A few weeks ago I traveled to the remote Alaskan wilderness to photograph the largest brown bears on the planet. Since this was my first time visiting the area, I didn't really know what to expect regarding how many bears I would see, how close I could get, or how safe I would be. I must admit that when I told people that I was going to spend a week camping with bears, there were a lot of concerns raised about my well-being.
This photo captures the exact moment this brown bear dive-bombed into the water to catch a passing sockeye salmon. Canon IDXII, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/1000 second.
Well, it turns out that this experience exceeded my wildest expectations and turned out to be one of the best trips of my life! I still find it difficult to describe just how absolutely amazing it was. To put things in perspective, just imagine being on foot in close proximity to one of the largest and most iconic species on the planet as they fish for salmon right in front of you, completely unperturbed by your presence. I was completely in awe of their size (some bears were well over 1,000 pounds), power, agility, and grace. And any apprehension that I might of had went away very quickly as I felt completely safe.
A moment of connection as this bear passed right in front of me. Canon IDXII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 160, f/2.8, 1/1250 second.
The bears excelled at fishing the salmon and used a variety of techniques to catch them. Although, as you can see below, sometimes they didn't have to try too hard. Each year at this time, the sockeye salmon arrive from Bristol Bay and swim upstream through the various creeks to spawn and must pass through a gauntlet of bears to reach their end destination. For the well-experienced bears, this can quickly turn into an all you can eat sushi buffet.
The sockeye salmon form a leading line directly to this large male bear. Canon IDXII, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 400, f/11, 1/500 second.
There were so many highlights during my week and so many incredible experiences, including when I capture the moment that this mama bear just finished shaking the water from her fur as the spray is still being flung in each and every direction.
This bear gives a whole new meaning to the expression "shake it off". Canon IDXII, Canon 200-400mm f/4 lens, ISO 3200, f/8, 1/500 second.
I experienced a variety of weather and lighting conditions during my one week stay, which allowed me to be creative with light. There was this one moment with strong side-lighting, so I decided to underexpose by several stops and expose for the highlights of this bear as it approached me. I immediately second-guessed myself after I took the shot because I liked the overall composition, but after seeing it on my computer (if you look closely you can see one eye illuminated and the other in shadow), I'm pleased that I trusted my instincts. This shot is much more creative and unique than it would otherwise be, which makes it stand out more in my opinion.
Getting creative with your exposure can produce compelling wildlife images. Canon IDXII, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/500 second.
Of course, I wasn't alone during this amazing adventure. I was taken care of by the most amazing outfitting company and some of the best bear guides in the world. Working with top professionals not only allowed me to be safe and comfortable, but they also put me in position to get incredible images. Please contact me if you would be interested in learning more.
This bear family has all vantage points covered. Canon IDXII, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/320 second.
My experience with these brown bears will go down as one of the most memorable photography trips of my life. But don't just take my word for it! Check out the amazing video I filmed documenting my adventure and see the incredible footage of the bears as they fish for salmon right in front of me:
About the author: Zac Mills lives for adventure and feels at home in some of the wildest places on our planet. Whether capturing the majesty of the silverback mountain gorilla, the elegance of the leopard, or the dignity of the polar bear, photography is more than a passion for Zac, it’s a means of connection – a connection that brings a deeper understanding of the incredible beauty, diversity, and fragility of our planet.