Shooting Bears

June 1, 2012

Yosemite National Park has many natural wonders but one of the reasons some people go to the park is a chance to see the 300-500 black bears that inhabit the park. One can argue that bears and humans really don’t seem to mix very well. For instance, just the year, so far, four bears have been hit by vehicles in the park. You’ll see signs all in the roadways that remind you to slow down for bears, “speeding kills bears” they say. In addition, campers are instructed to keep all food, cosmetics and even bottled water out of locked cars at night. Bears are amazing animals and to get to human food in cars they can do amazing things. They can break windows, bend car frames and pop open camper shells. They have even been known to claw through a back seat to get to food in a trunk. There are stiff penalties in the park for not complying with the “bear policy”. Failure to comply could result in a fine of up to $5,000 and your camping rites revoked. We were told by a ranger that one person had her car broke into by a bear and proceeded to call the ranger office to see if the park service would pay for the damages. The ranger went down to “inspect” the damage and finding that the camper didn’t comply with the bear policy, and not only did the service not pay for her damages, but they wrote her a ticket for $5,000.

We too, we’re intrigued by the chance to see the bears in Yosemite. I had two cameras with me every day in the park. My new Nikon D4 with my 24-70mm lens was my primary landscape camera and my older D300 with my 70-200mm lens plus a 2x teleconverter was my primary “game” camera. Unfortunately, most of the wildlife we saw while we were there was mule deer and a few squirrels, so dejectedly we left Yosemite without seeing a bear. Our next stop on our California road trip was to Sequoia National Park, about 175 miles south of Yosemite, and known for the huge Sequoia forest that produces some of the world’s largest trees. We had some time to kill before a late dinner reservation and drove down to the local market about two miles from our lodge accommodations. About sunset, we were coming back to the lodge when my wife thought she spotted a bear on the side of the road. Sure enough, when we backed up there she was, about sixty feet from the car. As luck would have it, because of our dinner reservations, I didn’t have any of my camera gear that I had lived with over the past few days. My wife had her cell phone and took a few photos with that, just to prove that we saw a bear, and then we hurriedly went back to our guest room to pick up my camera equipment to salvage a chance that the bear could still be there when we returned.

I had to make a quick decision about which camera to pick up for the job. As I mentioned, it was right at sunset so I knew I wouldn’t have much light for the picture. One of the best features on the new Nikon D4 is the sensitivity of light that the camera can focus with and take the photo. The native ISO on that camera goes to 12,800, while the ISO on my D300 will only go to 3,200 my new camera is 3 times better. So I hurriedly picked up my D4, got my 70-200 lens and my teleconverter and jumped into the car and off we went.

To our pleasure, the bear was still there, although a little further from us, but still in range for a good picture. As I put the camera to my eye and tried to focus on her, my wife spotted something coming down from a tree within 20 feet from our location. It was the sow’s two cubs and they were coming down in a hurry from a nearby tree. Because they were so close, I quickly took the teleconverter off my camera and shot (no harm intended) the bear cubs using my new camera. I continued to shoot in burst as I was able to capture both the mother and her cubs as they quickly made their way down the hill and into the darkness.I couldn’t be more pleased with the performance of my camera. Its low light capabilities gave me an opportunity to take the shot I needed. My D300, although a good camera, would not have been able to help me get that shot. I’ve attached some of the photos I took that night. As a side note, the sow and her cubs were at that same location the next day. Because they were further away, I was able to “shoot” them with my D300 setup. Some of those pictures are included as well.

Have a great day, I know I will. Jimmy

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