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Bear Photography at Brooks Falls Gordon Laing, Aug 2010
 

Photographing bears at Brooks Falls – recommended equipment

My primary goal at Brooks Falls was to see a bear catching a salmon in mid-leap. It's a sight I've seen many times on the TV and in print, and I really wanted to try and capture it myself as a still photo, and if possible, on video too. Since I was travelling light though, I had to think carefully about what equipment to bring. While I could accommodate an additional small camcorder, the primary stills and video work would need to be done with a single camera.

Brooks Falls July 2010, Canon EOS 7D at 800 ISO, 1/1250; Canon EF 100-400mm at 180mm, f6.3; vertical crop



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My requirements for this camera were quick continuous shooting (above 5fps), 1080p video and some degree of weather-proofing to combat the Alaskan drizzle. At the time of writing, there were really only two choices, and both were from Canon: the EOS 1D Mark IV and the EOS 7D; note despite boasting the best image quality in the Canon range at the time of writing, the EOS 5D Mark II was ruled-out due to its modest continuous shooting speed, and while Nikon's D300s did offer the build and speed I required, it lacked 1080p video.

The EOS 1D Mark IV would have been perfect for the job with 10fps continuous shooting, tough build and 1080p video, but it was too expensive and I also wanted to travel as light as possible. Consequently the EOS 7D became my number one choice, while also being physically easier to handle for video. Many thanks to Canon New Zealand, which loaned me a 7D for the duration of my trip. See our Canon EOS 7D review for full details.

I had room for two lenses, a general-purpose zoom, and a longer model for the wildlife close-ups. The first was an easy choice: in my view Canon's EF-S 15-85mm IS USM is the best all-round general-purpose zoom for its range of cropped-frame bodies and my number one recommendation unless a brighter aperture is required (in which case go for the EF-S 17-55mm f2.8). See our Canon EF-S 15-85mm IS USM review for more details.

The telephoto was a slightly tougher decision. The variation in distances meant a zoom was necessary, and I toyed with the idea of one of Sigma's many options. But with the 100-400mm range being ideal for the distances at Brooks Falls and weather-proofing a big plus, Canon's EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS USM perfectly fitted the bill. Sure it's an ageing model with first-generation stabilisation which can't compete with the latest lenses, but it remains a strong choice for close-range wildlife photographers.

Canon New Zealand was generous enough to loan me the EF-S 15-85mm, but unable to supply the telephoto zoom, so I rented one instead from Borrow Lenses in California. They delivered to a friend I was meeting in the US prior to the Brooks Falls trip and allowed me to drop it off at the downtown Anchorage FedEx office. This actually worked out really well as I wasn't lugging around a big heavy lens during other portions of my longer trip where it was unnecessary; instead I just rented it for the period I needed. I was so impressed with the service at Borrow Lenses that we've partnered-up with them as an affiliate. So you can help support Camera Labs by renting lenses at this link – it's a great idea for trips and special events, or to simply trial a new lens before buying.

The EOS 7D with EF 100-400mm lens may be fairly compact in serious wildlife photography terms, but I still didn't relish the idea of handholding it for my time at Brooks Falls. A tripod with a fast-acting ball head was the answer, but again it had to be relatively small and light.

As anyone who's searched for the perfect travel tripod knows, some compromise is necessary. You can buy small and light tripods, but they're rarely very sturdy. You can buy sturdy tripods, but they're rarely that portable. I know, I've been through countless models. I've taken tiny tripods away only to be frustrated with their stability and height. I've lugged full-sized models and loved their height and rigidity, but hated their size and weight. I've also spent a while trying to convince myself the Gorillapod was the answer, but frequently found myself without anything to wrap its legs around. Is there really a perfect travel tripod? One that's sufficiently small and light to be portable, without compromising stability? I'm pleased to report there is, but you'd better have deep pockets.

 
   

The Gitzo 1541T is widely regarded by high-end tripod-philes as the ultimate travel pod. It's not the smallest tripod around, but it is sufficiently portable for most trips, especially with the neat trick of folding its legs back on itself with the right head. The carbon fiber construction is light, without compromising Gitzo's legendary build quality, while stability is as good as many considerably larger tripods. The downside? It costs more than a budget DSLR, and once you add a head with a plate system to do it justice, you're approaching a grand in US dollars.

Arguably the best head for the 1541T is Markins' Q-Ball Q3 Traveller, a compact ball and socket model designed to accommodate the tripod's reverse-folding leg system. It's small and light, but like the 1541T is superbly built. It's also able to handle surprisingly hefty loads and was happy to accommodate the EOS 7D with EF 100-400mm lens.

I took a gamble with both the tripod and head as neither company was able to supply a loan for review. Markins inability to provide samples was understandable given the size of the company, although Gitzo's was just down to being uncooperative. That said, the sheer number of positive comments about the 1541T and Q3T combination persuaded me it was an important pair of products to test, so I took a deep breath and purchased both. I plan to review them in the near future, and hopefully use them for the rest of my life. PS – a quick note to the highest-end tripod fanatics: rather than fit a quick release system from another company such as Really Right Stuff, I went for Markins' own plate system.


Equipment field report – how did it work in practice?

I'll cut to the chase right now: while my trip to Brooks Falls involved many hurdles, the equipment I took performed flawlessly, and to be honest there's little if anything I'd change for a future visit.

I was very impressed with the EOS 7D in my original review and it continued to deliver the goods in the field with its tough build and quick handling. It happily shrugged-off light drizzle during my travels through Alaska and was always ready to fire-off quick bursts when required. It may not be as rugged as the EOS 1D Mark IV, but this is as close as you'll get to truly professional handling for the money.

I'd debated whether to take the EOS 5D Mark II instead, but when it came to photographing the bears in action I was pleased I'd gone for the EOS 7D. When a salmon jumps past a bear it's literally swimming for its life and not hanging around – the event is over in a split second, so if you want more than a couple of frames showing it, you'll need a camera with at least 5fps. My luckiest break came when a salmon leapt out the water and actually struck a bear on its nose before bouncing back. I managed to grab three shots with the salmon in the frame at 8fps. Shooting at less than half the speed, the EOS 5D Mark II would have only come away with one or two shots.

The EOS 7D continued to impress throughout my trip, confidently handling any situation. I should however note I switched to spot focusing for many of my shots as the various multi-point AF options tended to prioritise the closest areas which weren't always what I wanted in focus – for example brims on hats or noses on bears. Switching to spot focusing allowed me to ensure eyes were in focus instead.

   
Brooks Falls July 2010, Canon EOS 7D at 400 ISO, 1/125
Canon EF 100-400mm at 400mm, f6.3; no crop
 
   
   

As for lenses I was delighted with both choices. In my Canon EF-S 15-85mm IS USM review I found it to be an excellent performer, and the few optical issues it suffered from were generally corrected at apertures around f8. It proved to be an excellent general-purpose lens and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to owners of cropped-frame Canon bodies. The only aspect where it falls down is the lack of lens hood supplied as standard. Sadly Canon New Zealand was unable to supply a hood with the lens and there was no time to buy one, so I went hoodless. Annoyingly many of my photos and video sequences suffered from the lack of a hood, whether it was flare from the Sun or protection from drizzle. I'd strongly recommend buying the hood for this model.

The Canon EF 100-400mm IS USM on a cropped body proved to be the ideal wildlife lens for relatively close-range subjects. From the upper falls platform at Brooks, most of my bear shots were taken between 200 and 300mm, making a 70-300mm equally suitable, but it was nice to have the extra reach to 400mm for more distant bears or close-ups. I'd previously used this lens on a safari in Kenya and found it to be one of the most flexible choices there too. It'd be nice to have an updated version with the latest four-stop stabilisation system for handheld work, but once mounted on a tripod this becomes a non-issue. Did I yearn for a fast super-telephoto lens? Maybe for a couple of shots where bears were positioned at precisely the right distance, but to be honest the 100-400mm zoom range was unbeatable from the falls platform. Note: you'll see all the shots here with the 100-400mm were taken at f6.3. I selected this aperture to avoid using the lens with its aperture wide-open to maximise quality and be a little more forgiving on focusing.

Which now brings us to the Gitzo 1541T tripod and Markins Q3T head. Putting aside Gitzo's reluctance to work with me as a journalist and product tester, I fell for the tripod from the first moment I took it from the box. The build quality is quite simply superb with every part fitting together perfectly. Despite previously not getting on with twist-lock tripod legs, I became accustomed to the 1541T in moments: in a single grip and twist you can unlock an entire leg in one go, allowing you to extend and setup very quickly.

The reverse-folding leg system also works really well, shaving precious inches from the overall length of the tripod for transportation. Obviously this requires a compatible head (unless you want to remove it each time you pack away), and the Markins Q3T proved to be another superbly built piece of kit.

  Markins Q3T head
   

Having had some average to poor experiences with ball heads in the past I'd steered clear of them for a while, but the Markins Q3T is a revelation in use incredibly smooth, able to handle surprisingly large weights and ideal for quick recompositions. The tripod and head combination worked so well in the field I had to keep reminding myself both represented the compact models in their respective ranges designed for modest loads.

Certainly if I'd taken the 1D Mark IV and fitted it with a 300mm f2.8 then I'd have wanted something much heftier, but the 1541T and Q3T proved surprisingly confident supporting the 7D with 100-400mm. Admittedly there was a little vibration visible on some video shot at the maximum focal lengths, but this was more down to movement on the platform than instability on the support. Of course if you demand absolute rock-solid performance with a big lens, then you'll have to lug around a bigger support system, but for its size and weight, the 1541T with Q3T is very impressive. I look forward to writing a detailed report on both products in the near future.

Speaking of video, I filmed a number of sequences between stills using the EOS 7D, along with my own Canon HV30 camcorder; out of curiosity (not to mention security), I filmed several duplicate shots with both cameras, which also allowed me to compare the quality and experience of each system.

As anyone who's filmed with a DSLR knows, there are pros and cons to the technology. The pros include a large sensor and access to a wide variety of lenses, while the major con is tricky handling compared to a camcorder, particularly when it comes to adjusting focus or focal length during a shot. During my time in Alaska, I decided to play to the strengths of both cameras, using the DSLR for wide, long, dark or generally static shots, and the camcorder for zooms or subjects which changed distance during the shot. I matched the frame rate of the 7D to my US-originated HV30 to allow better integration of clips in the same project: 30fps (29.97 actual).

I've assembled a short series of clips below, including a few at each end taken with the Canon IXUS 200 IS / SD980 IS compact to set the scene; the latter shot at 720p. It's interesting to compare the quality and perspective of similar shots taken with the DSLR and camcorder. All the audio you hear was also captured by the respective cameras without any external microphones or post-processing.

 


The mostly static bears at Brooks Falls responded well to DSLR videography, and it was only when a successful catch saw the bear wander significantly away that there were any issues with the focus. But I was pleased to also have the camcorder with me for motorised zooms, not to mention as a backup for when I was taking stills with the DSLR. After capturing the catch and grab you'll see in the video with the camcorder zoomed-in, I zoomed it back out again and left it on the ledge to monitor the entire falls while I shot stills with the EOS 7D; I've included some of this footage in the video above, where you can hear me shoot a burst with the EOS 7D as the bear at the top of the falls makes another catch. You can see the camcorder on the ledge in the photo below left.

Ultimately the products I bought, borrowed and rented worked perfectly for the environment and conditions, and unusually for wildlife photography, I didn't yearn for anything bigger, longer or faster. Equally unusually given its world class location was the absence of higher-end kit at the falls. I'd fully expected to be wedged on the viewing platform between 600mm f4 lenses mounted on pro bodies, but was surprised to find myself as the alpha camera male on the platform in terms of kit – at least for the 60 minutes I was there anyway.


Brooks Falls: EOS 7D and 100-400mm on Gitzo 1541T / Markins Q3T
Brooks Camp: the serious wildlife photographers


Upon arrival back at the beach though, I discovered where the real top dogs had been hanging out: two guys equipped with camouflaged Canon 800mm lenses and 1.4x teleconverters photographing a distant mother with four cubs (indeed the same family which delayed my arrival earlier).

As I recall, one was shooting with an EOS 7D and the other with one of the 1D range, but both had their setups supported on Wimberley heads directly mounted on large Gitzo tripods with the centre column removed for stability. This is pretty serious kit but both were happy for a chat, and one proudly explained how his 800mm had survived a recent dunk. Reassuringly for my own choice of equipment, both also carried backup bodies fitted with what looked like 100-400mm zooms.

While it's impossible not to be envious of such setups though, those big guns would have been way too long at the falls. Ideal for the distant beach shots at this point, but not for the salmon shots I was after unless you wanted a very tight crop or were aiming at one of the furthest animals. I think this realisation further enhanced my view of Brooks Falls as not only did the platform place you right next to the action, but you could capture it with fairly modest equipment – at least in wildlife photography terms. Even those alongside me on the falls platform with compact cameras were grabbing decent shots.

Brooks Falls has the reputation as the best place to view bears fishing and it more than lived up to expectations. It's not cheap to visit and your journey could be plagued with delays, but I can't think of anywhere else which brings you this close to witnessing one of Nature's Great Events.

 

Recommended equipment for photographing bears at Brooks Falls

DSLR with fast continuous shooting, ideally 5fps or quicker. Weather-proofing a bonus. Semi-pro models ideal. See our Semi-pro DSLR Buyers Guide for recommended models.

Telephoto zoom lens around the 100-400mm range. 70-300mm also suitable. Longer focal lengths not required at falls platform, but useful around camp for distant or smaller subjects. See our Canon, Nikon and Sony telephoto lens guides, and don't forget you don't have to buy a big expensive lens just for one trip - depending on where you live, you could rent one from places like Borrow Lenses.

Tripod to hold camera and lens in position on falls platform. Smaller models better-suited for squeezing between people. Ball and socket heads recommended for quick readjustments.

Backup / secondary camera. Camcorder useful for recording falls while you concentrate on stills. Could use Gorillapod or similar to mount on platform ledge with minimal impact on space.

One final tip: there's virtually no room for hand luggage on the tiny float planes, but you should still try and carry your main camera and big lens by hand if possible. Not only are there great views from the air, but you may also have the chance to grab a few shots of bears on the beach upon arrival. If one strolling past is preventing your disembarkation, you don't want to miss the chance to photograph it!



Suggested technique for photographing bears at Brooks Falls (repeated from previous page)

I'm fairly inexperienced when it comes to wildlife photography, but found a technique which proved quite successful on the day. First, pick a bear. Second, compose your shot and make sure it's in focus; thankfully the bears tend to stay perfectly still when fishing, allowing you to easily check and confirm your settings. Next, unless you want a shot with blurred motion, ensure your shutter speed is sufficiently quick to freeze the action. I found shutter speeds around 1/1000 were essential to capture the quickest action and on the day with the lens in question, that meant using sensitivities of 400-800 ISO. Finally make sure your camera is set to its fastest continuous shooting mode, then wait with your finger poised on the shutter (or cable) release. As a side-note, I found continuous AF to be unreliable with these subjects, so stuck with single AF modes instead.

While you could handhold your shots, I'd strongly recommend using a tripod. This allows you to not only take the weight of a potentially heavy lens over long periods, but means you can also leave the camera aimed precisely at the subject and ready for action. I actually rarely looked through the viewfinder on the day, instead preferring to monitor the entire falls with my eyes, but never taking my finger from the release. Then when I saw the bear make its move, I pressed down on the shutter release, fired-off a load of frames and kept my fingers crossed I'd captured the moment.


Find out more about my trip to Brooks Falls at Bear viewing with Katmailand

Discuss this article in the Camera Labs forums.


(all images © Gordon Laing, July 2010)

 

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