How to Safely Photograph the Biggest Bears on Earth
“Lions and tigers and bears…oh my!” I can’t say much about lions and tigers, but being within close proximity of brown bears that can weigh over 1000 pounds can certainly make one say, “Oh my!” Few other creatures in North America summon forth such fear, wonder, awe, and respect as the mighty bears that inhabit such places as Alaska. For many photographers, capturing an image of a monstrous, furry beast in the wild is a once in a lifetime chance. Such a coveted opportunity can create a disciplined, calculated approach to making the most of a rare experience, or, it can tempt one to engage in some very, very dangerous and life threatening actions …to one’s self, and ultimately the animals.
Contrary to sensationalized media representations, the vast majority of black, brown and grizzly bears are not savagely roaming the rivers and woods in a relentless, bloodthirsty hunt for their next human victim. Most bears are rather shy by nature and want nothing to do with people…including having them on the menu. I currently live on Kodiak Island, Alaska, and despite having several thousand of the biggest brown bears on earth (including one living in my back yard at times!) there has only been one bear related death in the past 90 years, despite countless people venturing into bear territory and being among these massive animals for a variety of outdoor activities.
But make no mistake; while bear attacks and deaths are very rare in the grand scheme of things, they do happen! This past August was a grim reality check, as a man was killed by a grizzly bear in Denali Park…while apparently trying to photograph the animal at too close of a range. Along with the photographer tragically losing his life, the bear also ended up being killed as a part of the investigation, which is usually the case in such circumstances. An important point to remember is that how one interacts with bears not only dictates the outcome of the encounter for one’s self, but it also dictates and influences how that bear will react to future encounters with humans. Thus, an improper bear encounter puts you, future people, and the bears themselves in potential danger.
Wild bears, and the places they call home, demand the utmost respect and care! In many ways, bears are like people: they don’t appreciate it much, and can get very angry, if you mess with their living quarters, food, family, personal space, or wake them up from a nap. So how does one go about safely and respectfully photographing these incredible beasts? With knowledge, practice, and safety.
First and foremost, long before you venture out into bear country, you should educate yourself as much as possible about the different species of bears you may encounter. Black bears, grizzly bears (which are essentially interior brown bears) and the massive coastal brown bears all have unique characteristics that need to be carefully studied. Having a solid knowledge of bear habitat, preferred food sources, modes of communication, social structure, behavior patterns, etc., will keep both yourself and the bears far safer and at ease than tramping through the woods with a big ol’ 44 mag on your hip. While having both non-lethal and lethal means of bear protection with you is not a bad idea (where legal) an arsenal of bear behavioral knowledge will offer you much greater defense from potential threats. There are lots of easily accessible sources of information of this subject, but a good place to start is here – http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=livingwithbears.main and here… http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/safety/bears.htm
Once you have done your homework and are ready to head to the wilds for a bear photo safari, I’d recommend first doing some practice on subjects that will not be able to rip your head off if you make a fatal mistake. Go to your local zoo, or if possible, to a conservation area or wildlife preserve where you can watch and study bears for many hours in a safe, controlled environment. Getting familiar with how bears look in a certain light, how they move, how they interact with other bears, eat, drink, etc., will get you prepared for what to look for when photographing in the wild, and it will also give you ideas of particular scenarios you’d like to capture with your camera.
Finally, again, safety is the #1 concern for both you and the bears. If you are not comfortable or properly prepared to venture out in search of an animal the size of your living room couch to take pictures of, have no fear! “Bear viewing” is big business in places like Kodiak Island, Katmai National Park and many other areas known for having high concentrations of these wonderful creatures. A short search on the web, and you’ll find a plethora of professional bear viewing services that will be happy to take you out to see and photograph truly wild bears, in a very safe and respectful manner.
Along with professional bear viewing opportunities, there are many places around Alaska where one can photograph bears at conservation lands, parks, and rivers, from safe, designated observation areas. While most of the bears I have photographed have been at my favorite, remote fishing holes, I have certainly got some great shots from some of these safer and more public settings. I have the “best of” my bear photography displayed in the Bears of Alaska gallery at my website- www.wildrevelation.com
To sum things up a bit, let me remind you that I’m certainly not an expert on bears, however, let me pass on some advice from someone who is. The following points are from Dr. Larry Van Daele, who is a wildlife biologist here on Kodiak Island and one of the leading experts on bears. Here are some points the good Doctor would like to stress in regard to photographing bears…
- Decide what time of year you want to go – bears are much more tolerant of other bears and people when there is a concentrated food source (think summer and salmon) than they are in the spring and fall. Your strategy will be different at different times of the year.
- Stalking versus waiting – if you watch and wait it is safer and easier on the photographer and the bear. Like people, bears do not like to be stalked.
- Ingress and egress – most photographers are stealthy when they are going in for the shot, but many (most?) either keep shooting until the subject flees, or they stand up and scare the critter after they have their image. This is disrespectful to the animal and it has an adverse impact on its food gathering or resting. It also makes the animal much more scared of people and more likely to flee when the next photographer comes by.
- Think about the message your image will be conveying – when you take an image and distribute it, it is more than an ego-trip or financial gain for the photographer. You have a responsibility to the animal to accurately portray it – many bears have been unnecessarily shot because of the fear-factor caused by snarling bear photographs. Another example of this was the photo that appeared in the local papers this summer of kayakers harassing a swimming bear – an illegal and disrespectful act, but by photographing it some other folks may be encouraged to try it.
- Use long lenses whenever possible – high quality lenses and lots of mega-pixels allow you to get good shots without disturbing the animal.
- Bears are light-suckers – lighting is a constant challenge when shooting bears. Their fur seems to suck light so that the subject is usually dark and backlit. Practice with your settings to devise an effective way to deal with that challenge.
- Cubs are cute but dangerous – the most interesting and adorable shot involves cubs. They are cute and playful, but they are also the most dangerous bears in the wild. If you get close to them they may run (alerting an angry mom to protect them) or their curiosity may tempt them to come over to check you out (followed close behind by a protective mom). Keep your distance from cubs!
- Don’t feed the bears – never, never set out bait (natural or otherwise) to attract a brown bear. It’s illegal in Alaska and most other area and can be dangerous.
- Watch your six – fighter pilots are not the only ones who need to watch their six-o’clock position. While you are focused on the bear in front of you another one may sneak up behind you, or may stumble on your position in you are on a bear trail. Surprise encounters are not fun and can be dangerous.
- Dress for success – brown bears live in parts of the world that are typically cold, wet, windy and buggy. If you are going to spend long hours in those conditions, especially if you are trying to sit quietly, you need to be prepared with the proper clothing. You also need to have the proper “clothing” for you camera equipment so that it is ready for action when that perfect shot presents itself.
Joseph Classen is a photographer based on Kodaik Island, Alaska. His website is: www.wildrevelation.com