Taking pictures of tigers and other amazing animals in their natural habitat is an incredible treat and a lot of fun. Here are my best 10 tips for wildlife photography in India based on my experience while on the quest for the royal striped cat.
In this article I will only relate to jungle safaris in National Parks and Tiger Reserves where visitors are not allowed to go on foot. Pictures are taken from 4×4 open vehicles that can accommodate up to 6 people, plus a guide and a driver.
- KNOW YOUR SUBJECT
Do your research before going on-field and get to know the Indian wildlife as well as their behavior. As a wildlife photographer, this will help you pre-visualize the kind of shots you would like to get.
Imagine being in front of a waterhole, in the scorching heat of summer. A tiger is drinking water. Behavioural knowledge will tell you that the curious cat will look up and make eye contact. That’s the shot you want to take.
If a beautiful stag is walking towards a road, experience will suggest he will cross it. You therefore have all the time to pre-visualize the scene and wait for the deer to get to the exact spot you are imagining it to be.
Always try to avoid panic-triggered compulsive shooting that will fill up memory cards with hundreds of useless shots. Shoot less, but more purposefully.
To learn more about animal behavior, rely on the precious skills of a good guide who will be able to help you anticipate the animals’ movements.
- BE PATIENT AND WAIT
Patience is one of the keys to the Indian forest. Like all beautiful things, perfecting wildlife photography is a skill that takes time.
When on the trail of a tiger, trust the tracking skills of your guide and driver who will try their best to locate the elusive feline by following pugmarks, anticipating its patterns of movements and listening to the sounds of the jungle.
When following an animal, be prepared to wait in the place he is most likely to show up. Beware, this wait could last hours. Just relax and enjoy every minute of it, silently listening to alarm calls and the songs of the birds. With a bit of luck, you will be rewarded by an incredible sighting with beautiful photographic opportunities.
While on safari in the jungles of Central India, you will see many cars driving around for hours, hoping to bump into a tiger. That’s the strategy that’s employed in case of restless impatience. Rest assured, it doesn’t work very often. Wait, and let the others go.
- VALUE YOUR EXISTING EQUIPMENT
The best equipment to start wildlife photography is the one you already have. One of the best tips for wildlife photography in India and elsewhere is not to rush to buy expensive gear without knowing what kind of pictures you enjoy taking. A hardcore birder’s favorite lens will not be the same as the one cherished by a tiger fanatic. Location, light condition, distance and size of subject as well as personal taste and style will eventually lead you to decide what equipment to go for.
Only then, go on to upgrade if you feel the need.
- CONSIDER IDEAL EQUIPMENT FOR LARGE MAMMALS
If your objective is to shoot tigers, leopards and other large mammals in the forests of Central India, here are a couple of combinations to go for :
If you can afford to have and can carry two camera bodies :
- Full frame camera with 70-200 2.8 lens for landscapes or habitat shots
- Full frame camera with any prime lens in the range of 300 to 500 mm for close ups and portraits
If you carry only one camera body, my choice would be :
- Full frame camera with 100-400 mm if on Canon or Sony / 200-500 mm if on Nikon / 150-600 if Tamron or Sigma
While you might lose a bit of space for habitat shots, these combinations’ potential is still amazing.
- FORGET MANUAL MODE, SHOOT IN APERTURE PRIORITY
Every style of photography has its own set of rules and technical challenges to be taken into account. Long gone are the days of analogic, with the digital revolution having opened doors to infinite opportunities.
While it is important to be able to master the manual mode of your camera, it is not recommended to use it in wildlife photography. Of course, particular occasions or a personal choice of style can be the exceptions to the rule.
The reason is simple. If the animal is moving or if you are shooting an action scene, there is not enough time to think about all the settings.
By the time you are done fidgeting with all the buttons of your camera and found the ideal technical requirements, the tiger would have long been gone and the opportunity vanished.
In aperture priority (AV mode on Canon, A on Nikon) the aperture value (f-number) has to be manually set up. According to that, the camera will match a certain shutter speed.
Unless you are very close to your subject and really need a certain depth of field, I’d suggest to always keep the f-number at the lowest value (maximum aperture of the diaphragm).
On field, you’ll only have to change the ISO to obtain the shutter speed you’re looking for.
- HANDHOLD YOUR CAMERA OR USE A BEANBAG
Another one of the best tips for wildlife photography in India is to forget tripods and monopods, unless you are alone in the vehicle.
The Maruti Gypsy, the most widely used vehicle in the forests of the Sub-continent, can tightly accommodate up to 6 people in its two back rows. If your budget allows it, sharing the vehicle amongst maximum 4 people will give you more space to move around and to carry equipment. Since the available space in the vehicle is a key factor for comfortable shooting, the equipment should be reduced to essentials. Furthermore, Indian jungles are a bumpy affair. Avoiding shake when your camera is mounted on tripod or monopod is extremely difficult.
The best solutions are :
- Handholding your camera. Steady your shooting technique by holding your camera very firmly and by holding your breath while shooting. This technique will allow you to react fast to an impromptu sighting and will give you the maximum flexibility of movement.
- Using a beanbag. These soft bags are a very convenient item to carry and install on the car’s iron handles. Just carry it empty and ask the staff at your hotel to fill it with rice. On safari, rest your camera on it and enjoy the stability it will give.
- GO AS LOW AS POSSIBLE
Nowadays many wildlife camps have adapted special kinds of vehicles in order to give more space and comfort to their guests. These cars are often quite high and while they allow great visibility if you are just observing the animals, they won’t give the best photographic angle.
If the aim of your safari is photography, you shouldn’t use any vehicle other than the Gypsy or an equivalent.
The reason behind this choice is this car’s easy manoeuvrability, versatility to adapt to any situation and most of all, its lower level. Thanks to this setting, it is possible to achieve low-angle shoots like eye-level and head on. If you feel comfortable doing so, you can also request your driver to remove the middle seat of the Gypsy. This will help you achieve the lowest possible angle by lying down on the floor of the car.
- HIRE A DRIVER WHO KNOWS HOW TO POSITION THE VEHICLE
Since shooting from a vehicle is all you will be doing in an Indian jungle safari, the positioning of it is of the uttermost importance. A driver who is aware of a photographer’s needs and can manoeuver the car accordingly, will ensure the success of your experience.
Such a person will be able to judge how far from the animal he should park his car and how to avoid, if possible, having other vehicles in the background. A safari is an act of teamwork so be sure to communicate with the driver and guide any time you want to change the position of the jeep.
- LET YOURSELF BE SURPRISED
Now you’re all set. You have read the best tips for wildlife photography in India. You have studied the behavior of the animal species you want to take pictures of. You have started daydreaming and pre-visualizing your images. You have acquired a beanbag and have booked a Gypsy with the best driver and guide in the reserve.
Still, don’t forget to be open to all the encounters you could make, instead of just going for what you have in mind. Give it time. Marvel. Take in the beauty of the forest and be on the lookout for unusual scenes. Always expect the unexpected.
- HAVE LOADS OF FUN
And most important of all, enjoy your experience to the best. Have fun !
What are the best tips for wildlife photography in India you’d like to share ? You can post them in the comments section.