Once again Jack Graham and I led a fantastic photography workshop to Alaska to photograph the grizzly bears in their natural habitat in Katmai National Park. We have done this for several years now and each year has been special and memorable to every one of our attendees. It is a bucket list item for many and this trip typically doesn’t disappoint.
This is the fourth installment of the trip recap. Read from the beginning HERE or the previous part HERE
Saturday – Artful Compositions
Again I was up early and reviewing my images from the previous day. I wanted to take at least a cursory review of images to look for things that I could improve on today. Around the breakfast table, I offered up a couple of options knowing people might be tired from the day before….1) a low effort day (with lower chances of bears) or 2) to repeat the hike we did before. Everyone chose to do the hike again no matter how tired they were. The area was so amazing that they couldn’t pass it up.
We geared up and loaded the planes for the short flight to the lake. The skies were clear, which is great for flying but not as great for photography. Especially since the bears are really dark. Photographing bears on sunny days produces a really high contrast situation and you need to watch and balance your exposure to not blow out the highlights or crush the lows. Knowing how far you can push your camera and the files it produces dictates a bit how you approach shooting these high contrast scenes.
As we made the hike to the river, I reminded the group of the high contrast lighting situation we’d be facing and a few strategies to overcome the challenges. AND, I challenged them on something perhaps harder…..be more selective and creative in the days photography. Now that we have a ton of action shots and dozens of basic shots of bears sitting in the water….most of the bucket list standard shots, I encouraged everyone to try and slow down and be more discerning in which photographs they take. Try to capture more distinctive mannerisms, expressions, personality or anything like that. Zoom in ultra tight to the bear, maybe just focus on half of the face…whatever. Just try and bring more personality, more artistry to the shots.
When we arrived at the creek, we didn’t see any bears as we dropped down to begin our hike. Immediately everyone got the feeling that today would be different than yesterday. We hung around for 15 minutes and eventually a sow and two cubs came along so we spent 30 minutes photographing them, getting warmed up photographically. We had an earlier departure scheduled than yesterday so we needed to be more mindful of how much time we spent along the way. Since this location wasn’t too productive, we made the decision to begin walking down river.
The day before the first half of the hike was mind-blowing, yet on this day, the first half of the day wasn’t so much. No where near what we had the day before. We maybe saw 6 bear and one set of cubs, proving the adage that no two days are ever the same in photography. However, the second half of the day proved to be the winner. We saw another 15-18 bears in the second half of the hike. At one time, there were 7 bear in view along, or in, the river. Sows with cubs, a couple of boars, other individuals, all working hard to pack in the calories with tasty salmon.
Towards the end of the day, we had been following a sow with two cubs downstream. They would stop occasionally and we’d stop as well to photograph them. We reached a narrowing of the stream with a deep pool and mom and the cubs set up to fish and play in this area. We photographed them for over an hour in various shots, with somewhat favorable lighting even with the clear skies! At one point, the bears approached us to within 20 yards (it’s ok if they come to you, you just can’t go to them). Wary but with confidence in our guide, we photographed this close encounter with glee. At times our 100-400mm lenses were too much! We needed medium telephoto or wide angle lenses because the bears were so close!!!
By this time people were also much more relaxed and more discerning in their shots which made for more creative images. Some even stopped shooting and just enjoyed the experience of being in this amazing location in close proximity to the bears, trying to savor every moment. We did have one person who was a partner of a photographer who came along and just shot snaps with their iphone and captured some great images because the bears were so close. You don’t have to be a hard core photographer to have an amazing experience like this.
We eventually finished the hike back to the lake and the plane, extremely tired, but so very satisfied with the past two amazing days on this stretch of the river. A quick flight back and a change of clothes, we gathered in the lodge for appetizers and drinks (non-alcoholic of course) and talked about the day. Everyone tried to convey their feelings, but the past days were beyond most words, and folks struggled to describe what they were feeling. Indeed, even after doing this several times, I was amazed as well with the experiences on this trip.
After dinner, we assembled in the living room of the lodge to do an image sharing session. Not a critique or review, just to share several images from each attendee for all of us to admire. On this trip we don’t do normal image critiques because the experience is so different for most, everyone is tired, and people have a TON of images to go through to find ones they want to share, so we dial down the critique portion and just try and enjoy the awesome images everyone captured. It’s always interesting to see how other people shot the same subject, see different techniques, and just enjoy and relive the experiences of the past few days. After an hour or so of looking at images, we all went to bed with huge smiles on our face full of wonder, of awe, and memory cards full of outstanding images.
I am a full time photography workshop leader and creative educator based in the Pacific Northwest. I lead group workshops and individual sessions with the goal to elevate each persons creative vision and technical skills to create compelling compositions. Please visit my website to see my workshops and other offerings. www.johnpedersenphoto.com