How to Photograph Grizzly Bears

by Dr. Robert Berdan
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
June 2, 2010

 


 

Original article written for the Photo Naturalist Web site View PhotoNaturalist Site and Article

Grizzly Sow and cub along bank of Atnarko river, Bella Coola, BC by Robert Berdan

Grizzly sow along bank of Atnarko river, Bella Coola, BC. 300 mm F2.8, 1.5X teleconverter,
Nikon D300 on foot from other side of the river. 

I am fortunate to live in Calgary, Alberta where on any given day I can drive to the Rocky Mountains and photograph a wide variety of wildlife, but places like this are rare today. I will never forget the first time I encountered a Grizzly bear on the trail. I was walking with a friend toward Siffleur Falls on the North Saskatchewan river just west of Banff National Park, Alberta. The grizzly bear raised its large head to get a good look, sniffed and continued moving towards us. I remember saying to my friend F- F- F- F- Frank there is a grizzly bear coming towards us. You are not supposed to stare into in the eyes of a bear or run as either might trigger an attack. We slowly walked backwards and down a slope so the bear could not see us and then we made a dash back to the parking lot as fast as two old farts could go. I was carrying about 50 lbs of camera gear and a tripod, and on this hike neither of us had brought bear spray. Luckily the parking lot was only about a half mile away. There were several other cars parked in the lot so we called the Park Warden in case he might want to post a warning sign on the trail - he replied  "Oh that old Grizzly he's harmless".  

Grizzly Bear, Saskatechewan crossing, next to road by Robert Berdan

Large grizzly bear next to highway, Saskatechewan crossing, Banff National Park, AB 300 mm F2.8 lens, Nikon D2X from car window

I didn't get a photo of that Grizzly bear, and I rarely go hiking in the Canadian Rockies without bear spray and few bear bangers. Bear Spray is reported to be about 95% effective in warding off a bear attack, but to work you have to be a few feet from the bear. Bear bangers give off a loud noise and can be deployed at greater distance, you just need to be careful not to fire them so they land behind the bear or he might coming running toward you. Actually I love to photograph Grizzly bears from a safe vantage point.  Most of the Grizzly bears I have photographed have showed no sign of aggression. Still the safest way to photograph bears near the road is from your car. I often see Grizzly bears in the Canadian Rockies feeding on dandelions next to the road in the early morning hours. Another safe way to photograph bears is from a boat.

Grizzly bear next to highway in Kananaskis - eating dandelions by Robert Berdan

Sow feeding on dandelions beside highway in Kananaskis provincial park, AB.  300 mm F2.8 lens, 1.5X teleconverter, Nikon D2X camera from car window

On the west coast within the Great Bear Rainforest located in Northern British Columbia, I have photographed Grizzly bears in remote estuaries from a kayak or zodiac. In these remote locations, the Grizzly bears seem to be indifferent to visitors. In some places I have seen a dozen or so bears together including mothers with cubs. So long as food is plentiful they seem to tolerate other bears and people.

Grizzly balancing on a log, Mussel Inlet, BC by Robert Berdan

Grizzly on log, Mussel Inlet, BC coast.  300 mm F2.8 lens, 1.5 X teleconverter, Nikon D2X from zodiac.

My favourite place to photograph Grizzly bears is next to the Atnarko river near Bella Coola, British Columbia. The river runs next to a road and their are several pullouts near fishing holes where you can park your vehicle and take photographs while the bears feast on spawning salmon in September.  Just remember to leave your lunch at home.

Large Grizzly bear on the bank of the Atnarko River, Bella Coola, by Robert Berdan

Grizzly sow along bank of Atnarko river, Bella Coola, BC. 300 mm F2.8, 1.5X teleconverter, Nikon D300 on foot from other side of the river.

The most important elements of success in wildlife photography are location and timing. Other then that you need to have a long lens, a 70-200 mm lens is bare minimum, a 300 to 600 mm lens is best and a teleconverter can often be useful to get greater magnification.  Always have your lens set to its widest aperture e.g. F2.8 or F4 and don't attach any filters as you need the fastest autofocus and shutter speed you can get. If the light is low increase your camera's ISO speed and try to get a shutter speed of 1\500 of a second or faster even if you are using a tripod or monopod. When photographing bears, as with most wildlife, try to focus on their eyes and watch for interesting behaviour. If the bears' head fills your frame you are in trouble.

Grizzly Sow and cubs, Mussel Inlet, BC by Robert Berdan

Sow and cubs, Mussel Inlet, BC 300 mm F2.8 lens, 1.5 X telecconverter, Nikon D2X camera ISO 800 taken from a zodiac boat

Tips for Photographing Grizzly Bears

1. Use a long lens 200 mm or longer set to its widest aperture (no filters attached to your lens)

2. Visit places where you will find bears, to do this join a tour group that specializes in bears or     visit parks and natural areas where they are seen frequently e.g. Banff National Park in     Alberta, Knight Inlet in British Columbia or Denali National Park in Alaska in Autumn.

3. Use a fast shutter speed 1\500 of second or faster to stop the animals motion and to reduce         vibrations from lens movement and camera shake.

4. Don't feed, or bate bears and obey all local regulations regarding their viewing.

5. In bear country if you come upon a freshly killed animal beware and move away quickly. 

6. If you are going to hike in bear country bring along bear spray, bear bangers, make noise or  bring along an air horn and I suggest you read "Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance" by     Stephen Herrero.

7. Finally, I suggest you go hiking with someone you can outrun or that is carrying more gear then  you :-)

Grizzly Sow and Cub, Mussel Inlet, BC by Robert Berdan

Sow and Cub, Mussel Inlet, BC 300 mm F2.8 lens, 1.5 X telecconverter, Nikon D300 camera taken from a zodiac boat.

Young Grizzly bears wrestling, Mussel Inlet, BC by Robert Berdan

Young grizzlies wrestling, Mussel inlet, BC coast. 300 mm F2.8 lens, 1.5 x teleconverter, Nikon D300 from zodiac

No matter where you live, if you are interested in wildlife photography the best place to start is in parks or wilderness areas close to your home. Most natural areas support a wide variety of birds, and small rodents and these fast moving critters can be a challenge to photograph. To photograph animals such as bears, caribou, and deer, travel to locations where they are abundant and learn all you can about the biology of the animals before visiting.  Bring along a camera that shoots at least 3-5 frames per second and use a 200-600 mm telephoto lens.  The same principles of photography apply to most types of wildlife.  Finally, remember that no photograph is worth endangering your life or that of the animal. 

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