November is one of the best times of year to take great photographs of polar bears, and Cape Churchill in Manitoba, Canada is known for being one of the best places to photograph these fearless, curious creatures. If you are interested in going to Cape Churchill, the only way there is by helicopter or tundra buggy, but I promise you it is an experience you will never forget.
To kick off my trip to Cape Churchill, my fellow photographer friends and I ate polar bear cookies as we loaded our gear on the helicopter. Once we landed we had seconds to go from the helicopter to the tundra buggy. We would not touch the ground again for five days for our own safety. As soon as we arrived, the polar bears took notice. Five minutes later they were sniffing and licking our footprints and headed toward our vehicle.
I took several lenses with me on this trip, but my most used lens was the Sony 70-400 zoom lens and teleconverter for my Sony a900 camera body. All my images would be shot from the window of the tundra buggy so a window mount was necessary. I use the Kirk window mount because it allows you to use any tripod ball head. It is made out of solid T6 aluminum and has rubber coated feet to keep from scratching your vehicle.
When photographing polar bears you need to think about how to best capture your subjects. A long lens is needed for sure, but there are many other factors you need to consider while shooting in the snow.
Here are ten tips for taking pictures in the snow:
- Use your camera’s “exposure compensation” and set it to +1 to compensate for the snow condition. You can experiment with going +2/3 up to +1 to get the look you like best. Conditions will vary so you will have to make that decision based on your snow conditions and time of day. If you are shooting on a bright sunny day at noon you will need to use the +1 setting. Remember, meters don’t think, they only react. If you trust your camera to give you the right exposure in the snow or sand your camera will register the situation as bright and your images will be underexposed.
- Remember the “sunny 16 rule” which says to set your aperture to f16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO when shooting in direct sunlight. The same rule dictates that you adjust for snow or sand by shooting at f/22 at the reciprocal ISO. An example would be to shoot a normal situation for ISO 200 at f/16 @ 1/250th, but in a snow or sand situation you would adjust to shoot at f/22 @ 1/250th.
- Shooting in white landscape situations can make it difficult for even the best digital camera to focus. Try and find texture, bright colors, or dark parts of your subject. In the situation of the polar bears, I focused on the eyes and nose of the polar bears to nail my focus.
- Carry extra batteries as cold weather kills your battery faster than normal. Always have an extra battery to two when shooting in cold situations. Keep your spare battery in a warm cloth, in your pants close to your body, or in a warm jacket pocket.
- Snow situations can exceed the white balance of your camera and make your images look blue or dark. Set your camera’s white balance to snow shooting mode if there is one, or use the manual controls to adjust the white balance until your screen color and snow color looks the same. A ColorChecker Passport would be ideal in this situation. You’ll be happy you made the investment.
- Avoid taking your camera from a warm environment to cold environments right away. You will need to give your equipment time to adjust to the temperature difference. If you pull your camera gear out right away after leaving a warm environment your lens will and viewfinder will fog over. Plan for the temperature change before you start taking photographs.
- Take two pair of gloves. A thin pair to keep on your hands as you shoot, and a thicker pair to use when you are not shooting. When possible use gloves that allow you to expose your fingertips when needed and cover them up again when you are done shooting.
- Protect your gear from the elements. Protect your gear when shooting in the snow as the conditions can change quickly. I always carry large clear plastic bags with me in snow situations. They really come in handy and they will protect your gear if you need to shoot while it is snowing.
- One of my favorite times to shoot snow is during sunset and sunrise. The angle of the sun gives you amazing images, as the sun is low on the horizon. This helps you capture texture and shape and gives you amazingly beautiful images. Some of my favorite images of polar bears were made during the “golden hour”.
- Find your hero. Don’t forget about composition and the rule of thirds. To create truly beautiful photographs, compose and think about how you fill your frame. Every image has a hero. Decide what your hero is in the image and then compose accordingly.
The two things I love the most in life, outside of family, are photography and travel. Taking photographs from your travels is a wonderful way to experience the world. For more tips on taking photographs around the world check out the new video Ten Tips for Taking Great Photographs in the Snow. This video is packed with useful advice, instruction, tips and tricks for creating better photographs as you travel. Whether you take pictures once a year on vacation or want to shoot professionally, this is a great video to help you create better images.
Travel safely and always dream big!