Light painting a Giant of Borneo

Light painting a Giant of Borneo

Its not the orangutans or the colorful diversity of birds, neither is it the primates nor the hornbills. Its the giant trees that take your breath away in Borneo. You feel as if all the trees that you have seen in your life were Lilliputians and now you have come and bumped into Gulliver himself.

These trees are spectacular. One has to work really hard to see the whole tree. From the ground, the top of the tree either disappears into the canopy or into the mist, either way, the only part of the tree that you will ever get the see is the main trunk.

Divya Mudappa admiring the base of a massive Ficus tree growing on a dipterocarp
They look very still, but in the rainforest, they are working every second – for water, nutrients, light, and space, and to fend off a host of parasites and predators of all kinds.

But one amazing thing about Borneo is that, one can climb up and stare at these forests from the top — see the top canopy at eye-level, and still have canopy emergents towering above you. Climbing itself is quite an amazingly exhilarating experience and once again, you really realise and appreciate how tall these trees really are. Many biologists say that the true life in the rainforests is up in the canopy. From up there, you get a feel of the world view that the primates and hornbills enjoy.

View from the canopy platform
I’ve always found that in nature, trees are the most difficult subjects to photograph. Its very difficult to do justice to the grandeur of some of them. One of the most spectacular trees in the world is the Koompassia excelsa (also locally known as Mengaris) and on my recent Borneo trip, I had decided to photograph this tree. Koompassia excelsa is one of the tallest tropical tree species. In an undisturbed forest, its very difficult to see the whole tree. Most often you just see the trunks, while rest of the tree merges with the others in the canopy.

Base of a Koompassia tree
But if you find one in an open or logged forests, you really can feel the size and scale of the whole tree. We found this particular one in Tabin Nature Reserve, right by a road and on a night safari. It was amazing to see this tree against the sky full of stars. So to photograph it, I setup my camera on the bag and took a long exposure shot of this tree.

I thought something was missing and thought, it might be a good idea to light up part of the tree. So I decided to Light paint the tree. Divya and I panned the trunk and the canopy with a LED torch light while the camera was on its 30 sec exposure.

Koompassia excelsa or Mengaris tree
Light painting of a Mengaris tree
The clouds were building up and in one of the subsequent tries, a lightning lit up the horizon and created a very dramatic effect. Every time I look at the photo of this tree, it transports me to Borneo.

Koompassia tree light painting with lightning lighting up the sky


  1. kaveer · July 18, 2011 Reply

    one day ill have enough resource to join u in one of ur trips ….. Beautiful stuff

  2. uday · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Excellent…. regret I couldnt make it to this trip…. hopefully soon enough I will rejoin the gang..

  3. Keshav · July 18, 2011 Reply

    The lightning in the last image is making the image grand. I’m getting giddy just by looking at the top down view of the forest, I wonder how you managed it.

    You have the best job on planet Earth. 🙂

  4. Sandeep · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Awesome work man.. Loved the last one.. Was it at dusk/dawn?

  5. Manoj · July 18, 2011 Reply

    That’s an amazing picture. Brilliant stuff.

  6. Saandip Nandagudi · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Trees are shown in unique way & photographs are breathtaking..

  7. Ankur Dinge · July 18, 2011 Reply

    WoW! Really awesome captures there! Loved them all!

  8. nik · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Beautiful! The three pictures of Mengaris from almost the same spot give a wonderful image of the place without visiting it.

  9. maya ramaswamy · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Lovely experiments with light.. 🙂 great stuff, Kalyan.

  10. Dharmit Shah · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Amazing work. Read tweets appreciating your pics. But I loved the place. Your job is really awesome.

  11. Adarsh · July 18, 2011 Reply

    RESPECT! Just cant stop admiring the pics..

  12. Shilpa Sequeira · July 18, 2011 Reply


  13. neelu · July 18, 2011 Reply

    JUST MAGICAL…..have to pinch myself to wake up ..from being lost in this magical image..
    and Danum..valley trees..are to die for…..cant yet belive i was there..

  14. samanth · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Brilliant as you always do kalyan, Love the stories that you convey thru photos.

  15. reeta · July 18, 2011 Reply

    wow lovely tree shots!! just supercool…the trees would be glad to see them!

  16. madhulika · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Splendid!! surely a visual treat 🙂

  17. Dilip Chacko · July 18, 2011 Reply

    I will hopefully make it next year – but as usual your pictures are totally out of this world !!!

  18. GT · July 18, 2011 Reply

    awesome dude….. i really loved the light painted snap…..

  19. Adhikari · July 18, 2011 Reply


  20. Pramod Viswanath · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Fabulous images there Kalyan and I love the last two images a lot. I wish you had done a off centered composition. Do share it across if you have any such compositions 🙂

    • Kalyan Varma · July 19, 2011 Reply

      Dear Pramod,
      I was not carrying a tripod and I had to keep it on the ground since I wanted to cover more space.. and was hoping I would get more stars horizontally.

  21. vinayak mane · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Was in Borneo just a few minutes back, then the cellphone rang and I was back in Pune. Well till I save up some time for the real thing this is a close next to being there. Great pictures and a big thanks for sharing.

  22. Ashwini Kumar Bhat · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Fantastic post Kalyan. Loved the image set. The last image simply took my breath away.

  23. Karthik · July 18, 2011 Reply

    Hey Kalyan, awesome. You did do justice to the awesomeness of the Kompassia tree. Lovely art work!

    Keep up the great work…

  24. Vishal · July 19, 2011 Reply

    Superb snap… the photo taken with lightning, probably one of very few non-silhouette night shots taken in complete natural light(hope you weren’t light painting with the torch).
    Which makes it a total winner for me, as it captures exactly, how beautiful glimpses are seen on a night when lightning is happening in a forest.

    – Vishal

  25. Gagan Gahlot · July 19, 2011 Reply

    The pictures are stunning but evidently the person behind the camera is the magician and thats you.You are amazing.

  26. Pranay · July 19, 2011 Reply

    I was going to the above photographs, first 3 were good but the last 3 are amazing. I really loved your vision to take such photographs…. Excellent!!!!

  27. Anusha · July 19, 2011 Reply

    Amazing pictures…especially the tree shots in the night sky! Great work!!

  28. chandru · July 19, 2011 Reply

    really wonderfull with full of rejoice

  29. Gopinath Kollur · July 19, 2011 Reply

    Amazing Images !!!

  30. Anil.S · July 20, 2011 Reply

    Suberb Stuff This !!!
    The last pic is just ” Heavenly ” !!!
    Hope to make it there before i die !!

  31. Manish Ubana · July 20, 2011 Reply

    loved the last three pictures..awesome shots kalyan.simply great!!!

  32. dishant parikh · July 20, 2011 Reply

    Hi Kalyan,

    Amazing photographs .. would like to visit Barneo some day..!!!

  33. Chandrashekar · July 20, 2011 Reply

    Awesome night shot…Superb!

  34. Vinit Bajpai · July 20, 2011 Reply

    Hi Kalyan,

    Awesome Shots as usual. I hope that the Wild India series shooting must have taken a backseat because of the monsoons.

  35. Bopanna · July 20, 2011 Reply

    Very nice Kalyan, enjoyed this report and looking forward to more. The shot taken from the canopy platform really stands out. Take care…

  36. Murali Aithal · July 21, 2011 Reply

    Wonderful pics Kalyan. Enjoyed watching it.

  37. Vijay Mohan Raj · July 23, 2011 Reply

    Very unique take on tree photography here. The best part of the series is reinforcing that ‘being in the field is the key to great images’. Hope to get back to that soon.

  38. Dilip · July 24, 2011 Reply

    Very good

  39. Siva · July 25, 2011 Reply

    AMAZING is just a small word. You are Gifted Kalyan.

    Hardwork + Creativity = Masterpiece

    Super, Just Superduper!

  40. revathi · July 30, 2011 Reply

    i am having goosebumps seeing the last 2 pics. and ofcourse how jealous I am of you –
    r u planning to be in the bay area any time ? Please let us know if you are coming

  41. Dr.K.Muthunarayanan · July 31, 2011 Reply

    Amazing images. The tree is a real giant. There is a photograph of the giant sequoia tree ( the entire tree) assembled as a montage taken some time ago though i dont remember the photographer and the site where i saw it.BTW you got the Scorpion on the sky! Great work! inspires makes you go to out and try it out!

  42. sen · August 3, 2011 Reply

    wonderful light paint – the one with the lightning is awesome. Truly a treasured capture. congratulation.

  43. Uma Alluri · August 8, 2011 Reply

    Lovely, amazing pictures Kalyan!! sad I could not be a part of it:((

  44. Sumod Mohan · August 11, 2011 Reply

    Very nice pics Kalyan! That reminded me of this..

  45. Ritesh Saini · September 8, 2011 Reply

    Brilliant stuff! Light painting is so cool! 🙂

  46. Raja Shekar Varma ALLURI · October 3, 2011 Reply

    Jus liked d every snap>>

  47. lakshmi · October 31, 2011 Reply

    Truly magical..especially the first feel very humbled in the presence of nature

  48. Sagarika · December 16, 2011 Reply


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