Behind The Shot: ‘Bear in the Sun’ by Mark Lissick – Cook Inlet, Alaska

Silhouette of a brown bear in a rising sun photograph captured in Cook Inlet near Silver Salmon Creek Alaska 500mm telephoto

Bear in the Sun by Mark Lissick

The area of the Cook Inlet near Silver Salmon Creek is noted for its healthy population of coastal brown bears and large tidal fluctuations. During extreme low tides the water can recede as much as a half mile from the shoreline. As the water level drops extensive clam beds become exposed allowing the bears to take full advantage of this nutritious bounty.

On this day, dawn’s arrival saw the end of low tide and the sun rising from behind a distant cloud bank as a thick sea haze hung over the inlet. The rapidly advancing tide soon forced the bears who had been clamming out by the water’s edge to abandon their ocean-side dining areas and head back to shore in search of other menu items.

As the bears headed in the sun cleared the clouds. Its full brightness was softened by the haze covering the landscape in a warm blanket of golden light while producing a narrow but intense reflection across the water. Using my 500mm lens from the beach I was able to work on compositions with the enlarged sun, color, and reflection. To capture the mood of the scene I underexposed enough to reduce the glare from the reflection. Doing so also rendered the sun as a definable disk and further saturated the colors. While the combination of sun, reflection, and color produced some great landscape shots, they lacked the storytelling punch that I prefer in my images. When a couple of the returning bears happened to cross the sun’s reflection in the water I saw the shot that I really wanted.

Repositioning higher on the beach I chose to concentrate on a bear that was walking parallel to the shoreline rather than any of those walking straight towards the beach. Choosing a single bear rather than a group allowed me to achieve a better sense of scale and vastness of distance thanks to the way the 500mm lens was rendering the scene. With the exposure value already set from the previous session all I had to do was to wait for the bear to get in the middle of the reflection where it would be rendered as a near silhouette. As a silhouette I knew I needed to get the bear in full profile to make it more easily recognized. Any position other than full profile would render the bear as a dark blob dooming the image for the delete button.

What followed was a series of run-and-gun maneuvers during which the sun continued to rise, the color was beginning to fall off, and the bear continued its nonstop walk. With the narrow reflection there was opportunity to get in only a couple of shots before the bear would, in just three steps, walk into, through, and then out of the reflection. Thus to get in enough images to assure that at least one had a fully profiled subject, I had to pick up the tripod loaded with my 500mm lens, quickly hike about 20 yards across the beach to get ahead of the bear, get set up and wait for it to walk through the reflection again.

I was able to get in six of these attempts before the bear finally broke the magic by turning towards shore. After all that, only one image had the bear in full profile, but it was the shot that I had first visualized. It was a great start to another day – all before breakfast. – Mark Lissick

Equipment and settings: Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens, Gitzo Tripod, 4th Generation Mongoose M-3.6 Gimbal Tripod Head

This image is available as a print and will appear in Lissick’s upcoming book, “Visions of Eden”. Both print and book can be order through his website at Based out of Lake Tahoe, California, Lissick offers workshops and photo adventures in locations ranging from California to Tanzania. You can find more about them here. Follow him on Facebook and 500px or sign up via his website to receive his weekly series, ‘Igniting Imagination’. His motion work is available on Vimeo.