In November, India’s National Parks reopen following the annual monsoon closures. For my first ever international photo tour, I chose to visit India and photograph wild tigers. 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, 250kg, apex 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… In the end, 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 inexperienced, unprepared 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.
Tigers trigger an instinctive fight or flight response. It’s why you get butterflies when you see them. All the blood is draining away from your digestive system, ready to fuel your brain and muscles for a fight for survival. 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.
Are you looking for a tiger photo safari? In April and May 2019, David Lloyd is leading two groups to Bandhavgarh National Park. Click here for more info.
“Join us on a nine-day tour of India to photograph its tigers. This trip has been designed so that we can see and photograph India’s magnificent Bengal Tigers for six days straight at one of India’s most rewarding tiger parks, Bandhavgarh National Park. Plus, we secure the best zones in advance for our twelve drives in the park. You can even combine this Tigers of India tour with Wildlife of India. You can combine both for a truly incredible 24-day wildlife and tiger experience with a massive 20 days in the parks and a whopping 37 drives.”
When is the best time to see tigers?
Mainstream ‘tiger parks’ like Ranthambhore, Bandhavgarh and Kanha 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 Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra state. This is open all year round.
November, December, January
Visit the tiger parks from November to the end of January for lush green foliage and atmospheric misty meadows. January is very cold and the fog/smog is infamous for travel disruption. I love November. There’s something about the rich greens and that orange fur. Arguably, the parks are at their most beautiful and most photogenic at this time of year. There is a trade-off, however. With all that lush foliage and tall meadow grasses, actually seeing a tiger becomes more difficult. In Bandhavgarh and Kanha, the bamboo thickets grow into vast green walls, drastically limiting your view from the vehicle tracks.
February & March
It’s peak season because the fog and chill of the cold season has lifted and the heat of the dry season has yet to build. February and March are very popular, with pleasant daytime temperatures. This comfort draws in hoards of tourists, both local and international.
April & May
It’s hot! In April, daytime temperatures soar passed 40°C. The foliage, previously lush and green, shrivels and dies. Towards the end of April and into May, mid-afternoon temperatures can break 45°C! It’s uncomfortably hot. But, it’s definitely worth any discomfort. This is the best time to see tigers! By now, the vegetation has died back, providing unrivalled visibility through the forest. All the small rock pools and seasonal rivers have evaporated. The higher temperatures and desiccation of the park, drives the tigers to visit their waterholes and few permanent rivers. If you want those iconic photographs of tigers in water, this is the season for you.
Worried about the heat?
For us humans, there are effective strategies for dealing with the high temperatures:
- It’s a very dry heat, which does make it more bearable;
- You must drink litres of water, even if you’re worried about needing a pee-break in the park;
- I strongly recommend rehydration salts, like Dioralyte™, to be consumed daily, whether you’re feeling okay or not;
- Routinely soak your hat and a neck-gaitor with cold water. As you drive along, the water evaporates, sucking the heat out of your skin. It’s what the locals do;
- Cold showers do wonders and are essential after the morning game drive;
- To aid sleeping, soak a towel and lay it on your abdomen. This gently lowers your core temperature enough for blissful sleep;
- Limit the hours you spend out in the park and so reduce your exposure to the fierce heat.
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 catch 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… time and again over several years. 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 vehicles. Once the tourist vehicles have passed, the tiger has risen and carried on along its journey. Another time, a tigress took evasive action after spotting waiting vehicles. She surveyed the scene, 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 when a tiger walks through, 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 those of mature females. Whereas a tigress may allow her daughters/sisters to share some territory, a mature male will never tolerate another male. When related females encounter one another, it’s a terse and grumpy affair, especially so if they have cubs.
What is the tiger safari?
The usual way to see the park is in a tourist vehicle – a Suzuki Gypsy, shown below. These are smaller than African safari Toyota Land Cruisers 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, to direct the driver, so the local F.D. park guide will be in the back with you, or hanging out on the back of the jeep. It’s rather cramped. If you’re anything like me, then you’ll want space and room to move.
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 metres. 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. Although tigers are happy to swim and wallow when the temperatures rise, tigers do not like getting their feet wet, walking through damp meadows.
Tigers prefer walking along the forest tracks which are clear, dry and relatively direct. Tigers, like all large carnivores, are instinctively energy conscious, taking the most energy-efficient route. The man-made vehicle tracks and footpaths, the natural animal-made tracks made by deer and elephants, and the dry seasonal riverbeds (nallah, pron. Nah Lah) offer a path of least resistance through the forest and minimal effort.
Visiting in the dry season
During the hot months from April through to June, where temperatures reach 40-50 °C, tigers regularly frequent waterholes in order to cool off. You may find yourself waiting for some time beside them (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.
“If you want the best visibility, the best chance of seeing and photographing tigers in the clear, make sure you time your visit for the dry season – Feb-May. Yes, it can be uncomfortable, but the potential to photograph tigers lounging in water should outweigh any concern of personal comfort. You can have a cold shower later.”
Tigers are most active during the night and 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 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?
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 vehicles. If I’m guiding, I can’t just throw my beanbag wherever I want, so the monopod 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, giving you errors at the worst possible moment. I’ve not found the need for covers in Bandhavgarh, Ranthambhore 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 3-metre tiger crosses the 4-metre-wide track, you have about 4 seconds to take the shot. If your 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 spotting the rapid movement in the grass at the last second.
If a tiger has paused close by and there is the opportunity for a good full-frame 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 an even smaller aperture, if I’m looking for a slower shutter speed and more blur.
From over 15-years of tiger photography, 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? If you can find a window through the vegetation and frame the tiger, then maybe. Otherwise, sit back and watch. I do. Just wait and hope it comes out.
In very low-light, make sure you’re camera is well-supported 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…
Most modern DSLRs have relatively low-noise, so help yourself and use the ISO, with settings of ISO1600, 3200, 6400, etc. Better to capture a sharp shot with some noise, rather than a clean shot with mushy blur.
…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, focussing 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 very under-exposed, almost black.
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. 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. Remember, 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.