Imagine one of finest places in the world for photography, filled with a vast system of mountains, lakes, and hundreds of miles of wild and untamed rivers and streams. A home for brown bear, eagles, fox, and wolves. Thankfully Katmai is visited by only a small number of people each year. Maybe the fact that this place is not reachable by car has something to do with it, but about only twenty to thirty thousand people visit this area of over four million plus acres each year.
© 2015 Robert O’Toole | Tour participant on the lookout for fox with a glacier and fireweed blooming in the background. Sigma 150-600 Sports lens at 230mm and Nikon D810, 1/250s, f/8, ISO 64, EV + .3, Manual mode with Auto-ISO, UniqBall UBH 45 head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.
© 2015 Robert O’Toole | Crossfox checking out our group. Sigma 150-600 Sports lens at 320mm and Nikon D810, 1/500s, f/16, ISO 560, EV + .3, Manual mode with Auto-ISO, UniqBall UBH 45 head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.
Out of all the locations here, the Pacific coast of Katmai is without doubt one of my favorite places on the planet. One of the best places to shoot on the coast is a bay, about 10 or 11 miles wide, surrounded by mountains and glaciers, and filled with miles of sandy beach and flat sedge meadows strewn with countless driftwood logs. In summer the cool sea breezes fill the warm green meadows where eagles and peregrine falcons soar, and mother brown bear use it as a safe place to eat sedge grass and nurse cubs. Its here that you find one of the most interesting characters you can photograph anywhere, the red fox.
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Exactly what makes Katmai Alaska such a special place for wildlife photographers? After all huge storms routinely sweep in from the gulf of Alaska with little warning and the animals, from the tiniest of insects to the largest bear, are in charge and humans are not at the top of the food chain. Getting around by air or sea is the only way to go and its expensive and unreliable. With the weather issues, dangerous inhabitants and difficulties getting around why do I keep going back for ten years straight? The photographic opportunities of course!
© 2015 Robert O’Toole | Juvenile brown bear playing in a field of fireweed, Hallo Bay, Katmai, Alaska. Sigma 150-600 Sports lens at 600mm and Nikon D810, 1/000s, f/6.3, ISO 2000, EV + .7, Manual mode with Auto-ISO, UniqBall UBH 45 head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.
This juvenile bear and its sibling played in field of fireweed for almost an hour. This is the kind of opportunity that will always keep me coming back for more.
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Getting the best experience out of a wildlife photo tour in Alaska means choosing the optimal month to visit to get the best balance of daylight, temperature, and weather. Learn what animals, mammals, and plants / flowers to look out for on your tour. Learn what to do and what not to do around wildlife. Get advice from an expert guide or tour leader, ask locals or join an experienced photo tour leader. My favorite month for photographing brown bear is July to late August, for bald eagles, March is my favorite time of the year.
Bring the Perfect Lens
When I first starting traveling to Alaska 10 years ago to photograph wildlife the best equipment at that time was a 600mm lens on a tripod and 300mm prime as a secondary lens. The problem with a system like that was the limited flexibility when it came to framing as there were times where you would too tight or too loose when the action broke out. With modern zoom lenses that problem is long gone, now you can just relax and wait for the action with the confidence that you will be able to frame and capture the action perfectly whatever happens, even if the subject heads straight at you. Once you use a modern lens like the 150-600 sports lens, the image quality and high coverage zoom ratio will make it very hard to justify going back to a long prime lens.
This is my current lens arsenal that I will taking to Alaska in July and August this year.
This four lens set-up has me perfect coverage from 12mm up to 600mm (up to 900mm equivalent with a crop sensor) with professional image quality. The 120-300 F2.8 DG OS HSM | Sports lens with and without the 1.4X or 2X has me covered in low light situations.
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Hawaii and the north shore of Oahu has to be one of the greatest places on the planet for the size consistency and quality of the surf. In December I was lucky to be there with the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Sports for a chance to shoot one of the first real swells of the 2014-2015 winter.
The lens is really is one of the best lenses I have ever used in Hawaii. Handheld or on a tripod this lens performs. Check out some of my favorite images from this trip below. If you have any questions or comments be sure to share ’em in the comments section.
Wide open backdoor pipe barrel. Specular highlights on the water surface are always a tough challenge for a telephoto lens, the 150-600mm lens really shows a complete lack of chromatic aberrations in this image.
© 2015 Robert OToole | Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Sports lens and Nikon D810 | Shutter speed: 1/1250 sec | Aperture: f/7.1 | Focal length: 550mm | ISO 160, Manual mode with Auto-ISO.
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Earlier this year I was lucky to be able escape the winter time temps at home and make a quick getaway to Asia. My stopover is located close to the equator and only has one season, hot and humid, with temps averaging 87 degrees year round with lots of rain. This might sound unpleasant but for insects and plants its just about perfect. The macro photography opportunities in equatorial Asia are almost mind boggling sometimes!
© 2015 Robert O’Toole | Bi-color-damselfly. Sigma 150mm f/2.8 EX DG APO HSM Macro, Nikon D810, manual mode | Shutter speed: 1/200 sec | Aperture: f/11 | ISO 200, single SBR200 flash, flash diffuser, Acratech GP ball head on Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod. 5 image stack.
© 2015 Robert O’Toole | 100% crop view of the image above.
Breezes made these images pretty difficult but the use of flash really helped stop movement and bring out all the sharpness the Sigma 150mm F2.8 DG OS HSM Macro was able to deliver.
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Japanese Red-crowned Cranes: Sigma 150-600mm Sports Lens
© 2015 Robert O’Toole | Japanese red-crowned crane pair in a snow storm. Sigma 150-600 Sports lens and Nikon D810 | Shutter speed: 1/30sec | Aperture: f/11 | Focal length: 150mm | ISO 64, EV + 1.3, Manual mode with Auto-ISO, UniqBall UBH 45 head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.
The highlight of any winter time trip to Japan has to be the Japanese red-crowned crane which has the distinction of being not only the rarest crane in the world but also the largest and heaviest on average.
Japanese red-crowned cranes in Hokkaido. © 2015 Robert O’Toole | All Sigma 150-600 Sports lens and Nikon D810 handheld.
The red-crowned cranes display to help reinforce the pair bond as well as territorial advertisement and agonistic signaling. It always seems to be infectious, once one pair in a group starts, it usually encourages another group to start up, then another and another.
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Snow Monkeys and the Sigma 150-600mm Sports Lens
© 2015 Robert O’Toole | Japanese red-crowned crane pair in a snow storm. Sigma 150-600 Sports lens and Nikon D810 | Shutter speed: 1/30 sec | Aperture: f/11 | Focal length: 150mm | ISO 64, EV + 1.3, Manual mode with Auto-ISO, UniqBall UBH 45 head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.
Winter is my favorite time of the year to visit Japan and it’s unique wildlife surrounded by unreal snow-covered landscapes. During my annual Japan wildlife tour we always spend a couple of days with the world famous snow monkeys at the volcanic hot springs in the Nagano area.
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In Dec I was able to get my hands on a Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | Sports in Nikon mount for short tour at one of the most famous bird photography spots in the US, Bosque del Apache. The first thing I noticed about this lens is the compact size, for a 600mm lens, it’s about the same size as one of my favorites, the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S lens. The lens weighs just over 6 pounds so it is a lot lighter, by about 2.5 lbs than my 500mm f/4 prime lens, or about 5 pounds less than a 600mm f/4 lens so it’s definitely easy to handle, even for hand-holding. The lens is compact and light enough to make hand-holding possible for most people after some time with the lens.
The lens is one of Sigma’s new Global Vision lens designs so it’s really reassuring to a professional to have the top level engineering, materials and construction in these lenses. The lens has a new tripod mount design, super sturdy metal lens hood metal and the lens is dust and splash-proof with new water & oil repellent coating on the front and rear glass elements. Time will tell but so far this new lens has proven to be at least as tough as my other Sigma lenses so it should stand up to professional use without any issues.
Pintails at sunrise. Bosque del Apache New Mexico main pool. | © 2015 Robert OToole | SIGMA 150-600mm f/5 – 6.3 DG OS HSM Sports and Nikon D810, 1/250 s, f/8, 280mm Auto ISO 900, EV 0, Manual mode, Jobu MK3 gimbal head and Jobu Algonquin Carbon Tripod.
This lens really features a big improvement in the tripod mount design compared to older designs like the 150-500mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM and 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 DG OS HSM. The lens tripod mount is super smooth and the design is great for handholding. When you rest your palm on the foot the zoom ring is just the right distance away and easily within reach of your fingers. The new tripod foot has a removable lower portion, a first for Sigma, which is great news for quick release system users like me.
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In late August a Hurricane off Mexico sent giant waves to California. The surf spots that are open to the south-southeast swell angle were extra large to extra, extra large. The morning the swell hit I ended up shooting at the Wedge, a surf spot in southern Newport Beach in Southern California. This was a historic swell and will be talked about for years and years and never forgotten by those lucky enough to experience it in person. These are some of my favorite images from that session, I hope you enjoy them.
The Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S really worked perfectly at the Wedge at this size. I brought a 1.4x teleconverter and longer back up lenses but never had a need for anything else.
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© 2014 Robert O’Toole | Lens: Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S lens | Nikon D4 | Shutter speed: 1/4000 sec | Aperture: f/4 | ISO 200 | EV – .7, Manual mode, handheld.
Big drop on one of the bigger waves that day. If you look close you will see this guy’s back foot is not on the board but is about two feet in the air.
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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.
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.
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