have been waiting by the side of the road for over 2
hours now. The pugmarks that we had followed turn into
the forest here, towards a thickly forested ravine.
It has been a hot day, and we are hoping that the owner
of those pug marks will come out of the cover in the
evening and head to a nearby pool for a drink. Other
jeeps pass up and down in their quest for instant gratification,
while we patiently keep sitting. By now, it is getting
late – the sun has gone below the hills and I
am running out of higher ISO settings on my cameras.
We are looking at our watches, trying to estimate how
much time it will take us to be back at the park gate
before it closes, when suddenly we hear it – the
loud warning snort of a deer, shattering the silence.
The call is taken up by another deer, and then another,
getting louder each time. Whoever is causing this commotion
is coming closer. One last look at the settings, a quick
check of the gimbal head to make sure it is set up properly
and I join my guide and driver in scanning the thick
bush cover. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we see it –
a pair of bright, yellow-green eyes staring at us from
over a bush. How it got there without us knowing, we’ll
never know, but at this point, we don’t care.
The camera is in overdrive, capturing the fleeting moment
8.5 times a second while the owner of those eyes regales
us with an imperious look. After a short while, the
massive male tiger decides that we are not worthy of
his attention. He steps out of the thick bushes into
the wild grass, saunters across the clearing, and disappears
into the bushes on the other side, where the alarm calls
are taken up anew. In a few moments, the encounter is
over, and we slump back in the seats, reliving the thrill
of moment. No matter how many times I’ve been
privileged to see a tiger, this excitement never fades.
their stunning orange and black coat, distinctive facial
markings, very extensive repertoire of expressions and
sounds and lithe, powerful bodies, it is not surprising
that throughout history, the tiger has figured prominently
in the cultures of the region where it is found. All
over Asia, the tiger is associated with power and might.
In India, Durga, the manifestation of the mother goddess,
rides out to cleanse the world of evil astride a tiger.
In Korea, the tiger is called "the King of Animals",
and is also the mount of the mountain god Hwanug. An
ancient Tibetan proverb goes: "It is better
to live one day as a tiger, than a thousand days as
William Blake came close to capturing
the soul of a tiger, with his words:
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Today, most of us have seen a tiger,
either on TV or in a zoo, and it is no longer a creature
of the fables. However, despite this inceased familiarity
with the tiger, a sighting in the wild remains something
special. Mere words are inadequate in describing the
emotions stirred by seeing a tiger in all its majesty.
No other animal that I can think of arouses the same
feelings of admiration, awe, respect and excitement
as this powerful, expressive feline.
Going up to 450 lb on average, tigers
are the biggest of the big cats. It outweighs a male
lion by a hundred pounds. Unlike lions, who generally
prefer discretion to valor except when it comes to defending
their territory, tigers can be a lot more belligerent,
especially if bothered. On a recent trip to Bandhavgarh
National Park, we spent a few days tracking and observing
a sub-adult male. This fellow was the son of B2, the
reigning king of the forest and the largest male in
the national park, who had displaced Charger, the legendary
tiger that ruled the forests in the 1990s (and was the
subject of quite a few wildlife documentaries as well
as Nick Nichols’s stunning work on tigers for
National Geographic). So needless to say, Junior had
quite a pedigree backing him up. One fine morning, I
was sitting on elephant-back, taking some shots of him
as he lay under a tree, keeping a drowsy eye on all
the pointing, whispering and clicking going on around
him. Then, one elephant misguidedly stepped too far
and intruded into his personal space. In less than a
blink of an eye, this not-yet-fully-grown cat was transformed
from an overgrown sleeping kitty into a snarling ball
of rage. Before we even realized it, he had leapt to
his feet and mock- charged the elephant, forcing the
mammoth to take a couple of hasty steps back. Honor
satisfied, the “teenaged” tiger went back
to his sprawl, letting out a few smug snarls to accentuate
The point to note is that this was
merely a juvenile tiger, and it was enough to cause
a trained elephant to retreat. Now think of this cat
grown to adulthood and in the peak of his power, and
you have an idea of what a tiger is capable of doing.
The thing with tigers is that they
are ambush predators and the masters of stealth. I cannot
count the number of times I have seen a tiger materialize
out of nowhere in a bush, where only a few seconds before,
I would have sworn that there wasn’t a living
thing around. As Nick Nichols says on his website, a
tiger’s whole gig is to not be seen. You could
be twenty feet from a big, orange-striped, 450-lb cat
and not see it unless it moves or chooses to show itself.
As photographers, this presents a
very obvious difficulty. Anyone who has tried to photograph
leopards in Africa can attest to how hard it is to find
these critters to get good portrait shots, let alone
behavioral shots, of this reclusive cat. It is the same
with tigers. Their very nature means that they spend
their time blending into the surroundings – so
a sighting is quite hard, let alone a clear view for
I’ve spent quite a lot of time
trying to get clean, classic portrait shots of tigers,
with middling success. Most of my behavioral shots of
tigers usually have a fair bit of foliage in them –
quite unlike the classical Africa wildlife shots, with
fully blurred backgrounds and a clear, unobstructed
view of the subject.
Initially, this only motivated me
to work harder to get the “classic” shots.
Recently, however, I have had an epiphany of sorts.
I realized that I have been trying to capture a tiger
in a photographer’s terms – in other words,
I have been trying to take photos where the tiger fits
into my preconceptions and notions of what constitutes
a good wildlife photo. However, as a nature-lover and
someone who can happily watch a sleeping tiger for hours,
I realized that trying to get a tiger to fit the norms
of good photography is not only a little presumptuous,
but also self-defeating in terms of trying to capture
the essence of tiger.
A tiger simply doesn’t stand
out and pose. A shot of a tiger with a clean background
and no interfering bushes simply does not represent
what a tiger is all about. That is not to say all such
shots are poor or inaccurate – there are plenty
of excellent tiger shots where the photographer has
been lucky enough to get a clear, unobstructed view.
However, this is the exception rather than the rule.
For the most part, an accurate representation of a tiger
in its environment should take into account the thick
foliage and concealment that go hand in hand with the
came to me midway through a trip to Bandhavgarh. For
the rest of the trip, I set myself the goal of trying
to document the beauty of a tiger as it really is, as
opposed to trying to document a tiger based on artificial
rules and standards set by humans. All photographs in
this article are part of that 3-day shooting theme.
What do you think? Thoughts
and comments welcomed.