The Art of Polar Bear Photography

There are few animals on the planet that inspire and evoke emotion like Usrsus maritimus – the Polar Bear. The worlds largest land predator, the Polar Bear is actually a marine mammal that spends the majority of its life on the frozen sea ice. Living in some of the world’s most remote and inhospitable regions the Polar bear can weigh up to seven hundred kilograms and during lean times it can go without food for up to six months. With the ability to spread its bulk and weight across its massive paws it is capable of walking on ice that would be far to thin to support a human being. It is one Nature’s greatest feats of engineering.Not only is  the Polar Bear at the top of the Arctic food chain it is also one of the most photogenic mammals the world over. Photographers travel from all corners of the globe in search of powerful and evocative images of this endangered and highly threatened mammal. But how do you get great photographs of such a magnificent and increasingly elusive animal and how do you maximise your chances?

I have spent the better part of the last five years photographing Polar bears in the Arctic during both the summer and winter seasons and I want to share what I have learned about photographing this incredible apex predator. We are going to cover a number of different aspects of polar bear photography and look at how can you maximise your chances of capturing a fantastic photograph of this increasingly endangered and rare mammal. Some of what follows is applicable to wildlife photography in general so you can also apply it to other species as well.Despite what anyone might tell you, there is no best time of the year to photograph Polar Bears as much depends on your capacity to spend time in the field to actually locate them * (see footnote on location selection). Polar bears do not hibernate (although the female will den when she has cubs) and thus they can be photographed year round. However, there are tens of thousands of square kilometres of sea ice and land mass that form the Polar Bears habitat and an increasingly small number of animals actually living there. Assuming you have the good fortune to encounter a ‘photo-friendly’ bear * (see footnote on Photo bears), the time of year you chose to travel to the Arctic will be the deciding factor on the quality of light you can expect to experience. You should absolutely keep in mind that the quality of light you experience when you are making photographs of Polar bears is going to be very decisive factor in the overall quality of your imagery. So you should consider carefully when you choose to travel.

Both summer and winter can produce great Polar bear images, but if you desire the soft pink ethereal light that many photographers crave you will need to travel on the cusp of winter. Conditions are more difficult in winter (it is obviously much colder in the Arctic during winter) but the light can be truly miraculous and frequently brings with it a magic that simply isn’t available to the summer photographer. If you are interested in landscape photography in the Arctic then you have the added benefit of being in the right place at the right time for the best possible light during a winter cusp expedition. Being totally upfront nothing compares to the light you find at winters edges in the Arctic. It is quite simply stunning and breathtaking. If you want to get an idea what a winter expedition can be like be sure to check out the Ghosts of the Arctic video below:

Summer affords twenty-four hour daylight in the Arctic (the midnight sun) which in effect means you can photograph right through the night and double the amount of time you have available to actively search for Polar Bears.  The possibility of golden light with the midnight sun draws many photographers to the Arctic in the summer months. Experience has shown me that the light is often softer at night (although the sun never truly sets). Some areas of the Arctic are prone to fog in summer and the combination of midnight sun and fog can create beautiful atmosphere for photography. Along with twenty-four daylight comes the opportunity to spend more time actually searching for bears and if you are travelling to the Arctic for the very first time I generally recommend a summer trip for your first experience. You can get an idea of what a summer expedition is like by watching the Kingdom of the Ice Bear video below:Autumn and Spring can offer a little bit of both summer and winter light; although you are unlikely to encounter the sublime rosy pinks of winters frosty edges unless you are right on the winter cusp. Of course the middle of winter it is dark the entire time (depending on how far north you venture) so photography is extremely limited at this time. Typically March is my preferred time for winter light in the Arctic; both for Polar bear photography and Arctic landscapes. The sun crests the horizon but remains low in the sky and there is an ethereal quality to the light that is unmatched during any other season. If conditions are good it is not uncommon to have beautiful soft pink light that lasts for hours. With plenty of ice and snow, conditions are at their absolute optimum for both wildlife and landscape photography.

  • Foote note 1: The location you choose to travel to in an effort to find and photograph Polar Bears will increase or decrease your chances significantly. Churchill National Park in Canada for example is pretty much guaranteed to net you a polar bear photograph with organised tours run on a daily and weekly basis. But here is the rub: Polar bears in Churchill photographed high up from the safety of a caged tundra buggy lack power, lack emotion and are frankly in the majority shining examples of mediocrity. Backgrounds in Churchill are also often lacklustre and can be quite problematic for the wildlife photographer seeking clean powerful images that rise above the ordinary. I have heard it said that if you want to photograph Polar Bears go to Churchill; but if you want to photograph wild Polar Bears go to Svalbard. I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. In my experience, nothing comes close to photographing Polar bears in the primordial landscape of Svalbard.
  • Foot note 2: Not all bears you encounter will be ‘photo-friendly’. A photo-friendly bear is a bear who either chooses to approach you to satisfy its curiosity, or who otherwise does not immediately wander off once it becomes aware of your presence. On average I have found roughly one in five bears proves to be a ‘photo-bear’.

Robert Capa famously once said: “If a photograph isn’t good enough its because you are not close enough”. These golden words of wisdom fit perfectly for wildlife photographers with one slight alteration. Put simply “If your wildlife photograph isn’t good enough its because you are not low enough.”Getting low is absolutely key to creating powerful intimate Polar bear photographs. You simply cannot achieve intimacy with your subject if you are standing 12 feet up (or more) on the deck of a high ship or locked up in a caged tundra buggy. You don’t necessarily have to be on the ice with the bear (a dangerous place to be), but you do need to get yourself as low as you possibly can; and the lower the better. It is not uncommon for me to lie on the ice and even half bury my camera and lens in the snow in an effort to get as low as possible. If I am photographing from ship then I am very careful to make sure that the ship I select has very low decks so that I can be as low as possible. Getting low not only affords you eye contact with your subject but it connects the viewer with the subject on a far more personal level. It is the key to a strong photograph.Before you press the shutter consider which direction the bear is facing and how you are composing the photograph. A wildlife image will almost always be more successful if the animal is facing into the frame, rather than out of the frame. Consider carefully the negative space in the frame and how you frame the animal in the context of its environment. A successful photograph should show a symbiotic relationship between the bear and its habitat. The feet position of the polar bear has a strong part to play in any feeling of movement that might be conveyed in your photograph. Keep in mind that photography is a still medium and that unlike video we have to give the feeling of movement in our photographs (not an easy thing to do).

It is important to have separation between the feet, but also to have them in an aesthetically pleasing position.  High speed motor drive can greatly assist with feet position and it is better to shoot more frames in the field and be able to sort it out later than to just shoot one or two and end up with frames that have less than ideal foot positioning.Keep in mind that the Polar Bear is one of the most powerful predators on the planet. If you can capture some of this power in your photograph you have far more chance of creating a strong,  powerful and emotive photograph. Facial expressions and body position / body language play a large part in conveying a sense of power in an animal. A bear with its head titled slightly sideways is probably going to look curious. A bear with its head point straight on to the photographer with strong eye contact is going to convey much more power. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but you should know what you are trying to say with your photograph when you click the shutter.When it comes to ‘frames per second’; frankly, the more the better. Polar Bears often close their eyes as they walk along (or keep them partially closed). They also often look down at the ground so any eye contact opportunities you may get will probably be fleeting. Having a high speed camera gives you more frames to choose from if and when the polar bear makes eye contact with you. It also allows you to choose the best feet position of the bear when you are later editing your photographs. Capturing an image of a Polar bear with eye contact and just the right feet position is not easy.If you are fortunate enough to encounter more than one Polar bear then look for interaction between them. Polar bears are on the whole solitary animals and interactions between them are fleeting and rare. Should you encounter two or more bears together (a Celebration of Polar Bears) try and capture moments when they interact. These rare moments are usually full of emotion and can make very strong and powerful photographs.If you have the opportunity to re-position yourself you should consider strongly the direction of light in relation to your subject. Do you want front light, side light or back light? Back light is the hardest to work in from a technical perspective but can also create the most evocative imagery. Back light also often adds an element of mystery to a photograph that significantly increase its impact. I like to try and work with back light as often as I can as I find this sort of light the most dramatic and it often creates the most mystery and interest. Front lit subjects can appear quite flat and usually this sort of light is preferred purely for documentary purposes. Side light can be extremely effective depending on the time of day and  angle of the sun. We don’t always have the luxury of being able to position ourselves to obtain the perfect lighting angle, but it is worth serious consideration should you have the opportunity. When leading expeditions to photograph Polar Bears I aways work very closely with the captain of the ship (or the zodiac driver) to position ourselves for the best possible light in consideration of the bears movement and behaviour. Just a small aside, if you are choosing an expedition to photograph Polar bears make sure the trip is dedicated to photographers and that the leader has significant experience with Polar bears. General tourist trips will not afford you the requirement to position for best light and leaders with little or no experience photographing Polar bears will be more interested in making sure they get a photograph than in ensuring you have the best possible lighting angle. You should also ensure that the ship you choose has very low decks. Avoid ships with very high bows and sides that will prevent you from being able to connect properly with your subject.

In overcast light conditions you have the benefit of natures ‘soft-box and these sort of conditions can produce really beautiful imagery. Overcast light can be exceedingly beautiful and will really bring out the soft and subtle tones in the snow and ice. I tend to try and avoid direct overhead sunlight as it creates extremely hot highlights on the snow and ice and usually the overall contrast level is too harsh.It is always worth taking a moment to consider your composition before you start firing the cameras shutter. Take a moment and take a deep breath (you will be very excited if it is your first Polar bear). Look around carefully and try and predict where the bear is going to be for the ideal photograph. Madly firing the shutter without consideration of the composition and story is going to result in nothing more than hundreds of documentary images. Often a few moments consideration of the conditions and landscape before you compose and press the shutter can dramatically improve a photograph.Lens selection plays a huge role in the overall look of your Polar bear photograph. A long telephoto lens is going to compress the distance between you and the bear and the bear and its background. This sort of lens can be used to great effect to not only create the illusion of bringing the subject closer to the photographer and subsequently the viewer, but also to throw the background way out of focus to help isolate the subject. You do have to be careful to avoid creating photographs that look as though they were taken in a zoo; but used carefully and with due consideration to the background a telephoto lens can be used to great effect.

Wide angle lenses can be used to convey a strong sense of environment in your photography. It is worth remembering that no one wants to travel to the Arctic in search of Polar Bears and come back with photographs that look like they were taken in a zoo. Wide angle lenses will allow you to place the bear in context and show the subject in its environment. A sense of environment can add a great deal of life, emotion and context to a photograph and its importance should not be underestimated. Look carefully at the landscape the bear is moving across. Are there graphical elements in the landscape you can use to help frame your photograph? A leading line of ice for example can be used to great effect. Using the landscape to help frame your image can really add significant impact and balance to the final photograph. Simple imagery that utilises geometric shape and line will almost always result in a strong photograph.Typically you will want to reach for a long telephoto lens first to capture photographs of the bear at a distance. If you are fortunate to have the bear approach you can then switch to wide angle. I like too work with two cameras at the same time; one with a telephoto lens and one with a wide angle. This way I can quickly switch between them without having to change lenses.

Try and keep in mind that a successful photograph is going to be one that conveys the story of the Polar bear. The world really doesn’t need another head and shoulders shot of a Polar bear. The aim is to try and tell the animals story with your photographs, rather than simply documenting for the sake of it.

Lastly, remember to put the camera down and drink in the experience of being in the vicinity of the world’s largest land-based predator. Polar bears are incredible animals and moments shared with them are extremely special.

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