I’m at 36,000 feet on a flight from Seattle to Anchorage, blissfully dreaming about another rendezvous with Alaskan Coastal Brown bears in a remote, fly-in lodge. Suddenly my body is overcome by a wave of paralyzing dread. Have you ever had a dream where you show up for a final exam in college, but you forgot to study? Or you attended no classes? Or you weren’t wearing pants? Well, that’s the feeling.
The meaning is obvious and unmistakable. There’s an upcoming event for which I’m unprepared. This could be the result of packing fantastically light for a remote photography location in the Alaskan wilderness. For example, I’ve packed only two lenses. On my first trip to Alaska more than ten years ago, to offer context, I hauled in 37, give or take a few. Doctor Freud could easily have demonstrated a symbolic link between the number of lenses carried and pants – or the lack thereof.
However, the anxiety would wane within moments as my left-brained rationality laid out the game plan for this expedition. I had two Canon R5 camera bodies, a Canon 100-400mm lens with EF-RF adapter, a Canon 24-105mm lens, and 4 TB of Lexar CF Express cards. That’s all my photography gear.
The practical excuse for this minimalism was the weight limit imposed by the air service from Anchorage out to the lodge. If you wanted to board the plane, your clothes, boots, jackets, toiletries, photography gear, and anything else necessary for five nights in the Alaskan hinterlands couldn’t exceed 50 pounds. In years past, this limit was more of a suggestion to help reign in chronic over packers. I was advised this year would be different.
But even before the newly enforced restriction was known to me, I had decided to leave the 500mm f/4 lens, bulky tripod, and gimbal head at home and adopt a light and nimble approach to the bears this year. I was convinced that super-telephoto primes were becoming less necessary for most wildlife photography and, in many cases, a liability. To creatively compose or to ensure I achieved the right balance of negative and positive space in the image frame, I would need to continually “zoom with my feet” – moving closer and farther away with every shooting encounter. Zooming with the lens while keeping my feet stable and in one place is a tremendous advantage.
“Illiamna” Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska, USA
Then there’s the obvious fact that bears are large mammals and don’t require the same image magnification as songbirds, for example. Coastal brown bears in this specific area were relatively well adapted to a human presence, so I could approach these bears closer than grizzlies in the interior parts of the North American continent. The 45 megapixels of the Canon R5 also allow generous latitude for cropping in post, making the decision even easier. In fact, replacing the heavy prime telephoto lens with the 100-400mm wasn’t really much of a radical option at all.
The decision not to bring a tripod was more psychologically uncomfortable, however. Before I left for Alaska, I experimented with some settings. I knew at 400mm I would need at least 1/1000 of a second to ensure consistently sharp images when handholding the camera and lens. I tested the combination of 400mm and 1/1000 of a second in a variety of lighting conditions I expected to encounter while working with bears in Alaska. Under no reasonable lighting situations did I need more than 4000 ISO to produce a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second. Most ISO settings were at least half of that, and in sunny conditions, I could use ISO 400 or less. With the low-light capabilities of the Canon R5, I felt those numbers were easily manageable. Plus, handheld photography gave me more freedom and mobility to capture those decisive moments that make wildlife photography so captivating. I’m confident I captured images handheld on this trip that I would have missed had I been using a tripod.
A second camera body is an essential safeguard against accidents or electronics failure, especially in a remote place like Alaska. I mounted the Canon 24-105mm lens on the second R5 body for wider “bearscapes” with background tree lines, mountains, clouds, and sky. Environmental portraits are some of my favorite wildlife images.
In the end, the two camera bodies gave me a necessary peace of mind, the 24mm to 400mm range offered no unnecessary overlapping focal length redundancies, and the 4 TB of storage in the CF Express cards allowed me to leave the computer and external hard drives at home. Best of all, I made no real sacrifices to the quality of my photography work while still weighing in a few ounces under the limit.
Sometimes the bear necessities are all you really need.
ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – AUGUST 2021