In November, India’s National Parks reopen following the annual monsoon closures. Photographing tigers was my first international tour and it was truly unforgettable. I cannot recommend this enough. There is quite simply nothing on Earth that compares to a wild tiger.
Photographing these mesmerising big cats in the wild takes a steady hand. There is no safe, double-lined fence for you to walk up to and poke a lens through, or laminated safety glass. In fact, there’s nothing at all between you and a very wild 3-metre long, 500lb, master predator. This in itself can take some adjusting! Not to mention a spare set of underwear!
My first experience of trying to photograph tigers in the wild was comical. I shot hundreds of frames (in slide film) of everything the tigress did: Walking, sitting, licking, walking away, standing behind bamboo, behind more bamboo… I kept 3 frames out of a wild burst of joyful photographic abandon. I binned hundreds of blurry, badly exposed, and just plain awful shots that often missed the subject altogether. Basically, they were all rubbish!
This was because it was my first time, I was entirely inexperienced, underprepared and overwhelmed by the encounter. You see, tigers are extraordinarily beautiful. They are staggering to behold. They can also be terrifying. There are very few creatures left on this planet that will look to make a meal out of a fully grown human and the Royal Bengal Tiger is one of them.
You can really sense this when they look at you. They stare straight through your eyes and burn a hole straight into your brain. Right then and there you instantaneously realise that they deserve your respect and you should give it to them. Seriously.
When is the best time to see tigers?
The mainstream tiger parks, like Ranthambhore, Bandhavgarh and Khana all close during the monsoon season. So, from June to the end of October you can really forget about tiger safaris. The one notable exception is Tadoba in Maharashtra state. This is open all year round.
Visit the tiger parks during November and December for lush green foliage and misty meadows. January is very cold and the fog is infamous for travel disruption. February and March are very popular as the temperature is very pleasant. In April and May, the temperatures soar passed 40°C and the foliage shrivels and dies. Sometimes it is uncomfortably hot, but it’s also the best time to see tigers. It’s worth the sweat. You just drink plenty of water, a few rehydration sachets and enjoy a cold shower.
Less foliage means greater visibility through the forest. Higher temperatures mean the tigers are more likely to visit their waterholes. I still love November. There’s something about the rich greens and orange stripes. But for your best chance of seeing and photographing them, April is the best month. This is just my opinion and lots of photographers will all have their favourites.
How easy is it to photograph wild tigers?
Simply put… It’s not. It’s a challenge. Actually, let me clarify. It’s easy enough to take a record shot, or a few stripes in the undergrowth. But if you’re reading this, then you’re after more than that. You want portraits, clear views, great light, close-ups. These are not easy. To have a portfolio like mine, you’ll need to return… several times. And it never gets easier. The more you visit, the more you want. The fussier you become. The more demanding you are. It’s addictive.
How do you find wild tigers?
Whether you see a tiger or not is largely down to the tiger. If the tiger doesn’t want to show itself, then chances are you will not see it. I’ve watched a tiger, from a distance, lay down low in the grass at the sound of oncoming jeep traffic. Once the tourist jeeps have passed, the tiger has risen and carried on along its journey. Another time, a tigress took evasive action after spotting waiting vehicles. She simply had a good look around, turned aside, and walked to another more secluded water hole.
With a tiger’s cunning against you, you are well advised to enjoy the National Parks for their unspoiled wilderness and wildlife diversity. Sighting and photographing a tiger should remain a remarkable bonus. If you go with the single aim of photographing tigers – it could be a disappointment. But hey. We’re wildlife photographers. We face disappointment every day.
As a professional, I’m definitely guilty of being single-minded. However, on my most recent trips, I have learned to relax and enjoy the park as a whole. True, I was there for 3 weeks, so the pressure was off, but I still enjoyed the park far more, bringing back some fantastic memories and great photographs of rutting deer, colourful birds, playful monkeys, and jungle vistas.
Alarm calls can help
Apart from recent eyewitness accounts (bush telegram), alarm calls are the primary detector used to locate tigers. The key species that guides listen for are sambar deer, spotted deer (locally known as chital), grey langur monkeys and rhesus macaques.
A sambar deer, being so large, will only make its distinctive alarm call when there’s a tiger, leopard, or a pack of wild dog. All fantastic sightings, so pay attention to these! A sambar may rarely see a tiger but will certainly smell or hear the approach if the tiger is not directly downwind and in hunting mode.
A chital will also call for these predators but may also call for wolf, caracal, jackals, or even wild boar. Amusingly, chital have been known to make alarm calls for brightly clothed tourists. Monkeys, peacock, and jungle fowl all make distinctive calls for all the aforementioned predators but will also call for the lesser predators such as jungle cat, snakes, monitor lizards, etc. Needless to say, if all these prey species are present, the jungle goes bonkers!
The guides must differentiate between the calls to reason out the type of predator (large or small) and the direction in which it’s moving. A persistent and prolonged sambar alarm call on its own or combined with chital and monkey alarm calls is almost a guaranteed sighting of a tiger or leopard… or as good a chance as you are likely to get. Your guide will then have to judge its direction and try to have you in the right position at the right time.
Follow the physical evidence
Tigers leave distinctive physical evidence along their path. Sometimes we are able to use this evidence to judge their direction, guesstimate a possible destination and how recently they passed.
Pug-marks (footprints) running either along or crossing a road are quickly assessed: How fresh are they? What made them? Male or female? Sharply imprinted marks with the dust discoloured by damp paws, for example, are a good sign that the pugs were left very recently. Marks that are rounding and the same colour as the road are older but can still be useful in assessing the likelihood that a tiger is active in the area.
Pug-marks also enable guides to differentiate between male and female tigers. A male’s pug has rounded toes (see pic above), whereas a female’s are pointed in shape.
The only drawback with following pug marks is that you risk wasting time in a wild goose chase, especially if there is more than one tiger active in the area. On more than one occasion I’ve passed along a track, turned around 180º only to discover fresh pug-marks on top of our tyre tracks. In these situations you just have to sit back and smile. Being outmanoeuvred by a tiger is not a bad thing.
Other physical evidence includes fresh claw marks on favoured territorial trees, fresh urine and scat (tiger faeces). These are often accompanied by scrapes in the earth, particularly visible on the dusty tracks.
Your guides can assess these to give a rough time of when the tiger was present. Along with pugs this evidence has particular relevance as tigers are extremely territorial. Their boundaries are closely guarded and maintained with scratch marks and scent marking on prominent trees and other landmarks.
A male’s territory will overlap a few females but will not tolerate another male’s intrusion. Whereas a tigress may allow her daughters/sisters to share the border areas, but it’s a terse and grumpy affair if they encounter one another, especially so if one has cubs.
What is the tiger safari?
The usual way to see the park is in a tourist jeep style vehicle – a Suzuki Gypsy. These are smaller than African safari Toyota Landcruisers and Land Rover Defenders. However, they are simple, rugged, open-top 4x4s built by Maruti and they are the safari vehicle of choice for all India’s national parks. Some high-end camps and lodges are using larger TATA safari vehicles, but these are almost too large for the narrow tracks.
If you’re serious about your wildlife photography, pay the ‘exclusivity supplement’ and have a maximum of two passengers in the back. It’s amazing how much room your camera bags and equipment take up. If you’re just wildlife watching or your equipment is small and limited then you could have a maximum of 4 people.
Be aware that you will already have a driver and a mandatory Forest Department ‘naturalist’. If you have a professional guide from your lodge as well then that is another seat gone. The naturalist will often sit in the front passenger seat so the local F.D. park guide will be in the back with you or hanging out on the back of the jeep. It gets pretty cramped.
What happens during the tiger safari?
Once you’re in the park driving along your route, your guide and driver will be looking for pug marks on the tracks. If there are none to be found, you’ll just continue driving along. It feels like the driver and guide are just hoping to bump into a tiger on the track.
They’ll be heading to either the last known sighting (based on info from the previous day) or for a waterhole, hoping to encounter a tiger having a morning drink. It’s a likely place to find a tiger, especially if the tiger has killed and eaten during the night or if you’re visiting in the hot/dry season.
They are, to an extent, creatures of habit and will go to waterholes to drink after every meal. This usually happens around first light, while it is still cool. If you strike out at the waterholes, the drive will continue, moving from point-to-point along the route, stopping and waiting every few hundred yards. Pausing gives your guides the opportunity to listen out for alarm calls along the way.
Visiting in the wet season
In the cooler months between November and February, mists hang low over the meadows and the tall grasses drip with dew. Tigers do not like getting their feet wet in this way and prefer walking along the forest tracks which are clear, dry and relatively direct. Tigers like to save energy, so the tracks and dry seasonal riverbeds (nallah, pron. Nah Lah) offer a path of least resistance and minimal effort.
Visiting in the dry season
During the hot months from March through to June, where temperatures reach 40-50 °C, tigers regularly frequent waterholes in order to cool off – so you may find yourself waiting for some time beside one (and wishing you could get in as well!). Like jaguars, tigers are one of the few big cats that actually like submerging in water and regularly wallow. They just don’t like wet feet in dewy grass.
Tigers are most active during the crepuscular hours of dawn and dusk. They largely hunt at night but during the morning and late afternoon they will travel between their kill and water and / or their cubs. This is when you are most likely to encounter a tiger moving through the forest or walking along a jeep track.
Photographing wild tigers
What lens should I take with me?
Simply put, the faster the better. Anything that will maximise the available light will help. I use my 600mm ƒ/4 and both the 300mm ƒ/2.8 and 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 stabilised lenses. In addition, I take a 16-35mm ƒ/2.8 and 50mm ƒ/1.4 for contextual images and habitat views.
You can never predict how far away you will be from a tiger, or how close! It could be 2m, it could be 50m. To give you an idea of perspective, the shots below were taken with the EF70-200 mm ƒ/2.8 at 70mm and the EF16-35 mm ƒ/2.8 at 35mm. If you don’t have a fast lens, I seriously recommend hiring one for your tiger safari.
The super-telephoto lens (300mm+) helps you peer through diffused vegetation or reach your subject at a greater distance. Sometimes, I have to use my 600mm at close range, just to get a headshot through the bamboo or other greenery. The telephoto’s narrow field of view can also help you crop out other unwanted distractions such as highlights on the forest floor or tourist vehicles in the background.
Can I use a tripod? Or other support?
Although I often travel with my Gitzo tripod, the most practical support is the beanbag. You can buy them quite cheaply and take them to India empty. In the major parks like Ranthambhore and Bandhavgarh, you can even buy them locally. On arrival at the national parks, you can ask the lodge/hotel to fill the beanbag with rice or beans. Beanbags are perfect for use in a jeep, thrown around quickly on to the seat backs and roll bars.
Another option is clamping your tripod head to the roll bars. Personally, I find this limiting. Another good option is the monopod. My latest acquisition is the Gitzo Carbon Monopod “Series 4” 6S. I needed something to support the 600mm while guiding in the small Gypsy Suzuki jeeps. If I’m guiding, I can’t just throw my beanbag wherever I want, so this gave me eye-level support from a fixed seated position. It worked a treat! The large base foot adds stability to the rig, with my gimbal bolted on top for manoeuvring my 600mm.
Tripods are awkward to set up in these small vehicles, unless you have the whole back to yourself. I certainly wouldn’t recommend them if you’re sharing.
I’ve heard it’s really dusty…
In Tadoba, I do use lens and camera covers. It is a particularly dusty park. I still give everything a thorough clean every evening, when I return from the park. The dust is very fine and can interrupt the contacts between the camera and lens, locking out the camera and giving you errors at the worst possible moment. I’ve not found the need for covers in Bandhavgarh, Rathambhore or Khana. If you’re really concerned, wrap your camera and lens in a towel or pillow case ‘borrowed’ from your room.
You never know what’s going to happen
You never know when or where a tiger might step out in front of you, so the motto is ‘Be Prepared!’ Avoid packing your camera away in a bag, no matter what the conditions. If a 10ft tiger crosses the 12ft track road you have about 4 seconds to take the shot. If you’re camera is zipped away in your backpack, switched off with the lens cap on… What chance do you have?
When you do encounter a tiger for the first time, you will need to concentrate like mad in order to calm your shakes and nerves. My advice: Take a deep breath, calm yourself, then take your shots. Do yourself a favour though and watch the tiger as well. Don’t deny your memory of such an event. You will thank me for it. Watch how the tiger moves and blinker out the other vehicles and humans.
I always have my camera in Aperture Priority mode unless I am shooting in dappled shade (see below). AV mode gives me complete control over depth of focus and shutter speed. You just never know what is going to happen. The award-winning shot above was almost completely reactionary – just seeing the movement in the grass at the last second.
If a tiger has paused close by and there is the opportunity for a good portrait, then I close the aperture for a little more depth of field. But if the tiger suddenly starts running, I can quickly dial in an ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4 for extra-fast shutter speed to freeze the motion, or a smaller aperture if I’m looking for a slower shutter speed and more blur.
Lighting is a real issue. In five years I can remember just handful of situations where the tiger was in clear beautiful light. These situations are remarkably difficult to come by. Mostly, your view of a tiger will be in either very low light, high-contrast and dappled shade, or almost completely obscured by bamboo. If the tiger hides behind by bamboo, is it worth taking a photo? Probably not, so just sit back and watch. I do. Just wait and hope it comes out.
In very low-light, make sure you’re rock steady and try to wait for the tiger to stop moving. If you are in a jeep, they will often cut the engine when they stop. So rest the beanbag on the side of the jeep or on the roll bars. You can crank-up the ISO, open the aperture to the maximum, switch on your image stabiliser…
…Or you could try being more creative and go for ‘motion panning’. This uses a slow shutter speed – around 1/30th sec or less. The idea is to pan side-to-side with your upper body at the same speed and direction as the tiger. It sounds simple, but it is much harder to master than you might think. When it works, the results are brilliant. You may not hit it every time, but at least you tried to make the most of the situation.
Contrast & Dappled Shade
This is probably the most common situation and my method is quite straightforward. I take a test shot of the scene using spot metering and focus on an area of bright sunlit forest floor. The metering system automatically under-exposes to make the scene darker. I’ll alter the exposure so the highlights become mid-tone and the shadows almost black out.
When I’m happy, I enter these exposure details in ‘Manual Program’ mode. Now I can quite happily shoot away knowing that everything is of the same exposure, where the highlights are actually a mid-tone and the shadows are almost black. The trick now is to wait for the tiger’s face to appear in the sunlight. This produces images with far greater depth and atmosphere – just have a look at the image below and above.
Be mindful if the tiger moves, or the elephant changes location. Keep an eye on your histogram and review screen and adjust where necessary.
If you don’t have a Manual Program, then you will need to understand how to ‘manually compensate’ your exposure. This comes back to knowing your kit before you arrive. Your camera’s metering system will treat the scene as an average. If the shadow outweighs the highlights then they will be over exposed and ‘burnt out’. You will need to manually reduce the exposure to compensate.