bears, anan creek, alaska

3 Tips for Photographing Bears at Close Range

It’s getting to be that time of year – the flowers are starting to bloom, birds are starting to sing, and brown bear photo expeditions are coming up!  To make sure you are ready, whether it’s bears on a specially designed photo trip or right in your backyard, here are a few tips to help you make the most of your photos.

1) Take wider shots than you think you should

Filling the frame with a massive bear head is fantastic, and definitely something that you want to photograph if you get the opportunity.  However, many photographers will use telephoto lenses excessively, such that they only have the bear in the shot – not much of the environment, background, or anything else.  While it’s alluring and fulfilling to see your shot on the screen of your camera and marvel at how close you were able to get, and the detail of the fur still wet from the grasses it just tromped through… this is only part of the story.  What about showing your fellow travelers in the shot, or the style in which you are viewing the bears (were you on a trail, did you have chairs or a platform that you were viewing from?).  Story telling is a key part in photography, but not just for the sake of “documenting” the shot.  Be artistic, use creative angles and compositions to get this storytelling shot to be a work of art.  Be deliberate in what you include and what you don’t.  And maybe you don’t even get a shot of the bears at all, but when shown side by side that photo of you on the trail, it becomes much more evocative when you see the next photo in your portfolio with the bears in perfect view.

anan creek, bears, bear viewing, alaska

2) If you’re going to fill the frame, make sure you have a wide depth of field (high f/stop number).

Depth of field, as it pertains to your aperture/f-stop number, is a funny animal.  It actually has a great deal to do with the amount of the frame you fill with the subject.  That is, if you photograph a bear from far away, you don’t actually need that much depth of field, for if you focus on the bear the entire bear will be in great focus.  However, as you fill the frame with the bear, it becomes critical to increase the depth of field by dialing in a higher aperture number to account for the bear taking up more and more of the entire frame.  While a bear photographed 100 yards away can be in complete focus at f/4, a bear at 10 yards away needs to be photographed with a much higher aperture number…f/8 or greater.

The second of these photos is a bear further away, using f/4.  The first, which is obviously much closer, is at f/11.

brown bear, anan creek, alaska

Notice how the bear above is very crisp, from the nose to the tail.  If you had shot it at f/4, only the area around which you physically focused your camera would be sharp – those parts closer or farther would be blurry.

inside passage, brown bears, kayaking

See here that the bear in the distance is actually quite sharp, even though photographed at f/4.  However, everything in the foreground (the kayakers) is blurry. This blur produces a pleasing and artistic effect.  It also directs the attention of the viewer towards the sharper, more focused areas, of the scene — the brown bear on the rushing river.

Shoot lots of photos

What a no-brainer, right?  Well, rest assured if you have the remarkable chance to photograph grizzlies in the wild, you will at some point think to yourself “wow, I already have 1,000 photos of this grizzly rolling around in the grasses, or chasing after salmon…I probably have taken as much as I need of this guy…”.  Don’t stop now!  You’d be surprised how often I come back from a trip and my favorite action photo is the 1,001th shot of the same thing.

It’s difficult to say whether it’s luck, or perhaps my eye is getting used to the spectacle, and my nerves are calming, allowing me to see it in a different way.  Either way, I consistently notice that when I stay involved and continue firing away, I capture something special.  It could be a particular behavior, a unique angle, or some brilliant lighting.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it does us all good to put the camera down sometimes and just soak it all in without having to capture it on film, but I’m just saying that with big charismatic megafauna, the more the merrier when it comes to taking home photos.


If you are fortunate enough to be headed on a photo trip to Alaska this summer, we wish you the very best and hope these tips prove to be useful!

Go forth and give it a shot,