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UHN doctor’s photography captures attention of National Geographic

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Coyote in snow
National Geographic magazine selected this photo of a coyote, taken by Dr. Nigil Haroon in Yellowstone National Park in January, as its Photo of the Day. (Photo: Nigil Haroon)

Dr. Nigil Haroon is perched high on a ridge in Yellowstone National Park when he finally spots his prey deep in the valley below.

"I watch the coyote slowly trek up the valley wall. He's so far away. I need him to come up that way, otherwise there's no way to capture it," says Dr. Haroon.

It's the first week of January, 2017. The park is virtually empty and the weather is frigid, but the UHN arthritis physician – decked out in camouflage gear, and huddled low in the snow on a nearby path – is determined to wait it out, despite the temperature sinking to a bone-chilling minus-40 degrees Celsius.

"After about 30 minutes, the coyote comes up across the hill and takes a look at me. He's crouching in the snow and just then the wind starts to blow and the snow floats over his face like a sheet."

Dr. Haroon quickly adjusts the aperture and shutter speed settings on his camera, a Canon 1DX Mark II.

"I snap a few quick photos and before I know it the coyote is gone."

National Treasure

Back in his office at Toronto Western Hospital, Dr. Haroon is happy to reminisce about the moment he captured one of the most important photos of his amateur photography career.

"First and foremost, I'm a physician and a researcher," says Dr. Haroon, who is a rheumatologist and co-director of the spondylitis program at UHN as well as a scientist at the Krembil Research Institute.

"But I'm also a little obsessed with my camera. Whenever I am taking a trip for work, I tack an extra couple of days on at the end so I can explore the wildlife in that country."

In March of this year, Dr. Haroon's obsession paid off when National Geographic magazine selected one of the photos from his trip to Yellowstone as its Photo of The Day.

"It's always been an aspiration. After this level of recognition, people respect your work more. I feel like I've come a long way."


Nigil Haroon
Dr. Nigil Haroon, a rheumatologist and co-director of the spondylitis program at UHN as well as a scientist at the Krembil Research Institute, jokes “I’m also a little obsessed with my camera,” adding he likes to tack an extra day or two onto the end of work trips to pursue his passion for wildlife photography. (Photo: UHN)​

The selection is the culmination of years of dedication to a hobby that Dr. Haroon says has only ever paid him back.

"Once you start observing animals you realize that they exhibit many of the same emotions that we do. They help you understand what life is really all about."

On the move

Dr. Haroon credits his obsession, at least partially, with a move to Canada – and acceptance of a position at UHN in 2005 – from his native India where he completed his rheumatology and clinical immunology training.

"What did I know about Toronto before I arrived? Nothing much, except that the rheumatology division at Toronto Western was world-renowned. That was enough of a hook for me. I considered myself really fortunate to be coming here."

Dr. Haroon viewed the move as an opportunity to learn from one of the top clinicians and researchers in the world dedicated to the study and treatment of ankylosing spondylitis, Dr. Robert Inman.

While excited professionally, the move proved to be difficult personally, as his wife, Nisha, initially remained in India to complete her endocrinology training.

"I was alone at first, so I spent a lot of time exploring the city on a bike or a bus and that's when I started taking photography seriously. I didn't have a lot of friends and I was looking for something to do in my spare time."

Nurturing a passion

Dr. Haroon bought a Canon Rebel camera and set off exploring Toronto's vibrant and diverse neighbourhoods. He started out taking photos of streetscapes and landscapes and, as he learned more about the technical aspects of photography, eventually moved on to bird photography.

"When I see a challenge I try to put everything I can into to it," explains Dr. Haroon, who ventured across the city, from the Leslie Street Spit to Colonel Samuel Smith Park, in an effort to capture different species of birds.


Flame-Throated-Bulbul
Dr. Haroon stumbled upon this Flame-throated bulbul in 2015 after it had taken a dip on a hot day in the forests near Kerala, India. (Photo: Nigil Haroon)​

"My technique has evolved over the years. Now what I do is scan the area and try to understand the habitat. The more you watch birds, the better you understand their behaviour. You want to set yourself in a position where they are going to come to you."

While he doesn't keep score, Dr. Haroon estimates he's photographed a few hundred different species. In 2012, he joined GooglePlus and began sharing photos, which he was surprised to discover were "an instant hit"

A short time later, he was invited to join Google Create, a small club of original content creators on GooglePlus. In exchange for a commitment from Dr. Haroon to produce and post original, high-quality content, the search giant promotes his work.

So far, the arrangement has worked out for both sides. Dr. Haroon is averaging around one million views every two months and has registered 60 million views on his profile page. His bird photography feed has 121,000 regular followers and another 122,000 people follow his animal photography feed. On Facebook, the page Nigil Haroon Photography has been liked by 81,000 people and is rapidly growing.

Final thoughts

In the summer of 2016, Dr, Haroon accomplished a personal goal, when he travelled to Africa and successfully photographed what is known as the "big five" in mammal photography: an elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros.

"The most rewarding trip I've taken so far was to Africa," says Dr. Haroon. "For a wildlife photographer, capturing the big five is the ultimate challenge. I was very fortunate to do it in one trip."

Dr. Haroon has come a long way since he first set off on the streets of Toronto to learn about photography. The experience has been rewarding and he encourages others to pick up a camera and try their hand at taking photos.

"You might be stressed at work or home," he says. "But the moment you look through that glass, your mind is at ease. It's like magic."​

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