How to Photograph Grizzly Bears

Grizzly Bear / Photo by Robert Berdan

Grizzly Bear / Photo by Robert Berdan

Note from Steve: Today Iʼm happy to publish our first guest post here at PhotoNaturalist. This post was written by Robert Berdan, of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Robert has a lot of experience with photographing mammals (something I pretty much have NO experience with!), so I was pleased to accept his post about photographing grizzly bears. After you finish reading, be sure to check out his great website for more articles and photos!

And, if youʼre also interested in writing a guest post, please feel free to contact me. Thanks!
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I will never forget the first time I encountered a Grizzly bear on the trail. I was walking with my friend Frank toward Siffleur Falls on the North Saskatchewan river just west of Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

The grizzly bear raised its large head to get a good look, sniffed and continued moving towards us. I remember saying to my friend, “F- F- F- F- Frank there is a grizzly bear coming towards us!” You are not supposed to stare into the eyes of a bear or run as either might trigger an attack.

We slowly walked backwards and down a slope so the bear could not see us and then we made a dash back to the parking lot as fast as two old farts could go. I was carrying about 50 lbs of camera gear and a tripod, and on this hike neither of us had brought bear spray. Luckily, the parking lot was only about a half mile away. There were several other cars parked in the lot so we called the Park Warden in case he might want to post a warning sign on the trail. He replied, “Oh that old Grizzly, he’s harmless.”

I didn’t get a photo of that Grizzly bear, and I rarely go hiking in the Canadian Rockies without bear spray and a few bear bangers. Bear Spray is reported to be 95% effective in warding off a bear attack, but to work you have to be a few feet from the bear. Bear bangers give off a loud noise and can be deployed at a greater distance, you just need to be careful not to fire them so they land behind the bear or he might come running toward you.

Actually, I love to photograph Grizzly bears from a safe vantage point. Most of the Grizzly bears I have photographed have showed no sign of aggression. Still, the safest way to photograph bears near the road is from your car. I often see Grizzly bears in the Canadian Rockies feeding on dandelions next to the road in the early morning hours.

Another safe way to photograph bears is from a boat. On the west coast within the Great Bear Rainforest located in Northern British Columbia, I have photographed Grizzly bears in remote estuaries from a kayak or zodiac. In these remote locations, the Grizzly bears seem to be indifferent to visitors. In some places I have seen a dozen or so bears together including mothers with cubs. So long as food is plentiful they seem to tolerate other bears and people.

My favorite place to photograph Grizzly bears is next to the Atnarko river near Bella Coola, British Columbia. The river runs next to a road and there are several pullouts near fishing holes where you can park your vehicle and take photographs while the bears feast on spawning salmon in September. Just remember to leave your lunch at home.

The most important elements of success in wildlife photography are location and timing. Other than that you need to have a long lens, a 70-200 mm lens is bare minimum, a 300 to 600 mm lens is best and a teleconverter can often be useful to get greater magnification.

Always have your lens set to its widest aperture (e.g. f/2.8 or f/4) and don’t attach any filters as you need the fastest autofocus and shutter speed you can get.

If the light is low, increase your camera’s ISO speed and try to get a shutter speed of 1\500 second or faster even if you are using a tripod or monopod. When photographing bears, as with most wildlife, try to focus on their eyes and watch for interesting behavior.

Tips for Photographing Grizzly Bears

  1. Use a long lens (at least 200mm) set to its widest aperture (with no filters attached)
  2. Visit places where you will find bears. One way to do this is to join a tour group that specializes in bears, or visit parks and natural areas where they are seen frequently (e.g. Banff National Park in Alberta, Knight Inlet in British Columbia or Denali National Park in Alaska in Autumn).
  3. Use a fast shutter speed (1\500 second or faster) to stop the animalʼs motion and to minimize the time your camera is subject to vibration.
  4. Don’t feed or bait bears, and obey all local regulations regarding their viewing.
  5. In bear country, if you come upon a freshly killed animal, beware and move away quickly.
  6. If you are going to hike in bear country, bring along bear spray, bear bangers, make noise or bring along an air horn and I suggest you read “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance” by Stephen Herrero.
  7. Finally, I suggest you go hiking with someone you can outrun or that is carrying more gear than you :)

No matter where you live, if you are interested in wildlife photography, the best place to start is in parks or wilderness areas close to your home. Most natural areas support a wide variety of birds, and small rodents and these fast moving critters can be a challenge to photograph. To photograph animals such as bears, caribou, and deer, travel to locations where they are abundant and learn all you can about the biology of the animals before visiting.

Finally, remember that no photograph is worth endangering your life or that of the animal.

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About the Author: Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer, biologist and multimedia developer located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Robert uses both Nikon and Canon gear. Read more of his articles at his website, The Canadian Nature Photographer.

Comments

  1. Greg Heller says:

    Excellent article — I wish to make it up that way someday, I belong to Nikon.CA website group and some of the members are from BC. It’s absolutely beautiful there. Some of their photos are breath taking.

  2. Good advice and a very good article.

  3. Great article and advice about shooting bears and avoiding a situation that you do not want to be in. I am not going to claim I am a bear expert but one very important piece of advice is keep a clean camp site. This also includes nothing inside your tent and in your pockets. A chewing gum wrapper stuffed in your pocket and forgotten about could be a situation that you don’t want to be in. I spent time in Alaska with Frank Craighead some years back and he educated me on bears and what they can do to people who head out into their territory with no education. Stay safe in bear country and you will come back with some very rewarding images. Check out the link below about Frank Craighead. His twin brother was John and both and Frank and John Craighead were considered the foremost authorities on browns and grizzlies in North America. Check this link out for more on these two brothers. http://digbig.com/5bbscd

  4. Larry Erlendson says:

    I’m sure it’s just a typo but you can’t be west of Banff National Park on the North Saskatchewan River. Other than that, good and concise advise. Thanks for the reminders on a few points.

    One thing I would add is that you have to be patient. Maybe during a salmon run at a waterfall you can get all kinds of great action shots and poses but with inland grizzlies that are eating vegetation you have to be very patient. They can go a long time with head down eating weeds or digging for insects, but I have had some luck just keep refocussing on the eyes (great tip by author) and be ready for when something unusual happens. Eventually, they will look up and maybe even give you some crazy look and if you aren’t ready you will kick yourself.

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