How To Shoot A Polar Bear

An interview with National Geographic photographer Rich Reid.

Ojai-based photographer Rich Reid is an acclaimed adventure, wildlife and landscape photographer. A contributor to National Geographic since 1998, Reid’s passion for the outdoors has taken him from the slopes of Mt. Denali to the dusty coast of Baja California. The versatile photographer has produced stunning images of grizzly bears, mountain ranges, as well as surfers barreling down pounding waves. For several years Reid ran his own tour company in Alaska, guiding visitors through its vast wilderness.

A California native, Reid grew up surfing the waters off the Santa Barbara coast. His environmental sensibility has been a pivotal influence in his work. In 2001, his effort to preserve the area’s Gaviota Coast was featured in National Geographic. In 2004, for National Geographic Adventure, he traveled by ferry and mountain bike through Alaska’s Inside Passage. An adventurer at heart, Reid documented the journey of famed explorer Juan Bautista De Anza in the National Geographic book, America’s Historic Trails.

Although Reid knows Alaska like a native, he had never been to the Arctic. In June, he traveled to the remote icy frontier for the first time, on The National Geographic Explorer, as the National Geographic photographer for a Lindblad/National Geographic expedition.

I was along for the ride, too. As we made our way through the gorgeous fjords of Svalbard, a string of islands in the Arctic Sea, he spoke about the challenges of capturing polar bears, of working in a reflective landscape where everything is white, and the tricks to shooting time-lapse photography.

Subjects

(One day) we encountered three bears and one large male walrus. The first bear we saw, I asked the kids, "What behavior was it displaying?" The older student said, "Patience." So we witnessed patience with the first bear and minor agitation with the second bear. The third one was actively hunting and punching holes in the ice, digging in after seals. The photography there was quite different because normally they’re about a half-mile away. Distance was the deciding factor.

You need to learn to understand your subjects. When is enough with an animal? You’ve got to have patience. You’ve got to consider the environment you’re in, whether there are grizzly bears or brown bears, the availability of food, which is dictated by the season.

If you want to do nature photography, avoid national parks. The animals are dangerously habituated. The back country or local parks are awesome.

The Gear And the Set-Up

This was my first trip to Svalbard. I’ve worked in Alaska so I had an idea of what to bring. But after a few days of shooting, a monopod would have been very handy instead of a tripod due to the space. But that said I needed a tripod to do time lapse on shore.

The other item I brought that was very useful was a rail clamp for time-lapsing video. It’s excellent for stability.

I was using a 400mm F2.8 lens with a 2X extender for an equivalent of 800. At that magnification everything is pronounced.

I have two (camera) bodies of equal value, the Nikon D7000. Most professionals wouldn’t even look at it. That said the D7000 is much lighter than a Pro-body. It shoots 24 p video, which I’ve produced five short documentaries with. It’s a 16-megapixel camera so the still images are great. The third reason I like it is for time lapses. It is the most power-efficient camera I’ve ever used.

For landscapes you need a fixed amount of gear. You can’t own enough bags as a nature photographer. Today we’re going kayaking. This trip I consolidated it to a hip pack and a shoulder sling. I carry all of that in a Kelty backpack.

How can the average person improve their nature photography?

If you aren’t already, you need to shoot in RAW. With a point and shoot camera, the learning curve is short.

I have been encouraging people to shoot in manual mode. This worked well because the bear was going from ice patch to open water, from light to dark. The other tip I’ve been encouraging is manual focus. Cameras are not designed to focus on pure white. It needs some contrast. These are as harsh as conditions as possible; overcast conditions with white snow and a white subject. So manual focus was critical.

Have a medium lens ready when they [the bears] come right at you because those were some of the better shots.

Shooting Time-Lapse Photography

(During the trip Reid also focused on time-lapse photography. In Oslo, Norway, he walked the streets outside our classic hotel, shooting as people hurried to sidewalk cafes, sat in the leafy park, or strolled outside the gates of the elegant palace. From hundreds of those images, he produced a mesmerizing short video of Oslo’s lively city center on a pale summer night).

Time lapse is a whole other species. The idea is to get an incredible composition from an average picture; a small jpg. that has a slow shutter speed and does not look good as a single image. When you blend 300 mediocre images, and you render them at 24 frames a second, magic happens.

Time lapse is becoming mainstream, but most of it can be shot with a GoPro. One of the best uses of time lapse is by James Balog, one of the foremost Nat Geo photographers. His "Extreme Ice" has recorded 17 glaciers retreating at a phenomenal pace. That’s where art has defined science.

The Background

Backgrounds are everything in photos. And quite often, especially with the larger lens, I pick my background. With the bear on the ice, I waited for him to come out in the open. I was anticipating his reflection in open water, so I set the camera for that. With people it’s easy. With bears you can’t control their movements. That applies to all wildlife.

In the Zodiacs, I asked our driver to steer us in front of the bow of the ship. Everyone lined up their cameras and the glacier was in the background. At the same time, there was a Zodiac disembarking its passengers and a Zodiac being lifted up onto the deck. That gave it a human element. That’s one big tip: add a person in the photo. Also, eliminate all distracting backgrounds. The easiest way to eliminate a distracting background is to shoot wide open. That will soften the background and accentuate the subject.

About The Photographer

My start was at 18 working in a one-hour photo lab. At 19 I assumed the role of the photo editor at the University of California, Santa Barbara for the yearbook and the daily newspaper. One of the powerful moments that set off my career happened in college. I became the center of a riot when the police subpoenaed my photos for an investigation. Four police offers were suspended for excessive violence. This showed me the power of photography.

After a three-year stint in the corporate world, I went to Turkey, New Zealand and Fiji for a few months. Somewhere around Christ Church I decided I needed to photograph nature full-time.

Fast-forward 15 years. I was teaching journalism at the Brooks Institute. I belong to NANPA (The North American Nature Photography Association). That was how I got involved in National Geographic. I sat next to an editor at a conference and she invited me to submit work. I’ve been there ever since.

My dad took me camping from day one. He was probably one of my biggest influences. More than anything, he taught me respect. My father was in a flight engineer for UPS. My earliest geography lesson was something he would call "funny money." He would bring home wads of coins from all over the world, and we’d lay them out on a map. I had a whole life of adventure before the age of 12, listening to his stories of all over the world.

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