Thoughts on tiger photography
A tiger is without doubt the most sought after photographic wildlife subject in India. The number of people who visit sanctuaries to see tigers far outweighs the number of people who visit these sanctuaries for birds, reptiles, landscapes etc. However, very few people have outstanding images of tigers even though the nature and number of sightings has dramatically improved in the last few years and so has the equipment available to the photographer. There are a few reasons for this.
- Many times, tiger sightings are very short and fleeting,
- The sheer thrill and excitement of seeing a tiger bamboozles the most prepared photographer.
- There is no mental map on what angles and frames are desirable.
Hence, this article has been written as a guideline for tiger photography, to give pointers of what to do and what to expect.
Finding a tiger:
Tigers are creatures of habit. Each tiger has a territory within which it usually remains. Tigers prefer to walk on open ground or along pathways and hence are frequently seen walking on roads. As a general thumb rule, tigers move in the first 30-45 minutes after dawn and about 90 minutes before sunset. During the day, they generally prefer to sit under some shade.
For this reason, it is very important to be the first vehicle in the park. For then, you will have the greatest chance of seeing a tiger walking down the road. Once many vehicles start frequenting the road; the tiger will move off the road and venture into the jungle. It also sometimes happens that a tiger will be disturbed by the noise and leave the road and then come back on the road after the noise and bustle have died down so its a good idea to watch the road behind you as well. Tiger movement on roads can be easily tracked by their pugmarks. For these reasons, it is critically important to have a good guide with you who can not only read the pugmarks, but is also conversant with the behavior and movements of the tiger. By following tiger movements of the earlier 2-3 days, a good guide can, 7 times out of 10, give you good sightings of a tiger.
The other common place to look for tigers is at water holes. Once it starts to get really hot in April and the water holes start to dry up, the tigers (and other creatures) have no other option but to come to water holes. In parks like Tadoba, where there is no real source of water, most animals must come out to the man-made water holes. My observation is that tigers come to drink water between 8.30 to about 10 am. Once it gets too hot, they will try to find cool shade to lie down in until evening. Generally, if left undisturbed, a tiger will drink water for 10-15 minutes at a stretch.
Tracking a tiger and understanding tiger movement:
Tigers will usually lie up in cool shade during the hot part of the day and move when it is cooler. My opinion is that tiger movement is mainly for water, food (but hunting is usually done in late dusk), finding shade/place to lie up during the day etc. A guide who knows the locations of water holes, shelter and other tigers is desirable because then he can predict with some certainty about the path that the tiger is likely to take.
Tiger movement can be easily tracked by their pugmarks. A good guide can predict which tiger has made the marks, direction it was traveling, how long ago it traveled etc. Suppose you observe 2 sets of pugmarks, one that are going towards and another that are going away from a waterhole, then its likely that the tiger has already drunk water and has gone to lie up in shade. So you are unlikely to see it. If you see only one set of pugmarks going towards the waterhole, then chances are that you can get to see it at the waterhole.
Tiger movement can also be tracked by hearing and deciphering alarm calls. However, this is only for the experts. Some animals, especially chital are quite vocal and may call for a variety of reasons. So just hearing a chital call isn’t enough, you should decipher what type of call it is. Similarly, observation of langur behaviour and of certain birds is useful to judge if a tiger is in the vicinity. In Tadoba, our guide was able to pinpoint tiger movement by listening to the calls made by jungle fowl and babblers and accurately predicted where the tiger was likely to come out.
A tiger is not afraid to walk on the road and cross the roads. However, it is reluctant to do so if the vehicles approaches very close. So I think the onus is on the eco-tourists to make sure that the drivers don’t become overzealous and block the path for a tiger to cross, nor venture too close to the animal. In most cases, animals are startled by sudden movement. So if you see an animal in the distance, you should approach it slowly and brake to a halt slowly, not zoom in fast and screech to a sudden halt. This is in fact what we must train the drivers to do because it is their vile habit to rush in and disturb the tigers or other animals. I remember a time in bandavgarh when we had seen a tiger sitting just off the road. It looked to be a bit restless. We asked the driver what the trouble could be and he said that the tiger was probably trying to cross the road to get to the waterhole on the other side. But because of the vehicles in the way, it wasn’t able to do so and was restless. So we talked to the other gypsies (the jeeps you have to travel in) and everyone agreed to backoff and create a 20-25 space where the tiger could cross. No sooner had we done this, the tiger crossed the road and it was good.
Tigers are large creatures, and often move in a way such that they are partly in shadow and partly in light. I have found that spot/partial metering with a 1/3 underexposure works best.
this is a typical situation when tiger is part in sun and part in shade. Metering becomes a challenge.
RAW vs JPEG
Always shoot in RAW so that you can adjust exposure later on. Another reason to shoot RAW is because of the ability to tweak white balance later on. This is an example of a wrong white balance setting that has resulted in a slight color cast., Fortunately as its in RAW, it can be easily corrected.
slight yellow cast as WB has tended more towards “cloudy”.
This is easily corrected in software as its in RAW format
Often times, when you see a tiger, the vehicle moves a lot to get the best position or to follow tiger movement. It has happened often with me that the mode dial has moved and the settings have been all wrong and I have lost all shots. So after each movement of the car/gypsy, try take a couple of test shots and see if things are ok.
photo underexposed by 3 stops since dial moved when gypsy moved. I did not check the settings till it was too late
Same photo converted to jpg and then processed to bring out light. You can see there is a large loss of information.
Same photo processed in RAW format leading to a near total recovery of information.
Autofocus mode should be continuous AF.
Frames per second (FPS)
Take as many shots as possible. For example, a tiger yawn lasts for approximately 2 seconds so keep shooting on highest FPS so you can capture the action properly.
Tigers don’t really have much fine details (like feather detail) so I recommend that u shoot in the highest needed ISO to maintain sufficient shutter speed. In some cases, I have used shutter priority and auto ISO. You can remove noise but you cannot remove shake. In fact I cannot stress this point enough. Usually when I am doing bird photography, I am on aperture priority mode so that I can control the depth of field. Over the years I have found that its many time very advantageous to use shutter priority for tigers. I have lost many good shots whilst on either P or A mode. If you are trying to capture action, like tigers doing a mock fight or tigers playing in the water, its best to be on shutter priority with min 1/500-1/800 s
Tigers are large creatures with a very long and active tail. The best feature of the tiger is the head and eyes (especially when it is looking at you). Pretty much in any animal or bird photography, getting the eyes in sharp focus is the most critical requirement. Do not use centre focus point. Use the top left (if tiger is moving from right to left) or top right (if tiger is moving from left to right) or top center point (if its approaching you). Doing so will allow you to fill a larger part of the frame and chance of cutting the tail are reduced. Keep the focus point strictly on the head. If you focus on the body, its very likely that the head will be out of focus.
Here I used center focus point and focused on the head so tail got cut ruining the image. Because of using center point, there is too much space on the left of the image.
Here I used the right focus point and head is in focus and nothing is cut giving a usable image
Do not zoom in to the tiger too much. Keep enough space around it so you have latitude in cropping and composition later on. When I had gone to Tadoba in 2009, we saw a tigress really close. I was excited by the closeness of the sighting and was in two minds on whether to zoom in to the head, or get the whole tigress etc. In the end, I botched it all up and got partial shots (especially since the entire sequence lasted only about 15 seconds). So for my Bandhavgarh trip in 2010, what I did was I reviewed a lot of the tiger images on the web. I formed certain compositions in my mind already for various situations like when the tiger was sitting, walking towards, approaching head on, walking away and looking back, walking broadside, 2 or more cubs, tigress + cubs, expressions etc. So when faced with a situation, I already had a mental image in my mind on how I wanted to frame it and how I wanted it to ultimately look. This was very useful because tiger movement is very rapid and gives you very less time to try different things. My records show the following approximate timings.
Tiger yawn: 2 seconds
Tiger crossing road: 12-15 seconds
Tiger drinking water: 120 seconds (can go up to 10-20 minutes if they are not disturbed)
Cubs crossing road (they usually run across): 6-12 seconds
So having a mental map of your composition can greatly aid your efforts. As far as possible, try and get a tiger in action or at least looking at you. These days, many of the cubs are quite fearless and sit down right in the middle of the road and pose so you have sufficient time to get good images.
Among the tigers I have seen, the most useful range (for crop sensor bodies) has been between 200-300mm and 500-700 mm. In rare occasions, they may approach close enough to need 50mm (but that’s really rare). So having a 2 body system is really useful. You can have a long lens (400/500mm ) on one body and a zoom lens on another body. Failing that, a focal range of 200-400 is probably the most useful. I feel that 70-200 is too short a range, especially on full frame. Canon 100-400 and Nikon 200-400 are probably ideal lenses for tiger photography or 70-200 with a teleconverter.
this is the field of view at 200mm. Distance from us was probably about 15-20 metres. The gypsies on the far side were another 10-15 metres away. So eco-tourists need to ensure that the tiger has at least a 30 metre gap between vehicles so it can cross the road.
Many people swear by a bean bag. I am not so convinced. Looking at the way gypsy’s in India are constructed, there is no good way to deploy a bean bag such that you can shoot broadside. Likewise, unless you remove the middle row of seats, it is not possible to deploy a tripod. I have found the monopod to be the best solution, especially a monopod which is self standing. You can easily deploy it within the vehicle. Many times, there are cars in between you and the tiger so you need to get elevation to clear the heads in front of you. A self standing monopod is easy to deploy on top of the seats so you can get adequate elevation.
Most tiger reserves are extremely dusty so carry a cloth that completely covers your camera equipment. The roads are also very bumpy. If you keep a camera on the seat, chances are that it will fall off. So make sure you have your hand on it at all times. A cloth to tie around your nose and face is also very useful. Avoid changing lenses often. If you must, try and change lenses only when the vehicle has stopped for 2-3 minutes and the dust has largely settled.
Don’t get stuck behind the camera:
Tigers are an absolute joy to watch. Their poise, self-confidence and power are breathtaking. Don’t be so engrossed in taking photos that you fail to enjoy and appreciate the opportunity of seeing this most beautiful and powerful of all predators in India. Likewise, make sure you give them enough space for movement and such that everyone can enjoy the sightings. This is the responsibility of the eco-tourist/photographer. Do not expect the forest guards and drivers to have a responsible approach. Ultimately, we are going in their home so we must take utmost care to ensure that they are not disturbed.
Enjoy the tiger, enjoy the forest, enjoy photography.