Fourteen thousand dollars. That’s the grand total of the camera equipment in my loft. I haven’t thought about how I’ll pay for it; I only know this—after photographing wildlife for most of my adult life, it was time to step up—to see what I might really do with the proper gear. I decided this, the way most reasonable and sane people do, while sitting at a cocktail lounge on a Princess Cruise ship drinking Alaskan ambers with one of the least risk-averse people I know: Alaskan writer and adventurer, Nick Jans. \ In our swivel chairs, nick rotated toward me, leaned in with his laptop, and flipped through his photos of polar bears in Kaktovik. Last fall, I took the same trip, but my images didn’t look like his. You could see eye lashes on his bears. When I told him I shot with an Olympus MM-DE-M1, a mirrorless camera meant to lighten my travel load, he said, “C’mon. What professional photographers do you know who shoot with anything but Nikon or Canon?” It’s a familiar elitist view in the shutterbug community, and one that resonated with me, despite my rationalizing and espousing of new technology and weight reduction. I gave Nick a weak reply. “I can carry my 300mm lens in my pocket. Can you do that?” Nick’s face, straight out of a Jack London book with its arctic-sculpted jawbone and grizzled cheeks, all but mocked me. It seemed to say: Cowboy up, Cupcake. That’s fine for semi-pro, but not serious enough for the big leagues. Not worthy of capturing a place like Alaska. For Alaska, you go big or go home.
He didn’t need to say it. I already knew.
My images lacked the fine detail and depth of color our magazine and others demanded. They were soft and noisy and too small to run at 100 percent. When I returned from my cruise, I reviewed my whale, glacier, bald eagle and moose shots. A few keepers, but not many. I had determination, opportunity, and a pixel or two of talent—having worked as a photographer earlier in my career—but I’d been making excuses. Carrying subpar gear had allowed me to blame equipment for a bad shot, when perhaps I was the problem.
I spent hours researching cameras and lenses, comparing specs and trying to ignore the astronomic price tags. If I added up all the money I’d spent over the last two decades on less expensive cameras and lenses—only to end up selling them on Craigslist a year or two later—surely I could justify buying the top-of-the-line this time. To make myself commit, I booked a bear viewing trip to Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park. I set up a Photoshelter account and started creating an online portfolio of my work. I made a list of the items I’d need and purchased the following: Nikon D810, 200-400mm f/4 lens, 24-120mm f/4 lens, 2.0x teleconverter, professional tripod, pan/tilt head, polarizer, filter holder, graduated filters, three batteries, an extra tripod mounting plate, two 64GB compact flash and SD memory cards, USB card reader, pro-grip extra battery pack unit, rain jackets, and an industrial backpack to carry it all. Between the gear, trip deposits, flights, rental car and hotels, my Visa bill swelled to $18,000 dollars. I took my gear home, shoved down the creeping dread of buyer’s remorse, and played with my camera. My flight to Hallo Bay would leave in three days.
I had shot with Nikon before, so I knew my way around the menus, but the D810 lacked a few things its predecessors had: failsafe modes of auto shooting and scenes (landscape, portrait, snow, beach, etc.). The message was clear: If you bought this thing, you should know how to use it.
The first few shots off my balcony were of trees and foothills. But when I went to review them, they didn’t show up. I scanned the 500-page manual. User error was a common theme for me, so I chalked it up to that. Was the camera glitchy? Had I purchased a lemon?
As it turns out, it wouldn’t really matter. An hour later, I attached the camera and the 24-120mm lens to the tripod plate. After a few shots of my desk and bookshelf, I wanted to use the big lens. I put my thumb on the tripod plate release and in a split second, watched the D810 and its lens fall to the hardwood floor with a sickening thud and a subsequent bounce.
Funny thing about expensive cameras; they aren’t made to be used like basketballs. I twisted the zoom ring on the lens and felt it catch. With pressure, I could make it rotate, but it was definitely damaged. Maybe, just maybe, I could live with that. I didn’t have time to send it back into Nikon for repairs. I handheld the camera and released the shutter in a rapid burst, relieved at the sound of it, firing off, still working. But when I reviewed the images, I found just this: a black square in the center of each photo—image after image. The mirror inside was either stuck or broken. I tried taking the lens on and off and shooting in different modes. The result: nothing but one after another soul-crushing black squares. I’d made a mistake, a huge one. Within the span of a few hours, I’d managed to exhaust my savings (financial and emotional), destroying the camera along with any delusions of becoming a serious photographer.
The next morning, I slumped off to the camera shop, where the employee replaced the camera and lens, citing manufacturer’s defects, while I apologized for a few of my own. I had a second chance, even though I didn’t deserve it—hadn’t earned it. I would be more careful. I wouldn’t blow it.
We land on the beach of Shelikof Strait on the tundra wheels of a Cessna Skywagon 207 that’s a tad rusty on the inside, but manages to stay airborne while giving us nice views of Mt. Illiamna, Augustine, and Douglas en route from Homer. Hallo Bay bear camp consists of ten tents surrounded by brilliant fields of fireweed and encircled with electric fence webbing set into the ground with plastic stakes. Six Californians take our place on the departing Skywagon; they’re leaving a day early because the forecast calls for fog and rain and they don’t want to get weathered in. I don Xtratuf rubber boots and DEET bug spray and our guide, Lance, a retired Navy officer who survived deployment to the Middle East, follows the river bed and bear scat in search of coastal browns. “Not sure where the bears have been. They’re late this year,” Lance says. “I think they might be feeding on berries up higher, but they could be hanging out longer at Brooks Falls.” We see berry- filled scat and fish carcasses, and finally bear prints. Lance knows whether the tracks are new or old, almost down to the minute. Hiking for the first hour down narrow trails and bushwacking, I get that same feeling I had in my loft: I’m in over my head. I carry half my body weight in gear and I’m already staggering beneath it. Despite working out (yes, I trained for this), my legs and shoulders buckle and shake. I think of Cheryl Strayed in the book Wild, carrying “Monster,” her backpack on the Pacific Crest Trail.
We cross the river, and each time, I grasp Lance’s arm for balance and try to stick to the high spots so my Xtratufs don’t fill up with water and sweep me downstream, where I’m fairly certain my gear will finally pull me under and kill me. I also know that seeing a bear, and capturing a great photo of one, will be worth it. We end up back on the beach at the mouth of a river where we wait. I prefer this open view to the one through the brush, where we followed bear paths in and out of hidden pockets, with Lance telling us stories about bears leaping out from behind corners. He’s armed, but only with a flare he can light to wave at an aggressive bear. “The hiss and spark are enough to scare one off,” Lance tells me. I remind myself that I came into bear country of my own volition. Would I want an uninvited guest to show up at my house carrying a firearm? I think not. On a small, sandy rise strewn with driftwood, I snap photos of rock outcroppings, a seal, a distant boat, fog. I eat the lunch Lance provides: PB&J, apple, granola bar.
Drizzle falls and a haze wraps the shoulders of the mountains like a shawl. I scramble for the camera’s rain jacket, a plastic covering that allows my hands to work the controls of the camera without getting the body or the lens wet. I put it on upside down, stretch it to make it work, and somehow manage to access the right buttons and see what I’m doing without tearing holes in it. I realize how awkward I look—struggling in the rain beneath a tangle of gear. I walk the beach with the camera and lens attached to the tripod and leaning against my armpit. I wear the backpack behind me with a fanny pack slung across my hip. I trip. I drop my lens cap and polarizer in the sand. I catch my hair in the tripod—not once, but numerous times. I knock off my baseball cap when I look through my viewfinder. But four hours later, when a mom and three cubs emerge from the bushes—and she sits in the grass to nurse them—I’m a gloriously happy mess.
Because it’s raining, I can’t take off the rain jackets to put on the extender. The 200- 400mm works great, but it won’t get me as close as I’d like. Regardless, I fire off frames for an hour. I shoot as if these are the only bears I
will see—ever. We follow them as they meander around the beach. A break in the weather allows me to put on the teleconverter and extend my reach to 800mm. I squeeze the plastic coverings back over the gear, this time right side up, and congratulate myself for handling it properly. Condensation smears the plastic over the LCD display, so every image looks blurry in playback. After switching back and forth from manual to auto, I decide to trust the auto focus and speed of my gargantuan lens. I invested in it—in me too, shouldn’t I have a little faith in both?