Lessons taught, lessons self-learned: Neelu Pilania

“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” said John Dryden.

Neelu Pilania’s passion for birding and wildlife was an interest ingrained in her childhood.  In her own words: “When I was little, my family went on tours into the wild regularly. I have been to Ranthambhore and Gir multiple times with family friends and friends from school. My father was a wildlife enthusiast and I was always surrounded by people who liked big cats and birds, and this infectious zeal wrote the prelude to my story as a birder and admirer of all wildlife.”

And photography for her started as a result of this interest. “I used to see others making images of the rich wildlife and stunning landscapes,” she says, “so I wanted to give it a try.”

She recalls how photography was an expensive hobby back then, and she had to focus on studies, work and marriage.

“So even when I bought my first SLR camera about 17 years ago,” she continues, “its use was restricted to my family tours. I wasn’t completely aware of the technicalities involved in the art of making images, but I enjoyed the act thoroughly, beginning with the very feel of a heavy camera in my hands.”

Ms Pilania started travelling abroad and to many more places in India to further her hobby. One day, when she was having a casual talk about wildlife and birding, she came to know about Toehold. Since she did not know the state of wildlife affairs back in India, she decided to learn more through a Toehold Photo Tour, and that’s how her bird photography tour to Jamnagar happened.

Ms Pilania becomes rather nostalgic about her first Photo Tour. She says how differently she felt about travelling alone for a few days and not with family.

And in her own words: “Photography wasn’t really incidental, because I had learned the basics on my own with the help of online lessons. But what I got to learn for the first time on the Tour was that I was getting a chance to see and admire the raw beauty in the wild while also understanding the dynamic aspects of light. It wasn’t classroom learning, because we were assisted by the knowledgeable field experts of Toehold.


Boating in Nameri


“To me, going on Photo Tours is more about valuing the time I owe for myself and soaking myself in complete solitude more than getting away from the mundane details of life that confront us in rapid succession.”

She adds that these Tours are about being out in the wild, and that photography is a part of an enriching experience to be cherished for much time to come, and says she’s the kind of person who’d happily live in a forest if she had to!

“It’s quite amazing how my passion for wildlife is fuelled by the Toehold Skippers who share similar love for nature and the very act of being in the presence of natural beauty. While there are a few people out there who would compromise on their ethics to get a better shot, these guys show us how to capture some of the best moments in the wild without meddling with nature.”


Elephant Dust Bath
© Neelu Pilania


She elucidates that it is easy to fall into the trap for that perfect shot with disregard for the subject, but she will never go down that road, because Toehold Tours have ingrained in her a deep respect for nature and wildlife, and she strives to seize a few priceless moments without compromising her ethics.

Ms Pilania explains with a contagious zeal that it is important for her to know what bird or animal she is photographing and learn voraciously as much as she can about it. She loves capturing birds, big cats, and landscapes, in that order.


© Neelu Pilania


And she also exclaims that photography happens to her unplanned, like it is an instant and impulsive inspiration that strikes her like an epiphany and not really awaiting a planned future moment. But if there is one place she would plan to camp in, wait and photograph in different hues, it is Pangong Tso in Ladakh, whose beauty is grandly orchestrated differently by days and nights in relentless turns.

Ms Pilania’s new interest has been macro photography. She is astonished by the fine details of beings like dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, snakes, spiders, insects and other “creepy crawlies.”


© Neelu Pilania


The explorer in Ms Pilania is always in a quest for abundant natural beauty in the forests and outdoors. Apart from the Toehold Photo Tours, she travels a lot with her family too. And when she is in the wild, she makes sure that she leaves it gracefully, without disturbing the pristine beauty of the forests. She emphasises how important it is to behave and let the nature take its course there, because there is always a difference between a forest and a zoo. Except for the gentle interference of researchers who study wildlife and natural history, it isn’t for the travellers to pry into the intimate life and disturb the lives of the animals and birds.


Forest Path
© Neelu Pilania


Ms Pilania forgets not to mention just how much respect and appreciation we need to have for beauty this Earth has in store and how there is a dire need to preserve it all for the generations to come.

She asserts that Toehold offers the perfect package for an individual who is either a traveller or a photographer, or both. She believes that the technical expertise, love for nature and wildlife and photography, sense of ethics, mentoring ability, and fun-loving traits of the individual Skippers at Toehold work magic when they come together as a team. The fact that they started such a journey to follow their passion reassures Ms Pilania, and she finds the Toehold team of experts endearing in their humility.

To Neelu Pilania, travelling with like-minded people who share the same passion makes the experience worth cherishing forever. And she says that that’s how certain special moments transport us to a timeless dimension where the love for all beautiful things only swells and stays.


Neelu Pilania
Neelu Pilania



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