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While preparing for our helicopter expedition to Kamchatka where we are going to observe and shoot a brown bear hunting in the wild, participants of our groups asked me to tell them about camera settings, the optics used, and other details of this fascinating process.
Their questions gave ideas for a short article in which I could summarize the experience of four previous trips and the knowledge gained during the shooting process…
A bear hunting for salmon is not only a spectacular sight for photographers and videographers, but also a unique opportunity for the average traveller to discover the world of wildlife, better known to the layman from anecdotes, fables, fairy tales and "true stories” of “experienced” hunters.
The most “rich” areas of rivers and streams are “divided” between bears in accordance with the position (“hierarchy”) of individuals. Large and strong alpha males take the area that they find most attractive. Only “high-ranked” males of the same kind who have entered someone else's territory can compete there. It is at such moments that you can watch the process of “having things out” between large males or females, defending their territory from the invasion of “strangers”.
The remaining, less attractive areas are evenly distributed between young males or young females with cubs, who have to take care of their kids’ life and are not ready to enter into open conflict with more “weighty” relatives, literally and figuratively.
The process of shooting this epic spectacle requires not only patience and care, but also certain technical knowledge, expressed both in a set of photo equipment and in the use of special camera settings.
The process of photo hunting is constant tracking of the selected bear through the viewfinder, awaiting the start of the action. For such tracking, you need not only a long-focus lens, but also a constantly used tripod.
Your lens should allow you to observe objects at a distance of 5-10 meters and up to 30-45 meters effectively. In most cases, at a distance of 10-35 meters a focal length of 100-400mm, on a full matrix, will be sufficient. However, at a distance of more than 35 meters, you will need either a crop matrix or “longer” lenses, for example, 150-600 mm or even more. As practice has proved, hunting scenes that take place very close require the use of shorter “focal lengths”, such as 70-200 mm. The most reasonable approach when choosing optics is to take two cameras with different lenses, for example, 70-200 and 100-400 (150-600). Using two lenses on one camera, in turn, is also possible, although replacing the optics will consume part of your time.
It is no secret that there are no “universal” FLs.
Nevertheless, having used different FLs, in different scenes of a hunting bear, I will allow myself to express the opinion that lens with FL of 60-600 mm has become the most convenient and versatile lens for me. This lens is produced by a Japanese manufacturer whose name you can find out easily by typing “60-600” in the search bar. I will not say that it is modest in cost, but it has replaced as many as three lenses for me: 70-200 mm, 100-400 mm and 150-600 mm.
So, armed with a lens or lenses, available to you, we proceed to the camera settings…
The process of hunting is an incredibly fast and rapidly changing spectacle. The bear or bears, when in shallow water, move by jumping, approaching or moving away from the shore. Following this process will require a tracking focus mode AF-C or Auto Focus Continuous. This mode works as follows… When the shutter release button is pressed halfway down, the focus system is activated. As long as you hold the shutter release button halfway down, the focus system will continuously monitor the selected object, both at its static position and at any change in the distance between you. This is very convenient and allows you to take single or serial shots directly in the process of “tracking” the object. Your finger holds the shutter release button halfway down, “keeping” the object in focus, and after taking a shot or a series of shots, you continue to hold the button in the "pre-pressed" position, allowing the focus system to keep tracking the object.
Of course serial, and only serial. This mode will allow you to “decompose” the rapid movement of a bear jumping for fish into many pictures, from which you will probably choose the most interesting shot.
If necessary, the burst mode also allows you to take single shots with a single short press of the shutter release button.
In the excitement of hunt, bears turn from lazy and slow “teddies” into swift “rockets”, rushing and jumping through shallow water for their prey, surrounding themselves with a cloud of spray. They move in zigzags, following the pattern of the running or swimming away loot. They dive under water, and then shake themselves off impressively, spreading a crystal fan of drops around their mane. In some cases, if the bear has been nimble, he does all this holding his prey in his teeth.
The shutter speed should allow you to “freeze” the movements and the splashes, creating a unique effect of “crystal” around our main character. To make it brief, the recommended shutter speed is 1/1250 - 1/1500 sec.
We choose the shutter priority mode, since we can trust the camera to control a sufficient aperture. In most cases, the camera's automatics is accurate and will allow you to spend more time on creative aspects of shooting. If necessary, you can enter corrections in plus or minus if you think that the image does not meet the light conditions.
As you know, the depth of field will be determined by the aperture, which can be opened by the camera in the shutter priority mode to undesirable values for us, in case of insufficient lighting.
What's wrong with an open aperture?
The nose is in focus and the hind legs are in a blur. It is preferable that automatically adjustable aperture will not open more than F6,3-7,1. For sure, such an aperture will allow you to keep the whole object at a distance of 10-35 meters in the field of focus.
Thus, recommended ISO can vary from 600 to 1200, depending on the natural light conditions. Such “overstated” light sensitivity will allow the camera automatics to avoid opening up the aperture for more than the specified values.
You do not have to use the shutter priority mode, but stay on the M (Manual) mode, so beloved and honoured by all professionals, if you are able to change the settings quickly, in accordance with rapidly altering light conditions.
In this article, I have only touched upon the main technical aspects of shooting a brown bear hunt.
As for creative aspects of such a photo hunt, they should be discussed directly on the shore, when practice and theory merge into one fascinating process. If you want to reach our bear “shore”, you are welcome. There is a little bit more than 60 days left before the flight to Kamchatka.
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