Spirit Bears and Other News

Posted on

Hello everyone, it’s been quite the long and winding road for me and my wife this summer and early fall as we’ve spent the majority of our time dealing with the aftermath of the Alberta floods which ravaged our house (quite literally — if you haven’t seen any of my flood videos, check out my youtube channel at john660).  As a result, my blog has been left in the dust for a while, so I thought today, a week after my Spirit Bear Photography Tour ended and a day before my Chilcotin Grizzly Bear Photo Tour begins, was as good a time as any to revive the ol’ blog and let you know what I’m up to.

For starters, I’ve added a few new items to this year’s and next year’s tour, workshop, and seminar calendar, including a Polar Bear Photo Tour to Cape Churchill which sold out almost instantly (within a week).  I’m hoping to add this trip to my list of 2014 tours, so stay tuned for details in early December to see if it does get added.  I’ve also added a new February wildlife photography workshop in beautiful Jasper National Park and a wildlife photography seminar in Calgary in late November, you can check out all the details over on my Canwild Photo Tours website

I’m hoping to add a few more seminars in other locales this winter, including Vancouver, and I’m also hoping to have my tours for next year finalized in mid-October.  You can expect another Khutzeymateen grizzly bear trip, as well as the Spirit Bear tour, the Chilcotin grizzly tour, and at least one northern experience in search of caribou/muskox!  Sign up for my newsletter now if you haven’t already so you’ll have an early crack at getting a spot on one of these trips.

In terms of gear news, I’ve just received the new Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens (version II) to test out on my Chilcotin bear trip, so I’ll be posting a full review when I get back.

I think that’s it for an update, so here’s a few pics from my recent spirit bear photo trip in the Great Bear Rainforest.  Enjoy!

Our first white bear of the trip!

A baldie surveying her terrain

Backlit blow from a humpback whale

Beautiful big black bear male in a mossy canyon

‘Peek-a-boo’ bear from behind the rocks

Caviar, anyone?

Thanks for looking and reading, everyone, wish me luck on my next adventure in the Chilcotin!

Happy shooting,

John

Jasper Wolf Tour – First Image!

Posted on

After nearly two weeks on the road in Jasper National Park and beyond, I’m finally back in the office today full of tall tales and great new images from my first-ever officially unofficial ‘wolf photo tour’ with a few friends that happen to also double as some of my best tour/workshop clients.

And while I’m going to save the tallest tales and best images for another post (for those of you that follow me over on my Facebook wildlife and nature photography page, you already know that we came across not one, but TWO wild lynx in Jasper, and I’ve got the photos to prove it!).

A beautiful wild wolf photographed in Jasper National Park last week

While you’re waiting for the next images and post, please take a moment and sign a very important online petition from wildlife photographer and colleague, Brad Hill, asking the BC Government to put an end to the use of wolf killing snares (please see my original post about just how dangerous and unethical these snares are to wildlife) and to see an immediate shift in how wildlife is managed on our public lands in BC (so that instead of protecting private businesses like ranches, the government moves to a management model that puts a priority on developing, maintaining, and protecting natural ecosystems that include apex predators such as wolves).

Again, you can check out the petition at http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/stop-the-use-of-killing-neck-snares-against-wolves-in-b.html Please take a second and sign it and please feel free to pass it along. The petition will be active until the British Columbia elections begin in May of this year.

Thanks everyone, happy shooting!

John

Khutzeymateen 2013 – Grizzlies and Wolves

Posted on

As we wind down towards Christmas and the start of a new year, I thought I’d throw out a quick note about what’s left for those of you interested in joining me on a wildlife photography tour or photo workshop next year in 2013.

I currently have one spot that’s just come available (due to a cancellation) on one of my most popular photo tours, the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Photography Tour from May 8th-16th in the world famous Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary.

Now I would love to show you the thousands of amazing images I got on last May’s inaugural trip to this magical valley of grizzlies and wolves, but the truth is that every time I look at the folder-upon-folder-upon-folder of images to edit, I get bogged down trying to sort through all the gems.  I have managed to edit one measly folder from the first two days of shooting, so here are a few that you may not have seen yet:

A grizzly digs for clams on the intertidal flats near the Khutzeymateen in the Great Bear Rainforest

A wild coastal grey wolf walks the shoreline at low tide in the Khutzeymateen in the Great Bear Rainforest

A cute grizzly cub eyes us warily near the Khutzeymateen in the Great Bear Rainforest

I think this is one of the most spectacular trips I offer, so if you’re interested in scooping up that final spot for May 2013, please let me know right away.

I also have a few spots still available on my August 2013 landscape photography workshop in the stunning Bugaboo Mountains of British Columbia with CMH Summer Adventures.  If flitting about in a helicopter with me taking photos of beautiful mountains, hiking in flower-filled meadows, and relaxing back in a 5-star luxury remote mountain lodge is your idea of a good time, then I’d highly recommend you grab a spot on this trip while they’re still available.  Both 2011 and 2012 sold out.

Pretty terrible scenery to photograph on the Bugaboos landscape photography workshop

And finally, I’ve still got a few spots available on next October’s Jasper wildlife photography workshop.  This year we had a ridiculous amount of snow (it snowed every single day), but in normal years we usually have a combination of snow and no-snow locations where we can go to try to photograph bighorn sheep in their rut, as well as elk, moose, deer, mountain goat, and even bears and wolves.

An October 2011 participant in the Jasper Wildlife Photography Workshop photographs a calf moose

If any of these spots interests you for next year, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly. 

Have a wonderful holiday season everyone!

John

The Great Polar Bear Photo Adventure

Posted on

He’s going to come right at us!

And just like that, a 500-kilo polar bear hurled himself up and over the bank and bee-lined straight for us in a cloud of snow and seaweed.

When he was fifty meters from us, he put on the brakes and glanced behind him nervously, watching to see if his nemesis, the little 250-kilo white ball of fury that had chased him towards us, was still in sight.

Seconds later, the mother polar bear marched up the bank with her two big cubs in tow and glared furiously at the male, completely ignoring the two armed guides and the two photographers in front of her.

As the big male lumbered closer and closer towards us (and away from her), I tried desperately to fit some part of him in the frame with my 500mm lens, finally giving up when he got within twenty meters.  In perhaps a final test of what the boundaries might be, he took a hesitant step towards me and was instantly rewarded with a loud boom from one of the guide’s rifles.  The crackerjack shell sent him running off across the tundra for a few hundred meters, where he lay down on the hardpack and cautiously eyed us on his left and the mother and cubs on his right.

The big male came flying over the bank right at us in a panic to escape the female

————————————————–

Two days earlier, I had packed my bags in Canmore and headed for the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill, Manitoba, to begin my adventure.  However, unlike previous years, my trip this time wasn’t going to be confined to the Churchill environs, where tourists crowd out onto the tundra on giant bus-like buggies to view and photograph the polar bears from high above in the safety of the buggies.

Instead, I was heading into the Arctic almost 200 kilometers north of Churchill for a true adventure in Nunavut into the heart of polar bear country along the famed polar bear alley on the west side of Hudson Bay.  I was on a mission to scout out a new location for polar bear photography for my Canadian Wildlife Photography Tours company that would give me a unique product not offered by any other photographer; so I’d flown into this tiny cluster of cabins in the absolute middle of nowhere hoping to photograph polar bears on foot at eye level!

I had been to Nunavut once before, as many of you know, on my moderately-successful Arctic Ice Floe Edge trip in 2009.  We had been promised bears and whales galore, but got up there to find ourselves in a landscape where the wildlife lived in constant fear of running into an Inuit hunter; as such, we never got within 150 meters of a bear.

So when I heard that a well-respected Canadian Arctic tour operator was opening up a very small, new polar bear viewing operation in a different part of Nunavut where they promised close encounters on foot with these magnificent animals, I was skeptical, but hopeful.  When the company heard I was interested in checking them out, they extended an invitation, and voila, I was off and running at the start of November.

The adventure began with a thrilling, hour-long flight over the tundra in a Twin Otter Turbo plane from Churchill.  I love small planes that hug the landscape, and this one provided a spectacular view of the coastline and of the Barrenlands.  I spent the entire hour scanning the horizon feverishly for wildlife and was rewarded with five different bear sightings!

We arrived at the tiny Arviat Polar Bear Cabin complex at noon on November 1st and despite the noise of our plane landing on the flat tundra, a polar bear was laying there having a snooze on the seaweed no more than 100 meters from the complex’s electric fence.

The tiny cabin complex (6 cabins in total) is surrounded by an electric fence to keep the bears out

For the next three full days, we watched as eleven different bears wandered by the windswept complex, with many spending hours checking us out.  For the most part we stayed inside the fence and photographed them as they circled around us nosily, but we also ventured outside the fence regularly for forays onto the tundra in search of more bears (we saw five in total on our short hikes) and other arctic wildlife. By the end of the trip, I’d seen arctic hare, arctic fox, willow ptarmigan, snowy owl, and gyrfalcon.

An arctic hare eyes me warily on the edge of a frozen pond

Willow ptarmigan on the tundra

From a polar bear perspective, the trip was a fantastic success — while we didn’t see as many polar bears as I was used to seeing on my Churchill trips (where you can often see 10-20 bears in a day), I was like a schoolkid in a field of candy whenever a polar bear approached us. The level of excitement was palpable, as was the thrill I got from standing on foot face-to-face with these beautiful animals in non-threatening situations (the bears seemed to know that the fence and that the armed Inuit guides meant business and they either stayed back 30-50 meters, or they got a warning crackerjack shot fired at them once or twice, which kept them back).

Being on foot with these polar bears was an experience of a lifetime and I would try to put it more eloquently, but suffice to say that it’s as close to indescribable as wildlife photography gets for me.

A huge polar bear checks us out at close range

A polar bear portrait

I was so impressed with the photography opportunities that presented themselves (and with the glorious ones I envisioned that didn’t present themselves this year), that I began planning my trip back before my November adventure was even over!

So I’m excited to announce that I am going to be leading two polar bear photography adventures to the Arviat Polar Bear Cabins next year with this company, from November 9th-14th and from November 14th-19th.  The trips will include a full extra day at the complex (so a total of two half days on either end, with four full days sandwiched in between) and I’ve secured a deal that absolutely knocks the socks off of other similar photography adventures for polar bears!

It’s a true adventure into Canada’s hinterland, so if you’ve ever dreamed of photographing polar bears from ground level and wanted to do it with a fun group, then check out the rest of my pictures and if you’re still interested, then go read about what the Polar Bear Photography Tour entails for November 2012.

A curious cub walks by us at close range

Polar bear tracks on the tundra just meters from the electric fence

Sunshine and -10 never felt so good!  A scenic view of the coastline at low tide.

A polar bear rolls around in the snow on a windy day

Another polar bear walks the beach by the complex

A polar bear mother and cub

The peek-a-boo polar bear!

My favourite shot from the trip, taken during a blizzard on Day 2

How close do we get?  Pretty close!

Our guides, Jason and Graham, checking out tracks with fellow photographer, Kevin

Eye level and gorgeous!

A mother and cubs trying to decide whether or not they should come visit us

Another one of my favourite polar bear photographs from the trip

Thanks for looking everyone!

Happy shooting!

John

Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 Lens Review

Posted on

[Note: you won’t find a bunch of technical jargon in this review, and you won’t find a bunch of useless close-up zooms of some box or sign or whatever to show just how ‘great’ or ‘terrible’ this lens is.  No charts, no side reviews from the Dalai Lama, no pics of the lens in 62 different shades of light, nada.  In fact, all you’re going to get is my opinion on whether the lens is sharp and whether it works well for me.  That’s it, that’s all!]

Since it was first announced almost a year ago, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the new Sigma 120-300MM F2.8 APO EX DG HSM OS lens in the hopes that it will let me finally close the gap a bit between my primary wildlife lens, my Canon 500mm f4, and my secondary lens, which has been a Canon 70-200 f2.8.

The difference between the focal lengths of these two lenses has always annoyed me, so much so that I’ve long considered switching to Nikon to get at the sexy-looking and performing 200-400 f4 telephoto zoom (if only it wasn’t so expensive).  I’ve lost track of how many times the difference between my 500 on my Canon 1D Mk IV camera body, with its 1.3x crop, and the 70-200 on my Canon 5D Mk II, which is full frame, has ticked me off.  It means I drop from 650mm (13x zoom) with my primary lens to 200mm (4x zoom) with my secondary lens, and that has often left me less than enthused.

When Canon announced that they had their own version of the 200-400 on its way, I rejoiced.  Then I saw the price tag.  Just like Nikon’s version, I couldn’t get over the fact that I’d have to drop $7500 for this lens when I already have a 500mm that’s worth it’s weight in gold.  As if that wasn’t enough, Canon still doesn’t have a timeline for when the new 200-400 may hit the shelves.

Enter the Sigma 120-300mm lens.  When the Sigma Canada rep first told me about it and offered me a chance to shoot with it (I’m sponsored by Sigma Canada), I was excited.  I’d heard good things about the older, lighter version that did not offer OS (optical stabilization), so I was cautiously optimistic that the new lens would fit the bill and give me exactly what I’m looking for in my secondary wildlife lens: a lens that is versatile (i.e. offers up a zoom rather than a fixed focal length), closes the gap closer to my 500 (300 accomplishes that), is very sharp, has good stabilization, and can focus fairly quickly and accurately.

Now I mentioned that I’m sponsored by Sigma Canada, so let me start this review with an interesting disclaimer:  I have tried a number of Sigma lenses to date, but this is the first one I’m reviewing because it’s the first one that has truly offered me something different and desirable that I have wanted as a wildlife photographer.  I do really like the Sigma 12-24 f4.5-5.6 lens for its incredibly wide viewing angle, but I find I just don’t use it that much for any wildlife applications.  And I gave the Sigma 300mm f2.8 fixed telephoto a whirl, but I’d rather have a telephoto zoom as my secondary lens for the versatility it provides.  

So when I finally got the box from Sigma three weeks ago, the day before I was about to leave for my grizzly bear photo tours in the Chilcotin in BC, I ripped it open and ooh-ed and aah-ed at the beautiful black beast inside.  It was bigger and heavier than I had thought it would be, but it felt extremely solid, like a good quality product.  And it didn’t feel as heavy as advertised (it’s listed at 10 lbs) when I put it on my 5D II and moved it about.  Certainly far less wieldy than my 500 on the 1D IV, though of course heavier than the 70-200 on the 5D II.

That was about it in terms of available time I had for testing (and no, holding the lens up and pointing it at something in my house doesn’t count as testing), so I loaded up the car and zipped off to do my grizzly trip.  Since my grizzly tours are fairly intensive, I still didn’t get a chance to test out the new lens during the first week to make sure it was sharp, so I let it lay on the floor of my room for the week, taunting me with its’ good looks and promise.

And then, my first ‘break’.  A plane delay on Day 7 opened up my afternoon, so I hauled out the 120-300 and hit the river in a kayak (you can read about my mis-adventures in said kayak on my Dear John Lowman post from a few days ago).  There was no way I was going to attempt to lug the 500 and 1D IV along in the kayak, so instead I grabbed my new ‘trial’ secondary system, the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 on my Canon 5D II body, stuffed them inside my rain jacket, and took off.

Fortunately for me, I found an accommodating grizzly bear fairly quickly and was able to stay with it for almost an hour as I snapped off shot after shot after shot with the new camera-lens combo.  It felt easy to use, the autofocus seemed to lock on quickly, and the camera didn’t weigh me down as I flitted about on the water in the kayak.  I was particularly impressed with the optical stabilization, which seemed even better than on my Canon lenses.  Anyways, 495 shots later, it got too dark to photograph, so I kayaked a kilometer back to the lodge.

That night I took my first look at the new lens’ files.  My first reaction?  “Wow!”  Sharp, sharp, sharp, and sharp.  Lovely colours and great bokeh (if you have no idea what that is, keep it that way!) —  I was thrilled, to say the least.

From that first day onwards, the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 slowly took over from my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 to the point where I didn’t even take the 70-200 out on the final two days of the tours.  The Sigma was sharp at f2.8, 3.2, and beyond, and ridiculously accurate even in low light (which was a minor miracle in itself, as the Canon 5D II does not feature a particularly strong autofocus system).

And while I have yet to test it with a teleconverter and I didn’t give it a hard run through the paces on action stuff, the fact remains that this is now going to be my new go-to secondary lens, replacing the 70-200 f2.8.  At $3,150, it’s less than half the price of the upcoming 200-400 f4, and it offers a full extra stop of light to play with.   Plus, I found the autofocus to be fairly fast (though not as fast as the Canon 70-200 f2.8) and the stabilization to be a step above that of the Canon 70-200 f2.8 (even though the 70-200 is smaller and lighter).

Take a look at the images and let me know what you think:

Grizzly bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/800th, f4, -2/3rds exp comp.

Grizzly bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 206mm, ISO 1600, 1/500th, f2.8, +2/3rds exp comp.

Grizzly family – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/400th, f2.8

Grizzly bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1000, 1/500th, f5, -2/3rds exp comp.

Grizzly bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/320th, f4.5, -2/3rds exp comp.

Black bear – handheld Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 lens at 235mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000th, f2.8, -1 exp comp.

Unedited 100% view of black bear file (21 MP) from Lightroom 3 w/ default sharpening, no noise reduction

All in all, I was extremely impressed with Sigma’s latest offering.  I would highly recommend this lens to anyone looking for a good, sharp lens that offers a telephoto range from 120-300mm, particularly given that it’s sharp wide open at f2.8.

Happy shooting!

John