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Photographing polar bears

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Photographing polar bears
19 Dec
The majestic and mighty polar bear is in danger of becoming an animal of the past, consigned to the growing list of extinct species, yet polar bear tourism is increasingly popular, says Keith Wilson

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that fewer than 26,000 polar bears reside across the vast Arctic wilderness, from Alaska and Canada to Greenland, Norway and Russia. Accurate counts are hard to make as the bears spend much of their active time on the move, travelling with the ever-shifting pack ice, hunting for the seals that are the mainstay of their diet.

In recent years, the polar bear has become an international symbol of the dangers of global warming and climate change, the apex predator most at risk due to the rapid thawing of Arctic ice, caused by warming ocean currents and rising atmospheric temperatures. From 1980 to 2016, the average volume of Arctic sea ice decreased by 42 per cent. The ice has receded so much that in 2014 the Nunavik became the first cargo ship to traverse the notorious Northwest Passage unescorted in order to transport nickel from the Canadian province of Quebec to China. The voyage took 26 days, more than two weeks less than the 41 days it took the ship to return to port via the Panama Canal.


With the prospect of more such voyages taking place in future as the ice recedes, plus the possibility of new deep water ports opening along Arctic sea routes, human contact with polar bears is likely to increase. But it is the continued loss of ice, more than the appearance of container ships in the Arctic, that poses the most immediate threat to the polar bear’s future. The thinner and more scarce the sea ice, the harder it is for these bears to traverse their frozen domain and seek out the prey they need to gain enough weight to survive the dark winter months.

Time also plays a factor in the bears’ survival because the weeks between the summer thaw and the sea freezing over again are increasing across many parts of their range. This results in a shorter hunting season in which to find enough prey. Increasingly, bears are adapting to the lack of year-round ice by scavenging closer to human settlements or spending summers on ice-free islands, trying to subsist on seabird eggs, a poor substitute for the substantial meal provided by a seal. With these factors stacked against them, it is entirely appropriate that polar bears are held up by conservationists and climate scientists as the signature species for all that could be lost should the Arctic continue its thaw. And yet, despite these grim statistics, Arctic tourism has never been more popular.


In the rugged terrain of the Svalbard archipelago above Norway, polar bear tourism has become an increasingly important part of the local economy, even though the ice stretching from the islands to the North Pole has shrunk alarmingly. Since 2004, professional Arctic tour guide and photographer Ole Jørgen Liodden of WildPhoto Travel has led more than 40 photo expeditions from Svalbard for tourists wanting to see wild polar bears. His observations of the year-to-year changes since then are stark: ‘In the first years, clients actually complained about too much ice. Then, in 2010 it was the first year in July that we could actually go around the northern part of Svalbard. Before, you had to wait till August or September, but now it’s ice-free and you have to go up to 82 degrees north to reach the edge of the polar ice. So, it’s changing a lot.’

This degree of change in little more than a decade is rapid in climate history and the reasons lie not in rising air temperatures but in warmer ocean waters beneath the ice. Liodden explains: ‘The thing about Svalbard is that it is the most western part of the Barents Sea and the Gulf Stream just reaches the western part of Svalbard. When I checked the Svalbard ice chart in mid-October, the temperature in the water was four to six degrees. The water is getting warmer, it’s getting two, three, four degrees warmer.’

Warming waters, longer summers and thinning ice point to a dangerous trend confronting polar bears, but Liodden says the animals are not becoming harder to find. ‘This is a paradox,’ he says. ‘We have done maybe 70 or 80 trips now from Svalbard and this year we averaged 20 polar bear sightings per trip.’

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What has changed for Liodden and other seasoned Arctic photographers is the type of pictures they take, which is also resulting in the use of different styles and techniques. Up to 2010, their main objective was to photograph the bears as close as possible and to depict them as prominent figures. They used long telephoto lenses or medium zooms such as the long end of a 70-200mm zoom. That all changed once the northern reaches of Svalbard became ice-free during the summer months. Liodden became intent on portraying the polar bear’s new predicament, adrift on an ever-thinning ice sheet.

‘Switching to a wide-angle lens and showing the loss of ice, that was the first thing, but now I’m more concerned about showing the thin layer between the air and the water,’ he says. ‘For the last two years, I’ve been doing more with underwater housings and fixing a camera to the end of a pole at the edge of the ice and trying to see both the polar bear above and under the ice. It is just a thin layer and I can show how fragile this is and the fact it’s getting thinner.’

Liodden uses a wide gamut of lenses for his polar bear photography, from a 600mm telephoto to a 16-35mm wide-angle zoom, fixed to a camera protected by a waterproof housing. ‘I have this lens taped on a 20mm setting,’ he says. The camera and lens are fixed to a pole, which Liodden carefully holds from the deck of a boat or an inflatable Zodiac craft to take his split-level images. ‘Usually, I shoot above sea level with shallow depth of field, but underwater you actually need to do the opposite, you need more sharpness because light behaves completely differently underwater.’

With the camera and lens in a housing, all settings have to be made before it is locked and sealed. ‘I try to make everything very simple when shooting underwater because I’m trying to limit the number of factors that can go wrong,’ Liodden says.


Things do go wrong, even for an experienced professional. Liodden freely admits to losing more than one lens overboard: ‘I have dropped a few lenses. I have a very nice 24-70mm at 81 degrees north, a thousand metres down. It’s very deep there.’

That said, his advice on photographing polar bears and the other wonders of the Arctic wilderness is worth listening to. His number one recommendation is to be based on a well-equipped ship and make daily forays to outlying islands and ice-strewn waters on a Zodiac boat. The advantage of using a ship, he argues, is that visitors have somewhere to sleep, eat and enjoy a high degree of comfort. He adds: ‘You don’t have a tent, you don’t have a snowmobile, you don’t need to survive overnight. It also makes it easier because you can dry your camera, you can recharge your batteries, you can download and check your pictures.’

When out on the Zodiac with freezing ocean spray, a dry bag is essential for keeping your camera and lenses dry when not in use. Many cameras use exterior weather-sealed components in their construction, but the Arctic is an extreme environment and the combination of salt water and freezing cold is a real test of operation and performance, not to mention your own tenacity. 

Don’t try changing lenses when out on the water either as this increases the risks of dropping your gear or getting salt water onto your sensor or internal lens elements. Once in the Zodiac, stick to the lens you have on the camera – choosing a zoom will at least give greater compositional options.


Liodden is fearful about how long his beloved bears will be around to be admired and photographed by his clients. While climate change remains the greatest long-term threat to their future, in recent years he has uncovered another, more immediate danger that few people know about – hunting. Liodden explains that he is referring to hunting carried out legally. ‘The extent is serious,’ he says. ‘Between 800 and 1,000 polar bears are killed every year and the demand is increasing. At some point it will trigger more illegal, more grey market trade. And this is when it gets bad.’

Polar bear hunting is being driven by an increasing demand for the their skins, mostly from China and Russia. Liodden’s findings are the result of four years of intensive research and will be the feature of a book, Polar Bears and Humans, to be published next spring. ‘Since 2006, the demand is mainly from China. It’s a big issue for the polar bear and it has to stop,’ he says. ‘There will always be some kind of subsistence hunting, or “problem bear” killing, but if you can stop the trade we take the reason away for people making so much money.’ By using the camera instead of the gun to track and hunt polar bears, Liodden argues that not only do the bears survive, but communities make more money in the longer term because ‘local people can sell the same polar bear more than once, to more than one person.’

Although not an ideal scenario, the polar bear’s survival may yet hinge on an increasing number of tourists venturing above the Arctic Circle to photograph them clinging to their diminishing realm.


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Related items


Nikon D500

CAMERA: Weather-sealed DSLR
Salt-spray and freezing winds are commonplace in the Arctic, even in the summer months, so your camera needs to be robust and properly weather-sealed. This is to be expected from full-frame pro model cameras, but these models are expensive. However, the crop sensor Nikon D500 (£1,700 body only) is a more affordable and lightweight option. Aimed at the semi-pro market, this has much of the specification of its far larger full-frame brother, the D5, while still boasting a rugged, weather-sealed body. In essence, the D500 is a cropped sensor version of Nikon’s flagship D5, but a lot more affordable.

sling dry bag 10l

A lightweight dry bag is a low-cost accessory that is essential for protecting your expensive camera gear from the ocean spray and briny sea winds. The specialist outdoor brand Sea to Summit makes 10l (£25) and 20l (£30) dry bags that include an adjustable carry strap for slinging over your shoulder. A handy clip also means the bag can be attached to other items, or to a stationary fixture such as inside a boat. Made of waterproof 70D, the bag can be easily rolled up and is extremely lightweight. 

SIG 150 600

LENS: Telephoto Zoom
Only in the last few years have telephoto zooms that extend to 600mm focal length become widely available. Sigma has two versions, the pro spec 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport and the lighter, slightly more compact 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary (£800). The Contemporary uses one FLD and three SLD glass elements to minimise chromatic and other optical aberrations. 



• Base yourself on a ship for your Arctic excursion. It’s important to have somewhere warm and sheltered with plenty of food, electricity and comfortable quarters when you’re not out on the ice.

• Use a wide range of lens focal lengths. A telephoto is a must to get close shots of polar bears in the distance. Telephoto zooms such as 100-400mm or 150-600mm offer greater flexibility without changing lenses.

• Keep your camera and lenses in a dry-bag when not in use. Not only will this protect your gear from getting wet, but it will also help insulate it from the cold.

• Change lenses when out on the Zodiac as this increases the risks of salt water splashing onto your sensor or internal lens elements.

• Go out onto the ice without spare batteries. The cold air temperature, especially if there is a strong polar wind, will drain camera batteries faster than usual.

• Make meter readings off the ice or the polar bear’s white fur. This is likely to lead to an underexposed result. Instead, spot meter off a neutral grey tone such as a rock, the sea or even your clothing, and lock that reading into your camera.are serious about photographing deer and other distant wildlife.

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University of Winchester

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