Ever returned from a wildlife safari with incredible sightings, but lacklustre images? Ever felt you could have made better images with more comfortable shootings conditions? Ever wondered how to optimise your photography opportunities? Read on and learn about how to make the most of your space, time and shooting opportunities while on safari, on a big cat photography mission.
Big Cat Photography – so how can you make better images on a safari?
Wildlife safaris in the South Indian forests of Bandipur and Kabini are conducted either by jeep, by much larger canter buses, or even boats in Kabini. Numerous species of birds and insects are also encountered while on a casual stroll through the resort, giving photographers incredible opportunities to hone their skills before they even step out into the field.
Bandipur holds the unique distinction among the forests of South India for affording tourists the opportunity to rent out a Forest Department vehicle for a chance to book a private safari where they are the only guest in the vehicle. This helps you dodge the hurdles that come with manoeuvring around other guests during a sighting, while also focusing on the images to be made.
Safaris in Central India, in the parks of Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh, however, are conducted almost primarily in private vehicles, and also give you the opportunity to be the sole tourist in the vehicle, with the additional flexibility to modify your vehicle as per your needs, as we will elaborate on later in this blog.
1. Use a Beanbag
Safaris in any forest in India are riddled with complications, from bumpy terrain to uncooperative fellow tourists who make shooting conditions all the more difficult for you when the moment strikes. Come fading light, and getting that perfect sharp image becomes infinitesimally harder. This is when the stability of your setup is of paramount importance, as handholding large, heavy telephoto lenses is a recipe for physical strain and agony the next day.
Having a flat stable surface to shoot off of can be a lifesaver. Toehold’s very own beanbag, which we call the dimBu 3.0, is a staple in the kit of every wildlife photographer. They can be mounted either on the side of the vehicle or on its door, to give you a place to rest your shoulders, both figuratively and literally taking a weight off your shoulders! In a pinch, the dimBu can even be turned upside down, to accommodate tricky shooting angles. Beanbags are an indispensable part of a photographer’s kit, and you can pick up Toehold’s very own dimBu here!
2. Mount your lens on a PanPod
Sighting wildlife on the move, or especially the glorious sight of a big cat crossing the road is a highly coveted opportunity while on safari in the jungles of India. So it makes perfect sense that you would want to put yourself in the best possible place and give yourself the best opportunity to make some spectacular images, right?
The ability to smoothly pan your camera from side to side while tracking your subject, while also keeping your shot steady, is a surprisingly difficult task, especially with massive telephoto lenses. A beanbag is invaluable to rest your setup, but placing your lens on a beanbag and attempting to pan often results in the focus ring on your lens being disturbed.
A PanPod is a perfect accessory, because it gives you smooth, jerk-free panning, and also allows you to easily adjust your focus using the ring because it’s not directly in contact with the beanbag. Conveniently enough for you, we have the PanPod in the Toehold store, and you can buy it right here! All you will need to mount your camera to the PanPod is a compatible LensPlate, which you can also check out here, on the Toehold Store!
3. Make use of the support bar on the Safari Van
A highly sought-after sighting in a forest-like Kabini is a leopard on a tree or a tiger on the rocky outcrops or forts of Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore. Most forests in India are also incredible opportunities to photograph birds on trees or in flight. Every single one of these situations, however, requires you to pick up a heavy camera and bulky telephoto lens and point it up at the sky, causing serious physical strain, and taking away the pleasure of the sighting, as you worry solely about keeping your shot steady.
A neat trick that comes recommended by Jayanth Sharma, the CEO of Toehold and an award-winning wildlife photographer, is to reverse the placement of the lens collar, to the upward position, and hang it from the supporting bar that runs high on the sides of the safari vehicle. Most high-end lenses are large enough to be reasonably balanced this way, and you can hold the setup much more steadily, concentrating on making some fantastic images, and taking in the beauty of the sighting.
4. Use the forest to get to the eye-level
Some of the most visually pleasing images you can make are shot at eye level, giving you a unique perspective of the subject and allowing you to show off the forest as well. But the conditions aren’t always favourable to make certain images, especially in a forest-like Kabini, where the jeeps have a windshield, which means you’re required to stand up and shoot from above the windshield if you intend to shoot from the front of the vehicle.
In the instance that you are lucky enough to have wildlife approaching your jeep head-on, the first step is always to back the vehicle away from the animal giving them space and respect they deserve and also allowing them to approach unperturbed. Get the driver of the vehicle to back the vehicle into a ditch in the road, which places the animal at a higher position than the vehicle, and if possible, get the driver to manoeuvre the vehicle so it stands perpendicular to the road, which allows you to place a beanbag on the door of the vehicle and shoot at a lower angle.
Ace photographer Jayanth Sharma gives you a detailed account of how he used this technique to make some splendid images at eye level, in this video!
Safaris in Central India alleviate this difficulty, by giving you the opportunity to customize your vehicle, to the extent of allowing you to remove the middle row of seats and set up your equipment just the way you want, and not have to deal with the other tourists in the process.
5. Use a Ball-Head
Another way to stabilise your camera and lens setup, especially for low light sightings, where your subject, like a tiger, is resting in the water, or not moving erratically through your frame, is to clamp your setup to the side of the bar of the vehicle. This is a relatively inexpensive option, using a Manfrotto clamp. To give yourself more control and stability, mount a ball head to the clamp, and this gives you control to independently move the camera on any axis without worrying about shake or motion blur in your images.
Wondering what ball head you should buy? Check out Toehold’s YouTube video on Choosing a Ballhead!
6. Mostly use Aperture Priority
A question that nearly every aspiring photographer has either asked, or been asked, is about the dreaded manual mode, and about whether they should shoot in it instead of using the Semi-Automatic modes like the Aperture Priority, designated by A or Av, depending on the maker of your camera.
A quick rundown on the Manual Mode: it gives you complete control over the ISO Sensitivity, Aperture size and Shutter Speed, leaving it completely to the photographer to assess the scene, the lighting of the situation and determine the three parameters while taking into account the image they want to make. There is no way a photographer can pinpoint the ideal combination of the three parameters for a given scene and must resort to trial and error.
This method can be absolutely disastrous while shooting action, or in situations when the lighting might change drastically, like when an animal wanders into the shadows. For more information, check out the Toehold YouTube video on Why Manual Mode is Not the Best!
The best, and often simplest alternative, is to shoot in Aperture Priority, where the ISO Sensitivity and Aperture size are decided by the photographer, allowing the camera to set the required shutter speed which is estimated using the camera’s built-in light meter. The exposure is then adjusted using exposure compensation to brighten or darken the image as per the scene.
This is the mode most wildlife photographers prefer because they’re not relying on their own sense of trial and error and worrying about choosing the right parameters, but instead, on their composition and the image, they’re making.
7. Explore Manual Mode with Auto ISO
A less commonly used method of semi-automatic exposure involves shooting on Manual Mode while setting your ISO Sensitivity to ‘Auto ISO’, giving the photographer control over the aperture size and shutter speed. The only reason most photographers avoid this mode is that, while shooting at high ISO sensitivities, images are noisy and grainy. However, if you have a camera body that has good high ISO performance, like the Sony A9 and A9 II, the Nikon D5 and D6, or the Canon 1DX Mark II and Mark III, for example, this can be an excellent mode to shoot on.
The benefits of this mode have to do with the margin of error. When shooting on Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, you are relying on the camera’s in-built light meter to help you produce an image with suitable depth of field and sharpness. If the camera misses the mark, however, you will have a blurry image or one with no depth of field.
Shooting on the Manual Mode with Auto ISO circumvents this problem, because if your ISO is too low or too high, the desired exposure is easier to attain in post processing, rather than trying to salvage a blurry image or artificially add or remove depth of field.
8. Use Tripods where you can
Using a tripod on a jeep safari might not be a practical option in a forest-like Kabini or Bandipur where, even if you are the only one in the vehicle, there is no way you can make space for a large tripod to support your setup. However, in the forests of Central India, a tripod can be an invaluable asset if you’re the only one in the vehicle, so you can remove the middle row of seats and set your tripod down. Using a tripod like a Gitzo that goes almost all the way to ground level provides unparalleled stability as you try to make eye-level images, as discussed earlier.
Tripods are still extremely useful tools because you’re bound to encounter wildlife while just strolling through the resorts, especially in a place like Kabini where you find birds like forest wagtails and paradise flycatchers flitting through the resort. There are also numerous insect and arachnid species, and a good tripod can be the difference between a beautifully sharp image, and a blurry, out of focus image.
9. Carry Gorilla Pods
While tripods might be impractical for a safari in the vehicles in the forests of India, a nifty contraption you can use, especially if you wield a light camera/lens setup, is called a gorilla pod. With strong legs that can be bent to literally any angle, they can grip onto uneven surfaces or even the bar on the vehicle to stabilise your camera rig, allowing you to make sharp images.
Gorilla pods are also extremely handy to have if you plan on doing some astrophotography during the nights at Kabini, owing to the absence of light pollution and bountiful presence of stars. Whether you intend to shoot with your smartphone or the camera you’re carrying it can be quite easy to find a suitable location to shoot the night sky, or even star trails set it and forget it. Make sure to invest in a sturdy gorilla pod, whose legs will not buckle under the weight of your equipment, and that can firmly grip onto the surface they are twined around without slipping.
10. Use smart-phones and action cameras
Photography is not always about the camera bodies that look like tanks and massive lenses that look like missiles. We have seen some absolutely jaw-dropping images being made on safari by a camera that is extremely easy to access, probably one you have with you right now!
That’s right. Your smartphone. Smartphone cameras are now just as good as some DSLR cameras, with respect to dynamic range, sharpness, colours, and video capability. Sometimes, it’s okay to put down your 600mm lens and pull out your smartphone to snap an awe-inspiring habitat image of the tiger sleeping in a lake.
Use action cameras like GoPros to show yet another perspective of the forest you’re driving through. Mount your GoPro on top of your lens and make a short movie while you photograph the scene! Shoot time-lapse videos of you driving through the jungle! You truly are limited by your own imagination.
As challenging as photography maybe, while focusing on your subject, calculating light, dealing with fellow tourists and, trying to be innovative, and enjoy the sighting at the same time, there are some ways which can definitely make that process easier, which is what we have highlighted in this blog that may help you capture photos of Tigers, Leopards and take your big cat photography to the next level.
We would love to be the ones to take you to the wild, to learn the nuances of wildlife photography. Our decades of experience in the park have given us the confidence to cater to every kind of traveller, from the avid wildlife photographer, to the family looking for a weekend getaway from the city buzz. Check out our travel offers and get in touch with us to plan your next trip!
Have you been on safari recently? We will be happy to hear about your adventures, and help you look ahead for the next one!