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09.20.2016

If you are into outdoor photography, I suggest you check out Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska on your next trip. Here are few of my favorite moments and highlights from this summer that will give you an idea of what makes this park such a great choice for photography.  Each year I spend two to three weeks photographing brown bears on the Katmai coast and this year I was there in June, July, and August to bear bear photography tours. I chose to bring along my Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS APO HSM Sports and Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports. 

© Robert O’toole 2016| Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm sports and 150-600 sports lens and NIKON D500.

© Robert O’toole 2016| Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm sports and 150-600 sports lens and NIKON D500.

Cubs were the big highlight this year for sure. The number of yearling cubs (a bear that is a year old, or in its second year) around was just fantastic. There were not many spring cubs seen early this summer but the yearlings kept the photographers really busy. At Hallo bay we had at least five mothers with cubs while at Kukak we counted 12 bears around one morning.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 300mm, NIKON D500, 1/1250 sec at f/4, manual mode, ISO 400. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

Whenever I photograph yearlings it seems that they are either about to play, are in the middle of playing, or have just finished playing. The one, not so cool, thing about yearlings is that they really seem to enjoy challenging photographers by walking right up to just a few steps away. Then they will go for anything left on the ground or just to see what the leader or guide will do, all while under the watchful eye of a 500 pound mother bear. So I always recommend hiring a guide or tour leader for a bear photo trip.

© Robert O’toole 2016| Geographic harbor, Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 Sports lens @ 300mm, and NIKON D500, 1/2000 sec at f/4, manual mode, ISO 400. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography

© Robert O’toole 2016| Geographic harbor, Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 Sports lens @ 300mm, and NIKON D500, 1/2000 sec at f/4, manual mode, ISO 400. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography

Out of all the spots to sit on the river, this bear made its mind up that it was going to sit on the gravel bar. For this eye level angle of view, I laid down on a sandy patch in the middle of a creek.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 150-600 mm Sports lens @ 550mm, NIKON D500, 1/1250 sec at f/8, manual mode, ISO 800. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 150-600 mm Sports lens @ 550mm, NIKON D500, 1/1250 sec at f/8, manual mode, ISO 800. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

Every time we photographed this peanut butter and chocolate toned yearling and I do mean every single time, it would get bored playing and boldly walk right up to our group. It would then retreat, over and over again, only to come back to check out the group again this time with its backup sibling twin. After the first day we started to call this bear and its sibling, the trouble twins.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 170mm, NIKON D500, 1/500 sec at f/2.8, manual mode, ISO 900. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 170mm, NIKON D500, 1/500 sec at f/2.8, manual mode, ISO 900. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

The biggest source of stress for a bear with a cub are other adult bears, so an island can offer sanctuary from other bears and at the same time create an ideal set up for photography. There are two islands that I photograph every year that are popular with mother bears to take cubs to live on for extended periods.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 160mm, NIKON D500, 1/1000 sec at f/3.5, manual mode, ISO 1100. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 160mm, NIKON D500, 1/1000 sec at f/3.5, manual mode, ISO 1100. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

This bear lived with its two cubs on this small island for the duration of our trip, that interestingly, was also home to another mother with cubs! For photographers this is an ideal situation if you have a small boat to shoot from. The two mothers on this island were very shy and wary of people on foot, but would completely ignore a photographer on a boat.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 280mm, NIKON D500, 1/800 sec at f/4, manual mode, ISO 280. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 280mm, NIKON D500, 1/800 sec at f/4, manual mode, ISO 280. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

For brown bear photography drizzly overcast or high cloud lighting conditions are always best. Bright full sun days are too harsh and contrasty, and the temperatures will create heat wave distortion and worse yet, the bears will really slow down as the bears struggle to stay cool. June, July, and August are about equal in terms of rainy or overcast days.

© Robert O’toole 2016| Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 270mm, NIKON D500, 1/1600 sec at f/3.5, manual mode, ISO 1600. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

© Robert O’toole 2016| Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 270mm, NIKON D500, 1/1600 sec at f/3.5, manual mode, ISO 1600. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

Wolves were a special treat this year, we had multiple sightings at just about every spot we visited. The wolf in this image had no fear of humans and crossed in front of my group so close, in fact that I had to zoom out from 300mm to 270mm just to fit it in the frame! This wolf hung out at geographic for a few days just doing laps looking for stranded salmon or unattended photo backpacks.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 300mm, NIKON D500, 1/1250 sec at f/3.5, manual mode, ISO 320. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

© Robert O’toole 2016|Katmai NP Alaska, SIGMA 120-300 mm f/2.8 Sports lens @ 300mm, NIKON D500, 1/1250 sec at f/3.5, manual mode, ISO 320. Image Copyright 2016 Robert OToole Photography.

This summer at Hallo bay, we had the pleasure of photograph three mothers with adopted cubs. I have seen this before in years past, but not this many at one time. I was told that there was a total of 5 mothers with adopted cubs this year at Hallo! This is always really an interesting behavior to see and photograph if you can keep track of what’s going on. Sometimes even a mother can get confused with a cub that is trying to join the family. The mothers mood can change in a few minutes from toleration of the stranger cub to high alert and maybe even a warning attack and back to calm toleration again.

If you are into outdoor photography, I recommend that you put Katmai national park and preserve at the top of your photo tour to do list.

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

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  1. Spectacular images!