Editor's Note: This is a guest post by photographer James de la Cloche. All images are his own and are used here with permission.
A Little Background
For many years I had anticipated a move from Jersey in the UK (the original Jersey!!) to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I already had a long association with the place and had decided by 50 that I would abandon my past professional life that had been in interior decoration and real estate (always with an element of photography for over 27 years) to become a professional photographer in Chiang Mai, the amazing city situated in the North of Thailand. That was over five years ago now.
When I first arrived, I had expected to become a recognised interiors photographer but for one reason or another that didn’t really happen. The last thing I expected was to become known for my portraits and wedding photographs of couples with elephants! That journey started around two years ago and is all down to the amazing Alexa Tkawpa of www.chailaiorchid.com who had spotted my website and contacted me to see if I could photograph a wedding for some of her guests. Buddhist ceremony in the temple, no problem I said. “Then there will be photos with an elephant in the river” she said. “Oh!” I said.
Two years later I have been privileged to have shot around 50 couples with elephants. Elopements, blessings, portraits, weddings and soon, the first same sex couple blessing with elephant! Perhaps this should be the Pink Elephant package? I couldn’t be more excited and will be sharing the photos through my facebook page and website.
The First Rule of Shooting With Elephants
Always, but always make sure that you have several sacks of bananas or cut sugarcane with you. Elephant food is primarily elephant grass. Bananas and sugarcane are like candy for an elephant and they will listen to their handler a lot closer if they know they will be rewarded with sweet treats. A fully grown elephant eats around 250kg a day so they never really get full!
My shoots generally last between 60-90 minutes and I promise you that translates to a lot of elephant candy!
My General Rules
Eco friendly camp - I will only work with an elephant camp if I know that the elephants are treated well (I wrote a long blog on the subject of elephant tourism, riding and mahouts https://dlc.photo/chiang-mai-elephant-photography/ ). Miss “Seavoy” is my favourite elephant model and we know each other pretty well these days. She knows what to expect when she sees me with camera in hand and she always will come and greet me, giving me a good sniff over with her trunk before moving along to her handler who will be dishing out the candy :)
Female elephants - Females are generally more gentle and compliant than male elephants. Male elephants can be exceptionally dangerous during “musk”. Safety first! I had one guy who wanted to dress as Tarzan and be photographed on a big bull elephant. I don’t know if he ever got his wish but if he did it wasn’t with me.
Experienced handlers - The elephant’s handler must be experienced. Any animals can be tricky to photograph so just imagine how difficult it is to manoeuvre a 2,500kg elephant. Add into this the couple you are photographing with the elephant and you can see you want the best handler available! I handle the couple and the “mahout” handles the elephant. The couple often go from super enthusiastic about the shoot to “OMG those elephants are bigger than I thought”, so reassurances are needed. Note: I’ve never lost a client yet and none have fallen off the elephant although a few have decided that they would just stand near her instead of sitting up on her shoulders. Whichever way is fine as I have always been fortunate to nail many great shots in each shoot so far.
Background - As with all shoots, a great background is essential. I particularly love river shots. The down side is there are many bamboo rafters on the river so I often find myself having to wait for a clear background. So, I am always in the river, usually up to my waist with a very expensive camera and lens.
I did actually drop the A7Riii in the river a few weeks after buying it. It had the 24mm-70mm G Master attached too. Sony fixed the camera but said the lens was dead but, my local supplier sent it to Bangkok and it’s all working again and I haven’t really noticed any degradation in the quality. I am pretty lucky as insurance for cameras is only just starting to be a thing in Thailand.
Forest shots are also awesome, especially when the forest is lush during and straight after the rainy season, as the light gains an amazing quality as it filters through the foliage and, if we get the elephant into just the right spot the shot will really rock!
Light - Ah, the light! As photographers we must all love the light and know how to manipulate it. For my style I love to work with additional lighting which surprises a lot of my clients but, it is this I think that adds a magazine look to the shots.
Tools of the Trade
What Tools Do I Use?
I shoot with Sony. It used to be Canon up until 3+ years ago when all my gear was stolen but I have never looked back since changing to the original Sony A7 and A7R. Now I have upgraded to the A7Riii which is an absolutely amazing camera. The auto eye focus can be really useful when you have a moving elephant with a couple on it’s back. The dynamic range is stunning and the ability to shoot multiple shots in quick succession without hitting the memory buffer is really useful in some situations with the elephants. For example, the elephant is continually moving its head so I always take multiple shots in order to get that “one” where the couple and the elephant as well as the background and light are all as I want them.
Lenses are the 24mm-70mm f2.8 Sony G Master, the 90mm f2.8 G and the Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8 - these are all fantastic lenses but most of the time the 24-70mm is on the camera as it is such an awesome and versatile tool.
I always use off camera flash during these shoots (note: elephants don’t like reflectors but are quite happy with a flash popping away). I use a single Elinchrom Quadra Ranger with the HS flash head and an Octabox, my assistant holding this aloft on an extendable California Sundance pole.
I find that to ensure images without the elephants ears blurring when they flap them, or trunk blur, shooting at speeds of 1/320 up is advisable dependent on the focal length you are working with. The flash is there just to lift the shadows a little and you must remember that elephants skin is usually very dark and the new hi speed sync Elinchrom head is great for this.
I’d love to get to Africa at some stage to photograph some African elephants. They are substantially larger than their Asian brothers and sisters and their ears are really huge in comparison. Other difference is the females also have tusks which is not true of the Asian elephant but, Chiang Mai will remain my home as it called to my soul many years ago and I feel truly routed here with the beautiful mountains and nature that surround the city.
Connect with James on his website.