Black Bears Part IV: Photography

March 19, 2009

Note: This series is based on personal experience, but it is important to note that any wild animal is capable of being extremely dangerous. Seek expert guidance if you are interested in serious photography or research ventures.

You didn’t think I could declare it bear week and not talk about photography considerations, did you?

My routine gear for photographing bears is a Nikon D200 and a 70-200mm lens. I also have a 300mm lens, but being an f/4 minimum aperture it is just too slow. In a perfect world I would have longer lenses and a more advanced camera but instead I make the best of what I have.

Since bear sightings are often fleeting moments, I find it helpful to set my camera on manual exposure and constantly adjust for the surrounding environment. If I notice an animal, I first establish that I am in a safe location. To me that means that there is a considerable distance between myself and the bear or there is some type of physical barrier. At one point in the summer, I was able to photograph a mother with cubs easily and comfortably because a cliff was between us.

2008beared

While photographing, I try to use the lowest possible ISO for the light conditions. The darkness of the animal usually makes this even more important. If an ISO is set too high, then adjusting levels later will significantly degrade the image. I also want to remain aware of my surroundings in case there are more bears than just the one in my viewfinder.

Another item worth noting is that while my lens is on the short side for nature photography, it does not prevent me from cropping into the image later. Obviously filling the frame is the ideal goal, but if I have an otherwise good image, I can cut in to reduce excess background.

If you are only equipped with a 50mm lens or something along those lines, this isn’t something you should try (Unless you’re okay with a speck of a bear in your image).

My best suggestion for finding a bear to photograph is to spend as much time as you can outdoors. As many times as I’ve hoped to see a bear in one area of “perfect lighting,” the truth of the matter is that they are just as complex as we are, and will go where they please. With a little luck and a lot of shots, you might just get a winner.

Check back tomorrow for the final installation of this series, “Closing Thoughts.”

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