Polar Bear Photo Sparks Social Media Engagement

Photo of a polar bear mother and two cubs, with the cubs playing under the mother's legs and on top of her back. © Ken Conger
Polar Bear Mother and Cubs © Ken Conger

Interview with Ken Conger

NANPA member Ken Conger lives in Virginia, but you might find him anywhere from the mid-Atlantic to the Arctic, camera in hand, in search for the next great nature photo or teaching classes in nature photography. In our series exploring what drives social media engagement, we have looked at popular images that were the result of repeated visits to a location and pure serendipity. Conger’s photo is the result of careful planning, experience and an intimate knowledge of his subjects. The result? Spectacular! This photo garnered more than 1,000 likes, 195 comments and 58 shares in the NANPA Facebook Group.

What’s your nature photography story?

When I was around 10 years old, my father gave me my grandfather’s older-model Argus camera. That first roll of developed film was like magic. Having the ability to capture a special experience and keep it for a lifetime was amazing in my youth. By high school, I had my own darkroom and would buy film in 1000 ft. rolls. To this day, taking photographs is still exhilarating. I have always had a special place in my heart for animals, so wildlife photography has always been my motivation and concentration.

After high school, in part because of my appreciation of nature, I obtained a BS degree in wildlife management. Photography took a back seat when I developed a fish and game career in Virginia and then started a family. Later, when my son went off to college, my wife and I had some vacation time. We went camping and photographing in Yellowstone National Park. A mishap on that trip changed my life. At that time, I was still using my older high school Minolta equipment. While visiting a lake, an otter captured a cutthroat trout right in front of us. While anxiously, but slowly, positioning myself to get the eye level shot, I slipped and dropped my camera into the water. My supportive wife said, “Ken, I think it’s time for you to get a good camera.” I thought to myself, “Green light, green light”. When I got home, immediately sold my boat, obtained a second mortgage and purchased $14K in camera equipment. My wildlife photography career began at that point.

After 30+ years in wildlife conservation, I retired and went to Alaska for two years as a seasonal park ranger in Denali National Park. I spent all my free time photographing around Alaska. I began teaching digital photography and people were flying to Alaska to take private lessons. A tough decision, but after two seasons in Denali, I decided to turn full time professional wildlife photographer in 2010. I currently teach wildlife photography through full-day classes and private lessons, lead international wildlife photo tours, conduct programs and participate in art festivals along the east coast.

What’s the story behind this photo?

After photographing polar bears of different ages in Alaska on 3 different trips, I especially wanted to capture images of a mother and cubs exiting the dens. I spent two weeks in Wapusk National Park in Manitoba, Canada this past February photographing den sites. This arctic park has the largest polar bear maternity denning area in the world. Temperatures were often between -40° to -50° F. Other photographers and my buddy, Mike, got frostbite. The percentage odds of seeing a situation like this photo were not high. Many have gone on this venture and never seen a polar bear. My preference was not to photograph from the height of a tundra buggy. To enable eye level shots, I found a lodge that would take you out in a snow track-equipped van and leave you out by the bear’s snow dens. We had photo opportunities with three different sows and cubs. When I saw this intimate interaction between the polar bear mother and her cubs in the photo, I was shaking, but not from cold. It was so special. I have often said that I am the luckiest guy in the world. Just to see this, let alone photograph it, was an extremely fortunate moment in my life.

For safety and ethical reasons, you must maintain a 100-yard distance from the polar bears, so I needed something larger than my beloved 400mm/2.8 lens. Canon Professional Service was kind enough to loan me an 800mm/5.6L lens for the trip. I also utilized a Canon Extender EF 1.4x to help cover the distance to the subject. It was also my first trip with the newly released Canon 1Dx Mark III, which performed outstanding in the cold.

Why did this photo do so well?

There are three different reasons why I think this photo resonated with viewers. One, people are intrigued with an apex predator. The polar bear is the largest carnivore on earth and one of the most iconic animals on our planet. Two, whenever animals replicate human behavior, viewers emotionally engage with the photo. Most smile when they see the conduct of the two cubs. It is natural for humans connect to a mother and her young, especially when the polar bear cubs behave like our kids. Third, as the Arctic sea ice recedes within Hudson Bay, the time available for polar bears to find the seals on which they prey is diminishing. People are concerned for them as a species. 

Have you had other images that got a lot of engagement?

It is really humbling when it occurs. Besides some other polar bear images, I have had images of two other species reach over 50-60K people on Facebook in 2020. Like the polar bear photos, these were also taken in the Arctic realm: an alpha wolf and muskox baby. As mentioned above, I think these Arctic and sub-Arctic species passionately connect because most humans are concerned about the future of the species.  

Any advice for others?

My advice to any photographer is, regardless of what equipment you own, learn your subject and have the patience to wait for the right moment. Absorb your surroundings. Respect and enjoy the outdoors.

Especially during weeks of quarantining, I have had time to reflect. Nature photography is a tool for enhancing appreciation of all of nature’s beauty. It is the skill to capture your own visionary and emotional experience, to enhance viewers ability to see without a camera. When you photograph what you have a natural inclination and passion for, it provides a mechanism for you to do your best work, instinctively.

Ansel Adams said, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!” My camera is an extension of my mind and I can almost feel the warmth travel though my body while it transitions to beautiful pixels after I push the shutter button. For me, there is nothing more invigorating than to have sun’s first-light warmth and glow on my face, seeing it bathe the scene through your viewfinder and hearing wildlife’s vocal cords impact your ears. The convergence of both just make you feel alive and part of nature.

See more of Ken Conger’s work, workshops and teaching on his website, kencongerphotography.com