Question from Bruce Faanes, Polar Bear Photo Tips

Posted Oct. 15th, 2013 by Daniel J. Cox

Really been enjoying all your stunning travel photos. Just awesome! My question for you is, since I won’t have the luxury of having yourself along when I’m photographing Polar Bears next month, do you have any generic “rules of thumb” that you reference for the white world of Polar Bear photography with changing light, etc? I know I learned a great deal from you last November, but just curious on how you approach shooting in this part of the planet. Thanks, Bruce Faanes

Bruce, Great to hear from you. Unfortunately this will be the first time in at least twenty years I’ll miss a trip to Cape Churchill. Sorry for not being able to be there to give you a hand. I appreciate you writing for some thoughts on what you might consider while photographing polar bears with Tundra Buggy Adventures. Below are some general things to think about while shooting on snow and working from a somewhat unstable platform.

Flexible Program (P) With Nikon
Aperture Priority (AV) With Canon
 

When shooting with the Nikon system, I most often use the Program mode with Matrix metering. Nikon calls it Flexible Program due to the photographer’s ability to change automatic exposure settings the camera has selected. Most people are familiar with Program Mode from long ago when it was not possible to change the exposure settings. However, Nikon changed all this with Flexible Program.

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Nikon’s D7000 set to P (Program ) mode or what I like to call “P for Professional”

While in the Program Mode, to change what the camera has selected, you simply turn the main Command Dial either right or left. Turning the dial left gives you a smaller aperture for better depth of field. As the aperture gets smaller the shutter speed follows, changing to what is needed for a proper exposure. Conversely, if the dial is turned to the right the shutter speed goes up and the aperture comes along with it. Keep in mind that once you hit the maximum or minimum aperture, the change of exposure ends with the lens’ limitation.

Canon has this same feature in Program but with a big difference. When the Canon meter turns off to save power and you reinitiate the camera by touching the shutter button, the camera once again selects the exposure combination it thinks is best for the situation. That may not be what you think is best and you may have to reset the camera to your preferred setting. So for those shooting Canon I suggest using the AV mode.

Watch Your Histogram

All digital cameras have the ability to view what is called a histogram. You may have to check your manual, but the option to view a histogram is most likely there. I liken the histogram to a visual light meter that shows the exposure, either right or wrong, after the image has been taken. Cameras that have Electronic Viewfinders (EVF) will actually allow you to see the histogram before the image is captured.

Overcast light with a white bear on white snow is guaranteed to fool your light meter. This example is from my Aperture Library and I included a view showing the histogram. You can see the same view of the histogram on your camera's LCD. Read the following information on what to look for.

Overcast light with a white bear on white snow is guaranteed to fool your light meter. This example is from my Aperture Library and I included it to show the histogram which is in the upper left corner. You can see  a similar histogram view  on your camera’s LCD. Read the following information on what to look for.

So what’s the benefit of a histogram? In short it lets the photographer to know if the exposure is correct each time they take a photograph. This is an important advantage for all photographic situations but many photographers really see the benefits in snowy conditions.

What exactly is a histogram? A histogram is a graphical representation of the tones distributed throughout an image from absolute black to absolute white. The left side of a histogram represents the black tones, while the right side represents the whites. I call each side of the histogram the “goal posts” — to make sure you score, your tones must be between the two goal posts. In between the goal posts you will see peaks and valleys in the histogram, which you should ignore UNTIL they begin to climb either the right or left side of the goal posts. If they are climbing the right goal post, you subtract light. If they climb the left goal post, you add light. We’ll cover this in more detail in the field.

Rule of Thirds for Better Composition

One of the most difficult challenges for photographers is creating images that are graphically pleasing. For whatever reason, most people, when looking through a camera, want to place their subject directly in the middle of the image. I have no idea why, but it’s a problem I see regularly. There are a few people in the world who have the natural eye that eliminates this issue but these folks are few and far between.

Example of the Rule of thirds on a subject filling the frame. Notice the head and eyes of the bear are in the upper right quadrant of the rule of Thirds.

Example of the Rule of thirds on a subject filling the frame. Notice the head and eyes of the bear are in the upper right quadrant of the rule of Thirds. Photo © Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com

Equally as mysterious is the appreciation the human eye has for what is called the Rule of Thirds. For whatever reason the human brain appreciates images that follow a simple rule that places a point or points of interest within certain sections of an image. Not just photography, but all types of imagery.

To understand this principle I have created a visual with the Rule of Thirds concept drawn out on the image above. The image is broken into three sections horizontally and three sections vertically. Usually the most interesting images will have one or more compositional elements where these vertical and horizontal lines intersect. Sometimes the compositional point may be the eye of an animal, other times it may be an element such as a tree in the foreground. It takes time to get it right but keeping the image above in mind when you are shooting, will help you produce more pleasing results.

Here's another example of the Rule of thirds with the subject (an arctic hare) as an overall small part of the scene. The beautiful rocks, light and other elements make this image interesting even thought the arctic hare is just one of many elements.

Here’s another example of the Rule of thirds with the subject (an arctic hare) as an overall small part of the scene. The beautiful rocks, light and other elements make this image interesting even thought the arctic hare is just one of many elements. Keep in mind that the hare is right in the lower right quadrant of the Rule of Thirds. Photo © Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com

Shooting Telephoto Lenses , Tundra Buggy’s can be somewhat unstable due to high winds and with people moving about. 

One of the best rules of thumb for the sharpest images possible is to make sure that you use a shutter speed equal to or greater than the focal length of the lens you are using. For example, if you are shooting a 300mm telephoto and you plan to hand hold it, you should be shooting 1/300th of shutter speed at the very least. To be absolutely certain you may want to up the shutter speed nearly one stop more to 1/500th or 1/600th.

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World Class wildlife artist Daniel Smith photographing polar bears uses a bean bag to help eliminate camera shake and movement while using a long telephoto lens on a Tundra Buggy. See more of Dan’s amazing art at www.danielsmithwildlife.com

This tried and true practice has been around since the start of photography. I mention this only because today we have numerous tools that can give you the option to use a slower shutter speed than what used to be necessary.

First and foremost is the feature Nikon calls VR and Canon refers to as IS. Both provide an electronic means of stabilizing your lens. In short, the lens technology takes over, Zigging while the photographer is Zagging. You go left and the lens goes right. This entire process happens electronically, within the lens in most cases. It works so well most people have no idea the technology is even working.

To activate this feature look for a switch on your lens barrel. If you are shooting Olympus or some Panasonic models it’s built into the body. Sometimes there are two settings—most often you will want to use either Normal or Setting #1.

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