Photographing Alaska’s Katmai Brown Bears with Ole Jørgen Liodden
Alaska. Its rugged mountains, pine forests, pebble ridden beaches, clean skies and crystal clear rivers set the scene to an untamed wilderness like no other. It is here where we find an apex predator with an immense stature like no other but it is also here where a photo expedition will get your heart racing and your camera’s shutter working into overdrive.
In partnership with Wildphoto Travel, ORYX offers a one-of-a-kind photographic trip to the Katmai region of Alaska – an area that is famed for its huge Coastal Brown Bears.
We’ve asked Ole Jørgen Liodden of WildPhoto Travel to shed some light on his photographic endeavors with these omnivorous animals while they hunt and gorge themselves on spawning salmon in the wild wilderness of Katmai.
Q: North America has a few prime Brown Bear photographic locales. Why did you choose Katmai, Alaska for these Brown Bear tours?
A: I lived in Alaska for one year in the 1990s and I was fascinated by the great wilderness and its wildlife. Because I was so fond of the area, I began searching for the perfect spot to photograph bears chasing spawning salmon in the river and three years ago, I was informed of a secret “Grizzly River” in Katmai. When Nikon approached me in 2015 to beta test their new D5 model, I chose the Brown Bears of the Katmai area for my assignment and I’m so glad I did! The shallow river and clear water resulted in a lot of splashing when the bears hunted for fish, which made for some exquisite photography. It really is a fantastic place for a bear photography tour and because hunting is banned in the region, the area is very secluded.
Q: Why is September considered the best time for Brown Bear tours?
A: The salmon run in Alaska takes place between mid-July until the end of September. While most rivers’ peak salmon run is during the beginning of the summer season, the river where our tour will take place is slightly delayed, which makes September the ideal time to visit this area. Sometimes the salmon run continues into October and with the changing of the summer season to autumn, the forest colours are beautiful and can result in stunning reflections and backgrounds.
Q: What is it like to photograph the Brown Bears of Katmai?
A: The bears in Katmai are easy to photograph compared to other places in the world. The bears are very relaxed, which makes it possible to shoot with a shorter zoom lens as opposed to using a long lens to capture nice portraits of the bears in their natural environment. This tour is a great alternative when looking for the ideal grizzly bear photography tour because it offers the chance to photograph the bears on foot or flat on the ground as opposed to from a platform or a vehicle.
Q: When at the river, what do you do to ensure that you get the shot you want? Do you go with a picture in mind or see what is waiting for you in the field?
A: My goal is to shoot the different situations that the bears find themselves in. I focus on getting wide landscape shots, bears chasing salmon with water splashing everywhere, portraits, interactions between bears…I even use an underwater camera with a remote control. The opportunities for great brown bear photography and creativity are endless at this river!
Q: How close do you get to the bears and how safe is it to approach them?
A: The bears are habituated to humans and don’t show aggression but it’s important to give them the respect they deserve. It’s also vital to travel with experienced guides when it comes to Brown Bear tours as they will keep the safety of the photographers in mind, while not stressing out the animals. We allow bears to approach up to about 10 metres but we would rather keep our distance. Signal flares and pepper spray are used as deterrents but this is rarely needed and our camp site is protected with an electrical fence to keep the curious ones out!
Q: What is your favourite image that you have captured so far?
A: The Grizzly bear shaking off the water after it successfully caught a fish is definitely my favourite!
Q: What other wildlife can you see in the area or at the river?
A: There are wolves in the area, but they are shy and we will most likely only hear them howling at night. There are also some birds in the area, especially gulls feeding on the dead salmon but the main attraction is the appeal of this being a Katmai bear tour.
Q: What has so far been your most memorable experience during one of your bear photography tours?
A: The frequent visit and photographing of the “Action Queen”, a female bear with cubs was the most memorable highlight from my last trip. This bear was fishing salmon very dramatically and created a lot of splashing moments to capture, and who can resist the sight of two cute cubs? I hope to see her again on the next Brown Bear tour!
Q: What kind of photographer would you recommend this expedition to and why?
A: These Brown Bear photography tours are recommended for experienced photographers who have some outdoor background. This is a true wilderness experience, with tents and no electricity and is therefore more challenging than the average photo trip.
Q: What makes WildPhoto Travel’s Grizzly Bear photography tours special?
A: Because this is a real wilderness expedition, you get very close to nature and all that it offers. It is also special to visit a region with about 20-30 brown bears that frequent such a small area. The shallow, clear water along with hundreds of spawning salmon, provides excellent conditions for great photography, as well as the ultimate wilderness experience of its kind for some truly unique Brown Bear tours!