Sometimes you get so close

October 15th, 2010 by Carl D
A grizzly bear standing, back turned, mouth open, in long grass, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska.
An adult grizzly bear standing, back turned, mouth open, in long grass, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Please click the image to view a larger version of the photo.

Hey Folks,

Here’s a photo that might be of interest to photography fans here. To me, this photo expresses what nature photography is all about; shooting, re-shooting, shooting some more, time and again, and doing everything you can to ‘get that shot’, and still coming home empty handed. How so?

One of the photos I REALLY want is a big ole grizzly bear standing upright, with a nice background. So far, I’ve not yet made that image. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few opportunities, and unfortunate enough to blow every single one of them.

To catch a nice, full-frame shot of a bear standing upright means anticipation, as well as luck. More often than not, when I’ve been close enough to make a shot like this, I’m shooting with the camera/lens in a horizontal position, and when the bear stands, I can’t fit it all in the frame. It’s simply too easy to miss this kind of shot and too hard to actually nail it.

Adult bears rarely stand upright, and when they do, they don’t do it for very long. Generally the behavior is a ‘look around’; something alarms the bear and they stand up to get a better view, sniff the air, and see whether they need to flee, or ignore the potential danger. A few seconds is all they stand for, most of the time, and they drop back to all fours. That means to make the photo, the photographer has to be in position and ready for the shot ahead of time; there simply isn’t time to switch the camera/lens to a vertical position and shoot – well, I should say RARELY is there time to switch. Sometimes it happens, but not often.

So, with this particular instance, I was ready. I was leading the Bears in the Fall photo tour, and we’d been photographing this bear, when I noticed a commotion in the background. Another bear, a large dominant boar, was chasing a younger bear, trying to steal it’s catch of Sockeye salmon. This attracted the attention of a number of bears in the area, and all fled the scene. Literally, 7 bears took off every which way, racing through toward the forest.

As amazing as it was to see this, I turned back to this particular bear immediately, because I suspected she’d do exactly this; rise up and look around. I suggested to the group that we get ready for her to stand up, and I’m pretty sure everyone switched to vertical.

She stood for a few seconds, and I made (I think) 3 images. Now, had I happened to be on the other side of her, I might have just made that perfect photo (notwithstanding the fact that I’d probably have been run over by a stampede of grizzly bears). Or, had she turned, just for a moment, and held this pose facing me. But, she didn’t. She briefly observed the commotion, dropped back down to the ground, and resumed watching the nearby stream for fish.

So, as hard as we worked, and as many hours as we put in, and anticipated everything, etc, etc, we still came away without ‘that shot’ that I really want. Close, though. I mean, she’s a massive bear, had her mouth open, claws out and forelegs wide, and the spruce and birch trees in the distance give a nice soft, out of focus yet defined background that say ‘wild’. All she had to do was turn around. πŸ™‚

And maybe, if I do everything right, just maybe the Great Bear Who Walks Like a Man (or is it we who walk like the bear?) will one day give me that photo. Nature photography lies, after all, in the hands of nature as much as it does the photographer. Sometimes nature simply doesn’t want its photo taken, regardless how hard we try to make it happen.Β So, maybe next time, right? I’ll go back next year, in 2011, and try again. And again.Β Until then, I’ll edit what I got, and get back to work.



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9 Responses to “Sometimes you get so close”

  1. Bob Schlatter

    Hi Carl,

    A couple of comments on your Bears in the Fall photo tour.

    I think you have raised the bar for photographing bears with your tour. The experience of being with those magnificent creatures will last a lifetime. Everyday brought new and exciting opportunities, being in the water or on the river bank made it so much better. Photographing bears from a platform or some defined plot just will not cut it anymore. You need to be mobile and flexible as we were.

    Mark was fantastic, his meals were varied and delicious with an international flavor. The fresh fruit and vegetables were an added bonus. His meals were timely and he worked very hard at keeping everybody well fed and taken care of. His backwoods knowledge added a great deal to the overall experience.

    A fantastic experience that I would highly recommend.


    Bob Schlatter

  2. Greg Deming

    Hi All:

    Like Bob, I was on that Katmai trip this past September (2010) to photograph bears. What a great experience! We walked, waded and stood with bears all around. Carl was a great bear and photography guide. Even the techno-camera nerds were happy! (Sorry, guys, but a nerd is a nerd).

    Me, I love to get away from people and photo animals in the wild (4 times on self-guided Africa trips), although I am not a “pro” photographer.
    I recorded every possible bear photo I could imagine (again, not a pro) – fights, fishing, standing, caring moms, etc.

    Do this trip. It will change forever how you think about bears…and photographing them.

    Greg Deming
    The downside: Carl’s sense of humor (laughing encourages more, Ugh!)
    Upsides: Bears, Photos, Food, Comraderie, Hikes, scenery and more bears.

  3. Greg Deming

    Are you surprised I did not mention you falling (twice), Jay going into the river, you stumbling on the sleeping bear after you launched your camera into the river, me flipping the very close bear off, or the overall superiority of the Canon guys over the Nikon Nerds?

    You are welcome.

    Does Jay know that he is a total techno and regular NERD? Are all Nikon guys like that (and you)?


  4. hey Bob

    Thanks so much for the kind words, and for coming up for another trip. Great to have you along, as always. And I agree, Mark did a great job with the camp – what a great guy to have along!

    Hey Greg,

    Thanks for also posting here, and for coming along. It was great to meet you and shoot with you. And I also appreciate your kudos here, thanks.

    A couple of points to your follow-up:

    My infamous and acclaimed, award winning sense of humor was a downside? That’s not true.

    Me ‘falling’? I have no recollection of that happening. πŸ™‚

    My camera did indeed launch itself into the river .. or very nearly. I’m glad you got such enjoyment out of that. πŸ™‚ Unfortunately, you missed the follow up the 2nd week when my 1.4TC flew into the water. Good times!

    I’m not sure about this superiority of the Canon guys over the Nikon shooters. I do know that the Nikon shooters went out each and every day, come rain or shine, and the Canon guys stayed back at camp when the going got tough. As expected. πŸ™‚

    Just kidding, of course. We had a lot of fun and enjoyed your company a lot. Thanks for coming out, Greg, and I look forward to shooting with you again some time.



  5. This is my first ever visit to Alaska and Katmai. Carl is a wonderful guy and a great guide. I enjoyed this trip so much that I am thinking joining Carl next year. Some of the most memorable moments included watching Carl dropping his camera into the river( almost) and seeing many of his falls. Did some body mention me falling into the river. I think I was pushed into the river by Canon guys.
    Greg, I never thought myself as a nerd. Hum who was carrying all the fancy stuff.( ipad )

    Most of all I enjoyed the company. Greg, Bob and Brandon- Thanks for all the fun.
    Carl- Great job. Highly recommend your trip
    Mark – I think your cooking was the highlight of the trip. You made up for most of Carl’s shortcomings.( Just kidding.) The trip wont be the same without your fantastic cooking.
    Jay (harsha)

  6. Hey Jay

    Wow – this is too nice of all of you. Thanks so much.You were a lot of fun – and the only person to head out shooting each and every day. Speaks volumes about your work ethic, and willingness to step it up when the weather isn’t the best. πŸ™‚

    Seriously, thanks guys. It really was a great trip, and each of you were great folks to have along. Particularly those who shoot Nikon. πŸ™‚

    I’ll 2nd all the comments about Mark’s cooking and work around the camp, as well as his comradery. He’s a great guy to have along.

    Thanks everyone.



  7. I was on this trip this as well and it was an amazing experience! Carl, you’re a heck of a host! You were easy to get along with, entertaining, and informative. I really couldn’t have asked for more from a guide. Each day you put us in the prime areas to get the photos that we came all the way to Alaska to get. Even though I stayed back at camp a couple afternoons, I still came away with more Grizzly Bear photos than I know what to do with.

    Like the others have said, Mark was a great cook! The variety and quality of the food was terrific and I really wasn’t expecting to eat that well while camping.

    I’d recommend this trip to anyone looking for some serious Grizzly Bear images. The opportunities were literally one after the other. I’ve never been on a shoot before where if I missed a specific shot that I was looking for, there was a good chance I’d have another shot at it… THAT’S how many bears and how good the opportunities are. It’s nice to be able to be picky with what to shoot and what not to shoot. I’ve shot Grizzlies from platforms before but there’s just something so surreal about being in the river at eye level with these giant animals.

    To sum it up, take the trip. You won’t regret it.

    Team Canon

  8. Hey Brandon

    Thanks man, very much appreciated. It was a great couple of weeks down there at Katmai, eh? I miss the bears already. We certainly all came away with plenty of images, and so far it seems like everyone made some really nice photos, which is very cool. i’ll set up a post before too long linking to some of the photos each of you (and the others) took, when I get some time.

    Team Canon did great; you guys came a strong 2nd place. Congrats on the silver medals! πŸ™‚


    (Always a Nikon shooter!)

  9. HI folks! After I’ve read your words I’m now very exiting to be at next fall photo tour (17-24 sept) If you had every suggestion for me I’ll be very happy (I’m sorry but I’m a Canon shooter!)
    Sorry for my bad english!!
    Bruno from Italy

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