Oliver Smart, 10th January 2012

A Wild Grizzly Adventure - Bears in Alaska

Grizzly Bear of Alaska

Oliver Smart is a wildlife photographer who is based in Weston-super-Mare and it is good to learn that we have such talent in our midst. He gave us a splendid account of a visit to Alaska and was quite happy to share with us some tips about how he produces the stunning shots with which he entertained us.

After flying to Anchorage, Alaska, Oliver's destination was the Katmai National Park which lies right at the point where the Aleutian Islands begin to string out into the Bering Strait. A flight in a specially adapted plane took Oliver's party out to the campsite where they made a landing on the beach at low tide. Accommodation was in canvas-sided cabins. Though not bear-proof this is apparently not a problem as long as visitors remember to stow their food in the scent-proof, bear-proof boxes provided.

The area is remote wilderness and very severe winters are the norm. In this coastal setting grizzly bears congregate in the summer months to gorge themselves on salmon. The bears are completely wild and humans do not feed them. Unlike black bears which are more aggressive and polar bears which are lethal the grizzlies seem to tolerate the presence of human visitors. In fact they largely ignore humans who can readily approach to within 50 feet. Often it is possible to get closer still - perhaps close enough to get a full-frame shot of the bear's face. This relative docility may be something to do with their social nature for at the time of the salmon run the bears can be seen in large numbers splashing and wading through the shallow waters of the river mouth as they hunt down the salmon who are about to embark on the last stage of their journey upstream to spawn. Oliver showed us a shot with five bears in it and thought that he had once counted as many as eleven all in view at the same time.

Despite the bears lack of aggression there is still a feeling of tension in their presence as they are clearly such massive, powerful animals and are very combative towards one another. The riskiest situation is where a bear is happened on by accident and in such an encounter the macho-sounding advice to photographers is to just take a picture anyway. If you do not survive, the evidence will be on camera, if you do the chances are that you'll get a great shot!

On the more technical side Oliver showed us the importance of studying the subject. One feature of bears is that they have a large nose and very small eyes, and the best portraits are made when the head is held in a certain way so that a reflected catch-light appears in the eyes of the bear. The photographer learns to watch for the moment when a bear raises its head in that certain way. The posture of the animal is also crucial to a good image and many shots have to be rejected where the animal appears to have only three legs or is in some other way awkward. Back lighting can be sought out for a highlighted effect on the fur of the bear, and switching between portrait and landscape orientation produces strikingly different effects. The use of different shutter speeds was demonstrated with slow speeds creating a dramatic sense of blurred movement and fast speeds freezing the very movement of water droplets as a bear rips a salmon from the river.

On a trip of this sort he may take as many as five or ten thousand images to be sure of having twenty good images for a lecture. On his return he would usually wait for a couple of weeks before looking at the results so that he could come fresh to the editing process. This would involve the immediate scrapping of any rubbish shots before homing in on the winners.

Oliver concluded his talk with a sequence of shots showing two mother bears both with cubs. As the tide comes in one of the females catches a salmon and starts feeding her cub. At this point she is attacked by the other female and has to drop the fish. As the females continue fighting the two cubs scarper with the spoils.

Despite the fact that an enormous amount of patience and technique had clearly gone into the making of these wonderful images one was left with the delightful feeling that this wonderful Alaskan location with bears in full view in every direction would enable anybody to produce a stunning collection of wildlife pictures. Anybody wishing to put this to the test can book themselves a holiday at the Wilderness Camp at Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park. The website is at www.hallobay.com

If you would like to see more of Oliver's brilliant wildlife photos go to the link below

Peter Johnson