Bear Viewing in Chilko Lake

This September, I was lucky enough to visit the Chilko Lake – specifically, The Chilko Experience. It was my first time visiting this part of the Chilcotins and I felt so lucky to be welcomed here to take some photos for the lodge and enjoy the bear viewing in my down time. The food, staff and setting were all incredible. The entire area is closed to the public here – and the roads patrolled by tribal police to enforce these closures. The only way to access the bear viewing is to stay in one of the handful of lodges, and they take the safety of the bears very seriously. I will talk more about The Chilko Experience in another blog post, and focus this one on my photos.

First thing’s first, I have recently purchased my first real telephoto lens. I went for the Sigma Contemporary 150-600mm, and so far I have been really impressed with it! At just under $1500 after tax, it is one of (if not the) most affordable 600mm lens on the market. Having a maximum aperture of 6.3 when fully extended, some good light has been essential for snapping sharp photos. I shot with my Sony a7RIV and used Sigma’s adapter which worked a lot better then the Metabones version I have tried before.

I shot at fairly high ISO and shutter speeds, which I’m fortunate that my camera body can handle. This area doesn’t allow photographers to shoot on land, in order to protect the bears, so I was shooting from a boat. I used my tripod for extra stability, but it was still pretty tough to hold such a large lens still! However, I’m pretty stoked on some of the shots I got.

Some of the lighting was really harsh – lots of sun flare off the lake which wasn’t very calm at all. We didn’t try to watch the bears early in the morning (when it would’ve had calmer water) as there is a collective agreement in this area not to disturb the morning feed. So, I had a bit of a tough time editing these photos. Some of them I way over edited and ended up starting all over again. The result is pretty mixed – some moodier shots, some much softer shots than others, and some super close crops. We went out every day for four days and these are my best ones from those days. It was a great experience and I can’t wait to go back!

Top tips for bear viewing at Chilko Lake:

  • Pack lots of layers! The wind chill is very harsh as the winds blow over glaciers all the way across the 65km lake.
  • Bring gloves, tripod and binoculars.
  • Shoot at high shutter speeds and high ISO.
  • Figure out what ISO your camera can handle before you head out. If you shoot at too high an ISO, the image will be blown out with too much noise.
  • Whenever possible, try to orchestrate a background that makes your bear really stand out as a subject. This was almost impossible for me whilst respecting the space of the bears, but I really wished I could put them against a simpler background!
  • Keep your distance. We saw other operators in the area get way, way too close to the bears; within 5 metres in some cases. It is crucial to maintain a respectful distance and to keep these bears wild and unaccustomed to close human interaction. I would recommend visiting The Chilko Experience to anyone who is interested in ethical bear viewing!

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