Bear Necessities

Bear Necessities

Bucket List

Bear Necessities

bear necessities

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.

bear necessities

“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.


5 Pro Tips For Wildlife Photography

5 Pro Tips For Wildlife Photography

General How-To

5 Pro Tips For Wildlife Photography

pro tips wildlife photography
Wildlife photography is booming with shooters of all skill levels as advances in digital technology and better lens design make capturing wild creatures easier and less expensive than ever before. And if you’re a wildlife enthusiast, you can practice your passion from the far-flung corners of the world or the comfort of your backyard with a bird feeder and some natural wooden perches.

And even though it takes a great deal of skill and patience to master most basic wildlife photography, it also requires some creativity and imagination to capture images that inspire and stir the soul. If you desire to elevate your images beyond the mere ordinary and uninteresting, these five pro wildlife photography tips will set you in the right direction. Not only will they help you create more professional-looking images, but more compelling ones too.

Compelling Wildlife Photography
“Shadow Bear” Alaskan coastal brown bear in dramatic back light. Lake Clark National Park, Alaska USA

Look Beyond Conventional Front Lighting

The most frequently used lighting choice when shooting wildlife is front lighting. “Point your shadow at the subject” has been the tired refrain of wildlife photographers for decades since it can be assured the bird or animal will be evenly illuminated. It’s easy. It also happens to be unimaginative and dull. You’ll miss out on other exciting and creative lighting possibilities by always opting for the sun at your back. Side lighting, directional sunlight from a 90-degree angle can reveal texture and add depth to your wildlife subject, creating the illusion of three-dimensions. Backlighting, which is essentially shooting directly into the sun, can give translucent materials such as fur and feathers a beautiful glowing rim light. This effect is much more dramatic than conventional front lighting. However, be aware of possible underexposure, autofocus difficulties, and sun flare when shooting backlit subjects.
Wildlife Photography
“Approaching a Rift” I used 1/6 second shutter speed to give this still image the illusion of motion.

Pan With Long Exposures

Add some dynamic movement to your images by introducing some long exposures into your wildlife portfolio. Animals on the move or birds in flight offer suburb opportunities to use slower shutter speeds with camera panning. Freezing the action with faster shutter speeds will nearly always be the initial impulse for most wildlife photographers, but sometimes it’s better to go with the flow! Start with 1/15 second for moving subjects and experiment from there: faster exposures for rapidly moving animals and longer exposures for slower. You want to express motion while preserving the integrity of the animal’s primary features so it’s recognizable, especially the eyes, if possible.
Compelling Wildlife Photography
“Desert Nomad” Oryx stopping for a rest in the Namib Desert, Sossusvlei, Namibia. The wider perspective pulled in the background lines and shadows, making this a far more compelling image than a mere close-up.

Go Wide

When shooting wildlife, the photographer’s first impulse is often to grab the biggest, longest lens in the bag and zoom in as tight on the subject as possible. This strategy is great if you want to start counting fur fibers and feathers, but it isn’t always the most compelling option. Every so often, try resisting this urge and explore a more expansive view instead. Not only can the surrounding environment give perspective to the moment and help tell a story about the creature’s life and habitat, but it can also help create a more compelling composition by bringing in complementary lines and visual elements. The next time you’re using a telephoto lens, pull your eye away from the viewfinder every so often and look around at the subject’s surrounding environment and ask yourself if it’s adding more to the whole story or not. You would be surprised how often the answer is yes.
Compelling Wildlife Photography
“Paulet” An Adélie penguin welcomes visitors to Paulet Island, located on the northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. I was flat on the ground shooting upward with a wide-angle lens for this intimate portrait.

Get Low

With but a few exceptions, the absolute worst perspective when photographing wildlife is at a downward angle. Capturing the top of an animal’s or bird’s head isn’t going to move or inspire anyone. Psychologically, it’s condescending and authoritative. Aesthetically, you have the immediate ground as your background and little or no eye contact with your subject. Choosing a low, eye-level perspective, especially with the smaller animals, makes it much easier for the viewer of the image to relate and connect with the animal. The emotional implication is mutual respect, not dominance. Getting low also delivers far more interesting, out-of-focus backgrounds where the subject almost “pops” off the screen.
Compelling Wildlife Photography
“Polar Intrigue” Polar bears engaging in play fighting – a great example of both gesture and interaction, Barter Island, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA

Show Gesture and Interaction

The three most essential ingredients in a successful wildlife image are composition, light, and gesture. Everyone knows something about composition, and we talked a little about light earlier. Gesture is defined as the “movement of part of the body that expresses an idea or meaning.” We want our images to have meaning, so why not let our animal subjects help us express it? Don’t be satisfied with photos that only show a static animal or bird staring blankly into the camera. Show how these animals interact with one another, play, mate, or hunt for food. Unless you intend to photograph a documentary image for a field guide, don’t be satisfied with a simple stock wildlife portrait. Wait for something special to happen, and then be ready to act!

Essential Photography: Embrace Backlight

Essential Photography: Embrace Backlight

General How-To

Essential Photography: Embrace Backlight

“Daughter of the Sun” Giraffe in backlight at sunset, Etosha National Park, Namibia

Light is the lifeblood of the photograph.

As a photographer – or an aspiring photographer – you might have heard the preceding phrase a time or two. You might have also been taught that the origin of the word photography is a fusion of two Greek derivatives: photos meaning “light” and graphe meaning to “write” or “draw.” The inference here being that photography means to write with light.

George Eastman, the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, knew a little something about light.

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

These are indeed lofty and inspiring words which happen to be mostly true. But he was also fond of saying:

“You push the button and we do the rest.”

It should be noted that Mr. Eastman is best known as a businessman, not a photographer.

It might seem obvious to most of you, but it is light that you capture with your camera, not the subject in your viewfinder. This is pretty profound when you really think about it. Your subject is always the light reflecting off the scene; its direction, intensity, and color. Not only is light the lifeblood of the photograph, light is everything.


When you point the lens in the direction of the light source (for outdoor photographers this usually means the sun) with your subject between you and the light, you’ll encounter a back-lit situation. Backlight produces dramatic lighting effects on your subject or scene and can take an ordinary photo subject and elevate it to something truly extraordinary. Backlight can create beautiful rim light with hair, fur, or feathers or a pleasant glow with other translucent materials like autumn leaves. With more solid objects, backlight will result in silhouettes, especially if the scene in underexposed.

“Shadow Bear” Rim light illuminates the fur of a coastal brown bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska USA.

Backlight Challenges and Solutions

While using backlight can produce dramatic lighting effects and visually compelling, jaw-dropping images, it can also present some challenges you will need to overcome. Here are a few.

  • Trouble locking in autofocus. When shooting into the sun, one of the first problems beginners encounter is the autofocus not locking onto the subject. Autofocus systems using Contrast Phase Detection particularly have this difficultly. This is quite common and something I always come to expect during a backlighting situation. The solution is finding a strong contrast edge on which to focus. Refer to the bear photo up above. If your autofocus indicator is over the head of chest of the bear, there wont be enough contrast to lock onto. Rather, move the indicator to an area of rim light – like the ears, where there is strong contrast between the light and dark. You will then discover the autofocus works and the camera fires with no problem.
  • Lens flare/ghosting. Pointing the lens into the direction of the sun will usually cause sun flare and ghosting. Trying shading the front of the lens using the lens hood (if the angle of the sun is somewhat off to the side), your hand, a hat, or some sort of reflector or diffuser board, If none of the solutions work before the actual sun is in for image frame. wait until the sun in low on the horizon and its naturally diffused by the atmosphere or airborne water vapor and dust. Sunset is better than sunrise since there is more dust in the air at the end of the day. It also helps to have a clean, dust and dirt-free front lens element.
  • Underexposure. The bright light or sun streaming through your lens will convince your camera’s meter into severely underexposing the photo. Depending whether or not the sun is in the image frame and unless I purposely want to underexpose the scene (such as shooting silhouettes), I will add +2 to +3 EVs using exposure composition to brighten it up. Consult your histogram to be sure you have shadow detail where you desire it to be and there are no overexposed areas as well.

If you can overcome these common backlight obstacles, you will master backlight and elevate your photography a notch or two.

Behind The Lens: Brooks Falls, Alaska

Behind The Lens: Brooks Falls, Alaska

Behind The Lens

Behind The Lens: Brooks Falls, Alaska

“Brooks Falls” Brown bear on Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x Lens @ 280mm, 1/13 second @ f/14, ISO 100.

Brooks Falls are located on the Brooks River about halfway between Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake in Katmai National Park and Preserve. The falls are best known for bear watching on the Bear Cam as salmon attempt to leap up and over the six-foot cascade on their way to their spawning grounds. Brooks Falls is also quite famous for a number of bear-catching-salmon-in-jaws photos that you’ve undoubted seen in prints, books, and all over the Internet.

I wanted to attempt something different here, a contrast between the stillness of a steady bear atop the falls and the ever moving water. The result, which you see here, has been published on numerous occasions including an appearance in my latest wildlife photography book. I’ve been been asked on several occasions if this is a composite created with one slow exposure for the water and another with a faster shutter speed for the bear. The answer would be no. Bears usually don’t move very quickly and they often just stand around looking dumb and confused. The shutter speed of 1/13 second was fast enough to render the idle bear as perfectly sharp while also creating an illusion of motion with the water.

This image was captured with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR and Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x Lens and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

Favorite Images of 2018: A Retrospective

Favorite Images of 2018: A Retrospective


Favorite Images of 2018: A Retrospective

I spent much of December at home with a thought-provoking read titled The Artist’s Journey by author and screen writer, Steven Pressfield. And while I don’t completely agree with everything he espouses, I do recommend the book for artists, writers, musicians, or anyone with a career in a creative field. Among the many views the author posits (you can read some of the more profound excerpts on Tim Ferriss’ blog, How To Undertake the Artist’s Journey) is that the artist’s intent should not necessarily be one of self expression, as you might have heard and believed most of your creative life, but rather a journey of self discovery. 

“Artists discover themselves by the work they produce,” Pressfield asserts.

Those eight words above have haunted me now for weeks. As I pored over this year’s work to make the following selections, I asked… What matters to me most? What is my life’s purpose? What three words describes me best? I had relatively adequate answers to those questions already yet I searched for new meaning in my most recent work, making little to no progress. But since I’m insanely self-critical (there are no framed pictures of my work adorning the walls of my home or office, for example) I did manage to extract the following threads of introspection: Is this really all you’ve accomplished this year? Seriously, what an utter waste of twelve months. You really should spend more time actually doing photography and less time writing and talking about it. Okay, fair enough.

In addition, he implores artists to “put your ass when your heart wants to be” – an inelegant way of phrasing, Do Whatever Inspires You. Great advice, I’d say, which is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past 15 years, including this most recent one. So with regard to Pressfield, his book, and my journey of self-discovery, let’s just say it all evens out and continue to my favorite images of 2018, shall we?

Lilac Wine
Acadia National Park, Maine USA
October 12, 2018

Perhaps subconsciously inspired by Claude Monet’s series of impressionist water lily paintings, I caught the sunset sky reflected in a beaver pond along Duck Brook Pond in Acadia National Park in Maine. I liked the combination of abstract qualities with a touch of the literal found in the lily pads and reeds. Getting the right amount of balance and spacing of literal elements within the image frame was key. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 400mm, 1/125 second @ f/16, ISO 500.

Dark Karma
Praia da Adraga at dusk, Portugal
June 1, 2018

Praia da Adraga is a place of dangerous beauty. The waves are big and powerful, the surf thunderous, and the rocks either too slippery, too sharp, or the lethal union of both. I anticipated an epic fail at every turn but managed to avoid disaster with each visit made. I wanted my images to convey this feeling of impending doom I carried in the pit of my stomach and Dark Karma came as close as any others. But alas, on my final evening at Adraga, while walking out in the dark, I suffered a violent, if not comical fall on the rocks, leaving a hockey puck-sized bruise on my thigh with all the colors of a Mediterranean sunset. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Irix 15mm, 30 seconds @ f/11, ISO 100.

Turning Away
Humpback whale, Johan Petersen Fjord, Eastern Greenland
August 21, 2018

Most of you know that wildlife conservation is a passion of mine, particularly the preservation of endangered species. The humpback whale is one of our rare success stories, with its conservation status upgraded from endangered (1988) to vulnerable (1996) due to the cessation of commercial whaling practices. But now the ocean’s plastics crisis threatens them once again. I like to imagine the displayed gesture as an anthropomorphic middle finger to the most “advanced” primates of the planet. If you look closely above the tail, you can see not only the outline of an iceberg, but also the edge of Greenland’s massive ice sheet. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 158mm, 1/1600 second @ f/5.6, ISO 125.

Daughter of the Sun
Etosha National Park, Namibia
June 25, 2018

This Etosha giraffe appears to be bowing before the sun mere minutes before it dropped below the horizon. The sun is so large in the image from because of the focal length (560mm) and I battled all the usual bugaboos associated with shooting directly into the sun: flare, ghosting, autofocus problems, underexposure, and real possibility of being blinded in the process. All in all, however, it seems to have worked out well enough. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 200-400mm w/ 1.4x @ 560mm, 1/500 second @ f/10, ISO 250.

Lake Clark National Park at Cooke Inlet, Alaska
August 10, 2018

My love-hate relationship with bears continued in 2018 with a visit to Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge. The chosen image here teaches a valuable lesson for wildlife photographers who instinctively reach for the longest lens in the bag and zoom in as close as possible. Many just aren’t happy until every detail of fur or feather can be resolved fully in the frame. And let’s face it, this tendency is also an opportunity to show off some of your technical proficiency, am I right?  But the more compelling image is often the wider option. Here we have layers of sky, mountains, water, shoreline, bears, and their reflections. This is much more interesting than the conventional close up. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 200-400mm w/1.4x @ 560mm, 1/2500 second @ f/5.6, ISO 800.

Steel Rain
The Vestrahorn at Stokksnes, Southeast Iceland
February 24, 2018

Classic landscape layout; sweeping, wide-angle perspective, compelling foreground with patterns creating perspective progression, diagonal shoreline leading the eye to the mountains in the background. This was captured in some of the worst weather you can imagine with the temperature near freezing, rain, sleet, and wind (I did have friends and fellow photographers nearby with whom I could share the agony) but within the hour, the skies opened up and a rainbow appeared over the mountains. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 16-35mm @ 17mm, 4 seconds @ f/14, ISO 100.

Chasing the Light
Etosha National Park, Namibia
June 27, 2018

This is my personal favorite from 2018 and the most difficult image for me to describe with mere words. For one thing, I never remember taking the photo; it’s like a dream. I discovered the photo later that evening while reviewing images in my cabin. No animal is displayed in it’s entirety; the photo is all legs and trunks. The light is exquisite. The combination of backlighting and dust kicked up by the herd of elephants produces some curious visual effects such as the double edges where the light bleeds into the shadows and vice-versa. The composition uses layers to frame the young elephant farthest away from us, which is where our eye comfortably rests. I’m reminded of Robert Hunter’s lyrics, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” The camera and lens were pointed in the right direction at the right time for a reason I can’t explain or properly take credit for. Maybe it was just the light. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 200-400mm @ 280mm, 1/1600 second @ f/9, ISO 640.

Quercus Angelus
Johns Island, South Carolina
November 26, 2018

This is my backyard, not quite literally, but nearly so. I’ve photographed this tree on many dozens of occasions, including this exact composition time and time again. And time is the most conspicuous dimension on display here, as the Angel Oak, as it’s been titled, is the oldest living thing in America found east of the Mississippi River. On this particular morning I had no people to work around, soft diffused light, and a touch of mist in the air which lent a dreamy look and feel to the scene. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 11-24mm @ 19mm, 5 seconds @ f/16, ISO 160.

Eternal Blue
Iceberg, Angmagssalik Fjord, Eastern Greenland
August 22, 2018

Here’s a perfect example of an intimate scenic; no foreground, no sky, no “sense of place” – just color, patterns, shapes, and lines. Intimate scenics always say much more about the personal vision of the photographer than it does about the place, however if one had to guess, Greenland would have been a good one. Grand scenics, conversely, usually rely more on the specific location to carry the image. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 200mm, 1/640 second @ f/11, ISO 2000.

Take a Bow
Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón, Southeast Iceland
February 4, 2018

Due to the extremely changeable weather in Iceland, rainbows are not an uncommon phenomenon. Despite this fact, however, they never fail to bring a smile since they always seem to be preceded by the foulest of weather. This 180 degree rainbow perfectly frames this lone iceberg on Diamond Beach at Jökulsárlón. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 11-24mm @ 17mm, 1/200 second @ f/14, ISO 500.

In 2019 I’ll be traveling to Iceland, Greenland, China, Patagonia (Argentina and Chile), Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda, Gabon, diving with gray whales off Mexico’s Baja California, returning to Antarctica, and more. Follow my adventures by signing up for my monthly newsletter

Here’s to Truth, Adventure, and Passion in 2019 –  Richard

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.