How To Photograph Polar Bears From a Tundra Buggy

Posted Oct. 11th, 2021 by Daniel J. Cox

Five Photo Tips For Your Tundra Buggy Adventure

How to photograph polar bears from a Tundra Buggy is the most recent episode of Photo Tips From The Field. Most of my tips on this subject are contained in the new video below. Even so, I thought I would write them out here for those who like to have it down on paper so to speak.

Tip #1 Use Your Histogram

As far as I’m concerned the histogram is the most important tool digital cameras offer. Even better is the histogram on mirrorless cameras, since you can see it via the EVF BEFORE you take the picture. During the days of film, most photographers stressed getting the exposure right more than anything else. It’s the reason bracketing was invented and eventually offered as a feature on all cameras. For the younger crowd, bracketing was a way to shoot variable exposures extremely quickly. Most professionals shot slide film which is much more sensitive to over or underexposure. Creating a varied selection of images to pick from (bracketing) gave the photographer several options to pick from. With slide film, which is what most professionals in the natural history business shot, they would pick the best and throw away the rest. That’s bracketing.

This varied scene with lots of tones/colors shows a wide distribution of data in the histogram. Notice the brightest part of this image, the snow-capped mountains, are just to the left of the right goal post. That shows you still have detail in the whites of the snow.

With digital, that wasteful process is history, mainly because of the histogram. The invention of the histogram makes bracketing obsolete unless you’re using it for HDR. I liken the histogram to a visual light meter. We get to see the many different tones/light of an image via the histogram. The histogram is a graph that shows the very blackest tones on the left side with a value of 0. Additional tones/colors of the scene are distributed to the right, progressing further up the graph where the bright tones live maxing out at 255. Quite simply I refer to the histogram as Goal Posts. The left goalpost represents absolute black. The right goal post represents absolute white. All pictures have tones or colors (tones and colors are basically the same) that fall between the two goalposts.

So all tones of ANY image will fall between 0-255. Those tones are represented as chunks of data, which creates the peaks and valleys of the histogram. There is nothing you can do to change the peaks and valleys other than changing the scene. That is until you get to either end of the histogram.

How to photograph polar bears from a thunder buggy
Note the minimal number of tones/colors all bunched to the right side. That’s due to this image being mostly white. The white tones are all on the right side which is the area of the histogram that represents light colors.

When you have the tones/colors of the histogram bumped all the way up onto the right goal post you can bring those light colors down by subtracting light. I do this by using the Exposure Compensation button and dialing down the exposure. If those light tones are in the middle of the histogram like they are in the image below, I add light, using the Exposure Compensation button and dialing in more light. Typically 2/3-1 full stop.

How to photograph polar bears from a thunder buggy
Here’s an example of the same image from above that is underexposed. Notice where the tones in the histogram fall, right in the middle. That tells you that the whites are no longer white, but actually gray, which the image shows very well. If absolute black is on the left and absolute white is on the right. What would you think is right in the middle? Gray. Halfway between black and white. Just one of the five tips for how to photograph polar bears from a Tundra Buggy

Tip #2 Use a Telephoto Lens

Using a telephoto lens not only brings the bears in closer, it also cuts down on the angle, making it look more like you’re at eye level. The tundra buggies are very tall for good reason. To keep the bears from being able to reach inside the buggy, the windows have to be above where the bears can reach. And polar bears are very tall animals when they stand on their hind legs. That height can create the view of always looking down on them.

How to photograph polar bears from a thunder buggy. white furry animals
Looking down on this family is still a beautiful opportunity. This image was taken with a 70-200mm zoom at the 200mm range.
How to photograph polar bears from a thunder buggy
Back in the early days in what was called the Barracuda Buggy. This was the buggy all professionals were relegated to. Dan Guravich wanted to keep the pros all in one place.

Using a powerful telephoto allows you to shoot further out and reduce the angle you’ll see in your photograph. Plan on using at least a 300mm lens. 500-600mm is even better. And this year I’ll be using the equivalent of 800mm with the new Olympus 150-400mm zoom. A 300mm with a 1.4X teleconverter would be a very acceptable choice. Less powerful lenses will still get you nice results. But the longer lenses will make your photos even better.

How to photograph polar bears from a thunder buggy. white furry animals
These are two large males that are sparring with each other. This image was shot with a 600mm lens.

Tip #3 Bean Bags For Support

At one time beanbags were extremely beneficial. Admittedly, those days were long before the current image stabilization we have in our modern cameras and lenses. I typically don’t use beanbags any longer, but some people are not comfortable hand-holding a large telephoto lens. For those less adventurous, a beanbag is a great way to get added support and tremendous mobility. Placing the beanbag on the windowsill gives you a protective rest to put your lens on. This helps eliminate any shake from the photographer’s side. Keep in mind this doesn’t stop any movement by the bears which can also blur your picture.

How to photograph polar bears from a thunder buggy

Another rule of thumb for getting good sharp pictures with a telephoto lens is to use a shutter speed equal to or greater than the lens you’re shooting. So if you are using a 600mm lens you would want a shutter speed of 1/600th of a second or faster. This age-old trick from the pro photographer’s bag of tricks is not as necessary as it was before image stabilization. But if you keep this rule of thumb in mind you will always have good sharp pictures.

Tip #4 Walk Softly & Carry a Big Lens

This tip is related to Tip #3 and is an additional way to reduce movement. When you’re shooting from the buggy, you need to walk and move slowly. All tundra buggies travel on big mushy tires. They bounce and sway very easily. Any movement by even a small human being can create issues with getting a sharp picture. There may be times you’ll want to switch windows or move out to the back deck.

How to photograph polar bears from a thunder buggy, white furry animals

The buggies are fairly long so you’ll have to move a distance to get from one spot to another. When going from one spot to the next, you want to place your feet softly as you walk. Make sure you watch my video to see the Tundra Buggy Glide. Not quite the Michael Jackson moonwalk. But something somewhat similar.

Tip #5 Placing the AF Box for Best Results

All autofocus systems require contrast for the image to focus properly, especially for white, furry animals. If you don’t place your autofocus box on a spot that is contrasty enough you may not get sharp photos. Sometimes the bear’s fur does not provide the contrast needed. When this happens I often place the AF box on the nose or eyes. The contrast of the black nose or eyes against the white fur works well for getting quality autofocus. In a situation like this, you often have to lock focus. Whether you’re using halfway down on the front shutter button or back button AF locking the focus is essential when using the eyes or nose to focus on.

How to photograph polar bears from a thunder buggy

Conclusion

Keep these five tips in mind when shooting from the Tundra Buggies. Following these basic guidelines will give you the tools to leave the tundra with beautiful photos of these magnificent animals. If you want more information on my work with polar bears and other arctic animals check out the Arctic Documentary Project sponsored by my friends at Polar Bears International. You too can try your skills at photographing polar bears by joining The Tundra Buggy Adventure.

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There are 4 comments on this post…
  1. Cobie BothaOn Oct. 30th, 2021 (1 month ago)

    I want to thank you so much for the valuable information you are giving on photographing the polar bears. Next week I am going to Churchill and am pretty nervous about the the photo possibilities. My friend recommended your tips and I learned a lot, thank you!

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Oct. 30th, 2021 (1 month ago)

      Glad to help. Good luck with the polar bears.

  2. Joel KleinerOn Oct. 14th, 2021 (2 months ago)

    Thank you for the terrific, and well thought photo technical tips Dan. Lots of very good suggestions. Really appreciated.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Oct. 14th, 2021 (2 months ago)

      Happy to help Joel. Thanks for joining the conversation.

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