THE BEST OF KATMAI BROWN BEAR PHOTOGRAPHY
America’s collection of National Parks is truly one of the best legislative decisions in the history of our country. From the granite dome at Yosemite to the unique landscapes of Yellowstone, these protected lands can be a gold mine for photographers. Toward the top of every wildlife enthusiast’s list should be Katmai National Park, one of the best places in the world to photograph brown bears in the wild. But in order to capture the epic shot of a brown bear catching a salmon in midair, you’ll have to add Brooks Camp to your itinerary.
Getting there isn’t easy. There are no roads connecting Brooks Camp to the rest of the world. The closest town is King Salmon, a retired Air Force base which boasts a population of around 400 people. While small, the airport is more than serviceable with several commercial flights heading to and from Anchorage each day. From there, your best option is to book one of the many small airlines that service the area for a brief, 20-minute flight to Brooks Camp. You’ll be traveling on a float plane so if small planes aren’t your thing, be sure to pack your favorite motion sickness remedy.
Believe it or not, getting there isn’t the only challenge when it comes to capturing powerful images at Brooks Camp. Here are five tips to help you on your journey.
5 TIPS FOR BROWN BEAR PHOTOGRAPHY AT BROOKS FALLS
TIP #1: PACKING
The seemingly simple act of packing for your trip can be a significant challenge due to several factors. If you decide to camp, you’ll likely need to pay for overages to get your gear where it needs to go (totally worth it). If you choose the day trip option, cross your fingers that Mother Nature doesn’t shut you out. Small planes usually lack the sophisticated instrumentation that we have become accustomed to on commercial flights and operate on sight. If weather reduces visibility, which often happens in Alaska, you might miss your trip altogether. Whether you’re camping or making a quick in and out, you’ll want to maximize your chance of capturing the shots that draw so many photographers to this location.
Alaska gets more precipitation during the summer than any other time of year. Keeping your equipment dry will not be an easy task. Thankfully, rain gear takes up minimal space and weighs almost nothing so a good rule of thumb is to bring everything that you think you might need. Don’t be overconfident when it comes to your lens manufacturer’s weather sealing technology. Spend enough time in Alaska and it will be tested.
TIP #2: EQUIPMENT
The focal point of most photographers who make the journey to Brooks Camp is the action at the waterfall, appropriately named Brooks Falls. This 5-foot drop stretches across the entire river, giving the salmon no choice but to make the jump. During the month of July, thousands of salmon will risk their lives as they make their way to their native spawning grounds. Time it right and you might see as many as a dozen fish in the air at one time.
The bears can stand almost anywhere on the falls but there are a couple of spots that provide them the best opportunities. Roughly 30 meters from the viewing platform is a low point that provides the best option for spawning salmon to jump, provided they don’t end up in the jaws of a hungry bear. An effective focal length of around 400mm is ideal to maximize your potential of capturing the action at this spot. While less will work, you’ll end up wasting resolution during the cropping process. Notice that I used the phrase “effective focal length”. If you are using a camera that features a cropped sensor, be sure to do the math and end up around 400mm. (Canon’s 1.6x crop would mean using a 250mm, Nikon’s 1.5x crop would end up around 265mm). One of my favorite shots was taken with a 500mm but it was an extremely tight image.
I’d also recommend using a camera with a decent frame rate. While you can certainly have success with slower cameras, more shots only improves your chance of capturing a powerful image in this setting. Ideally, a camera body capable of capturing more than 8 frames per second is a good start. Anything less and you’ll need some luck on your side.
TIP #3: TIME THE LIGHT
Getting into position with the light at your back creates an advantageous situation when photographing almost any subject and brown bears are no exception. The dark color of their fur makes it tough to capture detail, especially when lighting conditions are not ideal. If you play your cards right, Brooks Camp offers a variety of shooting angles that can help you achieve great results.
Most photographers will run to Brooks Falls the second they get off the plane like a child running toward Disneyland. Resist the temptation to shoot on the main viewing platform during the first half of the day. Unless the sky is overcast, you will be pointing your camera in the direction of the sun. The best time of day to catch the iconic fishing shot is the second half of the day when the sun will be at your back. If you are lucky enough to have sunlight, the shadows it will create on the bear’s fur will add depth, enhancing the look of your photos.
The viewing platform located near the floating bridge offers wide views of the river and Naknek Lake, allowing photographers to capture well lit images at most times of the day. You won’t capture the photo that has made Brooks Falls famous at this location but there are several opportunities that are noteworthy. Sows prefer to keep their Cubs away from the competitive and often fierce action at the falls and this viewing platform is perfect for catching their interaction. Landscape photos are also a popular shot from this area. Let the best light dictate your shooting location.
TIP #4: CAMERA SETTINGS
A brown bear’s fur is dark and can create metering challenges when you attempt to photograph them against white water. Do a quick search on Google for “Brooks Falls bear photographs” and you’ll notice that many photographers have made the mistake of trusting their camera’s meter when trying to capture images at the waterfall. The subject is often underexposed due to the bright nature of the background. While a good camera and photo editing program can save some of your images, it’s far more practical to select the right camera settings right from the start.
The most effective way to accomplish this is to simply meter for the bear itself and ignore the whitewater. This can either be accomplished by using Spot Metering, a test shot, or studying the data from your histogram. If you feel more comfortable using automatic programs, be sure to overexpose by ⅔ to 1 full stop to compensate for the whitewater. For a detailed description of each of these options, check out my blog on camera settings for bald eagle photography https://ajharrisonphotography.com/2020/02/19/bald-eagle-photography-5-tips-for-camera-settings/
I spent over 40 hours shooting at Brooks Camp during my first tour and only saw one bear fish from the top of the waterfall. And it lasted about 3 minutes. In other words, you might not have unlimited opportunities to capture the iconic shot so don’t assume you’ll have ample opportunities to adjust camera settings. Having the right plan in place long before getting on the float plane can easily be the difference between capturing good and great images during your trip. As Abraham Lincoln used to say, “Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the ax.” Preparation is essential for this trip, even if it’s simply thinking through your camera settings.
Shutter speed should be a priority as you’ll likely be dealing with challenging lighting conditions at Brooks Camp. Freezing the action of a salmon jumping takes a fair amount of action stopping speed which could be at a premium in failing light. Speeds of 1/1250th of a second should be the minimum, especially when using large focal lengths that tend to exacerbate your movements. For static shots, simply match your shutter speed (500mm lens, 1/500th shutter speed) to your focal length and do you best to hold it steady. Tripods aren’t allowed on the viewing platform (monopods only) due to lack of space which makes shutter speed even more critical.
Bears don’t move very quickly but when they do, you’ll want to be ready. It’s not uncommon for them to chase after a salmon at a moments notice, creating the opportunity to capture some incredible images. Continuous autofocus mode should be the default setting to ensure you are ready at all times. Programming one of your function buttons for focus lock is a great way to allow yourself to play with different compositions with the bear outside of your chosen focus point.
TIP #5: LISTEN TO THE RANGERS
Have you ever heard those stories about eager tourists getting too close to the buffalo in Yellowstone, only to be trampled or speared for their exuberant enthusiasm for nature? Something similar happens in Brooks Camp and it has to drive the rangers absolutely crazy.
I know it seems preposterous. Standing within 100 feet of a brown bear in the wild with no fence between you, no gun on your hip and nowhere to hide sounds a bit crazy. But when you spend a few days in this environment without incident, it’s human nature to let your guard down. Most of the bears who frequent Brooks Camp are annual visitors that have been habituated to human activity. They spend the vast majority of their energy worried about salmon, not photographers. But what if you happen to run across a bear that is new to the area? What if you get between a sow and her cubs? What if you accidentally approach a bear at rest, startling it in the process? Let your guard down and that could easily happen.
While hiking in Brooks Camp in 2018, I had my closest encounter with a brown bear in the wild. As we made our way down the trail, I heard the word “STOP” over my shoulder. I immediately froze in place, then noticed a set of furry, brown ears ascend from the weeds five feet to my left. Thankfully, the bear ran off once it detected our presence, appearing just as fearful of us as we were of it. But what if it was a sow with cubs? The outcome could have likely been much, much different.
Listen to the rangers. You wouldn’t think that people would become desensitized when hanging around dozens and dozens of brown bears in the wild but it is all too common. You’ll have to attend a bear safety class upon your arrival at Brooks Camp and it is well worth your time. Make a lot of noise when hiking, respect their space and enjoy this incredible treasure that our national park system has given us. The rangers are there to keep you safe and the biggest reason why there hasn’t been a bear attack at Brooks Camp for many, many years.