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Photographing India’s Magnificent Tigers

Photographing these magnificent creatures in the wild obviously takes a very different approach to zoo photography. There is no safe, double-lined fence for you to walk up to and poke a lens through. In fact there can be nothing at all between you and a 3-metre long, 250kg, 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 quite comical. I shot hundreds of images of everything the tigress did: Walking, sitting, licking, walking away, behind bamboo, behind more bamboo… I kept 3 frames out of a wild burst of photographic abandon. The ones that were dumped were as blurry as hell; badly exposed; missed the subject altogether. Basically, they were all rubbish.

This was because I was inexperienced and was totally 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 make a meal out of a fully-grown human and tigers are one of them (probably one of the most basic reasons why they have been persecuted to near-extinction).


© Elliott Neep

© Elliott Neep

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 reach the conclusion that they deserve your every respect and you should give it to them.

I guess what I am trying to say, in a rather roundabout way, is “prepare yourself.” You will shoot lots of rubbish images on the first couple of encounters – it is just natural. You feel you ‘may not experience this again so I have to photograph everything.’ The beauty of India’s National Parks is that you are likely to see tigers quite often, so try and relax. There is nothing wrong with just watching them. In fact this can be a lot more rewarding!

Whether you see a tiger or not is 90% down to the tiger. If it does not wish to be seen then 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 jeeps have passed, the tiger has risen and carried on along its journey. Another time, a tigress took evasive action after spotting waiting jeeps. She simply had a good look around, turned aside, and walked to another more secluded water hole.

With a tiger’s intelligence and unpredictability against you, you are well advised, if travelling to the National Parks, to enjoy them for their unspoiled wilderness and wildlife diversity. Please don’t go with the single objective of seeing tigers – it could be a real disappointment. Bandhavgarh is probably the best place in the world to see wild tigers. But there are times when no tigers are seen at all for maybe 3 or 4 days. I’ve met too many people who visit for 1 or 2 days and leave utterly deflated when they’ve failed to see a tiger.


© Elliott Neep

© Elliott Neep

© Elliott Neep

Enjoy the park for all its beauty and diversity. Sighting and photographing a tiger should remain a remarkable bonus. As a professional, I’m the first to be guilty of being single-minded. However, on my most recent trips I 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 deer, birds, monkeys, and views of the jungle habitat.

THE ALARM CALLS

Apart from recent eyewitness accounts and the 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 and macaque monkeys.


© Elliott Neep

© Elliott Neep

A sambar deer, being so large, will only make its distinctive alarm call in the presence of a tiger, leopard, or for a pack of wild dog. A sambar may rarely see a tiger but will certainly smell or hear the approach if the tiger is not extremely stealthy. A chital will also call for these predators but may also call for a wolf, caracal, or even wild boar. Most amusingly chital have been known to make an alarm call for a brightly clothed tourist! Monkeys, peacock, and jungle fowl all make distinctive calls for all the aforementioned predators but will also call for the lesser predators such as jackals and jungle cat.


© Elliott Neep

© Elliott Neep

The guides must differentiate between the calls to estimate the type of predator and the direction in which it is 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 be in the right time and right place to encounter the predator.

THE PHYSICAL EVIDENCE

Tigers leave distinctive physical evidence along their path. Sometimes we are able to use this evidence to judge their path and destination. Pug-marks (footprints) running either along or crossing a road can be assessed to give an indication of what created them and when they were created. 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, whereas a female’s are pointed in shape.


© Elliott Neep

The only drawback with the pug marks is that following them can be a wild goose chase, especially if there is more than one tiger active in the area. On more than one occasion we’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. It’s not a bad thing to be outmaneuvered by tiger!

Other physical evidence includes fresh urine, scent marks, and scat (tiger faeces). These are often accompanied by scrapes in the earth, particularly visible on the dusty tracks. Again these can be assessed 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 well allow her daughters/sisters to share the borders areas, but if they encounter one another it can be a rather terse affair, especially so if one or the other has cubs.


© Elliott Neep

JEEP SAFARI

The usual way to see the park is via a ‘Gypsy’. These are small 4×4 open-top jeeps built by Maruti and they are seemingly the safari vehicle of choice for all India’s national parks, although some more high-end camps and lodges are using larger TATA safari vehicles. Many of the parks have a strict vehicle limit restricting the number of visitors per day.

If you are a photographer, I suggest you pay an 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 are wildlife watching or your equipment is limited then you could have a maximum of 4 people. Bare in mind that you will already have a driver and park guide. If you have a naturalist as well then that is another seat gone. The naturalist will often sit in the front passenger seat so the ‘local’ park guide will be in the back with you or hanging out on the back of the jeep.

ENTERING THE PARK

On entering the park you’re likely to experience your first taste of the ‘circus’. This is my name for the bedlam created by 20 or more jeeps, all trying to go the same way at the same time. Once they’ve squeeze through the gate, the jeeps travel through the park, dispersing along the routes. As you drive along the routes you may pass the park elephants and mahouts as they wander through the forest, tracking the tiger’s movements. While driving along your guide and driver will be looking for pug marks on the tracks.


© Elliott Neep

If there are none you are likely to be driven along your prescribed route to waterholes to try and encounter a tiger having a morning drink. This is a likely place to find a tiger especially if the tiger has killed and eaten during the night or if it is the hot season. They are, to an extent, creatures of habit and most will go to a local waterhole to drink after every meal. This usually happens at or before first light while it is still cool. Following this, the guide will drive from point-to-point along the route, stopping and waiting every few hundred yards. This gives them the opportunity to listen out for alarm calls along the way.

If there is one thing I have come to learn, is that tiger photography can be extremely frustrating. Finding tigers can be difficult enough, let alone trying to get a clear image. In the cooler months between November and February, the meadows are drenched in mist and dew. As a rule, tigers do not like getting their feet wet in this way, so they opt for the jeep tracks as these are obstacle free and relatively direct. During the hot months from March thru 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!).


© Elliott Neep

The light can also be a real obstacle. Tigers are most active during the crepuscular hours of dawn and dusk. They largely hunt at night but during the crepuscular hours they will travel between their kill to 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. To successfully photograph in these hours of low light you need cameras with good ISO noise and fast lenses, i.e. F2.8 or F4, and a very steady hand or support.


© Elliott Neep

© Elliott Neep

LENS

For lenses, simply put, the faster the better. Anything that will maximise the available light will help. I use my 600mm f/4 and the 300mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 stabilised lenses. In addition, I take a 16-35mm 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.

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. On arrival at the national parks, you can ask the lodge/hotel to fill the beanbags with rice or beans. This should only cost a couple of hundred rupees. Beanbags are perfect for use in a jeep as they can be deployed quickly on the jeep sides, seat backs, and roll bars. Another option is clamping your tripod head to the roll bars, but I find this very limiting.

PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUE

You never know when or where a tiger might step out in front of you, so the motto is ‘Be Prepared!’ Avoid locking your camera away in a bag, no matter what the conditions. If a tiger crosses the road you have about 4 seconds to take the shot.


© Elliott Neep

When you encounter a tiger for the first time, you will need to concentrate a lot in order to calm you shakes and nerves. My advice would be to take a couple of shots for prosperity, but put the camera down and just watch this majestic animal for the first time. Don’t deny your memory of such an event. You will thank me for it.

I have bought lens and camera covers and these do a reasonable job of protecting my kit. 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. You could wrap the camera in a towel, pillow case or even blankets which are often issued to lodge guests during the chilly.

ACTION

I always have my camera in AV or Aperture Priority mode unless I am dealing with dappled shade (see below). AV mode gives me complete control over depth of focus and shutter speed. If a tiger has paused 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 dial in an F2.8 for extra-fast shutter speed to freeze the motion.


© Elliott Neep

LIGHTING

Lighting is a real issue. In five years I can only remember a handful of situations where the tiger was in bright clear 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 is obscured by bamboo, is it worth taking a photo? Probably not, so just sit back and watch. I do.

Low Light

In low light you will have to be 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 could try being more creative and attempt ‘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 a bit simple, but it is much harder to master than you can imagine. The results can be brilliant, but are often only fit for the bin. 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 the spot metering and focus on an area of sunlit forest floor. The metering system automatically under-exposes to make the scene darker. Now enter these exposure details into your ‘Manual Program’ mode if you have one. Now you can quite happily shoot away knowing that everything is of the same exposure. But you still have to be mindful if the tigers move, or the elephant changes location. Keep an eye on your histogram and review screen and adjust where necessary.


© Elliott Neep

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. Conversely, if the highlights outweigh the shadow you will have an overly dark, under-exposed image.

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Elliott Neep

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