April 03, 2019
All photos by Audun Lie Dahl.
Few animals on earth spark such intense curiosity and respect like the polar bear. The polar bear is the world’s largest land-dwelling carnivore and spends its life among Arctic sea ice where it hunts for seals. These magnificent creatures live in some of the most inhospitable terrains in the world and while their habitat is disappearing and their numbers are dwindling, they are still at the top of the food chain in the Arctic.
Many photographers make a career goal to see and photograph the endangered polar bear in its natural habitat but of course, capturing the essence of the polar bear isn’t as simple as just showing up and snapping a few photos. We’ve asked Arctic photographer extraordinaire and photography workshop leader Audun Lie Dahl to share his best tips for having a successful polar bear photography expedition.
There are numerous places to see polar bears throughout the world but Audun sticks close to his Norwegian home and travels to Svalbard to capture them. Svalbard is an island between mainland Norway and the North Pole and is the easiest place to not only find them but also witness them in a real, wild environment. Boat expeditions around the archipelago and into the drift ice will give you the best vantage points to photograph them.
Polar bears do not hibernate so it is possible to see them all year round. Audun runs tours from March - September and his personal favorite time is August or September.
It’s ideal to have a decent tele lens with a good zoom range, a normal zoom lens, and also a wide angle. You never know how the wildlife will behave so it’s best to be prepared for everything. Perhaps the most important thing though is to know your camera and equipment and know what to do when a situation appears.
Wildlife is unpredictable, and we are always guests in nature, so this is different from every single meeting. Normally we see how the wildlife we encounter, and then we use our knowledge and decide if it's worth spending time with, or if we should continue searching.
I’ve been studying polar bears for nearly a decade. Before I went to Svalbard the first time in 2010, I read some books about the polar bears' life, and also about the island Svalbard. It is very important to get as much knowledge as possible before going to a wild place.
The most important quality is to remember that we are guests out there, no matter where you are.
Shooting in a cold environment is different from anything else I have experienced. This is a place where you have no connection or signal on your phone, and sometimes you have to really put an effort into finding wildlife.
I always prepare for the worst when it comes to clothing and protecting my gear. It is extremely important to dress in layers and use wool as an underlayer. Lots of insulating layers topped off with a protecting gore tex/wind and rainproof outer layer. Gloves are also very important as you lose functionality and dexterity quickly when your hands are cold.
Invest in a good binocular. If you are serious and want to watch wildlife and learn behavior without disturbing it, that’s the most important thing you can bring in the field. It is also very nice to study birds or animals while spending time out and waiting for something to happen. I cannot tell how many times I have been saved by my binoculars and also how much I have learned about an animal or bird before I have started taking photos of the subject.
Audun Lie Dahl is a Norwegian wildlife photographer, born in 1986. He is born and raised in Norway and started his career with photography in 2010, founding a company offering eagle safari on the island Smøla on the west coast of Norway. Now he is running Wildphoto Norway offering tours created by photographers for photographers to hot spots in Norway. He also works as a guide and expedition leader on Svalbard and Antarctica for the sister company Wildphoto Travel. He has recently been awarded in several of the worlds most prestigious wildlife photography competitions, like European wildlife photographer of the year and NHM wildlife photographer of the year and he is now shooting with Sony.
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