In Search of Bears: Behind the Lens with Will NichollsJune 21st, 2017
The first time I ever saw a bear in the wild was when I was walking through a swamp in the ancient Taiga forest bordering Finland and Russia. About 200 metres away, a huge male bear swaggered through the meadow. I could hear his feet splashing in the marsh; his eyes were fixed on me.
I was in Finland for the bears. My journey through the swamp was actually on the way to a hide where I would be spending the next two weeks, for 15 hours a day, waiting for these bears. I was definitely not expecting to see one so soon!
Waiting in the hide required constant concentration. The sun doesn’t set in Finland during the summer, so there is light throughout the night. I’d arrive at the hide at 5 p.m. and leave around 9 a.m. the next morning. In this time, I would see a bear for maybe 30 seconds. Some nights there was nothing.
I had envisaged a handful of images I wanted to capture, but the first week spent in the hide wasn’t very fruitful. The bears were not around, and when I had seen them, they had been far away. I changed hides occasionally, spending time in both a forest hide and one out in the swamp. The advantage of the swamp was that the sky was visible, making opportunities for interesting lighting possible. However, the forest hide offered exciting chances to use my remote camera trap for some wide-angle images of the bears.
There was a brilliant sunset one evening, with a very low sun and some immense golden light cast across the swamp. Luckily I’d chosen the swamp hide. But now, I needed a bear.
I kept glancing at the forest perimeter, waiting for a bear to emerge. The chances of it choosing this precise moment to show up were slim; I knew that. To my great surprise, I heard the splash of a huge bear’s paw about 50 metres in front of me. It was coming toward me! This was Brutus, once known as the biggest bear in Finland, and a fearsome male. He swaggered over toward my hide…
Normally he would walk straight past, not stopping and heading back into the forest behind me. But this time he crossed straight in front of the hide. Now he was only 3 metres away and heading to the position between myself and the sun. This was my chance to achieve the backlit image I’d been dreaming of!
The sun was so low now, and I couldn’t see through the viewfinder. I did my best to track the bear, and fired off a number of frames as he moved past. I had to be careful not to scare him with the shutter, as once they know you’re there they will run. I reviewed the images after he left. I had it! The backlit bear of my dreams, complete with a puff of breath and mosquitos lit up by the evening light. Mission accomplished.