I always try to lie down in the ground when photographing birds or small mammals, but with polar bears, well, that’s a different story. Not only are they tall as a big truck, but also fierce and aggressive. Lying flat in the ground so close to the largest carnivore on Earth would be equivalent to jumping out of a building with a sleeveless t-shirt as a parachute. At least I think so.
After a morning session at a bone pile on the shores of Kaktovik, Alaska, where a dead bowhead whale had been carried in from sea, my brother and I rented a small boat with an experienced captain and headed to the islands where approximately 35 bears had been spotted earlier. There was no snow yet. It was the first week of September and the ground only showed the thick and grainy sand of the arctic, not as attractive as snow but definitely very different from most polar bears photos out there. It was a great day to be out. It was cloudy and the light was round, soft and even. Most bears were relaxing or napping as several mothers with cubs huddled together on the bare sand. It is definitely more fun and usually more rewarding to capture action shots, so photographing these motionless and lazy bears was a challenge.
As we got closer to the shore on one specific small island, I realized the ground was about 4 feet above sea level, so standing in the boat I could achieve the same effect as lying on the ground, face-to-face with my subject. I wanted to achieve an intimate portrait. I wanted to convey a sense of voyeurism from within this bear’s personal space, but on a moving boat and handholding the camera, it was especially hard to get the right angle and compose the frame just as I was seeing it in my head!
I had packed very light for this trip since it involved lots of hiking in other places in Alaska before arriving at Kaktovik. That day I had a Canon 7D attached to my Canon 300mm f/4 lens with 1.4X II telephoto extender at f/5.6 in Av (Aperture Priority) mode. I had pushed the ISO to 800, which in my opinion is the highest the 7D can go without considerable noise. I wanted to get as much shutter speed as possible in such low light conditions.
We started to go around the island and I was able to get some very cool shots of bears playing with muktuk (whale skin and blubber), cuddling each other or napping in the distance, but nothing as intimate as I had hoped for. Then we approached this napping individual very close to shore. I looked through the viewfinder and I saw an opportunity to get my shot. We were very close and the bear was calm and alone. I took two shots before the bear slowly got up and carelessly looked at us. I have to admit I felt fear. Not panic, but intense and calmed fear. He went back to his nap and ignored us completely, but this time facing the other way.
With the telephoto extender giving me a focal length of 420mm, there is no crop whatsoever in this image so you can guess the proximity and the intensity of the moment. Lucky for us, there was plenty of food laying around at the bone pile, so this huge and magnificent beast did not see us as a potential snack. (Note: I adjusted the white balance in Lightroom to get a cooler atmosphere.) – Mario Davalos P.
Equipment and settings: Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM telephoto lens, Canon Extender EF 1.4X II – 1/640th at f/5.6, ISO 800