Q&A with Steve Race Award winning Wildlife Photographer

Interview with Steve Race, the award-winning professional wildlife photographer who leads our Tigers of India photography tours. We caught up with Steve recently for a fascinating discussion about what makes these tours so special, and how his own passion for photography, and for India as a country, has developed over the years.
If this leaves you feeling inspired to try your hand at wildlife photography or to hone your existing skills, please take a look at our 12-day Tigers of India photography holiday, accompanied by Steve Race, to the beautiful Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Parks, which is scheduled to take place from 24 November to 5 December 2021. It’s a wonderful opportunity to join a small group of like-minded people (maximum of eight) for the trip of a lifetime.

How did you get into wildlife photography and what is it about it that most interests you?
As a child living in Yorkshire, I was a budding young naturalist and ornithologist, always keen on nature and the great outdoors. When I was 14, my secondary school biology teacher spotted my interest in the natural world and got me out snapping with a camera.
What I love most is the excitement of seeking out the wildlife; nothing beats the thrill of finding something, and there’s always that added buzz of spotting a new or rare species. Capturing a moving subject on camera is an interesting challenge too.

Which tours do you lead and how did you get into it?
I started off by setting up a nature tourism company with my fellow director Richard Baines called Yorkshire Coast Nature. We specialise in delivering wildlife watching and photography tours, trips and workshops in the UK. I’ve lived on the Yorkshire Coast all of my life and wanted to show people the incredible wildlife and birds on our doorstep. I’m always looking for new places to go and was hoping to start leading a few tours overseas. Fortunately, four years ago I met the southern Asia specialist tour operator Indus Experiences and things have developed internationally even quicker than I had planned!  I lead themed group tours to Asia with Indus Experiences such as Jungles & Wetlands of Northern India and Tigers of India - plus tailor-made trips for individual travellers and tours for camera club members and wildlife groups. Indus is always keen to help agents who want to put together their own groups. Indus creates a bespoke itinerary and I lead the trip - almost anything is possible.

What do the tours involve exactly?
A typical photography tour to one of the Indian or Nepalese National Parks may be 12 days long, including 2 days travelling to and from the park. It’s just like a safari, with a 5.15am start each day, and game drives in jeeps, 5 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon, with a driver and a naturalist to help track and spot the wildlife. We’re in small groups so I can give lots of individual guidance and coaching to each client and make sure they get some great images.  In the evenings I often give a talk and then we go through everyone’s images from the day.

What sort of clients do you get booking? Are they normally photography experts or do you get many novices?
It’s a mixed bag really - most clients are keen amateur photographers but we get a few who are just past the beginner stage, or partners who are mainly interested in viewing the wildlife. The tuition is quite intensive, which means the novices learn a lot and progress really fast!

What’s your favourite part about leading them? What are the key challenges?
My favourite part is spotting the wildlife, showing the clients and seeing the look of joy on their faces! The main challenge is making sure everyone in the group gets to see and photograph the animal - some sightings are fleeting - and that they are all happy with their pictures.

What’s been your most memorable moment on tour?
Encountering my first ever tiger in the wild, four years ago in India. It’s incredibly moving to see these beautiful endangered creatures in their own habitat - I was almost in tears when it first appeared out of the undergrowth. There are just 3,000 Bengal tigers left in India and only 82 of them living in the vast Bandhavgarh National Park, so it’s an absolute privilege to see them. It’s on many people’s bucket list experiences and was definitely a lifetime ambition for me.

How likely are clients to see tigers? What else can they expect to see?
On my last trip to Bandhavgarh, we had 5 tiger sightings in 7 days - it’s never guaranteed but so far, we’ve always been lucky and sometimes we see them every day. Indus Experiences plan the trips carefully - November to May is the best time to go. It’s cooler in November/December, there’s a chance of seeing tigers leading their cubs down to the water holes, and the light is perfect. It’s very green then, which makes for a lovely background, but it can be trickier to see the wildlife with the dense foliage. March is ideal - the visibility is better - and by April/May the chances of sightings at water holes are high, but so are the temperatures, up to 47 degrees!

Chitwan National Park in Nepal is another incredibly rich destination for endangered species - clients have a good chance of seeing the greater one-horned rhino here. There are only 2,000 remaining in the wild and Chitwan is home to around 600 of them.

We also see lots of birds, including parakeets and bee-eaters - there are hundreds of species in the National Parks - plus leopards, sloth bears, elephants, jackals, spotted and samba deer, reptiles, lizards and snakes.

What’s your favourite animal to photograph?
I’d have to say the tiger! I love to photograph any big cats though, and in the UK there are some amazing seabirds - puffins and gannets are my favourites.

Have you had any scary moments?
No, not really - it’s very safe as we don't get out of the jeeps. I do know a story about a tiger that saw its own reflection in the wing-mirror of a jeep and started growling and getting ready to attack! But it ran away as soon as the jeep started to move.

What is it that interests/fascinates you most about India? Where’s your favourite place in the country?
It’s the wildlife that fascinates me most about India, but also the people - they are kind, interesting and easy-going. Outside of the cities, the scenery is stunning too - the snow-capped Himalayas, the jungles and wetlands in the north. I’d have to say Bandhavgarh National Park is my favourite place so far - it’s magical. If you’ve seen David Attenborough’s “Dynasties” series, it’s where they filmed Episode 5. I actually bumped into the BBC film crew there on one of my trips and went on elephant back to see the cave where a tiger was raising her cubs.

I’m looking forward to discovering Kanha National Park on my next trip to India in March, and meeting Tara the elephant, the star of Mark Shand’s bestseller. She now lives at Kipling Camp where we’ll be staying. It’s an award-winning eco-lodge, has outstanding responsible tourism credentials, and supports several wildlife conservation projects in the region. Kanha promises some unique photo opportunities - it’s home to 130 tigers, and also the vulnerable swamp deer, a very rare type of antelope, and over 300 species of birds.

What else has your career involved (e.g. work on Countryfile/other TV work?) What’s been your career highlight?
I’ve done quite a bit of media work - Springwatch, Countryfile, Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch and worked with regional TV too. I was a research assistant on Channel 5 Yorkshire’s "A Year in the Wild”. My proudest moment is having one of my images selected for Wildlife Photographer of the Year and shown at the National History Museum. 100 images were chosen for the exhibition out of 46,000 entries from 35 countries! Mine was a pair of gannets - the male was presenting the female with a necklace of flowers as a life-long mating gift.

Where else have you travelled and where’s still on your wish list?
I’ve travelled quite a bit in Europe, Africa and North America and I still want to see the Arctic, for polar bears of course, and Antarctica for King Penguins.