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Photographing polar bears

Polar bears are one of the most amazing wildlife species to photograph, definitely ranking in my personal top five wildlife photography experiences. They roam the northernmost reaches of the planet mostly within the Arctic Circle. and can be found in Canada, Norway, Russia, Greenland, and the state of Alaska within the United States. Scientists estimate that there are only about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the world, making them a threatened species.

A mother polar bear protectively guards her cubs. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/640 second.

Polar bears are the largest land-based predator on Earth, with large males standing more than 11 feet tall on their hind legs and reaching weights over 1,700 pounds. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when a nearly one-ton predator stares straight into your eyes. To say the least, it’s a bit unsettling when you realize that you are no longer at the top of the food chain. It’s a sensation that gets considerably more intense when claws and muscle suddenly lurch into motion in your direction.

An inquisitive polar bear locks eyes with me as I take its picture. Eye contact is often a great way of telling a story with wildlife photos and engaging the viewer's interest. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 500, f/4, 1/500 second.

There are three places in the world that are best known for polar bear photography: the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island (Alaska) in the United States, Churchill in the Canadian province of Manitoba on the Hudson Bay, and the Svalbard Islands of Norway. As of this writing, I have visited Barter Island several times and have been to Churchill once. Kaktovik is a very remote, small village, with limited accommodations but incredible bear viewing opportunities. Churchill has a well-developed tourist infrastructure built around polar bear viewing, including several remote fly-in lodges in the area. Most of the polar bear photography opportunities in Svalbard are cruise ship-based.

I was in a boat for this photo, and I had the captain position the boat so I could capture the sun setting behind the polar bear. Canon 7DII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/1000 second.

Typically, there is a narrow window of time presenting ideal conditions for polar bear photography. In winter when the seas freeze over, polar bears disperse across the Arctic to hunt seals from the ice, making them extremely difficult to find. The greatest chance of seeing polar bears in Svalbard is on an expedition cruise during the summer; the cruises take people to remote parts of the archipelago and to the pack ice where polar bears hunt seals. In Kaktovik and Churchill, large numbers of bears begin to congregate during the summer, but the barren terrain they inhabit can be unattractive. Early winter, when the snow begins to fall but before the sea freezes, is the best time to photograph polar bears in Kaktovik or Churchill (the first half of October for Kaktovik and the first half of November for Churchill). There are also some remote camps near Churchill that take people to photograph newborn polar bears starting in late February and early March.

A massive polar bear shambles across the frozen tundra. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 1600, f/4.5, 1/400 second.

Adult male polar bears are solitary and keep to themselves. When two males encounter one another, epic battles for dominance can be the result. This is a great time to be making photos! A camera with a fast motor drive and large image buffer, and fast-writing media cards, enhance your chances of capturing the moment of peak activity.

I made hundreds of photos as these two bears wrestled in the shallow waters of the Arctic Ocean. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/500 second.

It is not uncommon to spot a mother with several cubs in tow, and often different family groups seem (mostly) comfortable being in close proximity. Young polar bears are curious, precocious, and like nothing better than spending their time wrestling and playing, either with their siblings or other nearby cubs.

Siblings battle for dominance of an old stump! Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/640 second.

I love photographing polar bears backlit at sunrise or sunset. When the light is strong and colorful, rim light forms around the edges of the animal. For more dramatic photos, I will intentionally underexpose my backlit polar bear images, which serves a dual purpose: preventing the rim lit highlights from overexposing, and rendering most of the scene in silhouette for a more dramatic look.

I set my exposure compensation to -3 for this photo, exposing only the fringe of light around the backlit polar bear. Canon 7DII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 320, f/6.3, 1/1000 second.

The Arctic is an unforgiving environment, especially in winter when brutal cold and high winds are common. Polar bears are well-adapted to survive even the most intense Arctic cold. Humans, however, are not, so make sure you are prepared to handle severe weather conditions. I always dress in multiple layers, with a thick down coat and pants as my outerwear, and a warm hat to prevent heat loss from my head. I wear a pair of down mittens over thin gloves, removing the mittens only when I need extra dexterity to change camera settings. I also wear down booties over multiple layers of thick socks inside loose fitting boots (a tight squeeze would compress the down, reducing its effectiveness), helping to keep my toes toasty and warm. Chemical hand and foot warmers can also supplement your clothing and help ward off winter's chill.

When polar bears hunker down and dig into the ground for shelter, then you know things are getting bad! Canon 70D, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 4000, f/6.3, 1/500 second.

Cold weather can wreak havoc on equipment as well. Make sure to bring plenty of extra batteries with you, keeping spares in a warm pocket. Most cameras function fine in cold weather, although I have had an occasional shutter freeze when conditions get really chilly. If this happens, just stash your camera inside your jacket or some other warm place; the shutter will eventually unstick and everything should be back to normal. You can see some more cold-weather photography tips in our Canadian Rockies in Winter video.

I waited for the moment when this polar bear passed in front of the rising sun, and I zoomed out to include the colorful reflections in the water. Canon 1DXII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 100, f/13, 1/800 second.

Photographing polar bears is an amazing experience. Although getting to the bears can be expensive, the memories and photos that result will be priceless.

This is one of my favorite polar bear photos, which I captured as two bears faced off during a blizzard. Canon 70D, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens with built-in 1.4x extender, ISO 2500, f/6.3, 1/1000 second.

About the author

Whether hanging over the rim of an active volcano, braving the elements to photograph critically-endangered species, or trekking deep into the wilderness to places most people will never see, world-renowned professional photographer Ian Plant travels the globe seeking out amazing places and subjects in his never-ending quest to capture the beauty of our world with his camera. Known for his inspiring images and single-minded dedication to creating the perfect photo, Ian has reached hundreds of thousands of people around the world in his mission to inspire and educate others in the art of photography. Ian is a frequent contributor to many leading photo magazines, the author of numerous books and instructional videos, and founder of Photo Masters.

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