Great Bear Rainforest area of British Columbia
by Jon Huyer
Black bear in the rainforest ISO 3200, 1/125s at f/2.8
The Great Bear Rainforest is the unofficial name ascribed to a remarkable ecological sanctuary along British Columbia’s west coast, from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to the state of Alaska. It contains a fantastic array of wildlife and gorgeous landscapes, and in spite of its relatively easy accessibility you can tour for days without seeing any other people. The most common launching point for the area is the small town of Bella Bella, about an hour’s flight north of Vancouver. From there, several operators provide small boat tours of 7-10 day duration, and most include the option for daytime kayaking. The paddling is always on the calm sheltered waters of the narrow inlets and amongst the multitude of islands, meaning you can easily carry your camera with you.
If you’re hoping to spot some wildlife, this area will not disappoint. The sightings include humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, otters, seals, bald eagles, many waterfowl, and of course, bears – both black and grizzly. The rare Spirit Bear, a black bear with white fur, also makes its home in the area. While either in the kayak or cruising between paddling locations on board the ship, you will be reaching for the camera often… sometimes frantically, as yet another surprise encounter greets you around a corner. The landscapes are also phenomenal, and waterfalls are in great abundance.
Grizzly bear with salmon ISO 3200, 1/250s at f/4
Given the large variety of photographic opportunities available, the wise photographer will spend some time in advance preparing for the trip. A digital SLR with a fast continuous exposure mode (for example, 5 fps or better) will be excellent for capturing wildlife in motion. Taking photos from a kayak presents some unique challenges. The movement of the boat, combined with the inability to use a tripod, requires relatively fast shutter speeds. Lenses with built-in image stabilizers and fast focal ratios have a definite advantage. And since you can’t change lenses easily in a kayak, a wide zoom range (for example, 18-200 mm) can be a significant asset. However for shots of birds and other small wildlife, you’ll be wanting a reach of at least 300 mm. This can often be obtained by combining your zoom lens with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter, but check first to confirm if your lens will be compatible, and don’t forget that you’ll be giving up 1-2 f-stops with a converter.
Gliding towards the Columbia III on perfectly still waters
Beside the obvious scenery on land and sea, an amazing world exists beneath the water in the many tidal pools. A simple and inexpensive way to photograph this is with a waterproof point-and-shoot camera. The quality of these cameras has advanced greatly in the last few years, enabling startling results. Just hold it under the water beside your kayak, or alongside docks, and click away!
Since this area is a rainforest, you will definitely need to prepare to get wet. But don’t let that be a detraction to going there -- it’s very easy to adapt. A plastic camera protection bag is a must, and there are several on the market that will save your equipment from almost certain destruction in the heavy downpours that frequent the area. A lens hood is also very useful… assuming you remember not to point it upwards! For the best chance of clear skies, travel in the fall season. You may actually find yourself using sunscreen on many days. As a side benefit, this is also when the salmon run is at its peak, maximizing the chance of bear sightings. If you happen to get rained on during the day, you will always have the chance to dry your belongings on board the ship at night. Pure luxury!
As in many other areas, some of the best times for capturing wildlife photos are in the early or late hours of the day. When combined with the shade of the forest, this means you’ll often be working with less light than you might otherwise hope for. To compensate, you’ll need high ISO settings and maximum aperture. Some cameras can achieve ISO 3200 and still produce very good results, using built-in noise reduction features. Always shoot in RAW mode to take further advantage of the noise reduction capabilities of Photoshop. Sometimes, having to contend with a slower shutter speed produces the unexpected benefit of making a creative shot.
Accurate focusing is crucial in these light conditions. Typically you will be operating in aperture-priority mode, with the lens wide open, giving a very narrow depth of field. Use the ‘servo’ setting for continuous focus adjustment, and switch to centre point focusing if the subject isn’t separate from the surroundings (such as inside the rainforest). For exposure settings, the camera’s fully automatic (matrix or evaluative) mode will generally give excellent results. On rare occasions, you may want to switch to centre-weighted metering. Accurate focusing is crucial in these light conditions.
Karen and Jon
Jon Huyer is a consulting engineer in Calgary who together with his wife Karen enjoys travel, having visited Antarctica, South America, and Africa. He has been interested in nature photography as a hobby for the past 20 years.
For a gallery of recent photos, visit www.huyerperspectives.com.
A sea otter, photographed with a 200 mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter