by Kyle Smith
March 23, 2017
A sow and her two cubs are watching as another family of bears approaches.
Grizzly bears to a lot of people are considered scary, dangerous and top apex predators. But they also have another side to them that many people do not see. You just have to spend a little time with them to realize they are gentle, caring and loving. In British Columbia we have a lot of bears, roughly 15,000 in BC alone. That is about a quarter of the entire population in North America. Grizzlies travel extremely far distances climbing mountain ranges and crossing giant rivers in search for mates and most important food. They are always looking for food. Finding and photographing bears is not that easy most of the year.
There is however, at a certain time of year, your best chance of finding not just one, but many hungry bears looking to put on as many pounds as possible before the long winter sleep. Usually bears tend to avoid each other the rest of the year, but during the fall they can congregate in great numbers for one large meal. This time of year brings amazing photographic opportunities to get those up close and personal photographs. Salmon is the key and October is prime time. If you can find a river with a significant salmon run you will most certainly find bears.
A sow picks an easy meal from the river for her two cubs.
Photographing bears has become quite popular over the years and the crowds keep growing. There are famous bear viewing locations along the BC coast which include: Knight Inlet, Khutzeymateen and Princess Royale. Some of these areas have become protected specifically because of the high concentrations of bears. Signage is up to both exclude people and educate them about the animals, and often the bears can be viewed from regulated boats or from behind fences to limit the impact on the bears. This, however, requires photographers to have great ethical conduct to ensure minimal disturbance. There still is many excellent unknown salmon rivers and streams that present incredible photographic opportunities away from the crowds. You just have to be willing to go on an adventure!
If you do head to one of the more well known sites, it is easy to come away with some good shots, but to make the most of your time, here are a few techniques that will help you get professional quality images that stand out from the rest.
A lone female alerts me of an approaching bear from behind.
I have often seen other photographers behind fences and sitting on boats shooting much higher than the bear. Try shooting through the fence close to the ground or kneel on the boat resting your lens against the frame of the boat. Shooting eye level with the bear creates as much more pleasing photograph and gives you a more flattering background or foreground to work with.
A sow and her cub share a meal on the river.
Catch lights, are very important when shooting living creatures. A “catchlight’ is the highlight from a light source reflected off the surface of the eye. This catchlight adds depth and dimension to the eye, and gives the eyes life in a portrait.
A second year cub successfully “hot tubbing” for salmon.
Bears are most active during early morning and evening. These times of the day happen to have the best natural light, so use them to your advantage. A lot of photographers tend to shoot into the sun during sunrise and sunset, but a lot of the time the best light is behind you where the sun’s soft light gives incredible contrast to the scene.
The sun's first rays of light awaken this sleeping boar.
During the day can be the toughest time to shoot bears as they tend to escape the hot sun and nap a lot in the shade, protected under the canopy of the forest, and hidden from other bears. Lucky for us the shade on a sunny day is a perfect spot for beautiful images. Especially where dark shadows and bright sunrays meet. This can be a powerful lighting situation for portraits. Using the sun’s rays to backlight the bear will make them pop from the dark background.
A sow and her cub patrol the river banks looking for an easy meal.
Large telephoto lens like a 500mm or 600mm are your typical go to wildlife lens, as they allow you to be much farther back from the bear to capture an image. They can be extremely expensive though, and very heavy to carry around. I personally much prefer a 300mm-400mm lens for bear photography. Using a smaller lens forces you to learn more about the bears behavior. If you can anticipate the bears next move, you can be in the right spot for that perfect photo moment. By understanding more about bear behavior it will help keep you and the bear safer. A lot of photographers get caught up with that up close portrait. 300-400mm lens can be the perfect focal length for capturing the animal in its natural habitat. Those images have a much richer story.
A boar catches a salmon and heads into the canopy to eat in peace.
A tripod or monopod is always useful when on a boat or staying put in one spot for extended periods of time. One piece of gear that should always be in your kit when you are out photographing bears is bear spray. Learning how to properly use bear spray before going out into the field is critically important.
Remember to be highly respectful of bears to ensure their safety and your own. Especially sows with cubs. Sows are incredibly protective of their young. Always follow the advice given by guides and warden to ensure the best bear photography experience possible.
A sow teaches her cubs the art of fishing for salmon.
Kyle Smith is a CBVA bear guide and professional photographer specializing in nature, wildlife, adventure and action sports. Based in Revelstoke, British Columbia, Canada.
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