Grizzly bear photography in the Great Bear Rainforest
My Top 15 Bear Photography Tips
My first view of the Great Bear Rainforest, the last great expanse of temperate rainforest in the world, was through the window of a floatplane. The excitement, mingled with a touch of nervousness over the flight, was palpable. Would we see any bears? Would we see any cubs? Would we be able to capture the photos we longed for? Here are my tips to help you master bear photography.
My experience of photography on a professional level was, to date, within the tourism industry, photographing hotels and swimming pools and the like. Grizzly bears were a whole new board game. I won’t pretend to be an expert by any means, but before heading to Canada I spent a day with wildlife photographer David Plummer at Knepp in West Sussex. It was time well spent, and I’d recommend it to anyone heading off on a wildlife watching holiday in the hopes of capturing great images. And even if you aren’t planning any photography trips abroad, David will show you that England has some wonderful wildlife of its own. He picked me up on some of my bad habits and gave me some great wildlife photography tips too, so I’d like to pass them on to you, together with some notes from my time photographing grizzly bears and the Great Bear Rainforest.
The Great Bear Rainforest
Floating along by the moss covered trees that reach out towards us from the river banks, this is our last chance to see any bears. The forest is so mesmerising that we’ve almost forgotten that’s why we are here. Almost, that is. Wildlife is unpredictable, and to get that winning shot you have to be ready at all times. On a previous outing, we’d all relaxed following a heavy downpour that had seen us hide our cameras away in waterproof boxes. The rain had almost stopped, and as the boat passed a massive rock on the shore, a bear suddenly appeared right next to us. But it wasn’t there for long. And I’d not followed the most important rule: always be ready. The opportunity was missed. Luckily this wasn’t the first or last bear we saw, but just imagine if it had been.
Bear Photography Tips
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first: research. If you are going on an organised bear photography tour like this one, find out as much as you can about the conditions you’ll be photographing in before you go. It’s also a good idea to ask if you’ll have to walk (and how far) to reach the photography location, as you may have to carry your equipment for some distance. Check what time of day organised excursions occur. Two of ours happened in the evening when the light was dimming, making fast shutter speeds less and less viable as the sun sank lower. A lens with a wider aperture to let in more light would have been a godsend on those evenings.
2. Have the right camera body
Professional quality DSLRs, like my Nikon D700, are expensive, but they are built to take some serious usage and are much more robust than lesser cameras. They are dust proof and, while by no means waterproof, they shouldn’t be damaged by a little drizzle. You can read more about my basic camera kit here. Realistically though, they are out of many people’s price range – but if do your homework and you are sure you’ll get good use out of it, buy the best DSLR camera body that you can.
3. Use at least a 300mm zoom lens
When photographing bears and many other animals you’ll want at least a 300mm lens. The lens I used for these grizzly bear shots was a Sigma 150-500 mm f5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM for Canon Digital and Film SLR Cameras. It’s mighty heavy, and while in a boat, with dimming light, I couldn’t help but wonder if a shorter, lighter zoom might have been more practical.
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4. Tripod / Monopod / Bean Bag
Such heavy lenses need additional support. Your wrists will kill you if you try to hand hold it all day and anything that will reduce wobble is invaluable. If photographing from a hide, a tripod is perfect although there isn’t always room to put it up, in which case a monopod might be better. That’s also the way to go if you are photographing bears from a small boat as we were. As our luggage was limited on the small planes, I only took my tripod, using it with its legs together as if it were a monopod. In some situations, a bean bag might work best to support your camera.
5. Use a lens hood
Pictures taken with a lens hood tend to have deeper, more saturated colours. They also serve to protect the lens and help keep splashes of water off it should it rain.
6. Use a wide aperture
Long lenses need fast shutter speeds, so set your camera on aperture priority and to the widest aperture it has. This will give you a narrow depth of field, as seen in the photo of a juvenile bald-headed eagle below. It also helps to separate your subject from the background, which is especially important if the background is busy and distracting.
7. ISO sensitivity settings
You’ll get better quality photos when using a lower ISO, but you need to keep the shutter speed up to match the length of the lens you are using. Longer lenses need faster shutter speeds to eliminate any camera shake. If you’re using a 300mm lens, then the minimum shutter speed should be 1/300th of a second, for 400mm it should be 1/400th, and so on. Unless you are a whizz at switching between ISO settings, set the maximum ISO setting you want your camera to use, and a minimum shutter speed. On my camera, the ISO sensitivity setting is under the ‘Shooting Menu’. Having set, this your camera will then automatically switch the ISO to the lowest possible to keep your shutter above the minimum you have set.
Matrix (evaluated) metering mode is most commonly recommended for wildlife photography. You can read more about different metering modes here, Understanding Metering Modes in Photography. If the background is dark, you might also want to try setting your exposure compensation to – 0.7.
9. Turn off all sound
Make sure you have turned off all camera sounds as even the small click may scare the bears away.
Single Serve (S) will allow you to focus on the bear, press the shutter release halfway down to lock the focus, then recompose the image. Always focus on any animals eyes. If the eyes are sharp and clear you can usually get away with other parts of the animal and even other parts of the animal’s face, being less sharp.
11. Use continuous high-speed mode
Use Continuous High-Speed Mode so that the camera continuously takes images while the shutter release button is held down, capturing every nuance of the bear’s expression.
12. Never use flash
NEVER use the flash. Apart from startling the bear and scaring it off, a bear which is temporarily blinded from a flash going off in its face will not be a happy bear.
13. Always be ready
Have your camera turned on, with the correct settings and your lens cap off at all times. I have a terrible habit of turning my camera off all the time, but with wildlife, it’s important to be ready to go into action at a moment’s notice.
14. Avoid any sudden movement
Another bad habit I had to try to break was moving my hands too quickly, potentially spooking the bears.
15. Set the scene
Don’t forget to photograph the environment in which the animals you are looking for live. A sense of place is important. Try to capture its beauty. The plants growing there, other animals, not forgetting the weather, are all part of the story. We didn’t see any bears on that last outing, but the forest and waterways were particularly beautiful that morning. The reflections were stunning in the still water.
Read more of my photography tips.
Inspired and want to find out more? Visit Explore Canada.
Read more about the Great Bear Tours.
See more of my photography from the Great Bear Rainforest.
You might also enjoy from British Columbia:
Cities on the edge of nature – Vancouver, a fabulous eco-friendly city with nature all around.
Cities on the edge of nature – Victoria, a welcoming, sea-side town with great food, a great atmosphere and whales a plenty (except when we were watching) plus responsible whale watching tips.
A Novice’s Guide to Bear Watching in British Columbia – 10 Things You Need To Know.
Luxury in the Wilderness at the Great Bear Lodge.
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I visited Vancouver as a guest of Destination Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign.
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Love those bear shots Kat. Wish I managed to get that close. Last time I was in the region it wasn’t a great season but we did manage to see a bear from the air while flying into Nimmo Bay Lodge.
Excellent tips. Until about a month ago I was living on Vancouver Island and really wanted to do one of these trips. The only problem was they are so expensive I couldn’t fit it into my budget full-time travelling lifestyle! I guess I’ll have to wait until I am older and richer :).
I do hope you get there one day Jane. It’ll be worth the wait.
Some really good tips here and some fabulous photos. I was tested recently while whale watching in Monterey and really had to be ready all the time because you never knew when the whales were going to leap out of the water and when they did it was over in seconds. Glad to say I got some good shots though 🙂
That’s great. I was very disappointed we didn’t see any whales during our trip from Victoria but that’s all part and parcel of wildlife watching. So glad you had better luck than us.
Great tips Kathryn, I like the idea of using tripod as a monopod where you can’t put it up fully, and a lens hood would’ve been really useful in the rain.
While not ideal it did work reasonably well and was way, way better than nothing.
Great photography tips Kat which would be useful for any adventure where wildlife spotting is on the cards – hope I get to use my zoom lens on a trip like this some day
I hope you do too Heather and that when you do some of these tips come in handy for you.
Great advice and tips! Thanks for these!!!
Hope they’re useful Gary.
Also remember … if he turns nasty, you don’t need to run faster than the bear, just faster than the person next to you! 😀
Hehe! Indeed 😀
Really useful tips Kathryn applying to any kind of wildlife photography. Your photos show just what a difference knowing what you’re doing and having the right equipments makes.
It certainly does Zoe and it’s something I’d love to do a lot more of and learn more about. Photographing red squirrels next weekend.