a young tiger cub rests in the brush of india's ranthambore national park

Tips for Photographing Wild Tigers in India

India offers something that few other places and the world can even come close to—photographing the largest of the world’s big cats, of course!  While tigers are found elsewhere in Asia, India provides the absolute best chance to photograph them in the wild in a truly extraordinary way.

Roving around ancient forests in 4×4 jeeps, elusive tigers can be found near watering holes and lakes in relative abundance.  Sure, there is definitely some work to do to find them, but the chance is far greater here, in India, than anywhere else on the planet.

If you’re headed to India on a specialized tiger photo safari, or it simply is on your wish list for a coming year, there’s no time like the present to hone your techniques to maximize your photography when face to face with the largest cat in the world.

Start with the right wildlife lens

Your choice of lens is rather important for any nature and wildlife safari.  For photographing tigers, it’s even more paramount.

Having versatility in telephoto power along with the ability to blur the fore- and background is extraordinarily helpful.  But as you’re likely thinking, it’s difficult to get both.  Usually you can have a great zoom range, like 150-600mm at the expense of not-to-premium apertures, like f/5.6-6.3 or similar.

On one hand, you could go with the classic 70-200mm f/2.8 or even go for the sizeable 300mm f/2.8, which gives you the large aperture to enable that beautiful blur, or bokeh.  However, at 200mm you are making a gamble that the tigers will be close.  More often than not, they actually are.  However, it’s rather key to have something in the 400mm range as an insurance policy against the also likely distant tiger (or heck, family of tigers!).

Telephoto power also gives you loads more versatility in the type of photos you get.  Big, edge-to-edge photos of tigers is always a goal of mine.

a large tiger walks slowly out of a pond

My personal recommendation is to err on the side of a great telephoto range and maximum distance at the expense of aperture.

That is, I would go for the 100-400mm, 200-500mm, or 150-600mm category of lenses vs. a smaller telephoto lens with a better maximum aperture (like an f/2.8 or f/4).

It’s important to note that just as they are often seen at a distance, they are also seen close…either through the brush or approaching as they saunter down the trail.  Having the ability to “zoom out” is vital to great tiger photography.

Use the brush and vegetation in your composition

One of the main reasons tigers are often seen at relatively close distances is that it’s just difficult to see them otherwise.  There is often considerable brush throughout their habitat, and if they are a hundred yards into the jungle, there are a hundred yards of dense vegetation in the way.

Sometimes you get perfectly clear shots of tigers walking on paths, emerging from water, or similar.  Othertimes you need to work with the landscape and just deal with the obstructions.

Rather than get frustrated, use the vegetation to your advantage.

a young tiger cub shrouded by brush in ranthambore national park, India

What I like to do is to use it to help frame the photo.  Use the gnarled branches to encircle your subject, or place the limbs and leaves around the outer edge of the photo to create a pseudo vignette look.

When you do so, you are at the mercy of where the branches are in relation to your tiger.  If the branches are close to the tiger, they will likely be in moderate focus.  However, if the branches are considerably distant from the tiger, you will get a nicely blurred look to the branches.

Again, you don’t really have the liberty to choose, but it’s important to know that both are possible.  And when I do get nicely blurred branches, I use that to my advantage and create a mysterious look to my photo, as if the tiger is the only thing in tack sharp focus.

a large adult tiger photographed in the brush of Ranthambore in India

Get your advanced settings ready

I’m not talking about shutter speed and aperture here, although these are of course important, too.  I’m primarily talking about your drive mode, focus mode, white balance, and metering mode

Let’s start with your focus mode.

Most cameras allow you to choose between two or three focus settings.  These determine whether the camera focuses continually, as you hold down the shutter button, or if it just focuses once and allows you to “lock in” focus.

I personally prefer the “one shot” method, such that I hold my shutter down half way, the camera auto-focuses, then “locks” the auto-focus at that exact distance until either let up on the shutter, or press it fully and take the shot.

Continuous auto-focus (sometimes referred to as “servo” auto-focus) does have its merits, and far be it from me to discourage you from trying it or even using it routinely if it jives with you and your style.

However, I find that for most wildlife photos, I am able to lock the focus and then recompose the shot before the animal moves “significantly” prior to taking the shot.  If you use continuous auto-focus, you are pretty much beholden to keeping the animal in the middle of your frame, where your auto-focus point is, for if you recompose, the camera will readjust focus continuously.

Nevertheless, it’s worth experimenting, as it can be a useful tool in certain scanarios.

The next biggie is your drive mode

Drive mode, or drive “motor” dictates how many photos are taken with each click of your shutter button.  Most cameras default to one click, one photo.  However, for most wildlife photography, I have my drive mode at the highest FPS, or frames per second, it will allow.

This means that as I depress the shutter, the camera continues to take photos until I let up on the button.  This results in anywhere from three to 10 photos per second for most cameras, and even more for fancier, newer ones.

In short, this could be the difference between a great shot and a magazine cover worthy one, as slight differences in the animals posture, movement of the eyes, or any number of other things can change in a split second.  The more photos you’re able to take, the better chance you’ll get “the perfect” shot.  No negotiation here from me—I always have the fasted drive settings on.

White balance is worth thinking about

Yes, if you shoot in RAW, you can chance your white balance (WB) settings on the computer with little to no harm. However, I find that drastic changes in the color of your photo often turns me off.  That is, even if I’m attempting to correct the WB after the fact by manipulating it on the computer to make it more accurate to what I saw in real life, I’m less likely to do so if it changes the RAW capture significantly.

For these reasons, I do keep my camera on “cloudy” white balance often while on safari…this goes for any safari in a warm environment, as a cloudy white balance adds a bit more yellow to the photo, which I believe emulates the warm environment best.

For additional tips on setting your white balance and other considerations around it, check out my previous article here.

a large tiger photographed through space in a tree with blurred foreground

Your metering mode is a key consideration

I’ll be honest, I usually do not change my metering mode often.  However, when I need to, it can be very helpful.  And simply being cognizant of what metering mode I have my camera set on is key to how I take my photos.

Simply put, your metering mode is your camera’s way of choosing how much light and dark to let into the scene.  This applies to any setting except for full manual, where you are the one choosing your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, to reflect the amount of light you want.

If you use aperture priority, shutter priority, or even full manual with AUTO ISO (my preferred technique), the camera makes slight adjustments based on what it “thinks” an average amount of light is.

Where metering modes come in is which part of the scene your camera uses in its calculations—the whole scene, just the center, a little bit of both?

It’s best to consult your camera’s manual to see what options you have on the table, but for reference I rarely take my metering off of “evaluative” metering, which tells my camera to consider the entire scene, but to make a smart assessment based on the majority of the middle of the scene (instead of worrying about what is in the corners).

So there you have it—lots of tips and tricks for maximizing your tiger photography!  As I said, tiger photography is one of the most exciting, dare I say pinnacles, of a wildlife photographer’s career.  They are elusive, they are beyond wild, and they are one of the most majestic and photogenic critters on our planet.

But don’t just take it from me…hear from Expedition Leader Aditya Panda. Aditya is an award-winning naturalist, wildlife conservationist and seasoned photographer with more than 15 years of field experience throughout India.

If you have other tips or questions beyond this article, please be sure to leave a comment below!

Go forward and give it a shot!

Court Whelan Signature