a brown bear walks on a shoreline

How to get this shot – Bear Camp Shoreline

If anyone ever says they have “enough” bear photos, they just haven’t been around the right bears—or in the right place for extraordinary bear photography.

Fortunately, there are outfitters that are safely and sustainably getting photographers out into the wilds of Alaska in ways not previously imagined for some of the best wildlife photography on planet earth.

Follow along for details on how to get this shot and use these lessons for other close wildlife photography of charismatic megafauna.

How to get close to large brown bears

Brown bears, aka grizzly bears, get a bad reputation. While of formidable size and a bit intimidating, getting close to them (safely) is very doable in Alaska. With places like Nat Hab’s Bear Camp, situated in Lake Clark National Park, you can get safely and sustainably close to bears as they forage for clams and mussels, graze on grasses, and fish for salmon in the surrounding streams.

Because of the relative abundance of food, we, fortunately, aren’t on the food chain for these bears.  Mix that with expert guidance from local guides and naturalists and you will feel right at home with these bears all around you.

two brown bears walk in a stream in front of a mountain range in alaska

Your shot settings

Once you have the opportunity in front of you, you are faced with a zillion options of how to photograph these wild brown bears.  Although I do love the wildlife-in-landscape photos of these bears, like in the above photo, the proximity you will have to these bears makes it extremely rewarding to take “big” photos that fill the frame, while still giving some context and wildness to the photo (like the gravel beach and bright Alaskan daylight in mid-summer).

a brown bear walks on a shoreline

When setting up for such a photo, your camera settings are some of the most important aspects of the shot. That is, what you do with your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO will be the key ingredients to your great photo.

Let’s start with shutter speed.  Most of the time these bears are active.  That means you are automatically thinking about how to freeze motion for each and every shot you take.  Fortunately, as you can see, there is great daylight so a fast shutter speed isn’t prohibitive.  But how fast, exactly?

As a general rule of thumb, I’m starting my quest for perfection around 1/500th of a second.  Even with a slowly moving bear, anything slower than 1/500 is going to have trouble freezing motion.  If I’m photographing the bear as it rests, moves very slowly, or otherwise pauses its movement, 1/500 is probably enough.  However, if the bear is walking vigorously or exhibiting any sort of erratic movement, I’m immediately thinking of 1/1000th of a second. If the bear is running or actively fishing for salmon, I might go up another notch and think about 1/1250, 1/1500, or higher.

Next for aperture

When filling the frame with an animal, I tend to have a bigger depth of field than you might imagine.  For instance, with most wildlife portraiture, I’m usually trying to emphasize the blur in the fore- and background via a small f/number, like f/4 or f/5.6 (or f/2.8 if you have such a lens).  However, when there is very little background (or foreground) in the photo, but LOTS of subject, I’m immediately thinking of f/8, f/11, and beyond.

In this bear photo, I want as much of the bear in sharp focus as possible.

Finally, for ISO…

Basically, you want to dial your ISO to whatever the photo “needs” for it to happen.  That is, if you need to be at 1/1000 shutter speed to safely freeze the motion of this walking bear, and you need to be at f/11 to get a very wide depth of field, you may need to be at ISO 800 given the lighting conditions.

As you may know, the lower the ISO the better quality the photo, so don’t automatically go super high on the ISO. This may require some experimentation and several adjustments.

Getting the composition right

One of the greatest luxuries of close-up bear photography is that you don’t need to nail perfect composition in the camera…you can do some adjustment on the computer afterwards via cropping.

The reason for this is you can shoot slightly wider to allow for a tad bit of space on all sides, such that you can either straighten your photo, or realign your subject in-line with a composition rule like the rule of thirds after the shot.

However, the general rule for composition of photos like this one is to a) offset the subject based on the rule of thirds, such that the subject is aligned with the vertical axes and b) if the animal is looking in a direction, have it looking into the open space of the scene.

If you can nail all this in the camera, that’s great, as you will be able to get the subject bigger in the frame by not having to crop.  But again, you can give yourself some flexibility by shooting a bit wider and planning to crop.

Creating captivating light

Here’s where the photo gets interesting.  Notice how this photo is rather bright?

We term this high key and is a lovely technique for showcasing wildlife in a unique way. It works well in nearly any daylight situation, but particularly well when you have nice gradient of light across the animal and some soft shadows. This works well for angled backlight shots, where the lighting is coming from behind the animal, but not directly behind—angled is ideal.

Then, by using your exposure compensation dial, increase your exposure incrementally.  In special wildlife sightings like this one, you won’t have too much time to play around and experiment, so I usually go for a bold over exposure right off the bat—over exposing by 1 or 2 full stops.  The risk is that it will “blow out” the highlights, but the reward is that you get a series of photos with that unique high key vibe.

a brown bear pauses as it walks on a shoreline in Alaska

I’ve personally found that high key photography also lends itself well to a warm white balance, or if you want an entirely novel direction, you can convert it to black and white for an alluring high contrast effect.

a black and white image of a brown bear walking in Chinitna Bay

As you can see, there are some key considerations for what may appear to be a straightforward close-up photo.  However, with the great power of being so close to such magnificent creatures, you have the great opportunity to take some wonderfully powerful and unique photos.

If you are headed to Alaska this summer be sure to look up the Bear Camp in Lake Clark National Park and I hope to see you up there!


Court Whelan Signature