a cute bornean sun bear rests on a tree in sepilok borneo

How to Get this Shot – Bornean Sun Bear

They’re the world’s smallest bear species, but what they lack in size, they more than make up for in beauty and charisma.  They also have a very limited geographic range, so every photo you get of these little bears is rare and exclusive in the grand scheme of things.  So, if you’re headed on a photography adventure throughout Borneo—their neck of the woods—be sure to read below on how best to photograph them in all their glory.

  • First, you need to get yourself in front of these little beauties. Unfortunately they are exceedingly rare to encounter in the true wilds of the island.  But, fortunate for we photographers (and we conservation biologists!) there is a spectacular conservation center in the heart of Borneo’s wildlife mecca.  At Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (aka BSBCC), biologist (and former CNN Hero of the Year nominee) Dr. Wong Siew Te hosts 40+ sun bears at a time, primarily from rescue situations.  He then works to rehabilitate and ultimately reintroduce into the wild when and if they’re ready.  But in the meantime, with the great care he and the center give them, they play in their outdoor natural habitat and offer some amazing photo opportunities!
  • Once you are at such a place, you’ll want to find your angle for the photo. Although BSBCC is in a fully natural environment, and the bears have loads of space to roam in, you’ll want to scout out a position that gives you the best background. There is indeed a walkway that goes through most of the various habitats, so it’s key to get an angle that puts that out of the picture. The best way is to find the bears first, and then position yourself, instead of finding “the perfect tree” and just hoping they come for a visit—you could be waiting a while. Fortunately, though, there are many active bears and finding them should be no problem at all.

a cute bornean sun bear poses perfectly to see the iconic sun mark on its chest

  • As far as background goes, I generally want a nice verdant background, but a very distant one. That is, if I can move to a different part on the walkway, or photograph at a slightly different angle to get the background foliage as distant as possible from the bear, it will produce a much more pleasing background blur, aka bokeh.
  • Next, I’ll want to get my shot settings dialed in. Two primary concerns I want to address.  One, these bears are active, so I want my shutter speed to be as high as possible.  Two, the bears’ dark fur tends to cause your camera to expose brighter than it should, because it’s trying to lighten the dark fur on the bears.  If the bear is only a small part of the frame, this isn’t too much of a concern.  However, if you’re “filling the frame” with the bear, you’ll see what I mean…the camera overexposes and lightens too much.  This is a problem for a) making the bear look natural and b) it will overexpose other highlights in the scene, causing sunny areas or brighter areas to look way too bright.
  • Given the above to issues, I will manually under expose my shot by 1/3 to 2/3s of a stop. This helps keep the bear’s natural black coloration, but it also allows me to shoot faster because I need less light by underexposing.  Thus, as far as shutter speed goes, I REALLY try to get up to 1/320 of a second or faster.  1/500 would be a dream.  However, this is the Bornean jungle after all, and you may not get super bright lighting.  Thus, you may have to have higher than ideal ISOs, like ISO 1600, 2000, maybe even 3200.

a cute bornean sun bear looks at the camera as it plays

  • Next, take the shot! But as you do, keep in mind that auto focus is based on contrast.  So, if your camera is having a hard time focusing on the black fur, try and focus at the margins of the fur, or where the color tone is different.  Ideally you’ll want to focus on the eyes, but oftentimes their heads are just moving around too fast to rely on that.  If you can focus on that “sun spot” crescent on the chest, that’s also ideal, but again, it’s hard to rely on that due to movement.
  • Finally, take LOTS of shots! This is no doubt a once in a lifetime moment, and you can always delete later.  However, between the movement of the bears causing motion blur issues, or wanting to get just the right expression in a series of photos, using your camera’s “burst mode” is a great way to take lots of photos quickly.


In summary, congrats if you’re headed to Borneo on a photo trip! And once you get yourself to this amazing conservation center, make sure you scout out that perfect angle for a great background.  Then, be ready to take photos of fast moving wildlife, even if they are sitting in a tree.  And don’t forget to review your photos every few shots to make sure that you have the right lighting, and are photographing at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion.

Now go forward and give it a shot!

Court Whelan Signature