Lens Guides

Sigma’s 300-800mm F5.6: Brown Bear Paradise in Alaska Part 1

My annual trip to Alaska in late July to early August usually means big skies and great light, schools of salmon in the rivers and creeks, coastal brown bears, lots of cubs, and almost unlimited photo opportunities. This year we were treated to two full weeks of sun and clouds without a single rain shower. These are some of my favorite moments of the trip with some technical notes and stories behind the images.

© 2014 Robert O'Toole | Perfect late evening light, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 300-800mm F5.6 EX lens | Focal length: 800mm | Nikon D700 | Shutter speed: 1/1000 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 800 | EV + 1 | Manual mode | Jobu MK3 gimbal head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.
© 2014 Robert O’Toole | Perfect late evening light, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 300-800mm F5.6 EX lens | Focal length: 800mm | Nikon D700 | Shutter speed: 1/1000 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 800 | EV + 1 | Manual mode | Jobu MK3 gimbal head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.

This mother brought her tiny spring cub out in the evening to fish for salmon, but the bear didn’t look much bigger than the fish they were after.

Using the 300-800mm lens for bears in good light, you can just sit back and relax waiting for the right moment knowing that you have the right lens on your camera, not too long and not too short.

© 2014 Robert O'Toole | Bear skirmish, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska | Lens: Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 EX lens + 1.4X Teleconverter | Focal length: 420mm | Nikon D4 | Shutter speed: 1/500 sec | Aperture: f/4 | ISO 320 | EV + .7 | Manual mode, handheld.
© 2014 Robert O’Toole | Bear skirmish, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska | Lens: Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 EX lens + 1.4X Teleconverter | Focal length: 420mm | Nikon D4 | Shutter speed: 1/500 sec | Aperture: f/4 | ISO 320 | EV + .7 | Manual mode, handheld.

In the meadows the high concentration of bears can lead to fights over feeding territory. Here two heavyweight males wage a fierce battle in between naps to find out who is king.

© 2014 Robert O'Toole | Brown bear feeding frenzy, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 50-500mm F5.6 EX lens | Focal Length: 380mmm | Nikon D4 | Shutter speed: 1/2000 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 1000 | EV + 1 | Manual mode, handheld.
© 2014 Robert O’Toole | Brown bear feeding frenzy, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 50-500mm F5.6 EX lens | Focal Length: 380mmm | Nikon D4 | Shutter speed: 1/2000 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 1000 | EV + 1 | Manual mode, handheld.

My favorite time to catch bears fishing is right after a big tide push where the quick dropping water traps the fish in pools. Once a bear finds the pool, the action always brings more and more bears until every fish is pulled out of the water. This can mean an hour of more of non stop action and full memory cards.

© 2014 Robert O'Toole | Early morning meeting, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 300-800mm F5.6 EX lens | Focal Length: 650mm | Nikon D700 | Shutter speed: 1/1250 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 1-000 | EV + 1 | Manual mode | Jobu MK3 gimbal head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.
© 2014 Robert O’Toole | Early morning meeting, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 300-800mm F5.6 EX lens | Focal Length: 650mm | Nikon D700 | Shutter speed: 1/1250 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 1-000 | EV + 1 | Manual mode | Jobu MK3 gimbal head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.

Normally bears don’t acknowledge your presence and this can be a problem since it can be impossible to get eye contact, but in this case the bear is giving us a quick look to see who is in its territory.

© 2014 Robert O'Toole | The cub that would never give up, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 50-500mm F5.6 EX lens | Nikon D4 | Shutter speed: 1/1250 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 720 | EV + 1 | Manual mode, Handheld.
© 2014 Robert O’Toole | The cub that would never give up, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 50-500mm F5.6 EX lens | Nikon D4 | Shutter speed: 1/1250 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 720 | EV + 1 | Manual mode, Handheld.

Adult bears in Katmai are habituated to humans and as long as you give them the correct space and room they are never a problem, but some of the young bears can’t resist the urge to run over to try to get a close-up look and this can be a problem. I wasn’t sure if this bear was going to ever give up trying to get close to us.

© 2014 Robert O'Toole | Early morning run, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 300-800mm F5.6 | Focal length: 650mm | Nikon D700 | Shutter speed: 1/1600 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 2000, EV + 1 | Manual mode | Jobu MK3 gimbal head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.
© 2014 Robert O’Toole | Early morning run, Hallo Bay, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 300-800mm F5.6 | Focal length: 650mm | Nikon D700 | Shutter speed: 1/1600 sec | Aperture: f/8 | ISO 2000, EV + 1 | Manual mode | Jobu MK3 gimbal head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.

With all the action of the bears fishing at the beach on low tide it’s tempting to get a little closer, but a longer lens is a lot safer as the salmon can swim in an inch or two of water to escape a bear, so it’s better to shoot farther away on dry land to avoid any chance of a collision.

© 2014 Robert O'Toole | Fishing break in Alaska, Geographic Harbor, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 EX lens + 1.4X Teleconverter | Focal length: 330mm | Nikon D4 | Shutter speed: 1/1600 sec | Aperture: f/4 | ISO 3200 | EV + .7, Manual mode, handheld.
© 2014 Robert O’Toole | Fishing break in Alaska, Geographic Harbor, Katmai NP Alaska. Lens: Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 EX lens + 1.4X Teleconverter | Focal length: 330mm | Nikon D4 | Shutter speed: 1/1600 sec | Aperture: f/4 | ISO 3200 | EV + .7, Manual mode, handheld.

Confrontations like this might look serious, but thankfully these two got back to fishing in a few seconds. Threat poses and posturing are common place but real violent fights between bears are rare.

If you have any questions or comments be sure to share ’em in the comments section below.

Robert O’Toole is a Sigma Pro and has been a professional photographer for more than 20 years. As an accomplished instructor, Robert leads photography workshop tours across the US and internationally. For more info visit Robert’s web site at robertotoolephotography.com

Comments (1)
  1. aaron says:

    Hi there guys will the Sigma 70 – 300 mm F4-5.6 DG autofocus on a nikon d5300. My lense is not autofocusing. Between 200 to 300 when switching into macro there is no change in focal length as i look through the viewfinder. Please help. Your advice will be sincerely appreciated.

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