The Magic of Photographing Polar Bears in Churchill
By: David G Hemmings , Nature Photo Adventures
The air is crisp and cold. There you stand out on the open tundra scanning the snow drifts and open fields for the majestic and magnificent Polar Bear. Then it happens, right before you some 100 yards away you spot a polar bear mom with her 2 cubs. Your heart skips a beat as you behold a sight that will stay with you forever. Not only will the sight stay with you forever but so will the images that you are there to capture. On this amazing trip you will go to one of the best places on the globe to see and photograph mother polar bears with their cubs. We will likely see them as they emerge from their wintering dens to come outside and frolic about in the snow. You will see the motherly love that mom shows her cubs as the cubs tussle and roughhouse with mom.
This image is one example of what you can see when photographing polar bear moms and their cubs near Churchill, Manitoba. When you see a beautiful sight such as this it makes you wonder how this is the most ferocious predator on land known to man.
In this article I want to share with you some of the ins and outs of photographing polar bears in their natural habitat. Polar Bear photography has its own unique challenges and demands. There can be extreme cold and difficult lighting situations to tend with. Patience is a must when eagerly awaiting the bears to show themselves and model for our cameras. You must also be prepared to part with some of your hard earned cash for these trips. Come prepared and travel with knowledgeable guides and photo instructors to maximize the potential of capturing those once in a lifetime images.
Cold Weather Considerations:
Let’s start by talking about the weather conditions and what we, as photographers, should do to prepare ourselves and our equipment for these somewhat extreme conditions
The climate in Churchill in March, October and November can be downright freezing. Minus 50 degrees is not unusual for a low night time temperature. It can be as cold as minus 30-45 with the wind chill factor during the day, yikes! Don’t despair, it can also be as high as a balmy zero degrees during the day. Obviously, proper clothing is essential for photographing polar bears. Proper layering is essential. Start with good quality moisture wicking long underwear. These will be available in abundance at your local outdoor stores as well as ski shops and other selected big box stores such as Costco and Sam’s. Synthetics such as polypropylene (“polypro”) can keep you warm even when wet; combined with a Gore Tex outer shell. STAY AWAY FROM COTTON OR REGULAR THERMAL UNDERWEAR!
Next you will want to wear a pair of heavy pants such as wool or mixed material. Stay away from cotton for cold weather layering. You will also want to layer in a heavy wool or similar sweater up top. Fleece also works extremely well for this layer. For your outerwear a goose down parka is recommended such as those made by Canada Goose or similar. Buy the warmest highest insulation rated boots you can find. Let’s not forget about socks. Thick wool socks will work well with inner polypro socks to wick moisture away from your skin. A great idea for the face is a full balaclava. Now for the hands. It is highly recommended to wear a pair of thin insulating gloves under a pair of very warm mittens with the flip top for the fingers to pop out when needed. That brings us to the last but not least piece of warm weather wear, the chemical hand and feet warmers. These are an invaluable tool in extreme cold. They can be wrapped around your tootsies or just placed in your boots. I recommend putting one below the toes at the front of the boot and even on top if there is room in your boots. For your hands they can either be placed in your coat pocket to put your hands in when not shooting or they can be placed in between your thin inner glove and the outer mittens.
Now that we are all dressed to the nines for polar bear shooting let’s go get some images!
Extreme cold weather photography can be very demanding on today’s high tech camera gear.
The biggest issue that commonly occurs is keeping enough power running from the batteries to the camera body.
Let’s look at a few things that can help reduce these demands on our equipment.
The camera body:
Today’s modern digital slr’s can withstand very cold temperatures and still function properly thanks to modern lubricants that withstand extreme cold before hardening. The challenge becomes keeping enough battery power to operate the camera smoothly. There are a number of things we can do to minimize the impact the cold has on the batteries as follows.
The most common extreme cold weather issue is dead batteries.
Keep fully charged spare batteries with you at all times. Keep the spare batteries in a warm place close to your body and cycle the batteries regularly. This means changing the batteries long before the power in them is fully depleted. This allows the most recently used battery to regain some of its lost charge as it warms up in your pockets. I have also put the spare batteries in pockets with a chemical warmer in it and this seems to reduce battery power loss quite well.
You can also consider using an external battery and flash charger. These can be placed inside a large coat pocket and plugged into your camera via a cable. This option should keep your equipment running effectively all day in cold weather conditions. Quantum makes an excellent external battery charger.
If you are using older camera bodies I suggest having the camera tuned up and having the lubricants updated to the more effective extreme cold resistant ones. You can have this done at your local camera or manufacturers repair facility.
Please note that you will also have to consider these same variables for your flash unit batteries if you are using fill flash. The flash units of today can drain the relatively small batteries very quickly. I recommend lots of spares and also applying the same procedures as with the slr batteries. I also would recommend considering an external flash battery like a Quantum.
I also recommend using a camera body/lens sleeve with an attachable eyepiece as this can prevent the condensation and fogging problem associated with the viewfinder on the body. Keep in mind that in extreme cold temps that any breathing on the back of the camera will instantly fog everything up and freeze the moisture in your breath. I have even seen people use breathing tubes as not to breathe on the back of the camera.
If all of this fails you can always try to grow some insulating fur like this little fellaJ
The biggest issue we face with our lenses is sudden temperature changes.
When heading back indoors from the cold it is recommended that you place a plastic bag over your lenses so that any moisture caused by condensation from the sudden temperature change will form on the bag instead of on the lens and its internal parts.
You will likely encounter some condensation when taking your equipment from warm to cold. You can apply the same plastic bag technique for the reverse and this should help reduce the buildup of condensation. When you do experience it, just let it go away on its own, do not attempt to wipe it off with your sleeve or a towel or you will end up with an icy smear on your glass. Also, do not blow on the glass; this will just make things worse!
Digital media cards:
Today’s digital media cards can work quite well at lower temperatures. This is not to say that they will have no issues in extreme cold. There has not been any extensive extreme cold testing done on digital cards that will allow for ratings at these frigid temperatures. There are some cards out there such as the San Disk Extreme and the Lexar Professional that are said to be less likely not to perform well at extreme low temperatures. Again, bring lots of cards and keep them somewhere warm on your body when out shooting to be prepared for the worst.
With a little bit of knowledge and preparation we can minimize the time we would lose having cold weather issues and chance missing shots like this one:
Now that we have gone over clothing and equipment concerns let’s take a look at the equipment itself.
Here is a list of what I bring to Churchill for equipment:
Note: equipment, especially lens requirements can vary depending on which trip you are on. For this list I am referring to my Nature’s Photo Adventures Polar Bears with Cubs trip in March.
500/600/800 mm lens (a minimum of 400 with extenders is an absolute must or a 300 2.8 with a 1.4 and 2x teleconverter).
2 digital slr camera bodies
A zoom lens such as a 100-400 or 70-200
A wide angle lens for landscapes and bearscapes
A flash extender such as a better beamer
A sturdy carbon fiber tripod such as those made by Gitzo or similar.
Other things to consider and remember:
Our pursuit of photographing nature and wildlife can take us to the ends of the earth and everywhere in between. We will experience all kinds of extreme weather. With proper planning and gear we can put ourselves in the best possible situation/s to capture the images we all covet.
I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that after you experience seeing and photographing these amazing animals in their natural habitat that you will have long forgotten about the cold fingers and toes and marvel at the images you have kept as a lifelong memory of your time in Churchill with Nature’s Photo Adventures.
David Hemmings is the owner of Nature’s Photo Adventures. His company offers top notch workshops around the world.
They currently have workshops planned for 2011/2012 for Polar Bears in and around Churchill
One in particular that is bound to sell out quickly is the Polar Bears Moms and Cubs workshop in March 2012
This is something not to be missed if photographing polar bears with their young in their natural environment at eye level is something that interests you. You will be shown all of the necessary skills and techniques required to get images like the ones in this article.
Visit the Nature’s Photo Adventures website at: www.naturesphotoadventures.com And click on the Polar Bear workshops page.
You can also contact David directly at email@example.com
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