Churchill Polar Bear Adventure Photo Tips

Photo guru and Naturalist guide Court Whelan details how to photograph like a pro and get the most out of a Churchill polar bear adventure!


What’s in your Camera Bag? Churchill Polar Bear Adventure

It’s that time of year when Polar Bears are off the ice and migrating through the Western and Southwestern coasts of Canada’s Hudson Bay.  This means that folks are soon headed up to Churchill to photograph the iconic King of the Arctic.

Read on to make sure you have the right gear with you to get the photos you’ve always dreamed of.

Please note, photographic styles vary, as do conditions on the ground.  While this is meant to be a guide for choosing your camera gear, you should consider your own photographic interests first and foremost.

Wide Angle Zoom

This is certainly one of the most important lenses to consider bringing on an adventure “up north.”  While polar bear photos are no doubt the most anticipated, there are many other experiences that you’ll wish to photograph, including general landscape scenes, travel experiences, and the town of Churchill, too.  Something in the range of 18-55mm, 24-70mm, or 24-105mm for DSLRs or a 7-20mm, or 12-40mm on a mirrorless setup is ideal.

Zoom Telephoto

Having flexibility in your telephoto lens is immensely helpful while photographing polar bears, as they can be at a range of distances.  It’s not uncommon for polar bears to be within only a few yards, as they are curious creatures, all the way up to a hundred yards plus from you (after all, they are 100% wild animals!).  Generally speaking, your common zoom telephotos are top choices, like 70-300mm and 100-400mm on DSLRs and 40-150mm on mirrorless setups.

There are new lenses coming out that get you, even more, telephoto than this, all while maintaining a nice zoom range (Sigma’s 150-600mm comes to mind).  I haven’t personally tested these for sharpness and ease of use, but I can say that with each new lens and camera system I experiment with, I’m continually amazed at the higher and higher quality as new technologies consistently push the limit (in a good way!).

Maybe a super telephoto?

When I think super telephoto, I usually think about prime lenses 400mm or greater, but more commonly your 500mm and 600mm lenses.  If you’re not familiar, these are wonderful lenses and generally have incredible optics.  However, they are often quite pricey, too.  If you already own one of these and are considering bringing it on your polar bear expedition (examples would be a 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/4 on DSLR or 150mm f/2.8 on mirrorless), it’s indeed worth thinking about.

Whether or not you pack it is really going to depend on a) what else you plan on bringing for lenses and b) what style of photographer you are.  For instance, if you plan on bringing several smaller lenses (e.g., ultra wide, medium telephoto…10-22mm and 24-70mm) and a couple zoom telephotos like a 70-200mm and 100-400mm, a super telephoto might be a bit too much.  However, if you plan on just one wide angle like a 24-70mm, one medium telephoto like a 70-200mm, along with your 500mm f/4, I’d say go for it.  Again, 400mm should usually cover 90% of the shots, but you never know when it comes to wildlife…best to be prepared.

The risk here is that you can actually have too much telephoto — you definitely won’t need 500mm all the time.  Thus, it’s a balancing act of covering your focal ranges while also making sure you aren’t inundated by too much camera gear and too many options.  Versatility is key.

When thinking about a large telephoto, a second camera body is highly advisable, as you will not use it the majority of the time.

X-factor Lenses

I am always thinking about how to get a different shot.  If you go online and search for lion photos on safari, there is a lot of competition out there. Of course, first and foremost your photography is for you, and you shouldn’t worry too much about what other people are doing. But, by going to out-of-the-norm and meaningful locations like Churchill means that you’re part of a small group of people that have access to some of the most incredible sights and sounds.  Thus, you have the potential to really do something with your photos!

As a result, I am a big fan of bringing a couple “x-factor” lenses along with me, particularly my trusty ultra-wide angle and nifty-fifty lens.  My ultra-wide, if you’re not familiar, is capable of near-fish-eye effect, having a ridiculously wide angle of view.  Mine personally is a 17-40mm, used on a full frame camera.  For crop-frame cameras, a 10-22mm is excellent.  Other options for full frame set-ups include 14-24mm and 16-35mm lenses.  These enable you to get really unique shots that you’re not going to see elsewhere…period.

The other lens I generally bring is my nifty-fifty, which is a 50mm f/1.4 lens.  While it is fixed and has little versatility as a walking around lens, it can produce stunning results with shallow depth of field.  In fact, I often will force myself to use it, just because I can see things and capture things differently (there’s that word again!).  Snow on wooden windowsills?  All of the sudden a common sight is a compelling storytelling photo.

Accessories and other gear

You’re going to be in cold weather environments, so be sure to bring extra camera batteries and keep them warm by storing them in your pocket (the body heat prolongs their life).  And of course, bring plenty of memory for your camera.

A tripod is generally not necessary, and I personally feel they are just too much to deal with when exploring the tundra in all-terrain vehicles.  It’s far better to plan on hand holding your camera and being able to move from one part of the vehicle to the other to get the shot. Lugging a tripod along and having to set it up each and every time will result in missed shots.

However, if you are lucky enough to see the northern lights up in Churchill, a tripod is essential.  If the lights come out, you’ll be shooting in the dark and generally at exposures between 5” – 15”.  Thus, it’s worth bringing a small travel tripod with you, and keeping it in your room until there’s that lucky chance to use it one night.

Last but not least, folks with lots of lenses may wish to bring a second camera body.  Being able to put a wide angle on one body and a telephoto on the second will virtually double the number of shots you’ll get.  And, the more shots you take, the more show-stopping images you’ll have for a lifetime.

Hope these tips are helpful and don’t hesitate to recommend your own in the comments below.

All the best,

Churchill Polar Bear Season – Photos of the Week

Natural Habitat Adventures guide Drew Hamilton’s photo group travelers snapped these pretty cool polar bear shots from their cell phones. Granted, the majority of the group posses numerous fancy, high powered lenses as one photo depicts, though it just shows that these days the quality of cameras in phones can produce excellent images. These polar bear photos are from photographers with all the gear and they still got the shots using minimal technology. Polar bears are curious animals and are attracted to most foreign smells out on the tundra. This allows travelers to usually get close and personal with bears as they approach the polar rovers.

polar bear Churchill

Polar bears have an incredible sense of smell. Robin Snow photo.

Polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba

Polar bear up close and personal in Churchill. Dean Snow photo.

lenses in Churchill, Manitoba

Photo group with all the gear. Emily Chang photo.

polar bear in Churchill, MAnitoba

Polar bear face through the Rover deck grate. Dean Snow photo.

Churchill Photos of the Week – Polar Bears

Here are some fantastic photos of polar bears from really talented photographers! Enjoy the Churchill images on this Tuesday. I’m amazed at how many new depictions of polar bears capture their incredible beauty from so many different vantage points. We would love to post some of your best wild polar bear photos. Post them on our Facebook page: Churchill Polar Bears.

polar bear sow and cubs

Polar bear mom and cubs. Roie Galitz photo.

sparring polar bears

Polar bears sparring intently. Simon Gee photo.

Polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba sniffing around the polar rover.

Polar bear sniffing its way around a polar rover. Brad Josephs photo.

A polar bear lurking in the willows around Churchill, Manitoba.

Polar bear in the willows in Churchill. Eric rock photo.

Come photograph the majestic polar bears of Churchill this fall!

Bears from the ground and air!

The past week in Churchill saw colder temperatures and snow sweeping across the tundra. It seems as if the ice in the Hudson Bay will continue to build and provide the bears with an ample seal -hunting season this year. North winds have prevailed and ice that has formed is now socked in against Cape Churchill.

A polar bear chills in the snow.

Chillin in the snow. Colby Brokvist photo.

Natural Habitat guide Karen walker and her group headed right onto the tundra following a flight from Winnipeg and caught sight of a bear out on the fringe ice on the beach across from the old dump site. After a slight delay with a mechanical issue on the rover, the group headed out and immediately spotted a red fox moving quickly trying to find a scent of a buried lemming under the snow. Coming up to the tundra lodge, a pair of polar bears lounged sleepily near the far edge of the facility. Lifting their heads and periodically and standing on all fours to check the perimeter gave the travelers quite the beginning introduction to the north. Curling back up with covered eyes under paws, the bears seemed content with their restful peace. After  an enjoyable day the group was back in town for dinner and then an Inuit cultural presentation by Peter and Mary..always a touching interaction.

Inuit cultural presentation, Churchill,MB

Peter demonstrates drumming for guests. Colby Brokvist photo.

While enjoying morning tea in the CWMA the following day, the group watched near Gordon point as a polar bear walked along the point and tested the ice along the shore. Four other bears were also sensing the impending freeze as they roamed along impatiently..wanting to get out further. Waves crashed along the ice edge as a few other bears were spotted out along the horizon. Heading through ptarmigan Alley and back near the lodge revealed some of the resting bears from the day before. The wind & white out of the morning cleared in the afternoon & opened up a break low on the horizon, so we had a beautiful sunset.

“Evening clear skies opened up just after dark and the aurora could be seen right from town!”,reported Karen. Strong solar winds from a coronal hole produced the amazing greenish lights. We took a quick look at the lights behind the complex then went to our evening programs.  After dinner and a cultural presentation, the group rushed out to the aurora domes for a spectacular night of aurora viewing – “one of the best displays that I’ve seen”. , emphasized Karen. Green -tinted lights covered at least half of the sky the entire night..well at least while the group was viewing them.  “They were in beautiful arcs and swirls and were dancing like crazy at times.  We even got to see the corona effect of the lights right over our heads.  We also got to see a lot of pink on the bottom fringe of the lights – from the particles hitting the excited nitrogen molecules at a lower altitude.  It was quite a display!!!”, reported Karen.

Aurora over the aurora domes in Churchill,MB

The aurora shines brightly over the domes. Jeremy Pearson photo.

The following morning was a beautiful morning,… mostly clear, very cold, with little wind. Heading out for an extended helicopter journey, the travelers quickly spotted some moose up-river from the weir. Quite the sighting!  Some guests also saw a red fox and a wolverine along the frozen river. ” We circled the wolverine and watched it run along the river.  It was quite large and we could see the lighter colored rim along its lower fur.”, said Karen.  This was a second wolverine sighting in two weeks!  And the first wolverine sighting for D’Arcy who works tirelessly in the Churchill operations office. “We actually got D’Arcy to take a break from work and join us on the flight.” exclaimed Karen.

Upon arrival at the unoccupied polar bear den sight, the group walked around while seeing some Labrador tea and lichen encrusted rocks on the ground. A caribou antler and polar bear skull were examined by all before crawling inside the mossy den. Then, in the air flying over Wapusk National Park,  a vast landscape of frozen ponds and tundra polygons went on forever underneath.” We traveled north along the coast while spotting numerous bears- 20-30 of them- with maybe three to four sets of mothers with cubs”, reported Karen.  Some bears were on the shore while some were hunkered down in the snow in day beds and some were just out testing the ice. Another landing at Knight’s Hill where a patchwork of lichen crusted rocks revealed their beauty and a spectacular view across the tundra from the highest esker in the region.

Polar bears wandering the coast in Churchill,MB.

Three polar bears explore the coastline. Karen Walker photo.


After a quick lunch at the Churchill Motel, the group dashed off to the jail to watch a polar bear relocation lift sponsored by a film crew.  A  large adult male was transported north…there are still 14 bears in the holding facility. Actually a pretty low number for this time of year.A tour of the new LED Churchill Northern Studies Center and an interpretive talk by one of the visiting scientists rounded out a full day.

Natural Habitat  guide Colby and his photography group were at the tundra lodge on their first day and had some sleeping polar bears and another more active bear roaming the area. Some nice shots were taken before moving out to Gordon point where some more bears were hunkered down due to the wind. Overall a nice start to an Arctic adventure. The night turned even better with phenomenal northern lights…”epic”, according to Colby. Incredible photo’s were taken behind the town complex by the stone inukshuk…braving the -27 C temperature for over an hour of incredible shooting. The entire sky seemed engulfed with aurora!

The next day began with incredible photo ops of a sow with two coy just as the sun came up…a soft flowing light over the tundra. Three other polar bears out on the ice edge along the coast gave a wider landscape opportunity to show the vastness of the land and sea merging together as one. Ridges piling up in the ice provided depth and texture to the scenes.
Ice accumulates on the hudson bay.

Ice accumulating on the Hudson Bay. Karen Walker photo.

Near white – out conditions gave the travelers a true sense of the Arctic the following day out in the CWMA…The winds have shifted back now from the North. As the skies cleared a little, some amazing photos of soft orange skies with blowing snow over stunted spruce trees and frozen ponds were taken. A ruddy turnstone..the bird that is…was spotted out a Gordon Point..since he won’t be reading this I must say he’s in a world of shite. He may end up in the Eskimo Museum...exhibit R. A polar bear on land in willows out east provided some excellent, low-angle sub-arctic lit shots. the bear walked right by the rover and guests took some of the best shots of the trip.




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