Grizzly bear fishing salmon

by Brice Petit

Photographing grizzly bears fishing at Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska, was the dream of a lifetime. Researching, planning and organizing the trip took a lot of time, like figuring out the best time to be there, the best places to go for photography, etc. But it really paid off once my camera and I were finally amidst the bears and the salmon migration.

 


Canon 1DX  .  Canon 200-400mm f/4L  .  1/640ss  .  f/4  .  ISO2500

 

As the salmon run usually occurs in the middle of July, that was exactly the period I chose and booked my trip. But after years of wildlife photography, I know very well that you simply cannot make appointments with wildlife. As it turned out, the peak of the salmon run in 2014 occurred three weeks earlier, on June 14th.

"Hopefully, many bears would still be there — maybe not 20 at a time, like the top of the salmon run, but at least four to eight of them."

By the time I arrived at Brooks Camp, I had already received the news from the different websites I was following. So I was quite anxious to see with my own eyes how many bears and salmon would remain. Hopefully, many bears would still be there — maybe not 20 at a time, like the top of the salmon run, but at least four to eight of them. Some salmon were still trying to pass the Falls, so things looked fine.

Brooks Falls is quite crowded at that time of year, so rangers limit access to the platform where you can best photograph the fishing bears. Register yourself on a waiting list, and once your turn arrives, you have one hour to take your photos. Then you leave the platform, register again and wait another 30 to 60 minutes. 

From 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. you can access the platform without registration. At 9:00 a.m. rangers come and take names, and you can stay for one hour. At 10:00 a.m. you are to leave and start the turn around with the registration process every hour up to 5:00 p.m. Then it's open from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. without registration because there are fewer people since the one-day visitors are gone. Registration is to limit the number of people on the platform to 40. There are other platforms available that are never crowded and do not require any registration; however, the one at the Falls does. 

"And when a salmon jumps, there is only about one second before a bear gets it or not. So if you want to catch the salmon “in flight,” you need many trials."

Bears at the Falls are mainly old dominant males. Females and their cubs remain lower on the river to fish away from the males. This is for the protection of the cubs. Older males usually stay at the bottom of the falls while younger males run after salmon in the river. At the lip of the falls, there are not many bears after the peak of migration because it's more difficult to catch salmon there. At the peak of migration, around 100 salmon per minute try to jump up over the falls, while three weeks later only a few per hour are jumping. So you always have to keep your eye on the viewfinder and check your settings from time to time since the light changes throughout the day. And when a salmon jumps, there is only about one second before a bear gets it or not. So if you want to catch the salmon “in flight,” you need many trials. Or you shoot with a 70–200mm lens and crop the final picture, which in the end is, of course, easier but not my way of working.

For this shot I was extremely lucky because in three days it was the only moment when four salmon jumped simultaneously, and at twelve images per second I only got two decent shots! 

From the campground to the Falls there is a very nice 1.6-mile walk through the forest along the river. Remember the instructions you receive from the rangers when you arrive because you will meet wild bears along the trail! Always keep your camera ready: Mother Nature could have some unexpected extra shots for you.

"I was not expecting these four salmon to jump at the same time. If I had, I would have increased the ISO even higher than 2500 to ensure I got the shot."

I tried many different camera settings once I arrived at the Falls. Soon I realized that 1/1600 second shutter speed was the lower safety limit, and 1/2000 second was the “no risk” shutter speed. Unfortunately, the light was not always optimal; this part of the world is often very cloudy. I know that the latest cameras allow high ISO sensitivity with little noise, but again, that is not my way to practice. So sometimes I take some risks and try to limit the ISO as much as I can. I was not expecting these four salmon to jump at the same time. If I had, I would have increased the ISO even higher than 2500 to ensure I got the shot. Thankfully, though, I didn't miss it; it was perfectly sharp, even with a shutter speed as low as 1/640 second. 

For this photo I also corrected the exposure to +1⅓ stops since the bright waterfall covered more than two-thirds of the image. The challenge in a case like that is to overexpose enough to have the bear properly exposed while making sure the water is not blown out.

I very quickly realized another difficulty once I arrived on the platform. If the salmon were jumping on the left side of the bear, then the bear’s face was turned in the other direction and I could only see the back of its head. It was a pity that about two-thirds of the jumps were on the “bad” side. So a second complication, after realizing that there would be fewer salmon while I was there, was that I had to wait for the salmon to jump between the platform and the bear so I could get a good photo of him looking my way. 

"By remaining attentive, though, I was able to catch this moment, which was THE shot of Katmai National Park for me this year."

After hours of waiting to shoot, you sometimes start to have slower reacting times and can easily become distracted by anything, but during these three days we really had to remain focused on the bears and salmon at all times to not miss the action. By remaining attentive, though, I was able to catch this moment, which was THE shot of Katmai National Park for me this year.

Most of the time I work in Aperture Priority mode. Depending upon the expected subject, I may use Shutter Priority for a very specific shutter speed. And most of the time I am working with long telephoto lenses at maximum aperture. ISO sensitivity is really my fallback, my “safety tire” — I only increase ISO when I have no other option. 

"Also, due to different airlines and baggage limitations, I have hesitated many times, wondering whether or not I should carry my Wimberley head and tripod with me. Trust me: It was the right choice."

I did not use a flash. I never do for wildlife pictures. I know that in the US, a Better Beamer flash extender is a very common accessory, but it's not in Europe. Also, due to different airlines and baggage limitations, I have hesitated many times, wondering whether or not I should carry my Wimberley head and tripod with me. Trust me: It was the right choice.
 
POST PROCESSING
The image was captured in Canon RAW file format, CR2, and imported into Lightroom 5.6 for processing. 

Every evening at the campground I uploaded my photos onto my laptop. This allowed me through sort them, quickly check sharpness and discard everything I was sure that I did not want to keep. If I am uncertain about any photos, I keep them and decide if they're keepers once I am back home. When I import photos, I use a metadata preset with basic information about me, my copyright and keywords; it's basic info to speed up the process of sorting through them later. I also apply a camera profile using X-Rite ColorChecker Passport software. This is a very efficient accessory when you have more than one camera body (or even with one it is a very good thing).

When I'm back home, I upload every photo that I did not discard onto my desktop computer. Here I start the Lightroom development.

These are the Before and After post-processing images.

 

1) In the Basic panel, I start with the Exposure adjustment. Not much was needed for this photo because it was already set to +1⅓ stops in-camera. 

2) I always adjust White Balance after the Exposure adjustment. I feel more comfortable adjusting the White Balance settings on a properly exposed picture. I used a correction of bright tones and shadows on the global image as a starting point. Again, due to the good settings I made when I took this photo, I had no major corrections to apply to achieve a good exposure on the bear as well as on the water. This is important for me. If the picture is not shot properly and major corrections have to be applied, I usually put it in the “keep it in a drawer” folder.

3) Next, I made adjustments in the Tone Curve panel. I often start by applying the Medium Contrast Point Curve for a more dramatic effect. Then if needed, I adjust it very slightly. I usually start to do the local work at this stage when needed. For this image, I just wanted the bear’s face to be a bit brighter. So without correcting the exposure on the water, I used the Radial Filter tool, drew a circle around the face and increased Exposure in only this area by +0.5 stop. 

4) In the Detail panel, I adjusted the Sharpening and Noise Reduction settings until I was satisfied with the results. In the Lens Corrections panel, I selected both Enable Profile Corrections and Remove Chromatic Aberration. 

I sometimes use some of the Nik Software (Google) Lightroom plugins at this stage, but this is very rare. The same is true for Photoshop. If I have no other choice, I can accept processing some steps in that software, but 99% of the time I do all of the post-processing in Lightroom.

TIPS
From my point of view, these are the three most important tips for wildlife photography.

1) Be patient, even when you have waited 10 hours for nothing. For starters, you spent 10 hours in the wild, which is never wasted time; moreover, your expected subject could easily appear after waiting 10 hours and two minutes.

2) Knowing your subject is crucial. If you go to Brooks Falls to photograph bears in the middle of August, you will come back with photos of the waterfall only. Being patient is good, but knowing your subject's behavioral patterns first will prevent your losing patience for nothing.

3) Be ready at all times. If your subject does not come out after waiting for hours, don't remain inactive. The light changes, so check your camera settings regularly and take test shots. If your subject suddenly appears after waiting 10 hours, you could miss the shot because the ISO sensitivity was too low or the exposure was not properly adjusted, etc.
 
BIOGRAPHY
In my day job I am a lab technician working in genomic research in Switzerland. But wildlife has kept my mind busy since childhood, and even though photography came later (when I was about 20 years old), I now love to combine the two.

I started with an old film camera (a Canon T70) that my father gave to me, and I switched some time later to another, the more recent Canon EOS 5 SLR. Then digital photography arrived, and having the possibility to develop my pictures myself (RAW format) pushed me to move that way, especially because I could not find enough space at home to have my own film lab. So I changed my gear for a Canon EOS 20D and a Canon EF 100–400mm lens, which was a wonderful starting point. My first full-frame Canon EOS 5D was the best of both worlds (digital and full-frame sensor, like the days of film cameras). Actually, I use two different bodies now: the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and the Canon EOS 1DX with different long telephoto lenses. And even though zoom lenses are more practical, I prefer my prime lenses. 

I am not a specialist regarding photography treatment. I am not a Photoshop user (well, almost not), and I love to develop my photos in Lightroom only. This also forces me to push myself toward making the best possible photos in-camera because you cannot do much more in Lightroom to change anything major, like the background or anything else for that matter. I always try to shoot as best I can, and I position myself in such a way that the background is always clear. A long telephoto lens helps, and good light does too. Having to crop a photo over 20% is, for me, a reason to discard an image, as is the lack of sharpness or a missed exposure over +/– ⅔ of a stop.

For wildlife inspiration, the city I live in, Geneva, is not ideal. So I have discovered another passion: travel! I have been to Africa many times, but in the last few years I have also discovered the pleasures of going north, such as the Scandinavian countries and now Alaska, and I love it more and more.
Check out my homepage:  http://www.bricephoto.ch

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