A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go on a bear photography trip to Alaska. I had never photographed (or seen really) a bear in the wild. So that was exciting. Plus, I don’t get to go on many photo trips where I’m just there to shoot so that made it even better.
(Please leave a comment below with your favorite photo)
I wrote about the trip below and shared some photos along the way. However, if you want to see a full gallery in all of it’s full screen glory (and see camera settings) then CLICK HERE to check out an album I’ve put together (both larger and more photos – and camera settings if you poke around the icons on the right).
As for what you see here… everything was taken with my Sony a1, Sony a7R 5, and the 200-600mm lens. When it comes to editing, all of the photos were loaded in to Lightroom Classic every day. From there, I would usually click “Auto” (don’t laugh at me!), and then make micro-adjustments if needed. I’d crop, add some Texture because I found that bear fur LOVED texture. Finally, I typically used Lightroom’s new-ish DeNoise feature which worked perfectly. If the photo needed it, I’d jump over to Photoshop for some quick distraction removal with the Remove Tool.
Not including noise reduction, I didn’t spend any more than 60 seconds editing any of these photos. Get your camera in a great place, with a great subject and good light – and the photos take care of themselves.
The Trip was with Cree and Tom Bol. I have one word for these two… AMAZING. They have nailed the workshop experience, and are just such a pleasure to be around. Not only are they both incredibly knowledgable in everything outdoors and photography, but they’re just such a great couple to be with.
The 2023 workshop was sold out. I just heard that 2024 is sold out as well. But they also have a 2025 workshop planned, as well as many other great locations. Trust me… You won’t be disappointed.
Getting there, I flew in to Anchorage on Sunday evening. Spent the night there, and then took a small plane (about an hour and very scenic) out to Lake Clark National Park and Silver Salmon Creek Lodge. We spent Monday – Thursday as part of the workshop and I flew back to Anchorage on Friday.
The Location and Guides
The location was fantastic. It was a place called Silver Salmon Creek Lodge. I’ve heard about this place for years and it lived up to the expectations. The lodging was very comfortable, and they have everything you need.
The food was mind blowing. Chef Andy and the entire staff were wonderful. They serve 3 full meals a day that rival any high end restaurant I’ve ever been to. Everyone sits in a very family style homey table/area together. There’s always coffee and some snacks near dinner time, and they had some beer/wine but it’s usually recommended you bring your own (I brought a bottle of bourbon).
The other area that Silver Salmon Creek provides us with is guides. We were lucky enough to have Brooke and Robb as our guides and the two of them were amazing. They worked with us on how to walk around and be out near the bears. How to stay at a safe distance. And they were a great team at keeping both us and the bears safe.
If that wasn’t enough, you can’t imagine the knowledge they have about bears and wildlife. No matter the question, they had the answer. And you can tell that they love the wildlife and want to see it thrive. Having them with us made the trip that much better.
The Gear – “I’m Just a Button Pusher” At This Point 😉
CAMERAS – I packed ridiculously light (all things considered) for this trip. Two cameras, and two lenses (3 of the 4 pieces of gear each fit into my hand). No filters, no gadgets, no nuttin’. My small backpack (which wouldn’t even fit a laptop) weighed in at 12 lbs, easily fit in my lap, and a few people jokingly made fun of me. I loved it. It was freeing not to be bogged down with a bunch of gear and a heavy backpack – and I’m pretty sure my photos didn’t suffer because of it.
I shot half the trip with the Sony a1 and half with the Sony a7R 5. Not for any specific reason. I just wanted to test the limits of both cameras and I thought this was a great situation to do so. As soon as I got the a7R 5 I felt the auto focus rivaled the Sony Alpha 1. And I still feel that way today. In some ways, it could even be better, but it’s nearly impossible to ever do a real test other than “feel”. The only area for me, that the a7r5 falls short is shutter blackout at higher frame rates (the shutter interrupts your view of the scene). It’s essentially non-existent in the a1, but you can see it in the a7r5. Not much of a problem with bears since they’re not moving very fast, but with birds it can be an issue to follow them.
As for shooting, I hate to say it, but I guess coming from doing a lot of bird photography, I found bears really easy. For starters, we’re on a tripod A LOT – which is something for most of the birds I shoot I don’t use, because I move around too much. The bears aren’t moving that fast, so just about any camera’s AF system can keep up. You could use a single center point of focus and be fine – you don’t even need tracking. You don’t need crazy high shutter speeds, so the ISO levels are fairly low compared to what I see with a lot of bird photo situations.
The bears are really easy to follow, so I was basically just a button-pusher the entire week. The saying “You must have a good camera!” used to annoy me. These days… Yep…I do have a good camera… and the most I do is plug in the same settings for the most part. Oh, and get the camera in to the right place (which could possibly be the hardest and most important part of photography today). The camera does the rest 🙂
LENSES – I only brought two lenses, and if I could do it over again, I’d only bring one. While it went against all of my better judgement, Tom Bol suggested NOT to bring my 600mm f/4 prime, and to just bring my 200-600mm and one wide lens (I took the 24-105mm).
Of course, Tom was 100% right. The 600mm would have been WAY too much lens, and I would have regretted it. As for the 24-105mm, we really didn’t do much landscape photography (it was mostly cloudy and socked in). And the times I did take photos of the landscape I did it with my phone. So that lens never came out of the bag.
And for those of you that think you need an f/2.8 or f/4 prime lens to get great backgrounds you are 100% wrong. You can’t get a better background and area of focus than these photos – and they were taken with a sub $2000 lens at apertures no wider than f/6.3. Background blur mostly comes from proximity to your subject, and how much depth is behind them, rather than the aperture of the lens. I’ll talk a little more (“Settings” area below) about the key to helping those backgrounds.
TRIPOD AND BALLHEAD – I used my Really Right Stuff tripod which was a little overkill actually. It was always near the ground so I should have brought my smaller tripod. And my Flex Shooter Pro ballhead came in really handy (best of both a ball head, and a gimbal all in one). I don’t often shoot birds with my tripod, because I’m usually moving around too much. But with the bears, it was great because we’d be in one location for a while.
Camera Settings and Focus
I used almost the same settings and focus area I use for bird photography. I’m not going to post the settings for every photo here. Just keep in mind they were all mostly f/6.3, somewhere between 1/800th and 1/1600th shutter, and various ISOs (check out the full gallery if you want settings).
- Manual exposure mode with Auto ISO turned on – which is almost like shooting in an “auto” mode. At that point I just adjust the exposure compensation for micro exposure adjustments.
- Lowest f-stop the lens will allow, though I did experiment with higher f-stop numbers if two bears were REALLY close together. This is mostly a futile exercise, and you’ll find very few photographers actually change anything to get multiple subjects in one photo, because they know it just won’t happen, and the success rate and tradeoffs aren’t worth it.
- Shutter speeds between 1/800th and 1/1600th. If the bears were wrestling and there was enough light, I would even try to get my shutter speed higher. Nobody ever looked at a sharp photo and thought “Hey… I used too fast of a shutter speed” right? 🙂
- Evaluative or Matrix metering was and has been used in my cameras for the past 25 years. I have never changed it no matter what the situation is and it hasn’t failed me. Plus, I shoot Sony so I have the Zebra stripes turned on in camera (this is a great video if you’re not sure what that means) . This alerts me to overexposure while I’m shooting, unlike the blinkies that would only tell you after you take a photo. So metering, for me personally, is irrelevant with this setup.
- Zone focus area with tracking and Animal Eye detection turned on. This meant that as long as the bear was in my zone area at first (Zone covers about 50-60% of the frame), the eye detection would lock on the bear and follow it. This worked flawlessly. I can’t recall finding more than a small fraction of out of focus photos, and those were all user error, not the camera. Eye AF was amazing for this type of shooting. If it didn’t lock on the eye (which it did 95% of the time), it would lock on the head. It allowed me to let the camera get out of the way, never once think about focus, and worry more about capturing the right moments.
THE MOST IMPORTANT SETTING WASN’T A SETTING
Lastly, if I could attribute the quality of photos to one thing besides the camera, it would be shooting angle to get great blurry backgrounds. While shooting birds on the beaches near me, I constantly see people standing up, and shooting downward. The problem with that is the ground becomes your background, and it’s not far enough away to produce really great separation between the subject. You have to get down low. You’ll see below that my tripod has the legs splayed out and it was almost touching the ground. This causes the area behind the subject to be the background (not the ground). Since it’s really far away, you get that beautiful background blur that makes your photos go from good to great.
I realize everyone can’t lay down, kneel down, and some have mobility issues. Get yourself a little chair and sit on it. Get your camera on the ground somehow, and use your index finger to shoot, while maneuvering the camera with the flip out screen to see what you’re shooting (another reason why I don’t use Back button focus because it makes this process harder). It’s not easy, but it’s comfortable for all ages and ranges of motion – and is 100% necessary if you want your photos to stand out.
Tough Love Alert… you will not be successful blurring backgrounds in Photoshop 99% of the time! Photoshop is not the answer to a cluttered background. It only works in the YouTube videos you watch, because they have spent a long time finding the perfect photo to demo. Sorry, but some one had to tell you 😉
I hate to sound harsh here… but figure it out. Practice it, because it won’t come natural at first. Every single person I have showed that technique to this year abandoned it in 5 minutes because it’s not easy (I even let them use my chair). But some how, some way, figure it out! You have no idea how many people think my photos were taken with a $12,000 lens at f/2.8, when they were not.
Getting out and Shooting
Our schedule was to get up and have breakfast. Go out and shoot. Get back for Lunch. Then go shoot again for the afternoon. Then come back for dinner and usually go out and shoot again (remember the sun doesn’t really go down there this time of year).
We’d ride out in ATV’s and trailers to our locations. The guides were always looking for the right opportunity. Sometimes if a mom and cubs were nearby, but maybe stressed because of other bears in the area, we stayed away. That’s where having an experienced guide is invaluable. They want to see both the wildlife and use kept safe. And trust me, if one opportunity wasn’t right, there were easily a few more around the corner.
When the guide would spot an opportunity, we’d all get out and walk single file, close together. When we stopped, we all set up close to each other to present a very large object/group to the bear. We never once had a scare where a bear charged, or even looked aggressive toward us. They were always more concerned about the other bears. That said, the guides spend most of their time when we’re shooting with their heads on a swivel, looking around and making sure the situation continues to be safe for both wildlife and us.
I wore sunglasses on the flight out on Monday and that turned out to be the last time we’d need sunglasses all week. Don’t get me wrong. The weather wasn’t bad. Actually it was pretty great for wildlife photography. We had cloudy soft light all week, which meant we could shoot all day every day – especially because of the time of year it doesn’t really get dark. We never had to worry about harsh light and if I had my choice, this is the light I’d shoot wildlife in all the time.
The temps were in the 50s, with a slight wind all week. It did rain fairly often, but it was nothing like the Florida rain I’m used to – so it’s a rain you can stay out and shoot in as long as you have the right gear… Wind and rain protection for you, and rain protection for your camera. After that, just be prepared to get a little wet and muddy.
It did make for some really moody backdrops though, as you can see below.
I used these OpTech Rain Sleeves and they were fantastic. Once I put it on, I left it on all week because even riding on the ATV’s sometimes kicked up some dust. So whether it was rain or dirt, the rain sleeve helped a TON! (Extra points if you can tell me where the orange sticker on the right tripod came from)
Cubs, Cubs, and More Cubs
We were lucky enough that a couple of the bears had young cubs. Wow! To say they were ridiculously cute is an understatement. We got them sleeping, nursing, playing and wrestling. And when you look at the series below, I don’t think I’d believe it if I didn’t see it but they actually trained one of the cubs to wave at us. How cool is that?!!!! 😉
While it’s not a huge part of the trip, I think everyone in our group will say this was a major highlight. One day we take a boat trip to an island with puffins. I’d never personally seen or photographed a puffin before, so I was excited. As the boat came near the island, we all took photos from the boat and I think everyone realized how hard that can be. Luckily the tides and conditions worked out that we could get off the boat on to the island and that’s where things went crazy. We had hundreds of puffins flying, landing, jumping, posing all around us. They could care less that we were there and we could get so close that you could almost fill the frame with some of them. It was absolutely fantastic!
On our way back from the puffins, I had mentioned “One thing we haven’t seen is larger bears wrestling or fighting”. Tom and Cree must have heard this so they ordered it up on our way back. We pulled around the corner of some trees, on our last photo shoot of the trip, this was right in front of us.
I wouldn’t classify this as physically demanding trip. However I would say you need to be in decent shape. Definitely able to walk at least 1 mile, in mud boots or hip waders, on unsteady and mushy ground, without help (while carrying your gear). There’s not really any climbing, but lots of walking. To give you an idea, we ate incredibly well for the entire week – much more than I’d normally eat at home. After returning home, I weighed myself and found I actually lost weight after the week 🙂
As you can see, I had a blast the entire week. It was the perfect amount of time, and a perfectly organized trip at a great location. Tom and Cree put on a wonderful workshop. They’re constantly checking on their attendees and always checking on their settings to make sure they’re getting great photos. Plus, the staff and everyone else in the group were great to be around. I would definitely do this trip again.
I hope you enjoyed the photos and the write-up. Don’t forget to view the full screen gallery where you can really appreciate the detail and character of the bears (Click Here). If you have any questions feel free to leave them below. And if you’re looking for a photo workshop, swing by Tom and Cree’s website.