Photographing the Grizzly Bears of Katmai

Grizzly Bears Fighting Over Salmon

f/13 at 1/320 seconds, ISO 400
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

I love the fact that I can say I’ve been 6 feet away from a 1000+ pound wild grizzly bear with nothing separating us but a two foot stream bank. This, to state the obvious, focuses one’s mind (and distresses ones parents when they hear about it after the fact). I had this, and many other close encounters with grizzly bears in the 8 days I spent photographing them in Kukak Bay, part of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Kukak Bay

See the area on a map.

For a few months each summer the coast of Katmai is home to one of the densest populations of bears on the planet. Backed by the volcanoes of the Kejuik Range to the north and the Shelikof Strait and Kodiak Island to the south, Kukak Bay is one of the many bays punctuating the Katmai coast, and it abounds with the resources that make supporting such a high number of bears possible: clams, sedge grass, and, most importantly, numerous salmon streams.

Grizzly Bear On Streambank

f/13 at 1/200 seconds, ISO 200
Canon EOS 40D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM at 73mm

This superabundance of food is also what makes it (relatively) safe to be in such close proximity to these large bears.  With so much food available there is little reason to wonder what the tall skinny animals that move around in groups taste like.  That’s not to say there is no danger.  The next bay to the south of Kukak Bay is Kaflia Bay, the “Grizzly Maze” where Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by a grizzly bear in 2003 (as described in the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man).

In addition to the bears, Kukak bay is also home to hundreds of sea otters and harbor seals plus breeding colonies of horned puffins and black-legged kittiwakes.  There seemed to be a bald eagle nest on every seastack as well.

Juvenile Bald Eagle

f/2.8 at 1/800 seconds, ISO 400
Canon EOS 7D, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM at 200mm

Ursus Arctos

There is confusion on whether to call these bears grizzly bears or brown bears. Some sources define a grizzly as any brown bear in North America that lives more than a hundred miles from the coast, others conflate the label grizzly as any brown bear in North America (as opposed to the brown bear in Eurasia). I’ve decided to use the term grizzly for this article because when talking to people about my trip, no one ever asked me what a grizzly bear was, while I had a few people ask me if a brown bear was the same as a grizzly when I used that term in conversations.

Regardless of which label you prefer to use the bears of Katmai are giants of their kind.  Males can reach a weight of 1500 pounds and stand 8 feet tall when rearing on their hind legs.  The females average 35% smaller but are still quite imposing.  Even with this bulk grizzlies can sprint at up to 35mph.

Grizzly Bear

f/5 at 1/640 seconds, ISO 400
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

Environment

The ecology of Kukak Bay and the feeding habits of the bears are dictated by the tides, which are the second most extreme in North America.  At low tide extensive tidal flats are exposed allowing the bears to dig for clams.   Low tide can also strand salmon and other fish in shallow pools that the bears are quick to notice.  As the tide comes in the bears move back into a large area of sedges that fringe the area between the ocean and the brush-covered hills that mark the beginning of the Kejuik Mountains.  These sedges are high in protein and provide the bulk of the bears diet early in the summer before the salmon runs begin.  At high tide the streams become too deep for fishing and the bears retire into the bush and are not as active.  It is also more difficult for humans to get around as most of the bear trails (which are what we use to get around) are underwater, and those that remain are being used by the bears.  High tide is better spent out on the bay looking for otters, eagles and the other wildlife that calls the Kukak Bay home.

Grizzly Bears And The Kejuik Mountains

f/11 at 1/200 seconds, ISO 200
Canon EOS 40D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM at 50mm

Cutting through the coastal plains are numerous small streams.  These streams are not very long but their upper reaches are used by numerous species of salmon as spawning grounds.  As the tide drops bears return to the sedge flats and the banks of these streams to hunt for salmon.   Consequently, both the highest density of bears, and the most action is found along these streams, and this is where you will be spending most of your time while photographing.  The most bears I counted at once was 12.  Here’s a panorama to prove it:

Getting The Shot | General Advice

One important difference between photographing grizzly bears versus most other wildlife photography is that you want the bears to see you.  Surprising them or hiding is a bad idea.  Another difference, again for safety reasons, is that you’ll be in a group of 5-7 people.  A group is much more intimidating than a single human alone.  This means that you’ll need to cooperate when setting up tripods so that fields of view are not compromised.  Remember that the bears movements are dictated by the tide.  Don’t setup your camera for where the bears are when you arrive, set up so that you’re ready to shoot in the place where the action will be once the salmon start to run up the streams.

In general you’ll want your tripod setup without the legs extended as you’ll most likely be a few feet above the level of the river, and you’ll want to be shooting on the same level as the bears, not looking down on them.  Even better is if you flatten the legs completely so that you’re lying on the ground, but this may not be possible if there is vegetation between you and the bears.

Being low will also have a positive effect on the backgrounds in your shot, especially when using wide apertures.  But always be ready to stand up and shoot if something happens in the distance.  Your tripod is adjustable for a reason, make the most of it.

Grizzly Bear Cub In Sedges

f/4 at 1/500 seconds, ISO 400
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

One last piece of advice is not to get sucked into just using your telephoto lens. Don’t forget to use wider lenses to capture the bears in their environment. Don’t let the majestic glacier-clad peaks in the background go to waste.

Getting The Shot | Bear Behaviors

Fishing – this is iconic behavior everyone one wants to see.  It’s explosive, violent and can last for five seconds or five minutes over which time the bear may sprint back and forth across hundreds of yards of ground.   The bears can go from lying in the grass to running flat out in a couple heartbeats and you need to be ready for this change.  The bears keyed on the splashes the salmon made on the water’s surface as they made their way upstream, you should listen for this cue as well.

Grizzly Bear Chasing Salmon

f/4 at 1/1600 seconds, ISO 400
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

The strategy I evolved after a couple days shooting was to have aperture priority mode on my camera always set to my widest aperture (f/4 in my case) to maximize my shutter speed.  This allowed me to use shutter priority and manual modes for shots of bears while they were resting or grazing and then instantly switch over to the fastest shutter speed possible in the available light if any fishing began.  I could then switch back to manual or shutter priority mode during a lull in the action if I wanted a specific shutter speed.   I found 1/1000 to be the absolute minimum shutter speed necessary to freeze both the movement of the bear and the water spraying around it, with 1/1600 or 1/2000 even better options.  Shutter speeds faster than this were rarely possible on the mostly overcast days, but go for it if the light allows.

The same rules apply for fights between the bears – fast shutter speads and wide apertures, but unlike fishing you’ll be able to predict when a fight may occur. It’s simple really, any time two bears are in close proximity there are only two possible outcomes: one will give way to the more dominant bear, or a fight will break out. Adjust your tripod and shooting mode any time you see that two bears will cross paths. While most of the time nothing will happen, you’ll regret it if you get lazy and consequently miss a brawl.Another great time a fight is likely to occur is after a bear successfully catches a salmon. Others bears come running at the sound of bear charging through the water after a fish, and it is quite common for larger, more dominant bears to attempt to steal a kill. Just because the fish has been caught doesn’t mean the action is over.

Grizzly Bears Fighting

f/4.5 at 1/640 seconds, ISO 500
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

Another great time for photography is when a mother and her cubs are on the scene.  I’ve always read that being near a bear cub is a really, really, bad idea, but there were numerous times when a mother bear brought her cubs quite close to us.  It seemed to me that the mother would use our group as a buffer or shield from the other bears.  While I don’t have any evidence to back this up besides my own observations, there is good reason to think this may be the case, as male grizzlies routinely kill cubs to bring the mother back into estrus.   The most memorable example of this occurred when a female caught a salmon, and then ran straight at us with her clubs close behind.  She stopped about 60 feet away to bolt down the fish.   As soon as she finished eating her three cubs joined her and began nursing.  This was the only time I can recall a smaller bear not having to fight for it’s catch when there were other larger bears in the area.

As soon as she finished eating her catch her three cubs joined her and began braying, a sound that increased in both volume and frequency until mom rolled on her back and began nursing them.  Mothers and cubs will be your only chance to capture the more intimate moments in a bears life. They are always in close proximity to each other so be on the lookout for those small special moments of interaction.  You’re biggest problem in getting these shots will not be lack of opportunity, but rather that they never all seem to want to “pose” at the same time.  I have many, many shots of a mother and cub looking at the camera with the second cub with it’s head buried in the grass, or two cubs playing in the foreground with the mother’s ass providing a not-so-appealing background.  Be patient and be quick with the shutter during the fleeting moments when all involved are at their photogenic best.

Grizzly Sow Nursing Cubs

f/7.1 at 1/200 seconds, ISO 200
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm

Gear

The below is the list of gear I’d recommend bringing on trip like this.  I had other gear with me that I never used, and some of what I list below I didn’t have but wish I did.

Camera and Lenses

  • 2 SLRs – besides that it’s always good to have a backup, it’s convenient to have one body for the telephoto lens and one for wide angle shots.  My camera of choice is the Canon 7D.  The unbelievable autofocus and quick drive speed make it perfect for capturing wildlife.  I used an older Canon 40D as my backup camera during this trip, but picked up a second 7D shortly after I returned.
  • Super Telephoto lens – This is the lens you will be using the most.  A 600mm lens would have been too much and a 300mm to little, so I recommend going with a 400mm or 500mm prime lens.  My favorite is the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM.  It’s great for the action shots while the bears are fishing as well as portraits while they are grazing or resting.  Although I didn’t use it on this trip another good option would have been a 400mm lens.  I’m a big fan of the Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS USM,  it’s much smaller and lighter than the 400 f/2.8 and still delivers great images.If you don’t own one of these lenses, renting one is a great option for a trip of this nature.  There are many options both on the web and through local camera stores.  I’ve been quite pleased with my experiences with Lensrentals.com.
  • Telephoto Zoom – Great for when the bears get close enough that they completely fill the viewfinder of the larger lens and equally useful for taking shots of the bear in its environment. I used the  Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM for this type of shooting.
  • Standard Zoom – For when the bears get really close, and shooting the landscape around you.  The versatility of the Canon 24-105mm f/4 IS USM served well here.  When I only bring one lens on a trip, this one is it.
  • Other lenses – I had both superwide and macro lenses with me but stopped carrying them with me after the first couple days.  I would suggest leaving these at home for this one.

NOTES: I used a Canon 7D as my camera which means I was working with a 1.6 crop factor, take this into account if you’re using a full frame sensor. Also, I happen to shoot Canon, but Nikon and others manufacturers will have equivalents to what I describe above.

Other Photo Gear

  • Flashes – leave these at home.  Not a good a idea to surprise the bears.
  • Support – You will need a tripod capable of supporting your large lens.  I use a Gitzo tripod with a Kirk BH-3 ballhead.
  • Raincovers – There is a very good chance that it will rain while you’re in Katmai.  Be prepared and have a cover for your camera and lens that still allows you to operate it.  Optech Rainsleeves and Storm Jackets are both good options at opposite ends of the price spectrum.
  • Memory – I averaged 1600 photos a day over the 8 days of my trip, with a max of 2700 photos in a single day.  Modern cameras with their high frame rates, large buffers and big megapixel count can eat up memory when you’re shooting action sequences.  Be sure to have enough cards to cover a days worth of shooting and a hard drive large enough to hold all the photos from your trip.

Clothing and Packs

  • Waterproof Clothing – THIS DOES NOT MEAN GORETEX.  Goretex isn’t waterproof, it’s breathable.  This means that it only works if you’re active and thus producing heat.  As you’ll be sitting in the same spot for hours on end and not moving much this is not likely.  It is also not much good for lying in wet grass and mud as it only takes a few pounds of pressure to force water back through the pores.  Instead you’ll want fully waterproof outers.  I used and recommend those made by Helly Hansen.
  • Boots – there’s a good chance that guide you go with will have boots available for you to borrow, but if this is not the case you’ll need at least knee highs, but hip waders may be essential depending on the time of year.
  • Backpack – I recommend carrying your gear in a drybag backpack rather than a standard photography pack for a trip like this.  My trusty SealLine Boundary 35 drybag has served me well for many years and can hold 2 camera bodies, my 500mm lens, and the rest of my photo gear plus extra clothing and other essentials with ease.

Conclusion

I enjoyed my time with the grizzly bears of Katmai immensely. With or without a camera this is an enjoyable adventure for anyone who loves wildlife and isn’t afraid of getting a dirty to see it up close.

To view the entire collection of photos from my trip please visit my web site.

Napping Grizzly Bear Cub Seen Through Mothers Legs

f/8 at 1/250 seconds, ISO 400
Canon EOS 7D, EF500mm f/4L IS USM at 500mm
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