This was one of the longest, coldest winters that I can remember, and the leaves that have finally appeared, bringing color to the long-monochromatic landscape, have been calling me. While I have not avoided the typical spring landscape shots, I have been looking for creative ways to incorporate the beautiful light green color of the new leaf growth into my images. And then this guy showed up.
This is a big black bear. One way to tell that a bear is big is by the size of its ears (small) relative to the size of its head (large). It is also is one of the nicest-looking black bears I have seen, lacking scars and other deformities that these animals so commonly have (bears often do not play well with others). It is in especially good physical condition for recently coming out of hibernation. (Yes, the bear is indeed bad - it has been causing damage to multiple neighbors' properties, primarily targeting bird feeders.)
Photographing black bears is usually very challenging. Finding these animals in light bright enough for photography is frequently the biggest challenge. Photography is about capturing light and black, especially in the form of fur, is the absence of light. So, once you find a black bear, properly exposing their light-absorbing black coat is the next challenge. If using an auto-exposure mode, the camera will need to be instructed to under-expose the image by a significant amount. That amount varies depending on the percentage of the frame the bear is consuming and the percentage of the frame you are using for auto-exposure.
If the lighting is consistent (or not changing fast), a manual exposure setting is best. Either way, it is hard to completely avoid blocked shadows (pure black with no detail) – especially on the shadowed areas of the bear and especially if there are bright subjects in the frame (because they will become pure white). With a manual exposure locked in (the log is just under blown brightness before I reduce the final exposure of this image), I was free to concentrate on focus and framing.
Composition and focusing are two additional bear photography challenges. These animals do not stay still for very long – unless they are staring at what they think is a danger (or perhaps is food) to them (me in this case). The closer the selected focus point is to the bear's eye in the desired framing, the less time you will spend adjusting the framing after establishing focus. This means that the bear is less likely to move before the shot is captured and more images can be captured in the potentially short period of time that the bear is posing. A turn of the head means a new focus distance is needed and then I usually want a different subject framing (to keep the animal looking into the frame) and this usually means a different AF point becomes ideal. Sometimes I use only the center AF point and sometimes I use a more-ideally-located AF point.
While I would like to say that I had established this bear's patterns and was waiting for him for long periods of time, this encounter was more divinely-timed with me being able to very quickly capitalize on it. The 200-400 L performed incredibly well as always and the bear did also. The bear's position in the clearing with direct evening sunlight along with brightly-lit green spring leaves in the distant background could not have been better planned. This shot has become one of my favorite black bear pictures and I'm guessing that I will not find a better way to incorporate the spring leaves into a photo this season.