In The Far North…Polar Bears Day Three

The temps are dropping and the fresh, new snow is bringing Churchill to the arctic winter wonderland that it should be this time of year. The bears are also more active in the colder weather. We saw eighteen bears in the first couple of hours but didn’t put our cameras up to shoot until we got to Tundra Buggy camp and found a pair of sparing bears to work. They get up and spar for a few minutes, lay down to rest and then one of them gets back up, nudges the other and they go at it again. The light, dry snow would fly when they made impact…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR

They moved back and forth in the willows first closer, then farther while they did the polar dance we did the teleconverter dance; first taking it off when they got so close we risked cutting off body parts and then quickly putting it back on when they moved farther away…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

The overcast skies provided soft light and good detail. Overcast is one of my preferred kinds of light to photograph mammals as it gives you great detail and low contrast. The trade off is the sacrifice of light and the need to increase the ISO to reach a shutter speed that will stop the action. For a good part of the day my ISO hovered around 400. There was a bit of a wind which caused many bears to hunker down out of the wind. Even though polar bears are at the top of the food chain, they need to be aware of other bears in the area and wind is a killer to their senses. They have a hard time figuring out where the scent or sound is coming from. So, while we kept finding more and more bears, we passed many by as they were snuggled up against the willows mostly sleeping. This is typical of wildlife photography that there are periods of inactivity followed by intense action. Being ready is the key.
So, when we came upon four bears on a frozen lake paired off, sparing as if at a wrestling match we dropped our windows, placed our beanbags on the sill and set up for some action. The low light kept getting lower with the approaching evening and the overcast forcing that ISO upwards to 800 to capture the action. While I prefer to keep my ISO as low as possible, I’m not about to sacrifice an opportunity to capture four bears in one frame by keeping the ISO too low and getting blurred images…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

Completely oblivious to our presence, the bears continued to spar, moving closer to us as they did…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

Until they were so close that we had to pick and choose which pair to photograph. What a wonderful dilemma wondering which subject to aim your lens at…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

The sparing went on and on as one bear would tire, his sparing partner would move to another bear and they would go at it for a few minutes until one of the resting bears got up and joined in again. It was an amazing thing to watch. Unfortunately, the light kept dropping forcing the ISO upwards. By the time we finally packed it in (the bears were still going at it when we left) my ISO had crept up to 3200. I really don’t like to go that high but, with no light and such action in front of us I made the choice to raise my ISO and capture the action knowing that NIK Dfine would help with the noise generated at such a high ISO. The payoff was the last photo which looks like an arctic storm is blowing in givig the image an ethereal look…


Nikon D3S with AF-S 500mm f4 VR, TC-14E II

Today’s sightings…
1 Gyrfalcon (he flew past twice a mach speed teasing us)
1 Red Fox (likely the same guy we spotted the first day as it was in the same area on our way to the buggy launch)
30+ Polar Bears (we lost count at that point)