Monday, June 21, 2010

10 Tips on Photographing Bears

This should really be called "How I shoot Grizzly Bears."  Photographing bears in the wild can be hazardous so you need to make yourself familiar with basic bear safety rules and go with competant guides.  You really do not want to become another Timothy Treadwell and end up on a bear's menu.  I am not encouraging anyone to go and shoot bears any more than shooting sharks.  However, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences for any photographer or naturalist at heart. 

The following is based on a recent trip to Katmai National Park in Alaska. We went with Bald Mountain Air based in Homer, Alaska and is run by Gary and Jeanne Porter. 
800-478-7969 or 907-235-7969 They have been doing this for 17 years as of this writing.  Gary was our guide for adventure.  Advanced booking is a must.

1.  Go with an experienced guide.  Despite all the video on cable news of bears bouncing off trampolines,  bear encounters can be rewarding or tragic.  Educate yourself on your subject.  Grizzlies (Brown Bear) behave differently than Black or Polar Bears.  I am an expert in NONE of these, but I listen closely to those who ARE expert.

When you listen to them, this becomes a safe experience and not the ego stroke to cross off on the bucket list.  We did not feel scared during the experience so adrenaline junkies will be disappointed.

2.  Go in a group.  Recently we had a group of six, four paying customers and two crew.

3.  Listen to your guides and stay close as a group.  Our band of six stayed within three feet of each other when travelling and stopped as advised by the guides.  When appropriate, he would motion to us to sit down as a group and we sat for maybe 15 minutes or so just observing and photographing the bears.

4.  Keep your distance.  In Katmai, the rangers suggest at least 50 yards which seems appropriate.  Read this link.

5.  Keep bears in context.  Open Tundra is different from a salmon fishing river, is different from the woods, is different from the suburbs of Anchorage.  You don't want to surprise a bear or get near a mother and cubs.  Learn about bears.

6.  Use a 400mm lens at minimum (600 - 800mm is best) with Optical Stabilization if possible.  A lightweight corrosion-proof tripod can be helpful depending on the situation.  Tundra is like a marsh (wet).  You can use a BIG ZOOM Point and Shoot such as the Canon PowerShot SX20 IS

7.  Since you may likely be out all day, bring lots of cards and battery changes.  I prefer to use a vest and small backpack.  A working shoulder bag is not as streamlined for crossing streams, etc.

8.  Follow your guide advice regarding food and TP needs.  You may be in complete wilderness.

Camera Rain shield and warm layers of wicking (non-cotton) clothes are a must in Bear country where weather can change quickly.

10. In Katmai, plan your trip according to the month and bear activity.  In June you will likely end up at Hallo Bay as the bears are shaking off hibernation and eating sedge grass, In July at Brooks falls to catch the bears at the falls trying to grab salmon.  This is a highly regulated and timed experience.   In August your destination may be Geographic Harbor where the bears grab salmon in a less restricted environment.

11. Shoot captive bears.  You will get better portraits at no risk to your or the bear's life.  Just disclose.

Click here to see my Bear Gallery.

Click here to see my Alaska Gallery from the trip.

Recommended reading:
Into Brown Bear Country by Will Trover

Death in the Grizzly Maze - The Timothy Treadwell Story by Mike Lapinsky