Photographing Wild Tigers: Part 3 – Photography

In Part 2, we discussed how you find wild tigers and a breakdown of the tiger safari. In Part 3, we’re talking about photographing wild tigers: Lens recommendations, support, lighting conditions, etc.

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.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Male tiger using vehicle track. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS 10D and 50.0-500.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₄₀₀ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 200

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!).

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Hot tigress cooling-off in a a shallow river. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 300.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₁₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 100

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.

Are you looking for a tiger photo safari? In April and May 2019, my friend and colleague David Lloyd is leading two groups to Bandhavgarh National Park. Click here for more info.

“Join us on a 9-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 6-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.”

Tiger movements

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.

What lenses should I bring?

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.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Using the wide-end of a 70-200mm to include the habitat. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 70.0-200.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₆₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 100
Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Using a 16-35mm wide-angle. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS 5D and EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.5 on ISO 400

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.

Kumbha Repose (March 2017)
Using a 600mm to shoot through vegetation. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ranthambhore National Park, India with NIKON D800 and 600.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

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.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Tiger stepping out onto the track. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 300.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

Ready to shoot. Always.

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.

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ranthambhore National Park, India with NIKON D800 and 600.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

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.

Tigress walking through dappled light. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Tadoba National Park, India with NIKON D800E and 600.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 800

Difficult lighting conditions

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.

Tigers in low-light

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.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Panning motion-blur of male tiger. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS 10D and 50.0-500.0 mm lens at ¼ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

…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.

High-contrast and 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.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Tiger under-exposed for dappled-light. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 300.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₁₆₀ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 200

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.

Click here to return to Part One: Photographing Wild Tigers – When to go?

“Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed Part Three of my guide: “Photographing Wild Tigers”. I’ll be posting more seasonal guides and ‘top tips’ on here in the coming months. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing using the quick form below – just click the button. You can even decide on the type of posts you want to receive. My other feature articles, photography guides and Photo Stories are always accessible from my homepage.”

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