How I Got The Shot – The Big Guy

“Wow! That’s a big bear,” I exclaimed as I pulled the truck off the road.

As I brought the pickup to a halt, my wife was quickly scanning the nearby woods, “Where?”

I pointed at the 2 o’clock position from the windshield, “Down there, on the ground.”

As I opened my door and climbed out of the truck, I heard her make an excited religious reference – something about a divine deuce – and agree, “Wow – he is huge!”

Since we were in our pickup truck, I had my tripod lying in the bed, set to a good “getting started” height and ready to go. I just needed to attach my camera and lens to it, a task that only takes seconds thanks to the quick release clamp I’ve added to my Wimberley gimbal head (it’s a Really Right Stuff PG-CC)

Side Note – In the past, I kept the camera mounted to the tripod at all times, but the quick release clamp allows me to attach it so quickly that you can go ahead and call it instantaneous. So now I keep the D5 and 600mm F/4 in the front seat with me, along with the D850 and 300mm PF. And yes, my wife is a very patient woman.

As I rounded the front of the truck, gear at the ready, another smaller bear popped out from behind some nearby vegetation. It was a female and the situation left no doubt in my mind that the big guy was on a mission to maintain a plentiful bear population in Cade’s Cove.

Sadly, as is often the case in these situations, there simply wasn’t a shot to be had of either bear. Too many obstacles between the lens and the bruins.

A few moments later, the situation changed – as it usually does with bears. In fact, one thing I’ve discovered over the years is that if you stick with a bear long enough, you’re bound to get a good shot. However, patience is the key – both yours and theirs. And a little luck doesn’t hurt either.

As if she heard my under-the-breath lamentations about not having a clear shot, she decided to head out in the open and amble towards the road, immediately crossing it. This was all the motivation the big guy needed and he followed closely behind. However, being no fan of bear photos standing on asphalt, I was still no better off than I was a moment ago.

Since they were taking a track parallel to the road, I decided to stay with them – at a safe but still photographable distance. Although the big male was mostly obscured, the female teased me with a potential head-on shot as she dissected a log, but she never looked up. I find that’s the biggest challenge with black bears – they think with their stomachs, are at the top of the food chain, and see very little need to remove their nose from whatever log they’re probing to give any attention to a crazy guy with a camera making idiotic noises.

At this point, she decided to plunge deeper into the woods with the big guy leisurely pursuing from behind. Normally, this is the definition of a lost cause since black bears in the summer woods in the Smokies are always hidden by various branches, leaves, and twigs. Besides, you tend to lose visibility of your target in the thick brush – and when your target is one of the most massive black bears you’ve ever seen in the park, that’s a recipe for soiled undergarments.

However, I was in luck this time. The bears were angling towards a nearby service road that would offer a clear shot if the opportunity was right. I decided to head down and see if there was a location that would keep me a comfortable distance away while still affording a potential shot if they came out of the woods.

So, the situation was this. It was a cloudy day and the woods were dim enough to make you think it the sun had refused to break the horizon that morning, despite the fact it was over 90 minutes past sunrise.

My opportunities were very limited. The brush was thick and only a couple of locations offered clear views that would work for the shot I had in mind. Of course, my success was totally reliant on the bears emerging from one of these spots. As they drew closer, it became apparent which opening was going to give me a chance at a shot. I was reasonably confident the pair weren’t going to just force their way through some of the thicker stuff since they tend to take the most accessible path.

To get the anticipated eye-level shot, my tripod was set about a foot below my chin level. My D5 and 600mm F/4 were at the ready – the 600mm set wide open to F/4 to help with the dark conditions. Shutter speed was dropped all the way to 1/320th of a second – which still left me facing an ISO of 4500! VR was turned on and at the ready. 

For this shot, I relied on Matrix metering. Although I know it can be argued (correctly) that spot metering can be more precise if appropriately managed, I find Matrix is usually close enough for RAW files in most situations. In this case, I only needed -1/3rd of a stop of exposure compensation, despite the preponderance of black fur in the image. Plus, I find Matrix faster to use in a rapidly developing scenario with varying light levels (although the light was overcast, it was not even – some areas were more protected and darker than others). 

Focus, of course, was done with Back Button AF and in AF-C mode (you should always use AF-C when using BBAF). My AF area was just a single point that I would move over the bear’s eye – you know, if one of my targets ever decided to come into position.

The female wandered into the frame first and – unfortunately for me – made extraordinary good time over the downed logs and branches. She never once favored me with a glance in my direction.

However, and luckily, the big guy was another story.

As he had something other than food on his mind, he made his way across the log in a more casual style, taking his time but still refusing to look my direction. Sure I could have tried to make noise, clap, whistle, or any other common sound a human can make, but the thing is, these bears have heard ‘em all and summarily dismiss each and every noise I can conjure up. Besides, clapping or making too much noise would more than likely cause him to move off. Black bears tend to run first and ask questions later (although, I’m not 100% confident that rule applies to this massive fellow).

As he came into position, I was getting desperate. I decided that I’d go ahead and fire off a short burst and at least get a profile shot, plus, the shutter sound might get his attention. I’ve used that trick in the past and found that it sometimes works, although I know the odds are against it. Still, I have had luck with monkeys, deer, moose, elk, and even various species of birds with the technique, so, what’s to lose? You know, desperate times and all that.

So, I fired off a long burst as he walked into view with his head down. Well, that did it! The sound of the shutter was enough to pique his curiosity and he brought his massive bulk to a stop, lifted his head, and stared right down the lens barrel! I think he’s even smiling (or salivating, I’ll let you decide).

Salivating or smiling?

As a side note, I often find it interesting when I hear people complain about shutter noise, partially with cameras like the Nikon D5 and Nikon D850. The truth is that yes, sometimes the shutter can startle wary subjects, but at other times it can be used to gain their attention. My technique is just as described above. Even when the target of my intentions isn’t looking towards me, I go ahead and fire off a burst to see what happens. This seems to work best with the D5 – I don’t think most animals are accustomed to hearing 12 FPS ripping off.

At any rate, encouraged by his curiosity, I continued shooting. However, the dim light and low contrast created a situation where I was less than confident about the quality of my AF lock. So, I used the techniques in this article just in case – particularly the focus and defocus trick. It worked perfectly!

In addition to doing the whole focus and refocus trick, I was also facing some pretty grim shutter speeds in the viewfinder. In a real-world situation, I don’t like to dip below 1/250th with my “big rig” if I can avoid it (even with a more or less static subject), and I was dropping pretty close to that speed at 1/320th. So, even had I not been acquiring and requiring AF locks, I still would have been bursting longer than usual to make sure I had a nice percentage of tack-sharp images. I describe this technique in more detail here.

Although I could swear the encounter lasted for at least five minutes, it was really over in less than 30 seconds. The big guy quickly grew bored of me and gave his full attention back to traipsing along behind his girlfriend. All in all, it was an interesting encounter and I look forward to photographing his progeny next spring!

~Steve

PS – If you enjoyed this post, I think you’ll REALLY like my e-books, Secrets To Stunning Wildlife Photography and Secrets To The Nikon Autofocus System. They’re filled with hundreds of pages of information just like this. Check ’em out – click here (hey, it’s free to look 🙂 )

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This entry was posted in How I Got The Shot, Techniques, Using Your Gear, Wildlife.

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42 Comments on "How I Got The Shot – The Big Guy"

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Gregory
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Another enjoyable adventure story and most helpful shooting tips. This pearl ” I find Matrix faster to use in a rapidly developing scenario with varying light levels (although the light was overcast, it was not even – some areas were more protected and darker than others)” from this story answered a question I have been wondering about as I critique my birds in the trees images mostly shot with spot metering. I shoot with a D500 +300mmPF4+TC14 iii and every pearl counts and I have discovered the shutter noise helps more than hinders. Thank you. P.S. Smiling and Salivating.

Jim
Guest

Great story and interesting to hear what it took to get a shot like that. Although this may have been asked before, I’m curious to where you might sell or how you might use (other than on this blog) a shot like this. Thanks for any tips. As a fellow native of NorthWest Ohio (I’ve now live on the East Coast), I’ve learned a lot from your site.

Adam
Guest

Great stuff, as always! Curious gear question… having had the D850 for a while now, what do you find yourself using the most these days? I believe in one of your early D850 videos, you mentioned the D5 might be on its way to collecting dust.

Thanks for the great content!

Mac
Guest

I’m not a fan of making noise to get an animal’s attention, but unavoidable when using a typical DSLR within the range of the animal’s hearing. Nice photo.

Sumangala Rajapakse
Guest

My Dear Steve..Thank you very much for the Sending…A very nice wildlife encounter..Again learning a lot for my Wildlife Photography works. Thank you very much. Best Regards to do more fruitful works like this..I am always following your Good Self.

Terry
Guest

Thank you again Steve for another terrific story of your encounters with wildlife. Every time I read your articles I take away another gem of wisdom. I’m hoping to take a trip to Africa next year with my girlfriend, and your advice, tips and tricks will be very much employed. It will feel as if you’re with me on that trip – your ebooks are always in my phone.
Cheers from Australia. Terry

BRC
Guest

Looks as if he has eaten some lemon custard, great shot.

Gerald Botkin
Guest

Beautiful image

Bob Pease
Guest

Magnificent shot Steve. What physical distance do you get to bears to ensure safety?

Christian Sommeillier
Guest
Christian Sommeillier

Thank’s Steve for this very interesting report; on your advice, my wife and me were at Cades’ Cove last spring and we were very Lucky not to encounter such a big guy..the Reason: we rode a bicycle on the loop.( However, I made some shots of a female with three one year cubs and it made my day!). Thank’s again!

Wayne DeVries
Guest

Thanks I REALLY DO ENJOY your pics and descriptions – at age 83 the chances of me going out like that are about -zero.

Alan
Guest

A good well written and very interesting report, makes people realise how interesting photography can be……..AND….appreciate a cracking photograph, love it (with a smile)

Woody Green
Guest

x

Woody Green
Guest

A curious smile, wondering about that strange ape creature making odd noises. 🙂 Thanks, Steve.

Rich Cower
Guest

Great story Steve. He’s smiling, and thinking you look tasty.

Mark Friedman
Guest

Fun article, thanks. It’s like I’m right there with you.

Cynthia Knox
Guest

This was so brilliantly written! I enjoyed your journey and your photo from a very safe distance. 🙂

Jack Haxby
Guest

Hi Steve: I really enjoyed meeting you and your wife at Cade’s Cove. I have learned a lot from you through your videos and articles. I came home with lots of great pictures and will be headed back in early October.
The road side chat with you and your wife is one of the highlights of my trip. I live in South Florida and am out photographing wildlife several days a week. If I can every help you with what’s happening around here let me know.

Regards,
Jack Haxby

Robert
Guest

Were you bear hunting or was this encounter just dumb luck helped by that fact you were in a National Park?

Jim
Guest

Marvelous bear pics! The HIGtS story provides great insight into what we see. Thanks for sharing that too.

Mike Mirsky
Guest

Really enjoyed the image and description…clearly though, he is smiling, because he is thinking “Hmmmm, sex and human food….what more could I want?” Well done and thanks for sharing!

Marvin Israel
Guest

What did you consider was a “safe but photographable distance”?

Bob
Guest

Great shot.

You mention that VR is on. Doesn’t Nikon recommend that it be off when using a tripod?

Tom Gottfried
Guest

If I knew beforehand that I would be in the woods close to “the big guy” I would have added one more item to my clothing….a diaper….
Great shot and a great analysis.

Alex Young
Guest

Great story and photos – thank you for sharing. You have a talent for photography and are very good at explaining how to get the shot.

Michael Choudoir
Guest

Great patience, great anticipation and a great result! Congratulations Steve! And that divine duece reference……..hilarious!!

Allan Hewitt
Guest

BEAUTIFUL, he’s a big’un and congratulations Steve on the shot and also the compliments you’re receiving.

Tommy Meyer
Guest

Great shot and a great article. This is a BIG bear and the focus it spot on.

Carolyn
Guest

Love the story behind the shot. Thanks for sharing and giving so many tips of wildlife photography!

Kevin Gallagher
Guest

I’m going with smiling!! I fully agree with Rodney, great catch!!

Cok Weekhout
Guest

Great article, very nice shot well done. Always a pleasure to read your articles..

Rodney
Guest

Very nice shot!