Ron Levy, 2020
Photographing grizzly bears is one of the biggest rushes you’ll ever get. There’s nothing like getting the “shot of a lifetime”, with the not-so-subtle realization that it could be the last shot of your lifetime. In the peak of the photographic action, you don’t want to blow it; you want to maximize your potential while you’re in these bucket-list situations. These photo tips will help you be safe, be prepared, shoot like the pros, and show you how to avoid mistakes that could ruin or shut down your experience in (literally) a heartbeat.
Alaska has 3 species of bears (black, brown and polar) and a million photo opportunities to shoot them in all kinds of situations. The tips below will concentrate on 2 of those 3 species, black and brown, of which 99% of photographers want to see. Polar bears are a whole new shooting experience, usually requiring either a boat or very controlled shooting conditions (as in Churchill) from vehicles or specially built blinds. And it costs a LOT more money.
Black and brown bears are essentially similar in their behavior and ranges, though there are some subtle differences in behavior (especially when aggressive) that are mentioned at the end of these tips.
To give you some background, I’ve been shooting bears, wildlife and subsistence cultures worldwide for four decades now. I also worked for many years in resource management as a park ranger for the Nat’l Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, and Alaska Dept of Environmental Conservation. Unfortunately, I witnessed many bear incidents that were almost entirely caused by human ignorance and/or bad recreational habits, which often resulted in the bear’s relocation and/or “termination”. This is unnecessary, as a few simple precautions, and awareness of bear behavior, can facilitate longer, happier, recurring experiences for both parties, with minimal to no impact on the animal or resources.
Although the photo and wildlife tips on this page are geared to photographing grizzly and black bears in situations where they are relatively used to photographers — National Parks, photo tours, popular fishing destinations – much of them apply to any photo encounter. For that reason, to keep things concise, the more general exposure, composition and behavior tips (human and animal) can be found at 50+ Photo Tips from 50 years in the Field, How to Avoid a Bear Attack & Approach Wildlife, and other pages.
Equipment & Preparation
The choice of camera and other equipment for shooting bears is really no different than any other animal (except for close-up photography). I won’t get into specific model cameras or manufacturers. I have been a Nikon Pro Member for 30+ years, but the other major companies all make great equipment that can serve you well. But I will touch on the perennial question of how much to spend on equipment to produce the best photos. Read on.
In terms of lenses, whether male or female, all photographers love length. Lenses from about 70mm => 500mm or more will be your best friends, including any top of the line tele-extenders. The balance is always between length, weight and the limits of your equipment. But before I go any further here, I want to dispel a popular myth.
You might hear some popular photographers and advice such as “it’s not the gear, it’s the photographer”, or “you can take horrible photos even with a great camera”, etc. This is deceptive and a huge generalization. The better lenses will have sharper resolutions, better contrast, better bokeh, better flare control over different lighting conditions, faster AF, all over a wider range of f-stops and, if using zooms, focal lengths. Sometimes they are even lighter than earlier lenses of the same length (e.g. Nikon’s PF 500mm). These are things you can’t control, no matter how great a photographer you are! (See Photo Glossary for any unfamiliar terms)
Similarly, better cameras take faster photos, have better sensors, are sometimes lighter (e.g. mirrorless), and can take a beating in the field. Again, these are things you can’t control. Same with file sizes. More megapixels allow better post processing and more print size options, to say the least.
Analyze your shooting habits, life goals, travel plans, and post-shooting use of the photos, and simply buy the best gear you can afford. I have never regretted shooting with great gear, especially when others on the photo (tours) have had cameras break or quit on them while I keep shooting. BTW, I don’t have the the most expensive cameras at the top of the list. I tend to be quite happy buying a step or two down from the top (e.g. Nikon’s 750 instead of 850 or D4). It’s still quite an investment, and I respect budgets as well as anybody, but the investment is still worth the best you can afford.
Regarding tele-extenders – the separate rear-element-attaching lenses that magnify your existing prime or zoom lens by 1.4 or 1.7x (don’t use 2x extensions) – if you’re willing to spend the money on extended bear tours, don’t bring cheap tele extenders with you. Generally, the manufacturer’s matched extenders (1.4x or 1.7x at most) for your lens are the best. You will still take an exposure hit with the reduced amount of light and contrast when using tele-extenders, as well as some possible autofocus delays or, in some cases, inability completely for the camera to AF with some extenders.
Balance the use of a buying an expensive extender against the ability in post processing to enlarge and crop the smaller image in the regular, “un-extended” lens. There will still be a slight loss of quality, depending on how big your final image will be, and whether it will just be used for online (72ppi) vs print (300dpi) resolutions.
The only time I would recommend wide angle lens(es) would be if you have remote triggering equipment, where you can leave them set up and catch a “close-up environmental” shot. You want a wide angle to be safe – not from predators like bears, but in terms of field of view. You just won’t know where the animal will be in the frame. It’s easier to crop out unnecessary or distracting parts of the frame – without violating any ethical standards – than to “un-crop” a bear’s eye or ear that was cut off by the choice of too long a lens.
Other than your own camera preferences and the lenses mentioned above, here are some other equipment considerations
Foldable chair with shoulder strap
Hat, gloves, rain gear (upper shell, pants, neoprene hip waders — can cover photo gear if not worn)
Tripod with vibration damping qualities (e.g. carbon-fibers)
Photo vest (great for hiking and holding gear on charter flights where only carry-on bags are weighed. Load up!)
Small beanbag or other piece of clothing (gloves, hat) to rest camera on a rock, car, etc.
Bear spray and/or firearm (10mm or ~.40 caliber pistol min. if desired/permitted)
Snacks, water bottle, insect repellent
Extra memory cards, batteries and charger (solar charger if available)
Multi-tool and tiny screwdriver for camera
Ziploc bags for memory cards, binocs, batteries, insect repellent, anything that can leak or get ruined from water
Cell phone, 2-way radio (for talking to others in your group) and/or Single Side band, Satellite phone,VHF, or CB
(Radios recommended only if you are going on a private trip, not with a guided tour)
Timing involves time of year, time of day, and the split second timing of your shot (discussed earlier). The shot above, taken almost 30 years ago in McNeil Sanctuary, Alaska, was the result of timing and lens compression. The sow was very comfortable passing close to the biologist who had been there over 15 years, and the shutter was clicked the moment she swung her head in our direction. Her actual distance from his hand was about 10-15 feet, but still pretty close to keep all hearts pounding hard.
Time of year to photograph bears depends on a combination of factors – what types of bears are you looking for, and/or what situations do you want to capture? Most photographers think of salmon fishing in Alaska or elsewhere, and these are fantastic situations to get close to wild bears in parks and refuges. You can shoot against a variety of possible backgrounds, colors, water or land scenes. Plus you can get both close-up or environmental shots that reveal a variety of emotions and universal behaviors that relate to humans and all animals.
If you are after specific bear scenes – cubs, forested or fall colors, winter, etc. – then you may want to visit interior locations, or different times of the year corresponding to the behaviors you might be after. Here is a rough chart on seasonal timing for various bear activity in Alaska:
Time of year What to expect (roughly, some overlap)
May-June Mating, cubs born, flowers, early salmon runs
July-August Salmon runs, early fall colors
September Fall colors, less activity, some frost on ground or snow dusting the mountains
Sept-Oct Polar bears close to shore, waiting for sea ice to cover bays
In Alaska, summer morning light begins a little after midnight….OK, not quite morning, but my point is that there is light pretty darn early if you want to catch it. The question is more about discovering when the light will be falling on your subjects. The earlier you can get out and set up, the more time you’ll have to get lucky. Even when I haven’t seen the animal(s) that I came for, I’ve never been disappointed getting out as early as possible, if only to experience the supreme comfort of a glorious misty morning in the middle of nowhere.
Often, timing is really just another word for lighting. More specifically, lighting in terms of amount, quality (warm, cool, soft, hard) and direction. It can be direct frontal, back or side/oblique. Or it can be a indirect, diffuse overcast. They all have advantages and disadvantages. For bears with dark coats, overcast light can be great, spreading the light diffusely to keep dark areas from blotching up. But direct light can also be great on the face and eyes, but if it spills all over the bear, it may be relatively flat, and there may not be much “mood” to the shot.
That golden morning or evening light (basically direct light but low) is what we all live for, but you must be ready for it. Consider which way the light will hit the scene in morning vs afternoon vs evening light. Where will be bears be during each of these times of day? Will there be light on the hills behind them but they will be in shade? That’s not always a bad thing, as you might catch a blaze of color on the hills with a nice bear in the foreground, even though it might be darker. Your patience might also be rewarded if a bear in the shade stands up and catches momentary spot light on its face.
Usually you have little choice where you’ll be in relation to the bear. The light may be behind you or behind the bear. Backlit bears can be great, as their size and fur can make dramatic silhouettes, or add drama to an ordinary scene. The light doesn’t have to be directly behind them; in fact, it’s better if it’s off to the side to avoid flare and emphasize texture.
For more in-depth camera tips on Exposure, Focus, Shutter Speeds, and Aperture, see 50+ Photo Tips from 50 years in the field.
What about the story?
This section is also repeated on the How to Photograph Wildlife.. page, mainly because I learned it from some master editors and photographers a long time ago, and still feel it is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard.
Look beyond individual shots and think editorially. Is there a story that can’t quite be conveyed with a single shot? Would a slower shutter speed convey the motion better than a fast speed (e.g. a bear shaking off water, or fighting with another bear). The recent shift in the last 10-20 years by editors and publications (online and print) to include more images taken by cell phones is an acknowledgment of the priority given to the energy, emotion or anticipation captured, rather than the sharpest, clearest, closest photo possible. Shoot for energy and emotion, and you won’t be disappointed.
Consider also what a specific scene might look over time – morning, afternoon and evening, or spring through winter? Or the same animal in different situations – feeding, sleeping, playing with cubs, etc.? Are there human-animal interactions that can be pieced together for an impactful or unified message? Many times individual shots don’t have to all be killer shots, but together they have an impact far beyond the power of one.
The story doesn’t have to be editorial. It can be a message, something for the viewer to consider beyond the beauty of the image. When I work with NGOs or publications founded or sponsored by NGOs, they look for subtle or not-so-subtle messages like disappearing ice sheets in the north, animals affected by man’s activities, universal bonds and themes that tug on our heartstrings enough to change our minds or our lifestyles. Keep these ideas in mind everywhere you photograph, because everywhere there are icons and messages waiting to be discovered, connected and brought to our attention. And we listen to photographs more than we listen to logic. We are moved first, then moved to action.
The Dirty Little Secret about Bears
Grizzly bear yearling “whispering” to another, McNeil Falls, Alaska
If you haven’t noticed by now, most of the recommendations given above apply to almost any animal, except maybe a sloth. Even though bears have big teeth and can rip you to shreds, the dirty little secret is that they are just like any other animal, including us. They play with each other, with rocks, with other bears, with fish, etc. They swim, nap, play and socialize as cubs, roll around, raise families and adore their young. They will defend against threats and intruders. And like most other animals, including humans, they don’t like paparazzi getting into their comfort zone.
So it goes without saying, or by saying over and over — be patient. If it takes hours to get your shot, you’re lucky. Sometimes it takes years. The more you spend time with them, match their rhythms, show them respect, control your fears, leave them alone and don’t stress them out when they’re not in the mood — the better your images will be. (Just like people)
If you think of bears in this way, rather than a constant adversary hell-bent on destroying you, your attitude and awareness will guide you how to move and act around them. (see also How to Approach Bears & Avoid Attacks)
Like all other animals I have encountered – predators and prey – they will sense your respect and return the favor. Trust becomes mutual. Your time among them will be extended, and your photos will reflect funny or relaxed behaviors with more insight and ultimately more visual impact.
I wish you great shooting and great experiences. If you liked these tips, you’ll love our photo tours!
Text & photos © Ron Levy, 2020
Ron Levy started leading day tours back in 1980 when he was stationed as a Park Ranger on San Miguel Island off the coast of California. He has guided hundreds of photographers and travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 40 years. His images have appeared in commercial and editorial publications worldwide, and exhibited in museums, galleries, murals and billboards in the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct photo instructor for the University of Alaska, and provides photography and in-kind support for NGOs in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects worldwide.