The polar bear meandered along the water’s edge. Slanting through skeins of mist, the October sun bathed the scene in shimmering light. Photographer Steve Kazlowski and I sat, camera gear at the ready as Steve’s Eskimo buddy idled the big wooden skiff through the sandy shallows of the Beaufort Sea, on the far northeastern edge of Alaska. The bear, an adult female, glanced our way now and then, but showed no sign of concern.
“I think she’s going to be okay,” murmured Steve. In other words, she could be that rare animal that might tolerate our presence, much closer than our current distance of a hundred yards, and maybe we’d get a chance at a professionally useful shot. Steve’s friend cut the motor as the keel touched bottom, 20 feet from the beach. We’d wait here, and let the bear decide how close she wanted to get to us.
She kept coming our way. Seventy yards. Thirty. We lifted our cameras. I’d seen plenty of Alaska wildlife, but this was my first-ever polar bear shoot. Naturally I started whacking away with reckless digital abandon. Steve, the most accomplished photographer of the white bears in Alaska, sat and watched, his well-used 500mm lens and chunky camera body cradled in his lap. With a library stacked with thousands of polar bear shots and a dazzling array of credits, Steve was waiting for something better than good. Something really good.
There are bazillions of great Alaska wildlife images out there—whales, wolves, moose, you name it. The pool keeps getting larger each year, and the bar keeps getting set higher as more fine photographers, wielding always-improving gear, flood the market. But images that hit that next level—ones that jump out and hold your attention, bring on a surge of emotion—are always few and far between, and always will be. A photographer might garner fewer than a dozen in a lifetime of shooting—if he or she is lucky.
People look at those rare, heart-grabbing wildlife shots and nod sagely. Oh, you must have had one of those big telephotos, they say, as if that explains everything. Deceptive, how close you really have to be to get that image, and how rare those chances are. Rarer still when light, background, wildlife, position and equipment all cooperate enough to offer a chance to capture something extraordinary—the glint of an eye or tooth, a micro-expression, a paw or hoof suspended in mid-stride, a precise, frozen instant that captures an essence hard to nail down, but one you can sense at a glance. A fraction of a second, a smidgen of focus, choice of lens, shutter speed, or aperture, and it’s just another ‘almost.’ But photography isn’t a game of horseshoes. Almost doesn’t count.
The bear paused several dozen feet away, head cocked, studying us. We couldn’t ask more of the gorgeous, glowing light. Even Steve squeezed a few shots. But then the female did something unexpected—lowered her head and waded into the surf, headed straight our way. I zoomed tight, held low, and fired off a string of frames point-blank before the bear reconsidered and turned back toward the beach. Just being curious, Steve said. We went on with our day, and got decent chances with a few more bears. I sat shivering in the thin arctic wind, totally thrilled. In three days, I’ve upped my polar bear portfolio from zero to a double handful of decent images.
That night, as I was squinting into my laptop screen, sorting and deleting, it popped out: the female bear just entering the water, head down, eye lit, paw lifted, water droplets suspended in midair, the whole scene side-lit like a Renaissance painting. In the rush of the day’s shoot, I’d somehow overlooked it. The frames immediately before and after, covering a span of under a second, would work for textbook illustrations, maybe, but they held no juju. Steve, a much better photographer with years of polar bear face time, hadn’t gotten anything out of that sequence. But somehow, there it was: that one magical, perfect millisecond, frozen in time. Something good. Something really good. Call it luck—I’ll take it.