Huge Brown Bear, Katmai National Park, Alaska
Katmai National Park in Alaska has long been on my destination bucket list and I recently had the privilege of crossing off that line item. Well, that crossing off does not sound quite right as the experience was great and I would jump at the chance to go again. This destination will probably remain on my places to go list forever.
Finding the defining image for this location became a huge challenge. The problem was a good one as the gear and techniques used worked very well, yielding a huge number of images with nearly 7,000 of those being dissimilar and keeper-grade. Finding the single best of that take ... is going to take a long time. I'll pick a handful that I especially like and will share those over the next few months (hopefully not years).
With the brown bear being symbolic to Katmai National Park, it just seemed right to select an in-your-face, nothing-but-brown-bear image as the lead for my Katmai photo series.
600mm f/4.0 1/1600s ISO 640
Huge Bull Moose, Katmai National Park, Alaska
With Alaska being such a massive state, it is only fitting that many of the Alaskan animals are also large. This huge bull moose looked very impressive walking down off of the mountain, initially with only its antlers rising above the trees.
Know what our bear guides were most afraid of? Moose. We spent days sitting among brown bears, some weighing well north of 1,000 lbs, with nothing more than minor issues, but a huge bull moose walking down off the mountain directly toward us definitely got the guide's attention. To reduce the drama, I should also say that part of the attention grab was because the sighting was so unusual in this location – this was the only land mammal other than brown bears that I saw in coastal Katmai National Park.
While moose were not my primary photography target at the time, I consider myself an opportunist and didn't hesitate to turn the camera from the bears when this bull showed up.
The moose was walking at a steady-but-leisurely pace and I could easily fill the camera buffer whenever I chose to, but that would have given me too many images that were similar to each other. Instead, I timed the frame captures with body positions that I thought would make a good composition with an eye also on the background. The body position I often chose had the far front leg in a forward position.
While I did not hold the shutter release down, I did shoot more images than I thought I needed. Aside from having insurance shots, I was trying to use a marginally long shutter speed, allowing a lower ISO setting to be used for less noise. Though a handful of my images were slightly blurred, the tactic proved to be a good one as I still ended up with many good images.
When the bull moose came to the edge of the high tidal stream bank, it proceeded to smoothly drop right over the edge. I caught that action nicely and might share it later, as soon as I get over being slightly bothered by the antler covering the eye. What I didn't correctly anticipate was the speed of the moose's decent and the base image for this shot, the one with the far lead leg in the air and sand flying, became cropped slightly too tightly on the bottom of the frame. Capturing some quick additional shots with different framing allowed me to create a panorama in post, correcting the tight crop and resulting in a 76-megapixel image.
With that much resolution available, cropping into the bull moose much more tightly remains an option, but I like seeing the environment the moose was in and especially like the fall-colored fireweed in the background.
What do you think? Should I have cropped this image tighter?
600mm f/4.0 1/1250s ISO 2000
Brown Bear Catching a Salmon, Katmai National Park
From my coastal Katmai National Park trip, I have lots of images of brown bears chasing and carrying salmon, but this one surfaced for several reasons.
First, there is significant splashing. The splashing adds drama, showing that fast action is taking place.
Second is that the pink (humpback) salmon's tail and head (including eye) are both showing along with the bear's eyes being visible. Having the eyes in an image can make or break a shot.
I of course love the ideal timing of those enormous claws about to hook the fish.
That the bear's head and the fish are sharply in focus is definitely a positive factor as splashing water along with an erratically moving subject presents a significant challenge to both the camera's AF system and to the photographer's skills (including rapid AF point selection).
Put all of those attributes together with the impressive image quality of the Canon EOS 5Ds R and EF 600mm f/4L IS II Lens combination along with the primary subject being the impressive-by-itself brown bear and ... the image rises into my favorites album.
600mm f/5.6 1/1600s ISO 1000
Shaking Brown Bear, Katmai National Park, Alaska
This was a big trip for me and I did not want to be limited by the gear I was taking. Therefore, I spent a lot of time thinking about and researching my wildlife lens selection for Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Choosing a lens for the first visit to a location must be based on advice given by others and on understanding/visualizing the situations that will be in front of you. As indicated, ultimate image quality was a baseline for my decision making process. The lens focal length was another primary consideration as perspective, framing and background blur are strongly influenced by this choice, affecting the look you get in your images.
Brown bears were my primary subject in this location and a significant interest I had for this trip was to capture frame-filling brown bears in action. For that purpose, I needed a long focal length lens with excellent AF performance. Since the weather conditions could range from sunny to full-on rain, I decided that a wide aperture was also needed (f/4 or wider) for those darker days.
One thing that I knew was that my Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens was going to be along. This lens has everything I wanted for a wildlife lens including a size and weight that I could carry for long distances and handhold, but this is an f/5.6 max aperture at the 400mm end.
Which big lens to accompany the 100-400 remained the question. I love my Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Lens for wildlife. That I already had this focal length range covered by my 100-400 was not a big decision factor as the 200-400 had the significant benefit of a 1-stop wider aperture. But, that I was uncertain that 400mm was going to be long enough was a bigger factor. The 200-400's built-in extender takes this lens to 560mm with the throw of a switch, but a 1-stop impact on the max aperture yields f/5.6. An f/4 max was my preference. Note that I was not at the popular Brooks Falls where the 200-400 L lens may have been the first choice.
Another option was to rent a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM Lens. This lens would give me an extra 100mm and still have an f/4 aperture. The 500 f/4 is considerably smaller than the 600 f/4 and easier to pack, carry and use.
In the end, I made the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens my primary long wildlife lens choice. The longer focal length paired with an f/4 aperture is what was the primary decision maker. It seems that wildlife is never close enough and if it does get too close for 600mm, much harder-to-get headshots and similar become possible.
When setup on location, I had the 600 f/4L on a Wimberley Tripod Head II mounted to a Gitzo GT3542LS Systematic Carbon Fiber Tripod. A second camera with the 100-400 L II mounted was at my side, ready for capturing environmental-type images or for closer subject distances when needed.
Packing the 600 around Alaska required some effort, but I was very happy with my decision. Many of my images would have required cropping (or more cropping) if a shorter focal length was used. And, an f/4 aperture along with the required action-stopping shutter speed meant that ISO 3200 by far the most used as about 50% of the time in the field was under dark skies with light rain. I know, some of you are thinking that 600mm would be about 1/2 as long as preferred to keep an acceptably long distance between yourself and the bears.
The mamma brown bear in this image was snorkeling for salmon. Each time that it would lift its head above the water, it would shake. It didn't take long to figure out this behavior and I began timing a burst of shots as the water flew. A 1,000 lb animal shaking a significant amount of water from its fur is an impressive sight. A window in the cloudy skies gave me enough light to use f/5.6 for this image, gaining a little depth of field to keep more water droplets in sharp focus.
600mm f/5.6 1/1600s ISO 800
Brown Bears Fighting, Katmai National Park, AK
My coastal Katmai National Park brown bear photography trip was a big one for me and I wanted to take the best-available gear with me. As the camera is the foundation for a photo kit and the Canon EOS 5Ds R, with its incredible resolution, great color and very good noise performance with a handling, feature and AF package to match has proven to be, for me, the ultimate camera to build a kit around. With a pair of these bodies in my kit, it was not hard to select them as two of my bodies. The question remaining was, what was going to be the third body?
On such a trip, I seldom take less than three camera bodies. Although I sometimes use all three at once, more frequently is that the third is ready for backup use in case something unfortunate happens to one or both front line bodies. With a significant amount of wading in various depths of water (including salt water) involved on this trip, one fall and the unfortunate could easily become a reality. And, I wasn't going to be receiving a next day air shipment via UPS or FEDEX out there.
Back to the which camera question ... my options included taking my Canon EOS-1D X, taking my Canon EOS 7D Mark II or getting another 5Ds R (rent or buy). Great AF was paramount in this decision, but ... all three cameras are excellent in this regard.
The 1D X's extremely fast frame rate was an especially attractive feature for bears in action and that I already owned this camera made it a cost effective solution. That I would need to take an additional charger/batteries was a downside as was the "only" 18-megapixel resolution.
The 7D II's primary advantages were not dissimilar from the 1D X: the fast frame rate and the budgetary concern as I already owned one of these as well. That this camera shared the 5Ds R's battery system was a positive feature. That the smaller APS-C sensor would show more high ISO noise at the same output dimensions and would not produce the same amount of background blur as the full frame options were negatives.
My primary question about the 5Ds R option was the frame rate – would 5 fps was going to be fast enough for the bears in action? Not far behind the frame rate concern was the additional cost factor. In the end, the 5Ds R's ultra-high resolution full frame sensor with 7D II-matching pixel density (reach) and along with the latest-available feature set won my favor. And, I simply love this camera. While this need was ideal for the rental option, I opted for the additional purchase in this case. My camera math said that the over-two-weeks rental cost was greater than the purchase price minus resale value minus additional use value. I'll get plenty of use from this body to justify the cost of ownership.
Having three identical cameras meant that switching bodies required no thought (though the 7D II is essentially the same also). They all had the same controls, the same menu options and the same setup configuration.
Was 5 fps fast enough? It was. While I am an opportunist when it comes to subjects, my primary photography subjects were brown bears. Bears (unless sleeping) are in nearly constant erratic motion and present an AF challenge, but they were mostly moving in slow to medium speed. One exception was when they were trying to catch salmon, but even then they weren't moving close to the speed of a bird in flight, as an example. I had plenty of photo opportunities and could often time single frames with body positions I found favorable.
Would a faster frame rate have been better? Yes, there were probably some shots I missed due to the frame rate not being fast enough, but ... having to sort through a 2x higher image volume a faster frame rate would have generated would have completely buried me. It will take me many months to work through the daunting roughly-10,000 bear images I captured on this trip.
Was high ISO performance important? Definitely. The trip started out with an approximately 28 hour float plane departure delay due to rain and heavy fog and things didn't get much better with 2 of the four remaining days on the coast holding the same weather. My most-used ISO setting was 3200. The ultra-high resolution, full-frame 5Ds R has a noticeable advantage at ISO 3200 when resized to a similar resolution as the 7D Mark II.
Was the ultra-high 50 megapixel resolution an advantage? Definitely. While I'm still teaching myself that it is OK to frame a bit looser with the ultra-high resolution being delivered by the 5Ds/5Ds R, I have many 600mm images that will be cropped due to the distance of the subject. These images can be cropped down to a 960mm-equivalent angle of view with the 7D II-equivalent 20 megapixel image remaining. With the range of focal lengths I had along, a majority of my images will remain at or near full resolution, resulting in great detail for very large output.
While I titled this photo "Brown Bears Fighting" and technically they are fighting, this is a mother and her second year cub. The mother is teaching the cub to fight, but the fierceness was toned down to more like hard playing. This is an uncropped EOS 5Ds R image captured with the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens.
Fortunately, the playing lasted a long time and I was able to capture a large variety of shots of the behavior. I varied the aperture during the event, but only between f/4 and f/5.6 with some additional depth of field being the narrower aperture goal. In AI Servo AF mode with the one-up-from-center focus point selected and placed on the left bear's leg, the plane of sharp focus aligned ideally over the bears' noses. This placement kept both faces sharp even at f/4 and the wide aperture removed all background distractions.
I have no regrets regarding my camera choice - I would make the same decision again. Hopefully my camera decision logic made sense to you. If not, ask questions!
600mm f/4.0 1/1600s ISO 1600
Brown Bear and Leaping Salmon, Katmai National Park, Alaska
Did I ever find the 600mm angle of view too narrow when photographing bears in Coastal Katmai National Park? Sure, that's why I had the 100-400mm L IS II lens mounted on a second body and ready for immediate use. When I saw action moving closer, I would quickly switch cameras and continue shooting. The gap between 600mm and 400mm usually meant that I could begin using the 100-400 maxed at the 400mm end with plenty of time before I needed to begin zooming out.
But, I didn't always make the right choice. Sometimes, something unexpected happened. When the 600mm choice was wrong, sudden movement taking the bear out of ideal framing was usually the reason. Or, something happened at the border of the frame, such as another bear coming into view. The result was that I have some frames that are cropped too tightly in camera and this was one.
Really, I would never have guessed that a salmon was going to leap out of the water this high while in such a small stream (quite a feat actually) and that the leap would be this far ahead of the bear, but ... the unexpected is certain to happen on occasion.
The too-long focal length problem is not limited to the 600mm focal length. Even full-frame-mounted 100mm was slightly too long for some enormous brown bears that approached very closely (well under 20').
The big question is: "What do you do when your focal length is too long?"
It is far more common to be focal length limited on the long end and recovery in that situation is simple: crop. Though cropping reduces overall image resolution, it is usually better than having an important part of the scene missing.
The solution to being focal length limited on the wide end: shoot a panorama. If you ever find your lens framing a photo framed too tightly, shoot multiple images and merge them into a panorama later.
Planned or Unplanned
Here is the key for wildlife and other action photography: the panorama technique is not limited to very intentionally captured still life/landscape images. Even if you have a subject in motion and can't recreate the original subject pose, a panorama can sometimes be created. A frame with a cut-off in motion subject can be hard to recover, but adding border space to a fully contained subject is often easy.
As immediately as possible after the capture of a frame needing more border, switch the lens to manual focus and the camera to the last-used exposure settings while retaining the selected focal length (easy with a prime lens). If the focus distance and/or focal length changed after the primary photo was captured, do your best to reset them. Then photograph enough additional images to cover the framing that was missing in the original image. Back at the computer, merge the images together in Photoshop or your favorite image editor.
Fortunately in the case of my Katmai National Park brown bear and leaping salmon, I was able to take another frame from the burst and merge the two together. While Brooks Falls is known for salmon leaping toward bears standing at the top of a falls, capturing salmon leaping away from pursuing brown bears was one of my biggest goals in coastal Katmai National Park. When I saw this capture meeting my goal, I knew that the extra time required to piece a panorama together was going to be worth taking.
Apply this technique to your own photo subjects. Did you photograph your kid kicking the winning goal in the soccer match but not leave enough border on one or more sides of the frame? Another frame in the capture sequence may hold that missing border. If not or if you are not sure, capture a couple of additional identical-settings frames to work with later. It may even be possible to go back at a later time or date to recreate the missing portion of the frame (with similar lighting strongly desired).
600mm f/5.6 1/1600s ISO 1600
Brown Bears and Epic Katmai National Park Landscape
With plentiful wildlife and beautiful scenery, Katmai National Park ranks very high on my list of favorite places to photograph.
In this photo, the large, bare, coarse-edged mountain peak, the more-gently sloping mid and lower elevations covered in green, and the various waters below, all being large in the frame, are obvious to the viewer. With a little more attention paid, a sow and her standing cub, concerned about the risk presented by the boar that is eyeing and potentially approaching them, come into view and give the photo that extra element I always like. Additional elements (and not as visible at this resolution) are the large number of salmon splashing their way up the stream in the foreground and a pair of brown bears on the distant shoreline.
The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens was practically glued to one of my Canon EOS 5Ds R bodies while in Katmai NP and a great complement to my big lens, the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II. The 100-400 L II, with its long focal length range, can capture wildlife images ranging from environmental portraits to close-ups, depending on the subject distance of course. That 100mm was nearly too long to frame 1,000+ lb brown bears at times was ... a very exciting part of this trip.
142mm f/9.0 1/320s ISO 200
Huge Alaskan Brown Bear in Your Face
This image was one of my Katmai National Park goals.
I wanted a straight-on, tightly-cropped bear face image and the image shared here was my favorite from this trip.
The bear was huge.
The September coat was beautiful.
The pose was almost perfectly straight-on with some catchlights in the eyes.
The water drops falling from the bear's snout show that it is active.
No, that is not lipstick and yes, it is looking at me.
Fortunately, these bears like the taste of salmon and not that of people.
I could have made use of a 1.4x extender behind the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM Lens for this image but didn't have time to install it.
Fortunately, the Canon EOS 5Ds R resolution is so high that this heavy crop still has adequate resolution.
A Wimberley Gimbal Head made controlling the large lens effortless and sitting on a small stool makes the time with the bears quite comfortable.
Picture yourself sitting alongside a remote creek in Katmai National Park filling memory cards while photographing these giant bears catching salmon, playing, fighting, etc.
That's the opportunity I had and that is the opportunity you have in September 2020!
Plan on joining me for the Brown Bear Chasing Salmon, Remote Katmai National Park, Alaska instructional photo tour.
Plan to increase your wildlife photography skills while capturing portfolio-grade images on this bucket-list-grade trip!
Learn more here.
600mm f/4.0 1/1250s ISO 1600
Chillin Brown Bear, Katmai National Park
The bears I encountered in Katmai National Park were primarily catching salmon, eating salmon or resting. I thought this bear chillin on a mound of dirt looked humorous.
600mm f/4.0 1/800s ISO 1250
Seemed like the appropriate photo to post on Valentine's day. This is a mother brown bear playing with/training her second year cub. I think they are trying to make a heart shape together.
600mm f/4.0 1/1600s ISO 1250
Remote Shelikof Strait Coast of Katmai National Park
Plane rides are often a means to an end, but this one was so much more. Flying in a float plane over the Shelikof Strait and along the remote southeast coast of Katmai National Park was ... breathtaking. And those breathtaking sights were very photo-worthy, but not without complications.
Airplane windows are not designed with photography in mind and there is some non-optical glass between the camera and the subject. Reflections, uneven contrast reduction and color toning (mostly in the sky in this frame) were among the complications. After an initial attempt at cleaning up the image, I revisited it a number of times over the nearly 1 year that has passed since this flight. The incredible scene was worth the extra effort that went into post processing, but ... I'm still not sure I have this right.
70mm f/8.0 1/1600s ISO 500
Beautiful Katmai National Park Sunset
I was in coastal Katmai National Park primarily to photograph brown bears feasting on salmon, but the landscape was also very impressive.
As the light faded on the bears, clouds settled into the mountaintops and the setting sun brightly lit the clouds not shaded by the mountain.
Direct sunlight just before sunset (or just after sunrise) is warm in color and very significantly warmer than the light in shaded areas.
I often like that difference in color.
While I carried a wide angle zoom lens along with me on the bear treks, primarily to use for landscape photography, it was not the right lens choice for this scene.
My subjects were mountain tops and I wanted them large in the frame.
Meeting this goal calls for telephoto focal lengths and the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens I primarily intended for wildlife use worked perfectly here.
Sometimes capturing a great landscape image with a telephoto lens seems too easy.
While the 100-400 L II is not a small or light lens, it is usually with me when photographing landscape exclusively.
This is an extremely versatile lens that delivers very impressive image quality.
182mm f/8.0 1/80s ISO 100
Fast Food, Katmai National Park
Fish out of water.
A female pink salmon races away from a massive brown bear.
Just a normal day in Katmai National Park.
This could be an image you captured.
Contact me ASAP to sign up for the Brown Bear Chasing Salmon, Remote Katmai National Park, Alaska instructional photo tour!
Dates: Thu, September 17 to Fri, September 24, 2020
Contact me to sign up!
600mm f/5.6 1/1250s ISO 1000