tremendously as you move from under the jungle canopy to a forest clearing and back again. Light levels whilst under the trees can be quite low, so always make sure that you have an appropriate ISO set on your camera to prevent blurred and fuzzy images.
Other Elephant Activities - Just like you or I, elephants require regular washing. This generally happens in the late morning, after they have been working for some time. The mahouts will ride the elephants down to the local river, accompanying them into the water to make sure they are properly cleaned. After letting the elephants take some time to drink, wallow about, and socialise with the other elephants, the mahouts will take a flat stone or a section of coconut shell and scrub the elephant's head, back and legs. From time to time the elephant will be commanded to hose himself down with a trunk full of water.
In an area where visitors come to ride on elephants, the daily elephant bathe is usually incorporated as an activity that visitors may wish to attend. If this is the case on your visit, I would certainly recommend that you go along. You can either watch what takes place from the river bank, and get some excellent photographs at the same time, or you can join in with the proceedings, ride the elephant bareback into the river, and help scrub the elephant as well. It goes without saying that you will get completely soaked whilst all this is going on, so you need to be prepared with suitable clothes that can stand getting wet, but are not too skimpy or revealing to upset local sensibilities. Your hotel will advise on what is and is not appropriate for the country you are visiting. Don't forget to empty your pockets before going in - water, passports and mobile phones do not mix. Ladies - watch out for teeshirts that turn transparent when wet! You will have a lot of fun taking part, and get to see an elephant at really close quarters. Whilst you are scrubbing it, the elephant will be lying down in the water, and you will have real eye-contact with these magnificent beasts - a humbling experience. If you have a truly waterproof camera, then take that as well, for some never-to-be-forgotten photographs.
Some Elephant Riding Locations
The following is a short list of locations where you can achieve your dream of photographing from elephant back:
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