a mother and two young polar bears rest for a moment in the snow of churchill

What’s in my Camera Bag? Polar Bear Photography in 2019

Although it’s just now feeling like summer, I can’t help but think what’s awaiting us this fall in Churchill, Canada—the annual migration of about a thousand polar bears, Ursus maritimus…The King of the Arctic.  As a photo expedition leader for Natural Habitat Adventures, it’s one of the photo tours I look forward to most each year.  And as a result, I’m pleased to share here my tips on what to bring with you to photograph such a spectacle.

Please note, photographic styles vary, as do conditions on the ground.  While this is meant to be a guide for choosing your camera gear, you should consider your own photographic interests first and foremost.

Powerful Polar Bear

Wide Angle Zoom

 You really can’t go anywhere without this “walking around lens.”  This is your standard landscape and travel photography lens—generally ranging in the 18-55mm for crop frame cameras and 24-105mm for full frame cameras (or something close to these). For mirrorless, it depends on the crop factor, but you’re generally looking at something like a 7 to 20mm or whatever gets you in the 24-105mm full frame equivalent.

This category of lens isn’t going to get you super close to the animal, but they are essential to have for landscape photos of the tundra, along with general travel photos to help you document this polar bear adventure.

This is a must bring in my opinion.

Zoom Telephoto

This is the other highly essential category of lens to bring with you on a polar bear expedition.  Amazingly, we can often get quite close to these massive animals.  Or should I say, we position our safari vehicles to allow the bears to be comfortable with us, and they could walk right across our path, or come even closer for a look.  But generally think about what focal length you’d want for photographing an animal from 25 to 50 yards away.  As I said, you could get a lot closer, but it’s best to think conservatively when planning your camera kit.

My go to is something like a 100-400mm full frame equivalent.  This means that if you have a standard Canon or Nikon crop frame, a 70-300mm will do the trick.  However, there’s an old adage with wildlife photography that rings true—you never really have enough zoom.  Even if you lugged an 800mm along with you, there would still be shots you just can’t quite get.  Thus, it’s really a balance of lens size, cost, and versatility.  Something that gets me to the 400mm range is great.  However, as I write this, there are new lenses from companies like Nikon, Sigma, and Tamron that are coming out with stellar 200-500mm and 150-600mm lenses.  These are wonderful “safari lenses” and will certainly do great up in the arctic for a polar bear photo expedition.

Super telephotos

The aforementioned 200-500mm and 150-600mm lenses are technically super telephotos, but because they have a nice zoom range I don’t really classify them as a classic “super telephoto.”  When I think super telephoto, I’m thinking more of the big prime lenses, like the 300mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 or even the 600mm f/4 lenses that the big camera manufacturers make.

Rest assured, these are amazing lenses, but they have a formidable price tag attached and they’re not for everyone.  However, if you have one of these, or are thinking about purchasing or renting, you won’t be disappointed.

When it comes to light on the tundra, you generally aren’t too limited, as there is generally a decent amount of daylight, even if through abundant clouds as winter weather begins to roll in.  However, those maximum apertures of f/2.8 and f/4 do make for wonderful portraits of wildlife, hence their appeal.

Worth bringing if the price doesn’t scare you off.

X-factor Lenses

If you read my article on X-factor lenses you’ll learn a bit more than I can jot down here. But in short, an x-factor lens is something that’s not critical or widely useful for a particular photo expedition, but is really nice to have.  You may only use it for 5% of your shots, but it could get you one of your favorite photos of the trip.  You know, it’s the x-factor!

For photographing in and around Churchill, I absolutely love my nifty fifty, which is a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens.  There is actually quite a bit of cultural photography you can do, and having that shallow depth of field is really effective for getting a little artsy with your photography.

a black and white photo of the arctic

The other x-factor lens to consider is a fast ultra-wide lens if the northern lights should appear.  They are generally quite rare to see at this time of year, primarily because of the standard cloud cover in Churchill during the fall (winter in Churchill is the best season for northern lights photography).  However, if they do come out, and you’re an avid photographer, you won’t want to miss them.

Generally I like to aim for something like a 16-35mm f/2.8 lens (full frame equivalent).  However, if you don’t have something that is BOTH fast and ultra wide, I always prioritize the ultra-wide aspect first.  That is, go for something like a 17-40mm f/4 or a 10-22mm f/4.5 if you must.  Don’t bother with a 35mm f/1.4, as you really need the lens to be ultra-wide to capture the brilliance of the aurora.

green northern lights appear over the spruce trees of canada's arctic tundra

Accessories and other gear

Because of the cold, batteries drain quicker than you’d expect.  Plan on having a couple extra batteries in your pocket (in your pocket because that helps keep them warm).  And you’ll of course want to have plenty of camera memory.  If you’re luck enough to see polar bears sparring, it’s a great time to put your camera on burst mode or on video mode, which uses lots of memory.  Plan on 500-1000 photos a day if you’re an avid photographer.

Tripod

For most photography of polar bears, a tripod will just be in the way and cumbersome to deal with.  It’s far more preferable to shoot hand held, or to brace your lens on the window vs. setting up a tripod inside the polar rovers.  Trust me, it’s just a plain hassle.  However, if you do have a massive prime lens, like a 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/4, you may have no other choice than to use a tripod due to their size.

The main reason you may want a tripod on the trip with you is in case the northern lights show up.  You simply cannot hand hold for the 5 to 15 seconds needed for a proper exposure.  I know it’s a lot of extra weight and space for something you may not actually use during the trip, but again, if the lights show you’ll be so happy you have one.

If you’re headed up on a polar bear photo adventure this fall I hope to run into you up in Churchill!

And if you have your own thoughts or personal advice on lenses for arctic and polar bear photography, please do leave a comment below!

All the best,

Court Whelan Signature
Court