Shoot Like a Pro – The Polar Bears of Churchill

The best place in the world to photograph Polar Bears is Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. With a population of around 1200 bears and established infrastructure it’s possible to visit and get excellent photographs of Polar Bears in just a few short days.

Hudson Bay melts completely during the summer, and the bears are forced ashore. On the ice, they feed on seals exclusively, but while ashore, there is little for them to eat. They tend to stay in the Boreal forest south of Churchill during the summer, which keeps them out of the sun and helps them to conserve energy. Unless they come across a kill or are able to catch a seal napping, they don’t eat during the 4 moths they are ashore. It’s not hard to imagine that they are motivated to get back out on the ice as soon as the bay begins to freeze. Churchill is the first place the ice forms in Hudson Bay, and where the bears head as winter sets in.

The bears around Churchill are used to the sights and sounds of the buggies, and are rarely affected by them. If a bear is feeling stressed, there are special areas where buggies are not allowed, and it’s easy enough for bears to find some quiet. At the height of the season, it’s possible to see 20-25 bears in a single day. Some curious bears walk right up to the buggies and even stand up on them.

Some things for photographers to consider:
1. The bear season runs from mid-October to mid-November. The best photography is generally later in the season when there are more bears, and snow on the ground. At the end of the season, the numbers of bears rises steadily, peaks as the bay freezes, and then drops to almost nothing in a matter of days. There is still a lot to shoot at the very end of the season, but if you want bears, plan on being there just before the end of the season.
2. The buggies go out onto the tundra every morning and return as it gets dark. They are ideal for shooting, and their mobility can create many opportunities throughout the day. Each buggy company also has it’s own Buggy Camp which is a series of semi-permanent buggies attached end to end like a train, complete with dining and sleeping buggies. They stay on the tundra for the entire season, and visitors can spend a few nights on them during a trip. Bears are drawn to them by the smells, and it’s not uncommon to have several bears around the lodge at any one time. During the day, the lodge group is split into two with half of the group goes out on a mobile buggy in the morning, and the other half goes out in the afternoon. This is another great option for photographers since you get to move around the tundra, and you also get the early morning and early evening shots that are not possible from a day buggy. The rooms are very small, but the food is usually excellent. If conditions are right, Tundra Buggy Company moves it’s camp out to Cape Churchill for two special photo tours at the very end of the season. This is where you are most likely to find very large male bears, and obtain the most pristine shots.

Equipment to Consider:
1. Telephoto lenses. Bring your big lenses. Sometimes the bears come close, but sometimes you will want the longer lens to get a better angle.
2. Tripod. This is a must when using large lenses or shooting scenic’s. Use a tripod and it will improve your photography. Unless you are shooting with 500-600mm lenses, tripods are not the best choice for buggies because the movement of the buggies is transferred into your tripod. Buggies use soft tires, and movement is inevitable.
3. Bean Bag. This is the best platform to shoot from while in the buggies. They are quick to place and offer very good stability. Bears often move around the buggies and with a bean bag, you can relocate quickly and easily. Bean bags also absorb vibrations from movement within the buggy. Bring them empty and fill them with birdseed.
4. Storage and batteries. Once you are on the buggy, you cannot run back to your room to get more storage or change batteries. Bring lots of extras with you each day.
5. Binoculars are invaluable here. You will use them often, so bring a good pair.

If you are planning a visit to Churchill, there are several things to consider. First: Churchill is a very busy place during bear season. People come from around the world to see the bears, and the locals make the bulk of their money for the year, in the 6-week season. It’s an expensive place. Simple as that.

Second: there are many companies that bring people to Churchill and most pre-arrange flights, lodging, meals, and buggies for their groups. If you are traveling on your own, it’s possible to find space on all of these, but be prepared to search around a bit to find what you need.

Third: To see the bears, it’s best to spend at least one day on a buggy. There are two companies that run buggies. Great White Bear has the 6 of the nicest and newest buggies, while Tundra Buggy has 12 slightly less fancy buggies. Each buggy is custom built and though similar in idea, they vary in capacity. Finding space on the buggies can be challenging because most are chartered for groups. Individual travelers are usually placed on the largest buggy, which is often filled to capacity, and only sometimes will it have a guide. Given the limited space and access to windows and back deck, it is not ideal for photography. Most companies that charter buggies put 15 people onto a buggy designed for 34-40. This ensures that there are seats and windows free for shooting, and the back deck can hold everyone. They almost always have guides in addition to the drivers, which can help a great deal in understanding the wildlife and surrounding environment.

Fourth: Some companies offer dedicated photo tours. The focus on photography varies by company, and some are quite serious about it. For photographers, these trips may be something to consider.

Join a group or go it alone, the choice is yours. Groups are more expensive, but offer more room on the buggies and removes the hassles of finding your way around town. Going it alone is less expensive and can reward you with a greater sense of accomplishment, but is not always ideal for photography. Either way, Churchill should be high on your list for polar bear photography.