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20 September 2017 | Andy Skillen – Walking with Bears

What a truly stunning evening – worth, in its own right, my annual membership fee! Andy is a professional nature photographer and expedition leader, who specialises in walking amongst his subjects and getting up close. When your subjects are bears, especially polar bears, that can be quite a risky business! Andyproduces both reportage and fine art images that take your breath away. 

When I first saw it, I thought his amazing picture of a grizzly bear, advancing towards the camera, has been taken with a long zoom lens. But, no, Andy had been lying in the water, no more than three metres away. He believes in photographing bears at their eye level or below. Thankfully, he has an uncanny ability to read bears (this one was behaving like a typical teenage bear!) and takes the trouble to build relationship with them. Though he did admit that he’d been charged by bears twice and always relies on having a guide and being armed with a pepper spray. He’d also learned not to get separated from his photographic kit or his sandwiches in case bears took a liking to either.

This was a highly entertaining , fast moving and humorous presentation. He’d travelled to remote, super-cold locations to bring back the images. The bears didn’t always pose on schedule: he’d spent a month waiting for the first sight of bears on Baffin Island in the Arctic. This sort of nature photography called for plenty of courage and persistence – and an immense love for the bears!

Most photos of new born polar bears are taken in the Sub-Arctic. The downside of that is that you tend to get twigs in the picture, as the climate still supports some vegetation . In the quest for a photo of new born cubs just against snow, Andy had set off for Baffin Island. He described how they’d waited in vain for a whole month and hadn’t found a single bear – just their elusive footprints. Apparently, bears especially like icebergs and, when the weather got too extreme, his party had set up camp near a particularly spectacular iceberg. That was almost the end of the story and the end of Andy. He described how, getting bored, he’d wandered out of the tent to take a few snaps of the iceberg. After he’d walked around the iceberg he noticed something interesting through his viewfinder – a polar bear track that could only have been made in the last thirty seconds. Had he been in that spot slightly earlier, we might not have been listening to him last Wednesday!

His persistence paid off, however, and he was soon able to capture the first ever photos of new born bears in the High Arctic, on Baffin Island in the winter. As you would expect, these were truly amazing shots from an internationally renowned photographer.

I interviewed Andy about his photography during the refreshment break:


Andy Skillen – Walking with Bears from Phil Richtea on Vimeo.

We were so engrossed in Andy’s images and narratives that we had limited time for questions at the end. He has kindly subsequently answered a couple of key questions (which could well improve our own snow photography!):

What kit do you typically use?

2 x Canon 1dx mkii; and then all the following lenses (Canon) 600mm 200-400 mm with 1.4 extender built-in 11-24mm (night skies) 24-70 mm 70-200 mm stand alone 1.4x for use with the 600. That’s pretty much my standard kit.

Do you use any “special” techniques when shooting in the snow e.g. to get the right balance between the bright whites and darker areas such as rock or sky (bracketing etc)

For snow, we have a number of considerations. Firstly everything is shot in raw of course, not jpg, and its a matter of working with the light rather than trying to fight it – shooting the scene you have, not the one you think you should have. Spot metering is key – you would potentially prefer to blow some detail in the snow than in the subject – and then you have to assess exposure compensation: i usually shoot anywhere between +2/3rd to +2 stops depending on the ambient light conditions. We are attempting to stop the camera making everything grey…which is its mission in life. Over-exposing is critical: but you have to assess the overall light on the day, and the level of reflectivity you are getting to ascertain how much you need to go. Bit of experience, bit of trial and error in there. Always think brighter.