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08.02.2016

This summer I headed up to Alaska with a new Sigma 18-300 F3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM | Contemporary lens in my bag to help me document my time photographing the coastal brown bear and other wildlife. My plan was to use the extreme focal length range to capture behind the scenes style images during my wildlife photo tour. Mounting the contemporary lens on my new prosumer DX crop sensor body, I was really surprised at how small and light the package was. With a wide 18-300mm and 10 fps capability, this lens is surprisingly capable.

First Stop: Kodiak Harbor

Kodiak island, the second largest island in the US and the 3rd highest volume fishing port in the country, is used as our tour base. From here, we use a charter float plane service to reach our photography destination. Originally my plan was to shoot around Kodiak island for the entire day, but a sprained knee meant I was only able to hobble around town a short block or two radius from my hotel!

©Robert O'Toole  Kodiak harbor. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 32mm, 1/250s at f/8, handheld, manual mode.

©Robert O’Toole
 Kodiak harbor. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 32mm, 1/250s at f/8, handheld, manual mode.

The equipment of choice for getting anything accomplished in Alaska are special bush planes. They were made in the 1950s and 60s and are still being used today. They were specially made to carry large loads and for quick take offs and landings. These planes are still supported with a full range of replacement parts for maintenance. With a limit of 1600 pounds total for our group of five, we had to make some smart equipment choices. The 18-300mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS Contemporary lens is so small and lightweight that it makes it a great choice when you need to count pounds.

©Robert O'Toole Floatplane image Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 20mm, 1/40s at f/16, handheld, manual mode.

©Robert O’Toole
Floatplane image. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 20mm, 1/40s at f/16, handheld, manual mode.

The 1/40th of a second shutter speed made it possible for me to capture the movement in the propeller, which is really important for a sense of action while keeping the rest of the plane sharp. Using a float-plane to get around Alaska is very expensive, but it makes sense when your time is limited. Using a flight service to reach the photography location saves us about ten hours each way.

The Reserve

There are strict rules on distances that visitors to the reserve must keep from bears, but for some reason the bears are out of the loop when it comes to obeying the park rules. Sometimes the bears walk right up to people if you are blocking a trail or if the younger bears are just curious. This can make for some very tense moments between bears and people. This is why it’s important if you are inexperienced with bears to not visit areas where you can expect bears without an experienced guide.

© Robert O’Toole Mother image. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 56mm, 1/500s at f/16, handheld, manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole
Mother image. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 56mm, 1/500s at f/16, handheld, manual mode.

Early one morning, a mother bear decided to walk right around our group passing just a few feet away. I positioned myself at the edge of the group to act as a human buffer as she walked right past us, so close that we needed only about 50mm in focal length to capture her. At this distance, you really have to resist making any fast movements, or you risk escalating the situation. However, in this case the level of danger was just about zero. Even at this close distance, the mother bear showed no signs of stress the entire time. I don’t think I could say the same about everyone in my group.

© Robert O’Toole Cub image. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 48mm, 1/500s at f/16, handheld, manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole
Cub image. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 48mm, 1/500s at f/16, handheld, manual mode.

Close behind the mother bear, this adventurous cub decided to take a close look as he passed our group, even stopping to size us up. Here the wide focal range of the 18-300 C lens was perfect at this close distance. Young bears really require close attention, since they can be very persistent pushing closer and closer. In a case like this, it is vital to stand your ground and never let a young bear get too close no matter how persistent it is. Only once the bear passed, did we quietly and slowly moved away. This bear was clearly a rebel not following the safe distance rules of the park!

Close Focus

Alaska in summer time is a great place to find wildflowers. With a maximum 1:3 magnification ratio, the 18-300 lens can got me close enough to easily frame even the smallest flowers that I came across. The combination of being so small/light weight, the 1:3 magnification, and optical image stabilization, made close up photography very easy, even one handed! At close up distances I found the quality of the out of focus areas, called bokeh, pleasing.

© Robert O’Toole Wild Alaskan Geranium. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 300mm, 1/500s at f/8, handheld, manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole
Wild Alaskan Geranium. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 300mm, 1/500s at f/8, handheld, manual mode.

These wildflowers are found all over Alaska. The medium aperture allowed me to keep my shutter speed up for a sharp image even in a breeze.

© Robert O’Toole Meadow buttercup. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 300mm, 1/500s at f/8, handheld, manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole
Meadow buttercup. Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 300mm, 1/500s at f/8, handheld, manual mode.

Thanks to a persistent breeze, I had to make this image with one hand supporting the camera and another holding onto the flower stalk. But thanks to the lightweight lens, it was easier than it sounds. The out of focus flowers in the background really show the lens’ nice bokeh. Using a middle aperture gave me great focus control to isolate the flower and it allowed me to use a high shutter speed to help keep things sharp.

Street Photos

The 18-300 weighs almost nothing and when on a compact crop sensor body, it makes a very capable set up for quick grab type shots. This extremely wide focal range combined with a speedy reflexes of a DSLR makes this so much easier/fun than a phone or point & shoot for this kind of photography.

© Robert O’Toole Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 18mm, 1/250s at f/11, handheld, manual mode.

© Robert O’Toole
Sigma 18-300 C and Nikon D500, 18mm, 1/250s at f/11, handheld, manual mode.

Due to a sprained knee, my explorations this day were limited to a small area downtown. This is where I came across this art work made up of beach trash collected and assembled by the local high school students to bring pollution to the public’s attention. I think they did a great job.

If you have any questions or comments be sure to share ’em in the comments section below. For more information on my wildlife tours, be sure to visit my site.

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

2 comments so far

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  1. Got one of these last year for my Pentax K50, for exactly this purpose. We are going to Alaska this summer and I wanted a do-it-all lens so I’m not lugging more weight around and I don’t have to change lenses.

    I have noticed I have trouble getting decent sharpness on some things at 300mm … clump of relatively small flowers at 50 yards, even on a tripod. at 1/320. But I have lots of decent pictures of grandkids and larger objects at a distance, closer-up objects and such. Still experimenting with it. Your photos are encouraging … I just don’t think I’m going to be that close to a bear. :-O

  2. Philip, have you tried fine-tuning the focus with the USB Dock and Sigma Optimization Pro?