NATURE’S VIEW: Of Tundra Buggies & Polar Bears Part II

Story and photography by Jim Clark ©

Part II-Techniques for photographing the ice bears of Churchill

Photographing polar bears, I discovered, is not much different from photographing any other wildlife species. You still have to prepare. You still have to understand exposure and how to use different lighting angles. You still must consider the guidelines of composition. You still have to remain patient. And, you still have to know when to act fast to capture that defining moment.

You might have to pinch yourself to realize you are really seeing these majestic creatures in real time. You are photographing the largest land predator in the world located in an isolated arctic environment in the early throes of winter, which can at times be overwhelmingly windy and bitterly cold with lots of snow. So, okay, there are a few differences.

Polar bear at Churchill Wildlife Management Area in Manitoba. © Jim Clark

Polar bear at Churchill Wildlife Management Area in Manitoba. © Jim Clark

I was the nature photography instructor for a contingent of members from the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife, and on our first night at the tundra buggy lodge, I gave each attendee an index card with a checklist of items to bring with them every morning. It included (but was not limited to) a beanbag filled with rice or beans, freshly charged camera batteries (yep, bring at least two), several formatted media cards, a soft dry towel and microfiber cleaning cloth, and an extra pair of socks and gloves. Early morning departures from a tundra buggy lodge can be a bit hectic and unnerving, so these cards served as reminders to stay focused on what to bring each day.

Once on the tundra buggy, there was no going back until nightfall. The day was spent along the coastline of the Hudson Bay and within the Churchill Wildlife Management Area—a windswept landscape of arctic wilderness. If anything was left behind that was needed, it would have to wait for the following morning’s departure.

For the most part, we were in a snowy environment dominated with white and more white, broken up with occasional hues of brown, gray and black. Boulders were splashed with patterns of brilliant orange and red lichen, but overall, the surroundings were white. Making sure not to over- or under-expose the bears was important.

Polar bear along Hudson Bay, Churchill Wildlife Management Area in Manitoba. © Jim Clark

Polar bear along Hudson Bay, Churchill Wildlife Management Area in Manitoba. © Jim Clark

For proper exposure on the polar bears, I used aperture priority and set my exposure compensation to a full stop or more, usually around 1.3+ to 2.0+, depending upon the lighting. For most of the trip, we had very little direct sunlight. Cloudy skies were the order of the day(s), and at times, we had snow flurries. So my exposure settings did not differ much from day to day.

I love digital. My camera is programmed so when I press the center button on my cursor, I get an instant overlay of the histogram for the picture on display in the LCD. This provided a quick review of my exposure, and it was simply a matter of using the exposure compensation dial to make adjustments. My camera is also programmed so when I press the function button, a virtual horizon indicator is viewable through the viewfinder, making it much easier to ensure my horizons are level. Did I mention that I love digital?

I made sure my histogram was exposed to the right. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, I forgot to make the proper adjustment. But since I was shooting in the RAW format, I still had a couple stops of exposure forgiveness that I could easily correct in the digital darkroom. Still, my goal is to get it right in the first place.

I have more techniques to offer up to potential polar bear photographers. So stay warm and stay tuned for Part III.

Polar bears are the apex predators of the arctic. Churchill Wildlife Management Area, Manitoba. © Jim Clark

Polar bears are the apex predators of the arctic. Churchill Wildlife Management Area, Manitoba. © Jim Clark


A past NANPA president and contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim is also a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.