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Story Behind the Picture: Tiger Blur

Nikon D2x, Nikon 70-200mm @ 100mm, f11, 1/4 second

I envisaged this picture ten years before I was able to take it. It remains one of my favourite tiger images.

Motion blur is a technique that divides photography: in common with Marmite, you either love it or hate it. I’m partial to both. The technique allows a moving subject to be rendered in an impressionistic way, while emphasising the movement and dynamism of the subject. But motion blur has to be done well for it to work properly and this means choosing the right conditions and circumstances. All too often poor motion blur images are caused by inappropriate choice of time and place and poor technique.

B2 or Sundar in his prime. After a 10 year wait, the image I was after.

I waited ten years to achieve this tiger image because it took that long and numerous visits to parks in India, before all the right elements came together.

The first significant factor is the light (as it is will all photographs), which ideally should be soft and diffuse. Harsh highlights and deep shadows result in major distracting elements in motion blur images. Therefore, cloudy overcast conditions are preferable to direct bright sunlight. In addition, the soft light that overcast conditions produce also leads to more even exposure values.

Motion blur is achieved using slow shutter speeds, so it stands to reason these are more easily achieved when light levels are low. Shutter speeds can, of course, be altered and deliberately slowed down by using low ISO values and also by reducing apertures dramatically (increasing the f-stop), however, it is better not to use very small apertures for motion blur (ideally not smaller than f11) as these lead to increased depths of field, which makes background elements appear more distinct. One of the reasons good motion blur images can be so powerful and arresting is that the subject and backgrounds are clearly separated, and this is achieved with wider, more ‘open’ apertures. (Another big disadvantage of very small apertures with motion blur images is that dust spots and dirt on the cameras sensor become very visible and it can take much longer to clean up an image when processing).

The final major element is the direction of movement of the subject. Ideally whatever it is should be moving parallel to you, that is not coming towards you significantly and certainly not moving away from you. The speed of movement is actually far less important, as the degree of motion blur can be controlled with the shutter speed selected: slow moving subjects photographed with very slow shutter speeds (say less than 1/10th second) achieve similar levels of blur to faster moving subjects photographed at faster shutter speeds.

This tiger is B2 or Sundar, one of three famous brothers that were born in Bandgavgarh in April 1996. B2 was the dominant force in the park from around 2002 to 2010. He died in November 2011, ironically from injuries sustained in a fight with one of his own sons. This photo was taken when he was in his prime in 2006.

I still remember the sequence of events vividly. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was already dipping below the trees, so everywhere was in shadow i.e. soft, diffuse light. I had seen B2 a short time beforehand walking in a particular direction, so anticipated where he might next emerge from the forest and took up an appropriate position. It seemed ideal: if he came out in just the right place and walked along the rocks in just the right way, it would be perfect for a
motion blur image (to be frank light levels were so low it would have been almost impossible to try and take a sharp photo anyway). I selected a lens that would allow me to hand-hold and frame the cat appropriately, in this instance a 70-200mm (the actual focal length was 100mm) and I chose an aperture / shutter speed combination appropriate to his speed of movement (moderate slow walk) which was ¼ second, f9.

Once B2 emerged, from exactly where I’d hoped, he walked parallel to me and I waited until he was on open rocks away from distracting vegetation before beginning to take pictures. The secret to successful motion blur is to begin panning the camera before pressing the shutter and then pan at the same speed as the subject is moving. In this way there is negligible relative movement between camera and subject but lots of relative movement between camera and background and consequently the subject appears more or less in focus and the background very blurred, but the faster moving elements of subject also blur to an extent.

No matter how much you prepare and anticipate, this technique remains very ‘hit and miss’ and the success rates are low. Digital photography comes into its own here, as large numbers of images can be taken at no additional cost and crucially images can be reviewed instantly to see if the chosen settings achieve the desired results. I took over 50 rapid-fire images in this sequence and I kept just four of them. This one is by far the best.