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Alaska is the only state in the country that’s home to three types of bears: the polar bear, the black bear, and the brown bear. It’s why photographers converge annually on the Last Frontier, hoping to document ursine activity in the bears’ natural habitats, in such locations as the Anan Wildlife Observatory, Katmai National Park, and Admiralty Island, home to one of the world’s highest density of brown bears. Read on for tips on photographing bears in Alaska while these magnificent creatures eat, play, and interact.
To gain entry into sections of certain viewing areas that offer access to bear viewing, you’ll often have to take a seaplane. That means there may be weight restrictions, so limit your gear to one or two DSLRs or Mirrorless bodies with a couple of compact lenses. Add extra batteries, memory cards, any filters you like to use, and rain covers in case of inclement weather.
You obviously want to stay a safe distance from the animals you’re photographing. The Tamron SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens is one such lens that offers such flexibility, with an extra-long reach. If you use that lens on a crop sensor camera, you’ll achieve even more effective magnification. Bird photographers often use a similar combination for that very reason.
The best times of the year for bear watching in Alaska are June through September. If you want the chance to photograph them catching salmon in the rivers, July and August are your best bets. That’s the peak of the salmon runs (when the salmon is sparse, bears will eat things like clams and grass instead).
Although you’ll likely be able to spot bears at any time of day, they tend to be out foraging for food early in the day and later in the evening. Those times of day also happen to coincide with the best natural lighting.
That said, Alaska, during the summer months, enjoys nearly 24-hour daylight. Between May and July, for example, some areas never get completely dark, even between sunset and sunrise. So, don’t expect traditional lighting conditions.
Every park or preserve that features bears has basic guidelines to protect both the bears and the visitors. You’ll likely be required to stay a certain number of feet away from the bears. This means if the bears approach you and block your path, you’ll be subject to what’s known as a “bear jam.” You’ll effectively be stuck there until the bears decide to move. That’s okay – that gives you plenty of time to take more pictures.
In fact, the opposite is the case. While you don’t want to make super-loud noises that startle the bears, you do want to make enough of it, so the bears know you’re there at all times. It can be more alarming for the bears if you’re trying to be stealthy and then suddenly emerge. Some people will wear a bell attached to their knapsack, or just talk very loudly.
There’s something more intimate about a portrait in which you feel like you’re looking eye-to-eye with your subject. Crouch or kneel on the ground or viewing platform to get as close to that angle of view as you can.
If you’re out in a small boat, you’re practically at water level already, so if bears are frolicking nearby, you’re set.
If the bears are on the move, shoot in AI Servo mode or AF-F (Nikon), Continuous Focus (Canon), Continuous AF (Sony), so that your focus continually adjusts as you’re tracking moving subjects.
Part of what you want to accomplish when photographing wildlife is to tell their story. Highlighting a sow cuddling with her cubs or siblings tussling in the grass is a way to showcase their relationships and create emotive photos.
Wildlife is unpredictable, and there’s no real way to tell when a real money shot, like a bear catching a salmon in the river, will emerge. But when bears are engaged in an activity, they’ll actually stay in the same place for a significant amount of time.
So, if you stick around, hunker down, and just keep taking pictures. You’ll be more likely to produce a bunch of keepers.
Even if you time your visit for when the bears are expected to be active and the salmon flowing, it’s Mother Nature – things don’t always work out as planned.
The activity level is somewhat consistent, but it does vary from year to year. If you get there and the bears are a bust, it’s disappointing, but go to Plan B.
Photograph the amazing Alaska Peninsula landscapes, or keep an eye out for the region’s diverse bird population. Look to the dozens of other mammals in the area, including red foxes, porcupines, beavers, and otters instead.
I hope you find these 11 tips for photographing bears in Alaska tips helpful. If you have any other tips or bear photos you’d like to share, please do so in the comments section!
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