A few months ago I was finally able to make a childhood dream of mine become a reality. In February I travelled to Ranthambhore National Park for 1 week with one focus, and one focus only: to photograph wild tigers. I had never seen a tiger before, but watching them on nature documentaries left in in awe of their grace, power, and beauty.
But I knew that there would be several challenges that would make photographing tigers more difficult than its big cat cousins in Kenya's Masai Mara. First, tigers live in forested habitats and with no off-road access, you have to be a bit lucky and hope they're within viewing distance from the road. Second, there are very strict entry and exit times into the park, which means that you can't be too far away and chance not making it time (irrespective if you have a great sighting). Third, Ranthambhore is divided up into zones and you can only stay in the zone of your permit. So if there's no tiger sighting in your zone, you can't go to the next zone. You can get around this, though it's quite a bit more expensive, if you get an all-day all-zones permit.
So after several flights and a long 8 hour drive from the Delhi International Airport, we (I was with my good friend Tom Way, a member of the Shuttermonkeys Pro Team) made it to the Ranthambhore Bagh, which was our home for the one week stay. The next morning, we were both up early and super excited. Unfortunately, the first day did not pan out as planned. No tigers and it hit me hard, especially as I was used to having great sightings with its big cat cousins - the lions, leopards, and cheetahs in Kenya. Nonetheless, as a wildlife photographer, I maintained optimism (required to counter all the misses and non-sightings of wildlife photography over the years) that Day 2 would bring better luck. And my goodness, did it ever!
We again started early and continued the search for our elusive subject. Before long, we found two fully grown brothers!! They were playing in the distance, too far for a decent photo, but the necessary first step - find a tiger - was achieved. They did not stay in view for long and quickly disappeared in the brush. So we continued to search the area (along with many other vehicles by this point), and we got incredibly lucky as our guides were able to position our vehicle in front of the tigers while all other vehicles were behind them on a very narrow road that made passing impossible.
The tigers, one by one, were coming straight toward us! I took this powerful shot and then we quickly backed up to give the tigers plenty of space.
Over 400lbs of power. Canon 1DXII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 800, f/4, 1/1600 second.
And then something special happened. We reversed through the opening of an ancient arch that was built centuries ago and our guides put us into a great position. Now we just had to hope that the tigers would follow. Moments later, I was able to capture this incredible moment, which to me, illustrates the regalness of the tiger - how it roams its kingdom and we are merely visitors into its world. I was later told that this sighting under the arch was very rare and no one had really captured it like this before.
The tiger walks under an ancient arch. Canon 5DIV, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8II lens, ISO 400, f/8, 1/2000 second.
Later in the day, our good luck continued as we found another male tiger in another section of the park. The tiger was walking through the forest and paused briefly to glance directly in my direction.
A dynamic pose as the tiger moves through the forest. Canon 1DXII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 800, f/4, 1/1640 second.
Shortly thereafter, he continued walking and crossed the road directly in front of us, I quickly grabbed my wide angle lens and was able to capture this environmental portrait with the interplay of light, shadow, and tiger.
Light, shadow, and tiger. Canon 5DIV, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8II lens, ISO 200, f/7.1, 1/320 second.
Finally, it became clear why the tiger was so close as we soon discovered that it had made a kill very close to the road a few hours earlier, and now it was returning to eat its prize - a large sambar deer.
The circle of life. Canon 1DXII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 800, f/4, 1/1250 second.
And this all happened on Day 2. As you can imagine, I was filled with joy and enthusiasm and was thinking about all the great moments I was going to witness in the coming days. But it turns out, this luck did not last. In fact, I didn't take any photos during the next 3 days. We had a few tiger sightings during this time, but always at a distance and in poor light.
However, my optimism remained strong and on our second last day, I was able to capture my favorite photo from the trip. We were driving around in the afternoon and actually drove up and down one road three times before we finally noticed a tigress, Noor, sleeping in the bush only a few meters from the road. So we waited, and waited, with the hope that she would wake up and be a bit more active. After about an hour, she started to roll over, and slowly but surely, she was awake and suddenly up on all fours! Our incredible guides quickly changed the position of our vehicle as they anticipated what was about to happen. And a few moments later, she stretched up to scratch her claws on the tree right in front of us!
Standing tall and scratching tall. Canon 1DXII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 800, f/4, 1/500 second.
Photographing wild tigers was such an amazing experience. It's certainly not easy to get shots that stand out and tell a story, but I was very happy with how it all came together. And now I'm hooked. I'll be returning to India in 2020 to photograph my new favorite big cat!