Some thoughts on feasibility, technicalities, the destination and tigers.
Confessions of a sceptic
In many ways this Blog Post represents a first for me. It is my first public post based on my own photography on any platform for more than 6 months. Recovering after an unexpected back operation forced me into some neccesary down-time that I normally never allow myself. I had a lot of time to reflect on everything large and small in business, my own photography and my personal life and re-prioritised every aspect of my life.
Over a period of 3 months stretching from Nov 2018 tot Febr 2019 I accompanied clients to Chobe, Serengeti and Badhavgarh. I looked with new eyes at Chobe and Serengeti, reconfirming why I actually still invest time to visit these magical places over and over again. Please note the suttle change from spending time to investing time. I have always been rather pedantic on where I do my own nature photography and where I take clients looking for a good return on their hard earned money. So I have a very clear picture in my mind why I will keep on visiting the Chobe River and the western corridor of the Serengeti but how on earth did I end up in Bandavgarh India photographing tigers at all?
A few confessions need to be made here. For most of my nature photography life I showed close to zero interest in photographing tigers to put it mildly. Allthough I have always acknowledged the undisputed beauty of tiger reports from photographers returning from tiger destinations, with very few sightings and even less photographs worth having after enormous effort and cost all added fuel to my fire of resistance. Barbara Flemming shared with me some of her Bandavgarh tiger images and stories and both convinced me to give tiger photography another thought. If there is one regret that I will have forever is that I could not share my first tiger sighting with Barbara. I am forever indebted to Barbara for what I experienced in Bandavgarh and introducing me to the great lodge we stayed at.
Apart from potentially very limited tiger sightings, what was more of a concern to me was that when tiger sightings actually occurred the chaos that followed when every Jimmy Jeep driver jostled for a better position for their customers. An exercise that, according to folklore, made the Masai Mara crossing chaos (which I am very used to) look like a walk in the proverbial park.
Finally there was the feedback that photographing tigers against a mostly thick forest backdrop in low light, added technically difficulties beyond the capabilities of most equipment and photographers alike. So how did the reality of ground zero compare to the information I used for years to convince myself and those relying on me for guidance, why we should not spend our hard earned money on chasing tigers in India or for that matter anywhere else?
It needed a Supreme Court order to force authorities to open National Parks in India to tourism – including photographic tourism. Clearly irritated by the Supreme Court order, authorities retaliated with extremely pedantic regulations. So the three zones of Bandhavgarh that were open to us represented only 20% of the park. Permits for vehicles to enter the park were allocated 20/20/15 for zone 1-3. The bad news though was that two months prior to our visit people staying on the edge of zone 3 where killed by elephants. So zone 3 was closed and the allocated vehicles were redirected to zone 1 and 2, resulting in more over-crowding than usual.
Parks in India are closed between 11h00 and 15h00 daily (As per agreement between the tigers and the authorities) unless one is prepared to fork out an additional hefty US$ 1500 per vehicle per day for the privilege to stay in the park between 11am-3pm. All parks are also closed on Wednesday afternoons. Bottom line then is that on arrival at Bandavgarh the local news added fuel to our fire of doubt. Against the odds though all our greatest tiger photography was done with virtually no other vehicles in sight! Initially because we got lucky but in the latter part of our safari mainly because I got clever!
Technical Photographic Reality
All camera sensors used by every single photographer on our safari coped very well with the low light conditions whenever they occurred, and if I am honest it would have done so in my case for the last 10 years. So yes, I have lost out on photographing tigers for more than a decade…. but reminding myself that I was busy building photographic boats and vehicles at that stage of my life is the only way I can soften that blow a bit.
So what needs to be in the a camera bag to be successful at photographing the tigers of Bandhavgarh ?
I was determined not to loose a single tiger shot by having too short a lens or being forced in shooting at, for me, unacceptable high ISO settings or to low shutter speeds. My whole photographic life and the choice of destinations are determined by my personal photographic rating system for individual photographs and destinations.
In short I require at least one exotic experience per safari that I can photograph effectively in good light that will rate at least 3/5 and upwards. So despite a recent back operation I packed a very heavy 600mm f/4 , 70-200mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 15-30mm f/2.8 with 1.4 + 2.0 x Converters, some custom vehicle brackets that would allow me to shoot from a gimbal head while cramped up in a small space next the our driver… and my back brace! The rest of the CNP Safari group shot with great success with the new Tamron 150-600mm f/6.3 as their go to lens.
What will I change next time around ? The 70-200 f/2.8 all the way down to the 15-30 f/2.8 lenses with converters will all stay but I will replace the 600mm f/4 with a 400mm f/2.8 and hopefully use the version that shaved off 2 kgs in weight! So yes I will take heavy glass again but realistically for 99.99% of photographers the lighter 150-600 mm options backed up with some wider angle large aperture lenses will be more than sufficient.
The Forest Backdrop
Contrary to what I expected from photographing tigers against a forest background turned out to be a real bonus. Not only did the beautiful winter colours on the forest floor ad a beautiful backdrop to landscape and wildlife images alike, but some of our best tiger photography came about as the tigers exited the forest into open spaces to drink water and play. The change in photographic backdrop directly resulted in much more diverse photographic opportunities and who can complain about that! What I am sharing with you here are images depicting the home of the Bandavgarh tigers and tiger images reflecting some of our opportunities. In follow up posts I will show more of the other species sharing Bandavgarh with the tigers.
Some Spiritual Moments?
People that know me well will be utterly surprised that I even contemplate the possibility of having a spiritual experience while doing any nature photography. (I have learned over the years that Photographers that refer to their own photography as “Soul Photography” has hardly ever contributed to the genre of wildlife photography but rather used the so called “Soul Photography” as a vail for technical inferior work.) Those that know me might consider the possibility that the side effects of my back operation took me further to the brink of… whatever.
Was I not the person who coined the phrase “Cute is nothing but cute and good is great!”? The latter part conveniently omitted by those that quote me on this. I must admit that as I am getting older I do come closer to what can be referred to as spiritual experiences while photographing. The one that I experienced while watching “Y” (see the marking on her face) as I initially named her – because our guides did not recognise her – was surely not the standard so called spiritual experience that most photographers will refer to as a so-called connection. As we sat with Patiha (the oldest female in Banhavgarh as she was later identified) listening to the constant high pitch alarm calls of the nearby troop of Northern Plains Langur ringing out across the forest, with leaves drifting down on Patiha’s head, as members of the same troop of Langur rattled some branches high above her to get a better view of a predator they fear to death, I experienced an unusual “spiritual” moment.
There this magnificent, highly endangered cat was laying peacefully on her back in Bandavgarh National Park in India the latter that broke off Madagascar and the rest of the African continent, drifting to Eurasia at between 6-14 cm a year at different stages of its journey. Finally India hit Eurasia and by pushing up some sea sediment formed the Himalayan Mountain Range severely interrupting airflow to the African continent. This resulted in vast forests changing into drier savanna forcing my common ancestors out of the trees and many millennia later Homo Sapiens were born. As I sat there watching Patiha, I realised me and her go back a very very very long time, connected by the continent I call home and the place she calls home – India – and the miracle piece of geological history in between. If that does not qualify for a spiritual experience I am giving up any hope of ever experiencing any. What is more, when I got back home, I read up extensively on the continental drift that resulted in the formation of the Himalayan range and every time I watch the 3d drift of India on its north east bound journey I felt a sense of wonder with the emotions I felt observing Patiha, forever engraved in my deepest being. Interestingly enough the pressure that the ancient Indian continent is exerting on Eurasia even today raises the Himalayan Mountain Range with nearly a centimetre a year in the same way it formed, although most of the height increase in yearly lost threw natural erosion.
I am certainly going back for more Bandhavgarh Tiger magic next year. The only thing that I will do differently is to go later in the year when it is warmer. The higher temperatures will force the tigers out of their forest home into the water of mostly open spaces to cool off, providing us with much better photography. I cannot wait!
If this excites you too why not have a look at our available Tiger trips for 2020 by CLICKING HERE