a young polar bear walks across the red tundra

White Bear, Red Tundra

One of my top goals when embarking on a nature and wildlife photo trip is to search for the unusual. This might be an unusual animal, unusual landscape, or both.  This is why I’m particularly drawn to “early season” trips to view and photograph Polar Bears in arctic Canada.

There is something both highly beautiful and unusual about photographing white bears on red, snow-free tundra in the fall.  It takes a charismatic animal and places it in a very atypical, special environment.  One would often expect to see these great white bears in their snowy white home.  However, you put them smack in the middle of fall coloration on the Tundra and WOW—a shock of the senses!

a young polar bear walks across the red tundra

While it’s natural to mentally couple wildlife sightings to the iconic scenery they spend most of their time in, there is something spectacular and extraordinary about deliberately choosing times of year, or areas, where you can capitalize on the unusual.

a portrait style shot of a polar bear in churchill manitoba

When you go up to Churchill from the beginning of October through roughly the first week of November, the chance of snow being on the ground is slim.  Hence, most photographers tend to pass over this time of year in favor of those times when they can count on a white background.  Makes sense, right?  If I’m photographing polar bears, I want it to look traditional…white bear on white tundra.  This is great, and will yield WONDERFUL photos. However this means that most photographers have snowy polar bear shots, and fewer have this high contrast of white, brown, and red.  This is where I try to think differently and aim for the atypical, unusual scene to set my photography apart.

As you can see from the above, even portrait style shots of polar bears can be eye-popping when the background is a notably different color.  It’s unusual, and therefore the photo takes on an exceptional quality right off the bat, irrespective of composition and all the normal things that make a photo exemplary or not.  But of course as you adhere to the rules of composition, and keep an eye out for special lighting, and your photo will only get better from there.

a sun rises and provides golden light to a walking polar bear

Travel is a search for the authentic and photography is a documentation of such.  However, I try to go one step further in my wildlife photography to search for the unusual…the exception.  And there is no better way to do this than to think outside the box in terms of when, where, and how you explore and photograph wildlife in the world.

Next time you’re planning a wildlife photo safari, think about those times of year that are a bit unusual.  These are the “green seasons” in Botswana, the rainy season in Costa Rica, and early fall on the Canadian tundra in Churchill.  Go against the grain and get shots that are extraordinary in all ways!

Go forward and give it a shot!

Court Whelan Signature