Behind The Shot – Polar Bear In Greenland


Polar Bear on mountainside in Greenland
Polar Bear on a mountainside in Greenland

A few years ago, we had an unusual encounter in one of my favorite places, Greenland. We were on a zodiac cruise along the shore of Scoresby Sound in Greenland and spotted a polar bear. Polar Bears aren’t known to frequent Greenland, so this was unusual, especially as far inland as we were.

Capturing this image was challenging, but I was thrilled at how it turned out.  

We were in a group of several zodiacs in a bouncy chop in below-freezing weather, and it was snowing. That’s somewhat a typical day in Arctic conditions. We were cruising around 40 feet offshore, capturing a bit of roll as the waves began to form as they rolled into shore.

This is what an unprocessed RAW file looked like. You can see the amount of cropping and corrections that went into the final images
This is what an unprocessed RAW file looked like. You can see the amount of cropping and corrections that went into the final images

The Polar bear was only a sec on top of a large hill. Nonetheless, it was a polar bear and one of the most magnificent animals on the planet. I was shooting with my Sony a7r III and a 100-400mm G-Master Zoom. I added a 1.4x tele converter into the mix. Even with all of this, the bear was still at a distance.

The metadata from one of these images
The metadata from one of these images

It’s so often when we see wildlife that we want to photograph the animal to fill the frame. However, it would help if you reconsidered that, especially in this case. The polar bear was napping on a rock outcrop. He saw us but paid little attention to us as he was more interested in resting. I should note that once we arrived, we shut down our outboard motors and used oars and paddles to stay on the spot. We did not want to disturb the bear but wanted the bear to act on his own.

The color of the rock and the fauna with blowing snowflakes made me think differently about this shot. On many trips to the Arctic, I have been fortunate to have great close-up photos of polar bears in many settings. What made this picture for me was all the color in the shot from the Arctic fauna.

Once I could catch my breath and realized that we would bounce around at this location for a while, I started to seriously consider my settings for this shot. I needed high IOS because it was very overcast and a bit on the dark side. I knew the Sony could handle the high ISO, and I set the shutter speed at around 1000th/sec. My f-stop was around f/8, and my ISO was set to auto, so it would fluctuate during the shot. ISO ranged from 6400 to 8000.

The Zodiacs as we photographed the bear
The Zodiacs as we photographed the bear
The Zodiacs as we photographed the bear
The Zodiacs as we photographed the bear

My autofocus was set to small, continuous tracking. This meant that once I put the focus spot on the bear and held my back AF button to on (or in), the AF would lock onto the bear. This was especially handy with all the bouncing around and maneuvering to stay roughly in the same spot. The AF performed admirably, and I could keep the bear in continuous focus. I had just enough depth of field to keep the foreground and background in focus too. 

My shot was the bear in the landscape. His landscape, his territory, and his weather conditions. All in all, I was thrilled with the images we made. The color was great. The falling snow added to the feeling of the picture.

A tip for photographers that I share with my workshop participants. In cases like this image, it is most important to determine the shutter speed you need to accomplish a shot that will not have any motion blur. In this case, I choose 1000th./sec. Next, I consider the depth of field or what f/stop I should use to correct the focus. Sometimes wider open will allow the background and foreground to go out of focus. I wanted to show the environment in this case, so I chose f/8. Maybe at that distance, I might not have needed such depth. The thing to consider is by adding a 1.4 tele-extender as well as a 400-plus focal length for most of these shots, I was already forcing the f/stop towards f/8. I set my drive to shoot around 6 frames per second to be assured I had the bear where I wanted in the frame. Remember, the Zodiac was bouncing around, and my arms were getting a bit tired, handholding this camera to my eye for the time we were there.

The moment came when the bear awoke from its nap. It got up and looked around, took the area in, looked at us, and, before long, settled back in for another snooze. We did a lot of waiting to get the bear to wake up. We maximized those few minutes to get our shots, and you could hear how excited everyone was in the other zodiacs.

After the bear settled down, we returned to the ship to warm up and drink multiple cups of hot chocolate. Moments like this define one of the many reasons I love photography so much.

When I returned to the ship, I downloaded the images and started working on them. They require a bit of contrast, clarity, and dehaze to get a shot with good contrast and depth. I have made a few prints from this series that look fantastic.

I return to Greenland this August with a small group of 12 photographers aboard a new exploration yacht. I hope we have some more special encounters like this.

Kevin Raber
March 2023
Kevin Raber
Indianapolis, IN

Photography is my passion and has been for 50 plus years. My career in photography has allowed me to travel the world, meet some of the most interesting people on the planet and see things I could never have dreamed of. My goal is to share the passion of picture taking through photographs and teaching with as many people as I can, hoping it brings them as much joy and happiness as it has me. I do this through, this site, as well as Rockhopper Workshops, and other projects, as well as teaching as Artist In Residence at the Indianapolis Art Center.

Article Type: Columns, MISC

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