Tips on Brown Bear Photography at Brooks Falls, Alaska
Ron Levy, updated 2022
Introduction & Geography
Brooks Falls is the quintessential bear photography capital of the world. Located in Katmai National Park about an hour flight from Anchorage or the famous Kenai Peninsula, it is a place where you can have it all — beautiful scenery, lots of bears, constant activity and engagement, safe viewing platforms, meals, lodging (exorbitant prices) and other like-minded photographers on similar bucket-list adventures.
There are more bear camps and sites to photograph bears not shown on the maps below as you head farther south on the Alaska Peninsula (Hallo Bay, McNeil Falls, Geographic Harbor Kukak Bay, etc.). They are equally expensive to get to, often take more time in a boat (overnight) or plane (transfers from Homer, King Salmon or Kodiak), generally involve more frequent worse weather as you approach open ocean, and require more of a commitment of time. Though they can give you superb bear encounters, you can often get the same encounters and much better return on your investment with the terrific bear camps in the northern end of the Alaska Peninsula like Brooks, etc.
Kodiak island lies south of Homer and east of the Alaska Peninsula. Though Kodiak has the largest coastal bears, it is not easy to get to, has often miserably rainy weather, and is not as convenient nor as affordable as the other spots detailed below.
A word about McNeil Falls: Also located in Katmai Nat’l Park, here is another superbly managed bear-encounter area. Like Brooks, you can see lots of bears fishing for salmon up close and personal. In fect, it offers closer encounters than Brooks, as there are no managed boardwalks and gated areas at the time of this writing. I have seen and encountered bears within inches, and there are more videos online of such encounters. Also like Brooks, McNeil has been managed for many decades, by the state of Alaska rather than federal government. Generations of bears have also grown up without fear of humans nor desire for them as food sources.
The drawback to McNeil Falls (aside from the equally expensive price and access), is the lottery system that is used to allow visitors in. You must put your name in and pay various amounts just to be considered for the lottery, with no guarantee that you’ll be chosen. But it is another option if you want a little more open scenery and bears without the crowds, costs and restrictions of Brooks Falls.
Lake Clark and Katmai parks have a supreme combination of estuaries (tidal flats where salmon rivers meet the sea) and mountains, where bears can return to their dens in the fall. Food is plentiful in the tidal areas for 6 months from spring to fall. In addition to sedges that are high in protein and other edible plants in the salt marshes, razor clams exist throughout the tide flats, and berries grow on the hillsides. Salmon return each summer by the millions to spawn and die upstream, and sometimes seals, whales and other marine carcasses wash up with the tide for a bonus meal.
The Naknek River flows into Bristol Bay, in southwest Alaska. Communities along the river include Naknek, South Naknek, and King Salmon. Over 30,000 visitors per year come through Naknek and King Salmon, headed for great fishing, flightseeing and bear viewing throughout the area. As the first map shows, popular bear camps are located throughout the Alaska Peninsula, which comprises the same land masses and volcanoes that form the beginning of the Aleutian islands.
The Naknek River system is made up of several large lakes and interconnected rivers. A boat or float plane is necessary for access anywhere to. from and within this system. Most of this system, including Naknek Lake, is surrounded by Katmai National Park and Preserve.Much of the rest of the land along the Naknek belongs to Native organizations and private individuals.
Most fishing takes place in the main stem of the river, with some in the tributaries, and in Naknek Lake. The Naknek system currently receives the highest sportangler effort of any river in southwest Alaska, in part because of its world-renowned rainbow trout and salmon fishing, and in part because of its easy access.
As you can see from the second map, float planes access Brooks Camp from Brooks River on the southern side of Naknek Lake. Though this part of the land is heavily vegetated, it is relatively easy walking with rolling hills and gradual elevation changes. The steep volcanoes and mountains border the easterns side of the Alaska peninsula, and pilots simply fly along the coastline and enter the parks through mountain passes. The simplicity of access and maagement at Brooks is a testament to 50 years of excellent National Park System management. Both bears and people are managed in a way that maximizes the safety, natural activities and enjoyment of both.
But as alluded to above, this easy convenience has its costs. If you pay for everything separately, day flights to Brooks typically cost $1500-2000 per person. Meals and lodging in any of the bear camps also cost $1500-2000/day. You can lower your per day cost by choosing a multi-day photo tour like those we offer, taking advantage of the volume discounts we get and pass down to our clients. Aside from the cost benefit, you also get a private guide with door to door pickup to/from Anchorage, all meals and lodging away from tthe bear camps as well, and other wildlife experiences all around southcentral Alaska.
There are different brown bear populations and family dynamics within each coastal area. For example, if you want classic bears catching salmon in waterfalls, then Brooks or McNeil would be the two top choices. Some bear camps are, quite frankly, might be better for you than others for the style of photographer you are, or the photos you are after. They both offer a relatively safe, convenient experience for lot of photographers to witness those classic brown bear-salmon fishing encounters.
But if you are looking for perhaps less cliche shots — e.g. more family interactions, cubs with sows nursing in fields of flowers, or with dramatic mountains or glaciers in the background, then maybe Hallo Bay, Chinitna or any of a number of areas farther south might be better. These are more open areas with a little more opportunities to wander around. They would also offer a less crowded, more personal, and perhaps and more rewarding experience for you.
In terms of general behavior at Brooks Camp (and other popular bear camps), these bears see people almost every day. We behave in generally predictable manners toward them here. they are not hunted here, nor hurt by people, and do not have a history of acquiring food from us– thus we are more like “walking trees” to them. I have always maintained that the biggest compliment to a wildlife photographer is to be ignored. Then you can relax and take all the photos you want of natural behavior. This tolerance to humans allows for the perfect bear viewing opportunity in a rarified and gorgeous setting.
Because of the high abundance of food, bears in Brooks and coastal areas are generally more tolerant of each other and people than in places with less dependable food. Bears are naturally solitary animals but still establish a hierarchy when in the same areas. This involves the use of signals through vocalizations, scent, body posturing and other behavioral signs that trained guides will be looking for to ensure your awareness, safety and respect for bear dynamics.
In addition to avoiding conflict in general, Brooks bears do not have a history of thinking of people as food sources. Plus they are neither hunted, threatened or ever injured by people, which makes us about as interesting as a raven or a gull to them. This combination of plentiful food, a high population of tolerant bears, and a long history of excellent human and bear management creates a very rare opportunity for superb experiences and photos.
Some excellent books on bear behavior specifically at Brooks Falls and nearby areas include The Bears of Brooks Falls (Michael Fitz, 2021) and any of Dr. Stephan Stringham’s books — Bear Viewing in Alaska, Bear Safety Manual, Ghost Grizzlies and Other Rare Bruins, Beauty Within the Beast, which can all be seen at http://www.bear-viewing-in-alaska.info/Bear_Viewing_Association.html
Brown vs Grizzly?
Briefly, let’s clear up some confusion. Many folks ask what the difference is between brown bears and grizzly bears. Both have the distinctive shoulder hump (lacking in black bears), long curved claws, and a wide head with a concave “dish-faced” profile. Both are brown, live in the north, and are omnivorous. So
But the short answer is, there aren’t many other differences. Brown and grizzly are common names for the same species (Ursus arctos). Coastal brown bear males typically weigh 600-900 pounds by mid-summer, with females averaging 1/3 less. By the time they hibernate in the fall, males can reach over 1,200 pounds, 5 feet tall at the shoulder and 7-10 feet in overall length.
There is some disagreement whether the Kodiak brown bear is a separate species, due to its immense size and geographic isolation on the island. But geography mostly determines whether bears can fish on inland mammals and plants versus fish. A diet rich in salmon gives coastal bears lots of fat and a more dependable, plentiful food source, so coastal brown bears tend to be bigger than inland grizzlies. Because of the abundance of fish, coastal bears tend to be well fed on a more regular basis during the summer than grizzlies. Some biologists feel this makes them slightly less aggressive or dangerous than grizzlies, but obviously, any bear can be dangerous in a particular situation. But the abundance of regular fish goes a long way toward minimizing competition for survival.
Inland grizzlies, on the other hand, tend to eat more mammals and berries, both of which are harder to find in sufficient quantities to satiate them daily in summer. Consequently, grizzlies often don’t grow as big as coastal brown bears. The same is true of black bears.
Brooks Falls has the same seasonal variation as all the other southcentral bear locations. There are two main runs of salmon — each lasting roughly 2-3 weeks. The first run begins around mid-June and usually has 6-10 pound salmon. The second run begins in the first 1-2 weeks of July and has salmon that are slighly smaller in general than the first run. This is because the second run salmon generally spend 1 less year in the ocean before coming upstream into fresh water.
There are some local variations to this timing/size schedule, such as weather, saltwater commercial fishing, ocean conditions, etc. But for the most part, this explains the timing of bear congregations as well as fishermen and photographers at Brooks and other bear-salmon areas. Below is a general guide toward the timing of certain bear behaviors for each summer month.
June: June is the best time to witness bears mating, socializing and searching for razor clams at low tide. Though bears search for clams at low tides throughout the summer, most of the salmon haven’t reached this area yet until late June, so more bears are searching for clams. Later in the month, when the tide rises, bears will look for salmon in the water and protein-rich sedges in inter-tidal meadows that are temporarily flooded. Cubs may or may not be present, depending in large part whether the boars are around or aggressive. Male bears will kill cubs and can be aggressive towards females and other bears as well. June is also the longest month of daylight, so you will have longer hours to watch and photograph bears. Wildflowers will also be out in their glory.
July: Mid-June through July is generally the best month for the most quantity of bears in coastal areas. This is due to the higher numbers of red (sockeye) salmon in Cook Inlet at this time. Sockeye salmon have a little more fat than the other salmon (silver, coho, king and chum), so bears seem to like the taste and sheer quantity of fish. They will still graze in the meadows and eat clams at low tide as well.
Mid-July thru early August is generally the best time to photograph sows with cubs. Cubs are usually born in January and are about 6 months old July. It is the best combination of time when they are old enough to be outside and active enough to follow the sow around, play around, explore.
That doesn’t mean you will get the type of interactions you may want (see above). The females with their 6 month old cubs start to leave the den in late June-early July. It is a great month for watching bears play, graze, and nurse, though it is also the most crowded for visitors. Logistics and (plane/boat) traffic will be at its peak, and some lodges and flight operators price July visits higher than other months.
August: At this time, huge bears and females with cubs are still patrolling the river banks looking for spawning salmon from the ocean. Bears are either snorkeling (nose up, feeling for salmon) or diving into the rivers to catch pink salmon that come up rivers in alternate years. You may see some rather large solitary boars and sows after a summer of feasting on salmon, grasses and clams. Cubs are getting older and yearlings will be out on their own as well. Fall colors begin to appear in early August, and in this part of Alaska, consist mostly of yellows and pink-orange. You won’t see the deep reds that are more common inland and in the northern interior of Alaska. But even a hint of color can really add a great splash of color to bear shots of any kind. Combine that with the golden light of sunsets or morning sunrises (coming later the morning now!), and you can have a saturated shot of some great bear interactions.
September: Activity at Brooks begins to close down in September. Fall colors continue though, and the days and nights can get brisk, sometimes down into the 40s. Bears will still be fishing for salmon, but most likely pinks, chum and silvers by now, as the red/sockeye runs are over. Berries will be more plentiful and you may catch feasting bears with splashes of blue across their faces and tongues. By mid-September, most of the cottonwoods, birches and willows lining the rivers have turned brilliant gold. In terms of weather, days can be brilliant sunny with brisk mornings and cool evenings.
As September is the equinox month, days and nights will be about the same length. Rain is more frequent in the fall, but clouds can offer some fantastically dramatic low-angle light and “God-light breakthroughs. Add to that the splashes of fall colors and glimmers of light on a huge grizzly’s eyeballs, and you’ve got a winner shot.
What to Bring
Most photographers bring DSLR cameras with long lenses. The newer mirrorless lenses are lighter and faster than the older traditional lenses, which will help on your hikes and if you’re the type who likes to take a lot of rapid photos. You should also bring, at bare minimum, an 80-200mm zoom lens, with a top notch extender (1.4x or 1.7x) if you want. Most photographers seem to have a 400 or 600mm lens with tripod as well. There is plenty of room to set up a tripod or monopod, and most folks are accommodating and careful of tripods.
Bring another camera body at least, preferably attached with your other lens. Include lens cloth or wipes, plenty of SD cards, extra batteries (charged and ready to go), and rain gear for yourself and cameras. See our post on What to Bring on a Photo Tour for a more comprehensive list of camera and personal items you should have for any photo tour in Alaska.
Aside from camera gear, bring lightweight rain gear and good walking shoes. Unless you have weak or problematic ankles, heavy hiking boots are unnecessary as the trail is flat, wide and groomed, and the wooden walkways are well maintained. And don’t forget a hat — either a fabric, flexible wide brimmed style (best for rain and hand-holding cameras), or wool for warmth, or baseball style for rain/sun (but hard to hand-hold cameras in vertical orientation).
Tip #1: One of the biggest tips is also one of the obvious ones that many of us forget to do. From the minute you start walking, always have a camera ready to shoot with your favorite, appropriate zoom lens. Photos happen when we least expect, and on more than one occasion I’ve had the best shot(s) from a situation or trip taken while I was on the way to the main attraction. Casual, syncronous juxtapositions and interactions occur all the time between animals, light, colors, people, etc. Be ready and be vigilant and you will spot them and, more importantly, photograph them while others are focused (pun intended) on the destination rather than the experience.
Tip #2: Bigger isn’t always better. Bears at Brooks sometimes come within a few feet of the platform. Sometimes they lie down right below you, nurse their cubs, go to sleep, fight, roll around, make a funny face, etc. Your 600mm lens will be useless for these. Keep a smaller zoom ready and attached to (preferably) another camera body or those fleeting moments of insight or beauty.
Tip #3: Expose for the bear. Even if you have the most advanced, mirrorless or other electronic DSLR, your exposure setting might be wrong. A dark bear against whitewater waterfalls can fool most meters. Make sure your camera is giving priority to the area that the bear is in. Or, as insurance, adjust your exposure knob to overexpose 1/2 – 1 full stop. Given the choice of two evils, better to overexpose water than underexpose the bear.
Tip #4: Try to keep your aperture in the middle of your lens’ range. This will give you the sharpest resolution from your lens and decent depth of field. With moving salmon, bears and water, you want to get at least 1 of those in maximum sharpness. See the next tip for more ideas.
Tip #5: Focus on the eyes — the bear’s or the salmon’s. That’s what we look at first, and chances are pretty good that if those are the point of max sharpness, the rest of the animal will be pretty much spot on. Consider whether the animal is crossing your field horizontally, obliquely or head-on. Horizontal is best, as all points will be in the same focus. If oblique or head-on, consider whether more depth of field is really necessary. This, along with the previous tip and the next 2 tips will give you a great chance of maximum sharp images.
Tip #6: Keep your shutter speed above 1/250. If you’re really trying to fast moving salmon in fast waterfalls and fast bears, 1/1000 should be enough. See tip below.
Tip #7: Adjust your ISO upward to give you more room to bump both shutter speed and aperture higher. With the quality of the better cameras these days. noise has been relegated to higher and higher numbers. With most higher end DSLR cameras producing file sizes in the 40MB+ range, you won’t see noticeable noise for most uses till you’re in the 10,000 ISO range and higher. And even then, if you really are trying to enlarge a small portion of your shot to 30×40 prints, much can be done in post processing to mitigate any noise.
Tip #8: Didn’t bring a tripod? No problem. Steady your camera on top of a piece of insulated clothing — that wool hat comes in handy now — on the platform railing. Be careful of other photographers jostling for position The railing may vibrate a little or be bumped periodically, but with a high enough shutter speed and a steady hand, you can equal the steadiness of a tripod.
Tip #9: Keep your other eye open. Watch for interactions going on outside of your camera field of view. The image above of the bear and salmon was taken after I noticed that bear climbing to the top of the falls from the pools beneath, with my non-viewfinder eye open. I immediately left my spot and scooted over to another position just in time to catch this bear and fish with the kiss of death.
Tip #10: Not a shooting tip but just as valuable. The ground below the platform is littered almost every day with lens caps, clothing, batteries, probably a few SD cards, etc. The excitement of the moment can be lost forever if you lose a valuable piece of equipment over the edge. Be vigilant about your small things and any hats, batteries, etc. you lay down. Wind and other well-meaning photographers can bump things over the railing or through the cracks. Whenever possible, tether things like SD card or battery pouches to your clothing or body part. Recognize when you might cold or wet and not able to move your fingers well to open or close things. Move slower and/or turn away from wind or rain.
Arriving at the beach in front of Brooks Camp, visitors will walk up to the NPS headquarters and watch a short introductory film about safety and biology at Brooks. Rangers will be there to answer any questions and make sure you know the basic rules (no firearms or food). There are meals available at the meal cabin if you arrive during meal hours. They cost, at the time of this writing, $17-24 per person for the salad bar and hot items.
We recommend eating before you arrive at Brooks. Unless you are staying overnight there, no need to waste valuable time inside the meal cabin. Get walking as soon as you can. Your pilot or guide may or may not go with you all the way to the viewing platforms. That depends on their schedule and whatever arrangement you or they wish to work out.
The trail to the viewing platforms takes about 30-45 minutes. It is an easy hike and you’ll probably see bears along the way in the water or marshes. This is where proper packing of camera gear, tripods and other clothing is important. The lighter and tighter you can pack, the easier it will be to take photos while moving, and the less tiring it will be hours later at the end of the day. (The walk back always seems twice as long as the walk there).
You will probably see bears on your way going to and returning from the platforms. This is actually the best time to shoot behavior scenes apart from salmon fishing. Bears will often scratch, rest or interact very close to the raised walkway or hiking trail, and you can shoot with an 80-200 or shorter lens with good results.
You’ll walk along amidst spruce forests and open marshlands, with views of lakes, birds and bears along the way. After about 30 minutes and crossing a recently made bridge across the south end of Brooks Lake, you’ll arrive at the lower platform. There are some nice views of bears fishing here and you can get some great shots up and down Brooks River with a long lens (400mm+). But the better views are generally at the upper platform. about 15 minutes away.
Once you get to the upper platform check-in area, you will give the ranger your name and party size. They regulate the amount of people allowed on this platform as it gets crowded with more than about 20 folks there with lens, tripods and gear. There is usually a wait of at least 15 minutes and sometimes up to an hour or two, depending on the time of season and number of people. When your name is called, they will let you in the gate and you walk a short distance to the platform. You’ll have about 30-45 minutes to shoot before you have to go back to the waiting area. You can relist your name/party size as many times as you like and keep shooting this way.
Whenever you are done, once you are out of the gated, monitored upper platform area, you can take your time walking and shooting back to Brooks Camp. Your guide will either be with you or waiting for you at the camp area. Afternoon rains are common, so this is when that rolled up poncho or rain gear will be worth its weight in gold. Unless you have 2-way radios, you won’t be able to communicate with your pilot or guide, so be sure to time your hike to allow 45 minutes for the walk back to camp.
Brooks Falls is world famous for many reasons, as detailed above. But it is not the only place to see bears. At unexpected times almost anywhere in Alaska, you may witness any number of bear interactions — poignant mother-cub interactions on foggy mornings, boars fighting, and human-bear close encounters throughout the summer, etc. So don’t get too stressed if you can’t come when there are “the most bears present” or “the only time there are flights”. A unique synchronicity of events, colors, moments, interactions and “god-light” can happen anywhere – e.g. on the hikes to see the bears, rather than at the actual destinations.
The more time you give yourself in Brooks — or any excursion into the wild — the more you will be rewarded with moments you couldn’t plan even if you consulted all the weather and animal behavior info available. Astounding moments await you if you are patient and prepared.
Ron Levy started leading 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 travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years, both as an NPS and USFWS ranger and independently. His images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has also been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and provides assistance to agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide.