“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 photos featuring bears 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!
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 🙂 )