Where & How to Photograph Polar Bears in the Arctic
Do you want to know how to photograph polar bears?
Photographing and seeing Polar Bears is a fulfilling lifelong dream for any hobbyist or professional wildlife photographer. This article will provide you with all of the necessary instruction in order to get breathtaking images of these beautiful creatures roaming their natural habitats.
The polar bear is a large and imposing predator, yet they are still elusive animals that have never been very easy to find in wild territories. Luckily for you, this article will provide insight into all aspects necessary to capture breathtaking shots of these majestic creatures as nature intended them – beautiful wilderness untouched by human hand or influence.
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This article will provide you with all of the necessary instruction in order for you to capture breathtaking images of Polar Bears.
We will discuss the following:
- Where to photograph polar bears?
- Camera Gear – Kit Choices
- Gear – Dealing with Elements
- Polar bear safety and etiquette
- Taking photos in the field
- Post production
- My favourite Polar Bear encounter in Svalbard
Where to Photograph Polar Bears?
Polar bears live near the fast ice, pack ice or water. You will find them all over the Arctic Circle, from Alaska to the northeast of Siberia’s coastline. Here are seven popular places polar bears live:
- Svalbard, Norway
- Eastern and Northern Regions of Greenland
- Baffin Island, Canada
- Churchill, Manitoba along the Hudson’s Bay in Canada
- Kaktovik, Alaska
- Wrangel Island, Russia
- Franz Josef Land, Russia
My favourite region to photograph Polar Bears is in Svalbard. I have been to Churchill, Manitoba and the Polar Bear encounters can be fantastic as you are on foot with the Polar Bears but I prefer the habitat and scenery of Svalbard. The expedition and the journey of exploring Svalbard is where I prefer to go for my Polar Bear photography and to photograph them from zodiacs.
Svalbard is Norwegian but it’s north of the Norwegian mainland towards the north pole. This Norwegian archipelago is located between Norway and the North Pole. It is considered one of the most popular destinations for photographers to capture polar bears, the arctic fox, reindeer, walrus, seals and other wildlife as well as dramatic land and seascapes.
Arriving in Svalbard during the summer is quite different from spring. The ice has melted, and the only way to approach the polar bears is by boat. The smaller the expedition boat, the better the experience. Our icebreaking ships we use for micro cruises are comfortable for the day to day exploration and accommodation but the best viewings take place from the daily zodiac excursions from the icebreaking ship. Usually, with bigger boats you can’t get close enough to the bears or you’ll be at too high elevation and you’ll end up shooting down on the subject which is less than ideal.
During the summertime you can expect the Polar Bears to be scavenging along the beach shorelines looking for washed up whale carcasses or resting, conserving their energy. The winter time and the spring time are the Polar Bear’s best hunting season as they are able to strategically hunt for seals from the sea ice / pack ice and the fjord system’s seasonal fast ice.
My preferred season for Svalbard is the spring during April to mid June. The Polar Bears will be more active as they will be in hunting mode and likely more accessible. The only challenge is to find the locations of the bears during this time as they are not staying around in one spot for long periods of time.
Camera Gear – Kit Choices for Svalbard
Shooting polar bears in the arctic is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Assuming the trip’s total cost, you need to carry camera equipment worthy of taking high-quality images. When investing in a photography Polar Bear expedition, my recommendation is to first hire or rent telephoto lenses / full frame or mirrorless before buying them if photography is just a hobby for you.
Wildlife photography is an expensive hobby and profession to get into. Yet, you don’t want to travel to the north pole without good gear. A 24MP or a higher-resolution camera will help you capture more detailed images. Make sure your camera has excellent Autofocus and shoots at least 7 frames per second when it’s in high speed continuous drive mode.
Furthermore, pick a good super-telephoto and a versatile wide-angle lens. No matter how close you get to a polar bear, you will always need more reach. There’s a variety of telephoto lenses you can choose between native and third-party manufacturers.
Telephoto lens choices – minimum 560mm reach and ideally up to 800mm
- 70-200mm f2.8 (In my Svalbard camera gear bag)
- 70-300mm f4-5.6
- 100-400mm f4.5-6.3 (Budget option)
- 200-600mm f5.6-6.3 (Budget option)
- 400mm f/2.8 (In my Svalbard camera gear bag) with 1.4x extender and a 2.0x extender
- 500mm f/4.0 with 1.4x or 2.0x extenders for Svalbard
- 600mm f/5.6 with 1.4x or 2.0x extenders for Svalbard
Wide-angle lens choices for capturing landscapes, wildlife in habitats and behind the scenes moments:
- 16-35mm f2.8 (In my Svalbard camera gear bag)
- 24-70mm f2.8
- 24mm f1.4
Tip: Use a combination of cameras and lenses with 5 stops (or more) of image stabilization for better and sharper handheld shots.
Last but not least, take a second camera body with you, extra batteries, chargers, plenty of memory cards, and a sturdy tripod for fatigue and bean bag for shooting on the icebreaker or zodiac. The least you want to happen on your trip is camera failure. A second camera will save you from the disaster! I always pack two bodies with two different lens setups for quick changes in the field rather than change lenses as needed.
Dealing with the Cold
When photographing bears, you have to be quiet, stay still, or lie on the ground for several minutes. For this reason, you have to prepare for the cold and wear proper clothing.
In spring, weather conditions are still tough. Temperatures can get to – 40 degrees and very windy. You have to prepare for such low temperatures and wear several layers of special arctic gear such as:
- Base layer top and bottom of sustainable wool – As a vegan and conservationist I believe that sustainably produced wool clothing is better for the environment than synthetic / plastic materials as the end of life cycle can break down
- Insulating layer made from sustainable wool
- Top layer should be a waterproof and windproof Gortex jacket and pants combination. I use Arc’teryx gear for my outfitting for Svalbard
- Alternatively you can go with a large parka of your choice – just ensure the temperature rating is rated for idle time, not gear used for hiking.
- Wool Toque or Thick Beanie
- Based long sleeve shirts while on the boat / dinner / relaxing and casual use
- Thin Scarf
- Balaclava – essential while in transit on zodiac cruises to cover your neck and nose
- Gloves (thin and thick pair) but both pairs need to be tactical. Meaning you’re able to use your camera without struggle or issues
- Wool socks (thin and thick pair) – If the trip length is 7 days, pack 1.5x pairs of socks. There’s nothing worse than jumping off the zodiac in the water and getting your boots and socks wet.
- Insulated winter boots – essential while cruising on the zodiac as you will be idle searching and photographing Polar Bears
- High top hiking boots – for use mainly in the summer season in Svalbard
- Hand warmers – good to keep in your pockets or inside your gloves
- Waterproof Camera Backpack
- Reusable water bottle
- Polarized Sunglasses
It is better to wear many light layers than a thick one – like the Gortex jacket with layers vs. a parka. The goal is to trap air between them to keep you warm. It’s a combination of a base layer, mid-layer, top layer, and outer layer above everything else.
In the summer, the weather is slightly warmer than the spring. Again, you need to wear a waterproof jacket, pants, and boots to keep you dry if strong winds spray up water on you. Therefore the combination of clothing to bring is almost the same.
Polar Bear Safety and Etiquette
In Svalbard, all expeditions require a special permit. On all trips, we have expedition leaders trained in both wildlife and specifically polar bear safety. The guides will be calling the shots and they are in charge of how and when we are to approach the polar bears. With no permit you must stay at least 500m away.
The best strategy to follow when photographing a bear is to place yourself close to the direction they’re heading. You don’t approach a polar bear. You let it come to you. Don’t get yourself into situations you can’t get out of. Keep a safe distance between you and them and with our expeditions to Svalbard we never get on the beach or land when a Polar Bear is in the territory. When traveling in small groups we maintain our distance and be safe by photographing them specifically from zodiacs.
That makes the bears feel safe and in control of their space. We never chase, directly approach, or stress them out. Respecting their space is vital to be able to get close enough and take amazing photographs. It’s a strategic waiting game of anticipating where the Polar Bears will go depending on their current situation.
For safety reasons you are allowed to carry a rifle, a flare gun or bear spray. This way you can protect yourself from an attack. Although, try to avoid using them. You have gone too far if you come to a situation where you have to use them. With our guides in Svalbard, we are protected with these vital pieces of equipment. When in our small groups of up to 15 people including guides, we can stand all together with the guides at either end and at the front to make it look like we are a larger entity that the Polar Bear would rather avoid.
If you see fresh Polar Bear tracks with claw markings or crisp lines, it’s best to leave that area immediately and get a safe distance away.
Taking Photos in the Field
Wherever you go in the Arctic, everything is white. It is hard to spot a polar bear. You either have to find them on your own using binoculars or through a local scout specialist. With our Svalbard expeditions, we have intel and insights of where to find them and how to get them most efficiently. While in Svalbard during the spring you can hire snowmobiles to get to locations but this is a more rugged expedition that is more unpredictable.
We need to be selective on which polar bears to photograph. Usually, the indifferent ones are perfectly fine with our presence. They don’t mind us being there photographing and they may even come close to inspect our group and this will provide you with the best photography opportunities. You’ll find that the sows and their cubs are rather approachable if we make our presence known and not as a threat.
Photo above: Can you spot the two polar bears in the scene?
My top tips on how to photograph polar Bears
- Vary up your focal length: Shoot wide to show the polar bear’s environment and get in tight for portraits
- Use Manual mode with your widest aperture f/2.8 for example to allow for the most light and least amount of grain and for separation between the subject and the background
- if the Polar Bear is sleeping you can shoot at 1/focal length so at 400mm your shutter is 1/400th
- If the Polar Bear is moving and your zodiac or boat is moving shoot at 1/2x your focal length so at 400mm your shutter is 1/800th.
- ISO you can set to Auto with a maximum ISO speed setting of 12,800 or 16,000 ISO (camera dependent)
- Use back button focus and AI Servo mode
- Drive mode should be in high speed continuous mode
- Use Auto White Balance Mode or choose one mode depending on light conditions. This isn’t imperative so long as you shoot in RAW and you can adjust it later on
- Make sure all camera sounds are disabled – disable your autofocus beep
- Use animal eye autofocus if your camera supports it.
- Position yourself on the ground or as low as possible for low-angle shots to add depth and compression in your image
- Shoot RAW
- Pack extra batteries and extra blank memory cards
- Disable your camera to shoot when you don’t have a memory card. Always check to see how many shots you can shoot and how much batter you have prior to getting to the encounter
- Polar Bear behaviour: is a bit easier to predict as these large mammals can only move so fast. Here are some tips to help you with settings and to ensure you get sharp shots.
- What you should look out for is when a Polar Bear is in transit they are constantly moving their head side to side smelling so be sure to track their eye carefully and to manage any shadows that may obstruct the eye.
- Additionally, when a bear is hunting seals on the fast ice they will be completely still to all of the sudden jumping nose first into the small ice hole. Setting a shutter speed for that scenario is your best bet to guarantee a sharp shot during the most interesting behaviour.
- When a sow has cubs, she will be on the lookout for predator threats. So she may be walking on all fours to all of the sudden standing on her hind legs.
- When Polar Bears are on the fast ice or pack ice they may jump from iceberg to iceberg so set a shutter speed similar to the earlier tip to a faster setting to capture this properly so that your result is super sharp.
- After a Polar Bear is swimming then will get onto the land or ice and they will shake the water off violently and very quickly. Set a fast shutter speed 1/2x focal length to improve your chances of pulling this shot off.
- When photographing Polar Bears in a high key scene, meaning white subject with a white background your camera in matrix metering mode will attempt to expose for 18% grey. What this means is that you will be underexposing your image when you perfectly balance your light meter by 1 to 1.5 stops. Therefore when setting up your camera desired exposure, I would shoot +1 EV using the expose to the right method (ETTR)
Creating beautiful pictures take two major components of nailing the exposure and composition in the field and with solid post processing skills. The more you understand how to color grade your photos, the better they will look when you share them and print them.
The following image has been processed in Lightroom.
Although I approach each photograph differently when editing there are essential practices in post processing that you must follow. You can see the screenshots for this particular edit of the Polar Bear sow and her cubs.
- Subtle edits with tasteful colour grading is what people are looking for
- Over saturated images look fake – do not try to mimic good lighting, it will never work and it will look obvious
- Weak compositions cannot be fixed with colour or editing (other than crop adjustments)
- Subtle enhancements of light and using dodging and burning can provide the best result
- If you miss the focus or your image isn’t as sharp as you would like don’t worry. Run it through the Topaz Labs: Sharpen AI lightroom and photoshop extension and you can preserve the details. Take a look at the before and after of this image after being sharpened. Use this link here to save 15% on all Topaz Labs products and enter code: CHASE15 https://topazlabs.com/ref/790/?campaign=SecretAtlas
BEFORE: Image needs to be re-cropped, straightened and ´cooled´ down to match my personal aesthetic.
I had too slow of a shutter speed here when shooting from the zodiac as it was moving up and down and back and forth from the waves so that affected both my focus/sharpness in camera as well as the original crooked horizon. After my edit in lightroom, I used the Topaz Labs plugin and ran it through the Artificial Intelligence software to fix the focus and sharpening.
END RESULT: A slight, subtle edit where I focused on the crop for rule of thirds composition and enhanced the light source on the left hand side and gave more negative space on the left hand side in the direction of where the wildlife is looking.
My visit to Svalbard
One of my most memorable Polar Bear experiences was photographing these two cubs and sow eating a washed up whale carcass during an expedition I took to Svalbard in the summer. The sow would pace up and down the beach scouting for male Polar Bear threats and the cubs would take turns jumping onto the carcass all the while eating as much as possible. This particular moment was very special to me as it demonstrated the personified Polar Bear. The mother instincts to care selflessly for her offspring. There were moments of tenderness that were so precious.
We watched from our zodiac as the sow and her two cubs eat and play for over an hour. They knew of our presence, yet they knew we weren’t a threat and acknowledged our group without changing their behaviours and to me this was the perfect interaction. I’m excited to go back and photograph Polar Bears in Svalbard on the sea ice and pack ice.
Although this is just one encounter I’m sharing, I have a list of several encounters that are memorable in their own unique way.
If you are interested in photographing polar bears from yourself please see our photography expeditions in Svalbard.