The Making of a Photograph: “Blue Bear”

The Making of a Photograph:

This is the inaugural post of my new series, “The Making of a Photograph.”  With this series, I will explore the creative, logistical and technical aspect behind the capturing of a particular iconic photo of mine.  I frequently receive inquiries as to how a photo was made, and I often receive very favorable feedback when I share about the making of a photo on my Facebook page.  I give a nod to Ansel Adams and his book, “The Making of 40 Photographs.”

I will begin with one of my most iconic wildlife photos, “Blue Bear.”  I captured this image during my first visit to Katmai National Park & Preserve in southwest Alaska in 2004.  The location is Brooks Falls, a popular location for bear photography in the park.  The most common way to get to Brooks Falls is to fly into King Salmon, then catch the Brooks Aviation charter float plane out to Brooks Camp on the shores of Naknek Lake in Katmai.  A short geographical note: this use of the name “Brooks” is not to be confused with the Brooks Range, Alaska’s largest mountain range, which lies above the Arctic Circle.

Once in Brooks Camp, you can stay at the lodge or in the tent camping area down the shore away from the lodge.  My preference is always for the tent camping area, as it is far less expensive and provides many opportunities to view and photograph wildlife as you walk from the camp area to the different locations to photograph bears.  In order to provide safe bear viewing and photographing opportunities, the National Park Service has erected three viewing platforms that are secured behind locking gate systems to keep the bears out.  The first viewing platform is located at the mouth of the Brooks River at Naknek Lake, the second at a series of rapids on the Brooks River, and the third, and most popular, the viewing platform at Brooks Falls.  It was at this third platform that I captured “Bear Blues.”

There are a few technical things going on to make this photo happen.  The first is lighting.  I captured this photo in the early morning, which, in early July, means that the falls are in deep shadow.  Both sides of the river at this point are lined with the surrounding spruce forest, preventing the sun from actually striking the river until later in the morning.

The second technical aspect that is crucial to this photo is the fact that I was using film instead of digital.  I used Fuji Provia 100F film in my Nikon F100 camera to create this image.  Film is rated for the warmth of direct sunlight.  When film is used in the shade (without a warming filter), the tones of the image will be cooler.  Had I captured this on digital, I would have used the “Cloudy” white balance setting, which would have added a degree of warming to the image, likely damping down the cooler blue hues.  Thus, by using film, I was able to capture a color hue that adds to the seeming sense of “blues” in the bear’s expression … waiting, waiting, waiting for those salmon to come upstream so he can feed.

Because of the darker lighting conditions, and the fact that I was using film and could not increase my ISO to adapt to the dark conditions, I had to use a slower shutter speed.  Even at f/4.0, my shutter speed was still pretty slow, certainly slower than I wanted to use with a 500mm lens.  So, I used my 300mm lens, allowing me to show more of the water falls in the frame.

In the end, I came away with a moody image that has a sense of emotion, captured at an iconic location but not a typical image for that location.  The photograph is a wildlife portrait that still incorporates elements of the animal’s habitat, something I frequently prefer to do.  I strongly believe that in order to take good wildlife images, you need to understand the wildlife’s habitat.  Including that habitat in the photo helps to tell the story about the animal.

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