Grizzly Bear Chasing Salmon

A slow shutter speed blurs the speed of a grizzly bear chasing a Sockeye Salmon in Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

One of the photos I wanted this year was some slower shutter speed blurs of grizzly bears chasing spawning Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) up the river. This kind of image is difficult to do with grizzly bears; well, not difficult to do, but difficult to manage a photo that works. More so, I think, than with most other animals. The result of this is that it seems to take about 5 times as many attempts to get a decent ‘panblur’ of a grizzly bear than it might, for example, of a caribou or wolf. What I’m calling a ‘panblur’, for those of you who aren’t certain, is a technique of slowing down the shutter speed when shooting movement, so that the subject becomes blurred, rather than crisp and sharp. You can see in the image above the spashing water and the legs of the bear are not to sharp at all. By panning the camera along with the bear as it races through the water, the camera records parts of the subject that are not moving as drastically sharper. Generally, the objective is to keep the head and face sharp, while blurring the rest of the subject.

As with all techniques, in all art, the technique isn’t the issue. Techniques serve a purpose; for some, certainly, that purpose is little more than to illustrate the technical. I tend to find art that expresses nought but technique to not hold my attention very long. Musically, for example, I’d rather listen to an artist express an emotion, such as a blues guitar player like Stevie Ray Vaughan, or a piano ballad played by Keith Jarrett, than someone who’s technically adept and does nothing but give voice to that. Now, clearly, I’m not gunna tout my image as on par with anything either of those musicians created (even Stevie Ray totally messing up in the linked video above wins, hands down!). My purpose is here to describe the importance of function – technique serves a purpose, and should, in my opinion, be nothing more than a vehicle to express something deeper. Back to the ‘panblur’ technique.

This technique often helps express motion, which, in this image, I think also expresses power. A crisper, sharper image works, as well, particularly with the splashing water around the bear. The blur adds a little life to the image – if you’ve ever been charged by a bear, you’ll know why – the whole event is nothing more than a blur, trust me. 🙂 The blurring of the subject, and the water, and the background also helps draw the attention to the face of the bear, which in this frame I managed to keep reasonably sharp. I could say it’s a matter of practice and skill and execution of good technique, but if you knew how many times I hit the delete key when I browsed this folder of images upon return home, you’d understand why that comment makes me laugh. So I do enjoy these kinds of shots, even though they’re difficult to make.

So, why are grizzly bears harder to do a ‘panblur’ with than most other animals? I’ll discuss that in a future post. For now, just trust me .. it’s hard. 🙂

I’m curious to hear from readers how they like this kind of image, it’s not one I’ve posted many of before.




PS – I gotta give you some more props to Stevie Ray Vaughan; He’s one of my very few all-time ever most favorite musicians, God rest his beautiful soul. I do love me some Stevie Ray Vaughan. If you have the time, check out youtube for some more clips of him playing a 12 string acoustic guitar, from MTV Unplugged. Absolute gems.

RIP, Mr Vaughan.

7 thoughts on “Grizzly Bear Chasing Salmon

  1. Musa

    Hmmm, like it, definitely seems to capture the intense concentration with the focused head and burst of energy of the blurred legs and body associated with the final moments of a hunt, reminds me of myself finally getting that red squirrel….

  2. Mark

    I sure do miss Stevie. I only wish I was able to see him perform live. And you know what, I think that it is the first acoustic performance I have seen of his! Now I am going to have to hunt down all of his acoustic work.

    I think what is most significant about this image is that it captures power, determination and grace at the same time. I think it is hard to portray the latter two in a stop-action shot. Sometimes determination wins out over grace and visa-versa. I like the color in the background and that you caught the bear with a paw out of the water. Pose seems to either kill or make these shots eh?

  3. Carl D Post author

    Hey Mark,

    I was SO lucky – I got to see Stevie Ray once, when I was in high school. There was a mixup with the tickets (long story), and it looked like I wouldn’t get to see the show. My dad saved the day, and picked me up a ticket days before the gig … so I saw Stevie Ray. A few all too short years later Stevie Ray had passed, and only his legacy is left. Beautiful musician. Check out his MTV unplugged stuff .. nobody made a 12 string guitar sound like that.

    You nailed what I was trying to say – it’s the determination and grace together that I think the slower shutter speed can offer. And yes, the pose is everything. I’ll write a post about that sometime soon, I promise.

    Musa, congrats on your red squirrel.



  4. Neil Donohue

    Hi Carl,

    Love your bear shots from Katmai but note that your mother and I never allowed you to ‘get charged by a bear’ when we were there with you. I suspect you only go there in Fall because the Park Rangers aren’t there to keep an eye on you.

    Re the Stevie Ray Vaughan ticket: that was only one of the many times I’ve ‘saved your day’ over the years.


  5. Carl D Post author

    Hey Dad,

    Welcome back to the internet. You and mum were great, and kept me safe, as always. And yes, you mighta saved my day a couple of times – more than once, certainly .. but we’re talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan here. What else matters?



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