Monday, March 1, 2010

Eleven Tips on Photographing Polar Bears

I have been going up to photograph the polar bear moms and cubs in Wapusk National Park for five years. In that time I have learned a thing or two about how to photograph these amazing families and how to keep warm while doing so.

Photographing polar bears can be very rewarding, but also very challenging. Polar bears live in a very cold environment so photographing in these conditions can create a host of issues. In this blog, I will list some tips on photographing polar bears up in Wapusk National Park.
  1. Bring the longest lens that you can afford or rent and a good quality DSLR. If you are going up to photograph the polar bear moms and cubs you will need a long lens and a camera that can withstand cold up to -50. On my first year I used a 600mm with a 1.4 teleconverter and a full frame camera body. Since then I have tried many different set ups over the years from 600 mm and a 1.4 teleconverter to an 800 mm with and without the teleconverter and with and without a crop sensor, to having an 800 and a 600 as a back up or an 800 and a 100-400 with a 1.4 teleconverter as a back up. Each of my colleagues have their own camera/lens set ups that they prefer. My preference over the past four years is the 800mm lens and crop sensor body. I like the 800mm to get as much reach as I can on the bears. The crop sensor helps that and the crop sensor batteries last much longer in the cold than the batteries in the professional camera bodies. I bring my canon 1Dx pro body as a back up, but mostly use it for the aurora borealis images at night.
  2. Bring extra batteries. Camera batteries do not like the cold. A great trick is to buy hand warmers, put them in your pocket with your extra batteries. Make sure to switch your batteries out if they get down to the half way mark. Sometimes the battery meter isn't very accurate in the cold. When your battery levels are too low, your camera focusing and shutter will slow down. At times the battery meter will look okay, then your battery may die on you right in the heat of the action. When you switch out your batteries and warm the cold one up, the warmth will often bring back the charge of the battery.
  3. Dress warmly! If you are only going up once, you can rent a goose down parka and snow pants. They will pay for themselves if you buy them and go up twice. Over the years I have seen many different styles of parka set ups. They will all either be a one piece or a bib and snow pants. Many companies offer clothing that is warm enough, but they all have one thing in common. The parkas and snow pants must be made of down. Underneath my parka I layer my clothing with a long johns top, then t-shirt, then light sweat shirt, then heavy sweat shirt, then down vest, then windbreaker jacket, then lastly my parka. On the bottoms, I wear long johns, then insulated light snow pants, then my down snow pants. If it isn't -50 with a mean wind, I can take off the down vest and or windbreaker. If it is -50 with a wind, I need all of that protection or the wind will cut through my parka really easily. Another possibility is that I am just a wimp. Perhaps a tough guy may only need the parka and a sweater, but I'm not that guy. Warm wool socks are a given. Warm boots are also an absolute must! For around $50 you can buy boots rated to -80 or so. You don't have to break the bank when buying warm boots, but you absolutely must keep your feet warm or you won't be able to stay outside for more than a few minutes. Regular winter boots won't cut it.
  4. Any kind of camera cozy is better than nothing. When your camera is just set up on a tripod and there's no action, even a touque or wool hat over the camera is better than just leaving the camera exposed. The cozy doesn't necessarily provide warmth, but it does protect the camera from windchill. I invented a cozy that works well. You can put a hand warmer in the cozy, then switch out the hand warmer every couple of hours. (Hand warmers work best in a warm spot i.e. in a boot or a glove or inside a jacket. If the hand warmer dies out in the cold, put it in your glove and it will re-charge) This helps your battery to last much longer especially if you have you are using a pro-body camera. You can see an example of my arctic camera cozy here. This was my first arctic camera cozy. It did work well, but after using it for a season, there were some changes that had to be done so it is easier to use while wearing big mitts. 8 of my colleagues bought a cozy from me. The one thing for sure that all the photographers agreed on is their batteries lasted about 5 times longer while using the pro-camera bodies while using the cozy. The other things it did really well is it gave us an extra layer to protect our hands from the cold and shielded the LCD screen so it didn't get all frosted up.
  5. Noon time warmers- Around lunch time, it is wise to put your foot warmers in your boots. Even though it is really cold, your drive to the bears can be warm, so my feet do perspire a little bit. This perspiration then freezes if I stand outside for several hours. Now I bring an extra pair of socks and switch them halfway through the day and add a foot warmer to the bottom of my sock. I am now keeping hand and foot warmers in my car in the winter in case of emergencies. The good warmers last for 24 hours and work very well! (The only warmers I will buy are heat factory or hot hands. The other popular brand- naming no names are terrible!) 
  6. At night remember to take the liners out of your boots at the end of each day and put them, along with your socks on a register or near a wood stove or some place warm. Your boot liners and socks may not appear or feel wet, but they will likely be damp on the inside. They will absorb any moisture and hold it. When you go to put your boots on the next morning, your feet will get cold very quickly if your liners didn't have a chance to completely dry out. I even bought an insole that has holes in it. These insoles help to give an extra layer of insulation of air under your feet and the moisture drops to the bottom so your feet aren't sitting directly on top of the dampness. It seems to help.
  7. Take two camera bodies!! Always take two camera bodies in case something happens to one of them. You never know what may happen and for sure, you never know how your camera is going to react when it experiences -40's and colder. The best part about taking two bodies is you don't have to change lenses as often which gives you a much better opportunity to "get the shot".
  8. Before you bring your camera and lens into room temperature from the extreme cold, make sure to wrap your camera and lens in a plastic bag. When the camera warms up, the water builds up on the outside of the bag, rather than on your camera sensor and inside your lenses. The last thing you need is water droplets and or water stains on your sensor.
  9. Bring a thin pair of gloves that you can keep in your pockets to change the camera settings, set up and take down. It is difficult to have the dexterity to do the things that you need to do at that temperature with thick mitts. We like to keep our mitts on strings like you do with a child. That way you can take your hand out of your mitts, put your thin gloves on and drop your mitts without losing them. When your hands get cold you can quickly put them back in your cozy mitts. ( Keep a hand warmer in each mitt and your hands will always be toasty).
  10. When photographing bears in Wapusk National Park in Canada. Wildlife is unpredictable, so make sure you spend a little more time out on safari than you think you need. On my first trip I was originally offered 4 days, then later was able to upgrade it to 6 photo days. On that trip I was able to see bears on two of the six days. My second trip up I was offered 8 days. (Here's my blog from 2011 and pictures from 2010 and 2011). Now I won't go up for less than ten photo days. If you can afford to go up longer then do it. The longer you go for the better chance you have of having a great experience. This isn't Africa where you are guaranteed to see wildlife everywhere five minutes after you get off the plane. Some days you won't see a single animal. On the days that you do though, it's magical. In 2012 we had a difficult year, then in 2013 we saw a bear family on 9 out of our ten days. In 2014 it was tough again. We only saw one bear cub, but we saw her at her den, she was clean, the background was great and she was expressive, so although the sightings were slim, it was still a great trip.
  11. Book in advance if possible. Polar bear photography trips are quite expensive. There aren't many places in the world that you can go to photograph these amazing animals and a lot of people would love the opportunity to photograph them. If you are interested in going, save your sheckles and book early.
That is all the tips that I can currently think of to ensure an enjoyable polar bear photographic adventure. Good luck with your shoot if you go. It is certainly a very memorable experience. For anyone interested in seeing our other galleries, you can visit us at Harvey Wildife Photography


  1. Absolutely gorgeous photos!

    I wish I had seen your comments before a North Pole trip a while back. 3 cameras, with a spare battery for each -- all died in the cold. Another guy was using the handwarmer-and-batteries-in-pocket trick and was shooting away.

    I just got back from Churchill. I had similar problems with focus on the white fur. Also, it was too early in the season, no snow, so the background was all dark. I was getting blown highlights on the fur until I realized I needed to stop down a bit.

  2. Yes, every time I go up north I learn another trick or two for the next season. Thanks for your tip on the white on dark. I will keep that in mind if I'm in a similar situation.