Paul Souders on photographing polar bears

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Paul Souders on photographing polar bears

March 14, 2013

Corbis contributor, Paul Souders certainly demonstrates the focus, perseverance, and most importantly, the guts that it takes to be a wildlife photographer. As digital photography and the world become more accessible, nature photographers like Paul Souders maintain an impeccable standard by making photos that continue to surprise. And it’s far from easy and even further from the comforts of home.

We caught up with Paul and asked him to share some stories about his last adventure photographing polar bears in Hudson Bay.

CORBIS: Can you describe the logistics of getting to the shoot location? It sounded complicated.

PAUL: I ve been making noise for years about going to Hudson Bay to photograph polar bears. The town of Churchill, Manitoba is world-famous for its polar bear viewing in the fall, but I didn t want to spend a fortune to ride around in a Tundra Buggy with a couple dozen other photographers and tourists. Hundreds of people have already made those pictures.

I wanted to find a new way of seeing and photographing the bears. I really wanted to see the bears out on the sea ice, in their element.  Ultimately, I finally settled on going up to Hudson Bay by land and bringing my boat with me. I drove 1800 miles from my home in Seattle to the end of the road in Thompson, Manitoba, then loading everything onto the narrow gauge railroad that runs 600 miles north to Churchill. I carried more than 500 pounds of gear; everything I might conceivably need.

I brought my 11-foot inflatable zodiac boat, an outboard motor, cases of camera and underwater gear and all the survival equipment I might possibly require. It was a pretty impressive mountain of gear.

As it turned out, I slept in a perfectly nice hotel room every night, and used the zodiac to travel up to 30 miles offshore. I would stay out as long as the light allowed, traveling at the edge of the melting pack ice, scanning each iceberg for the shape of a polar bear. It was exhausting work, hour after hour staring at the ice, trying to find that white on white shape. There were some nights when I didn t return until two in the morning. Most days I was out on the water for 12 to 14 hours a day.

I didn t really know what to expect when I got there. A couple of tour operators take tourists out in boats to see and swim with migrating beluga whales, but there just isn t a lot of information daily available about ice, water or weather conditions on Hudson Bay. The good part of all that is that I wasn t likely to run into too many other photographers out there.

I discovered my first day that Hudson Bay has a huge range of tides, as much as 30 feet from high to low tide. It s also ringed by tidal mud flats that turn into a quagmire on the low tide. When the tide was out, I would have to carry all of my gear from the water s edge nearly half a mile to shore. It seemed to take forever, hefting the 80-pound motor, then the 75-pound boat, then all of my equipment cases across the mud flats. For an old guy like me, it was a lot of exercise.

CORBIS:  What is it about shooting wildlife that keeps you intrigued?

PAUL: I grew up back in the northeast, and the closest I came to wildlife was what I saw on Mutual of Omaha s Wild Kingdom. When I finally had a chance to travel and see wild animals in their environment, I thought it was simply magical. But I sometimes wonder if I m not simply creating a record of all the things that we, as a species, are destroying. A scrapbook of ghosts.

I m drawn to places that still feel wild, that haven t been completely commoditized or packaged as a destination for tourists. I m continually drawn to exploring these obscure corners of the map. For someone who hates boats, I seem to spend a lot of time bobbing around on particularly cold and lonely parts of the ocean. But for all its discomforts, there s something immensely rewarding to finding my way around the bear-filled coast in Alaska, or swimming with walrus in Svalbard and penguins in the Antarctic. I feel uniquely lucky to have lived a life spent chasing beauty.

CORBIS:  Is there a message you hope to leave with people who view your polar bear collection?

PAUL: Kids, don t try this at home.

CORBIS:  We know you prefer to avoid using guides, so how did you find the polar bears on your own?

PAUL: For better or worse, I prefer traveling and working solo whenever possible. Traveling alone focuses all of my attention on my subjects and on the environment I m traveling in. The downside is that there s no one around to help change a flat tire or dig the safari truck out of the mud.

Over the years, I ve found that going it alone forces me learn to learn new skills. If nothing else, floating around 30 miles off shore in the arctic in a rubber boat focuses your attention.

As it turns out, it s really, really hard to find polar bears on the ice, at least without a helicopter and a suitcase full of money. I spent more than two weeks in Churchill, going out on the water every day that the weather allowed, scanning the ice with binoculars.

Searching for polar bears out on the sea ice is insanely difficult. I spent hour after hour slowly motoring among the icebergs, stopping at each one to look for bears. On big ice floes, I d pull the zodiac out of the water and climb up to a high point, slowly scanning the entire surface with my binoculars.  Sea ice isn t uniformly white. After the long winter it s jumbled and covered in dirt and crud from the sea. Polar bears aren t pure white either. Their coats can be anywhere from ivory to butter to golden in color. In the warm light of the setting midnight sun, pretty much everything looks like a bear. I have never worked so hard and so long to find a subject. So it took a lot of patience and concentration to finally find one. I saw her shape, and then saw she was moving. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. At least I d found a bear.

Getting close enough to her to photograph was another matter.

CORBIS:  You seem to be exceptionally close to the bears. Any interactions that challenged your comfort zone?

PAUL: Polar bears will often head for water when they are surprised or feel any sort of threat. She slipped off the ice pan she d been walking across and began swimming away. I kept a healthy distance for a long time, allowing her to relax a bit, then slowly worked my way closer, photographing her as she climbed up onto the ice for a better look, then staying with her when she slipped back into the water. The bears can swim for more than a hundred miles, for days at a time, but I tried very hard not to stress her. Slowly her curiosity began to kick in, and I was able to bring the boat a bit closer.

By sunset, she was swimming slowly beside me and I was able to lower my underwater camera housing right beside her. She actually touched the glass dome with her nose a couple times.

CORBIS: Do you have a most memorable moment while photographing the bears?

PAUL: Certainly the most memorable image for me is the one of her hiding under a piece of ice, peering up through the water at my camera. She swam under a small piece of broken sea ice, and poked her head up through the hole to watch me. I stopped the boat and was furiously trying to mount my camera on the end of a 7-foot long boom to shoot with a wide-angle lens.

Nothing was working the way it was supposed to. I d already dunked one of my remote triggers in the salt water and wound up hand wiring a trigger by chewing off the leads and jury-rigging the exposed copper wires. It wasn t pretty, but it worked. I slowly maneuvered the pole closer to her, and she momentarily ducked under the water a couple of times. I struggled to hold the camera steady and trip the shutter, and I was pretty much shooting blind.

I thought I might have a pretty cool shot when she poked her head up less than three feet from the camera. It wasn t until a week later, as I was riding the train from Churchill south toward Winnipeg that I finally had time to look through all of my digital images one by one that I saw I had a couple frames of her actually lurking under the water s surface, staring up at the camera.

I was completely surprised, and so happy that I started showing it to everyone around me on the train.

CORBIS: As a seasoned wildlife photographer, if you could give novice wildlife photographers one tip, what would it be?

PAUL: Probably the best advice I can offer is don t quit your day job.

There has never been a better time to be a wildlife or nature photographer. In the last decade, we have witnessed a revolution in digital photo technology. Guided tours now travel to wilderness areas that were once the sole province of National Geographic and BBC film crews.

Of course, there has never been a worse time to make a living as a nature photographer, since everyone and their dog can now go out on holiday, make amazing pictures and give them away on the internet for nothing.

The hard part for professionals is thinking of images that will show the world in a new way, to create pictures that people haven’t seen before. It requires a level of dedication and perseverance that should give any sane person pause.

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