a lone polar bear walks on a ridge of snow

How Much Telephoto do you need for Photographing Churchill’s Polar Bears?

Telephoto lenses are must-haves when it comes to wildlife photography.  They bring the action closer to you, metaphorically, so that more of your frame is filled with the animals you’re photographing in the way of your choosing.

A quick note…sometimes telephoto is referred to as “zoom” because on point and shoot cameras we “zoom in” to make use of the telephoto capabilities of the camera.  However, technically zoom refers to the variability of focal lengths, like a 100-500mm, and not necessarily the maximum telephoto power to make things bigger in your frame.  Yep, it’s nitpicky, but I wanted to get that terminology out of the way early, because I’ll be referring a lot to telephoto throughout this article, and it indeed refers to the magnification power of your lens.

Alrighty, let’s get into it.

a polar bear rests on a rock

It’s a Balance of Desires

Simply put, when talking about telephoto lenses and photographing Churchill’s polar bears, there is absolutely a give and take no matter what your budget is, what strength and stamina you have while toting around big, heavy gear, etc.  That is, the ideal telephoto lens is one with maximum versatility, maximum reach, minimal weight and size, maximum quality, and affordable.  Well, you’re just not going to get it all…it’s about picking out which of these things are feasible and most important to you.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you on a cliffhanger here—I promise to give hard and fast advice.

two polar bears sparring surrounded by snow

The Best Focal Lengths

To me, the most critical element in the above list is reach, aka magnification power, aka maximum focal length.  I feel that in order to make the most of a polar bear photo adventure, you really need something between a 400mm and 600mm lens at full frame equivalent.  The reason I say full frame equivalent is that many cameras have a “crop factor” in them that further magnifies the image due to their smaller sensor size.

Full Frame vs. Crop Frame with Focal Length Calculation

This is a good time to write a note to yourself to google your camera’s make and model and see if you have a crop frame or full frame, and what the crop magnification power is if you do have crop.  For instance, most introductory mirrorless and DSLR cameras (less than $2000 retail) like Canon Rebels, Nikon 7200 series, and OM System cameras will have a 1.6, 1.5, or 2x multiplier, respectively.  Thus, if you have a 400mm lens on a crop-frame Canon, it’s actually a 640mm lens at full frame equivalent (400 x 1.6) or maybe even an 800mm if you have a 2x crop factor.

It’s tempting to gloss over this crop frame vs. full frame thing, but as you can see when we’re talking about appropriate focal lengths it can make a big difference.

So, as a reminder, what I’m advising is a lens capable of between 400mm and 600mm focal length.  The reason for this range has to do with accessibility of appropriate lenses, photographic style, and cost.

a polar bear saunters through the snow

The Best Zoom Telephoto Ranges for Churchill Polar Bears

For a long while, the 100-400mm zoom telephoto was the venerable wildlife zoom lens.  Now, we’re seeing 100-500mm, 200-500mm, and even 150-600mm lenses.  This is fantastic, as it gives you more range and more versatility.  However, if you still have the 100-400mm class, you’re still going to do great with polar bear photography.  But as you can imagine, if you have a lens capable of 600mm, you’re going to get that much “bigger” of a photo…i.e., the bear(s) will be bigger in the frame.

a portrait style shot of a polar bear in churchill manitoba

There is another key factor here that helps level the playing field, too, though.  And that’s quality of your lens.  For instance, a top of the line 100-400mm lens may allow you to crop in further than a lower end 150-600mm such that they are actually more similar than you’d think.  You can use editing software to make your resulting photo look bigger and quality lenses will retain their quality better as you crop in on the computer.

The Prime Lens Option

Prime lenses are those that do not have any zoom, but are at a fixed focal length, like 300mm, 400mm, 600mm, etc.  It’s not always the case, but 90% of the time these prime telephotos are going to be significantly higher quality lenses, such that they take sharper images that can be cropped, while still retaining high quality and sharp images.

Thus, a 400mm prime may actually produce a sharper image of a bear compared to a 200-600mm even when cropped.  But just keep in mind that you ultimately lack a good bit of versatility with fixed (aka prime) lenses because you cannot “zoom out” if a bear is closer than 400mm range.

If you go with a high quality prime lens, expect the price to be in the high 4-figures (if not 5-figures) and plan on bringing a second camera body with a wider lens like a 70-200mm or 24-70mm for closer action.

Primes Aren’t for Everyone

Although high quality prime telephotos are often the pro wildlife photographer’s choice, it’s not necessarily the choice for everyone.  Yes they cost a lot, but they also are wildly heavy and bulky compared to zoom telephotos. This alone causes many photographers (even pros) to leave the big telephotos at home during wildlife photo expeditions in favor of the smaller, lighter, more nimble zoom telephotos like the 100-500mm and 200-600mm class of lenses.

a polar bear walks in front of a polar rover

Can I Get Away with Less than you Recommend? 

Absolutely! but you should expect to focus on shots that feature polar bears in the landscape more.  But frankly, these are some of the best shots I’ve seen over the years!  I always recommend my photography guests spend a lot of time zoomed out to take nothing but wide shots, even if the bears are close, because it’s the habitat that tells the story.

a lone polar bear walks on a ridge of snow

If you have the venerable 70-300mm class of lens, this is still going to be a good lens, but you probably won’t be able to fill the frame with a polar bear with each and every sighting.

But remember, if you have a crop frame camera, a 300mm could actually be more like a 480mm if at a 1.6x crop factor.

What About Aperture Ratings?

I’m so glad you asked!  Aperture is important and it’s also complex. If you’re not sure what aperture is, I recommend you read this article here to bring you up to speed.

A big maximum aperture is always the most desirable, as it gives you the most flexibility to shoot in lower light, and also get that dreamy background blur to your images.  However, big apertures (aka, small f/numbers) will cost you in size, versatility, and actual financial cost.  Most telephotos, including those I’m recommending have variable apertures like f/4.5-5.6 or f/5.6-7.1.  In the world of maximum apertures these aren’t all too impressive, but they are very normal and standard.

These aperture ratings have to do with optical limitations and unless you’re willing to get the absolute top of the line lens (think 5-figures) you are usually going to be shooting at around f/5.6.  You can use lightroom to add in blur to your background, and higher ISOs will allow you to shoot in lower light.

a polar bear rests its head on the tundra of churchill

How about the 70-200mm f/2.8 Class?

These are absolutely amazing lenses and I strive to bring mine with me on polar bear photo trips.  However, 200mm is a tad too low to get me by for the entire trip.  I still really want some big shots of bears filling the frame, and this class is unlikely to get me there.  But what shots these do allow for always turn out great, as they are super sharp lenses with a fantastic aperture rating.

a polar bear sits in the willows and snow

There is an adage I quote often, which is that there really is no such thing as “enough” telephoto power.  You’ll always want more.  No matter what maximum telephoto range you have, there will always be shots you see that you wish you could get, “if only I had a little more.”  Thus, it’s about striking that balance for yourself.

Are you the kind of photographer that really likes wildlife in landscapes (like it do)?  Maybe you can get away with the lower range of my advice and do wonderfully.  Are you the kind of photographer that really likes to capture the expression on an animals face, or fill the frame edge-to-edge with the white fur of a polar bear?  Then you better aim for a 500mm or 600mm.

a polar bear is photographed to fill the frame

Do you have questions about your specific gear, or wish to upgrade but not sure what direction to go?  Leave a comment below and I’m here to help!  And maybe I’ll see you up in Churchill while photographing these amazing creatures!

Go forward and give it a shot,

Court Whelan Signature