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The Complete Guide to Photography in Katmai National Park

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Mount Douglas in Katmai National Park photography

Katmai National Park and Preserve is a land of towering volcanoes, massive bears, and crystal glaciers - over four million acres that encompass some of the country's wildest lands.

Naturally, Katmai is a dream for photographers. It's impossible to take a bad photo here - the park is stunningly beautiful. However, taking great photos in Katmai is harder than it appears.

The national park can be broadly separated into 2 zones. The bear-watching areas, such as Brooks Falls; and the incredible landscapes, like the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes or Mount Douglas, which is depicted above.

I'm going to focus on these hotspots when describing the best techniques for Katmai photography.

Katmai bear photography

Katmai's first and most obvious attraction for photographers is bear-watching. The park is thought to be home to a massive 2,000 bears, and it's not uncommon to see half a dozen bears fishing at one time.

Unless you're watching bears from a controlled, safe environment, like a deck at Brooks Falls, a bus, or hotel room, you're going to need to keep your distance - and that means a telephoto lens.

Using a long lens for photography in Katmai is essential to capturing great images. And, as a general rule, the longer the lens, the better.

Though you may own a 70-200mm or a 75-300mm lens, you have to consider the scale of Katmai. It's the size of some countries!

When you're standing there, in front of a bear, it feels close enough to touch - but it's likely still a quarter mile away. Though that's close enough for a truly incredible experience, your current lenses just won't cover it.

I only use 600mm lenses for my wildlife photography. In Katmai, I rented Tamron's 150-600mm option. This lens gives you incredible reach, and it can be rented for a very reasonable price - about $10 a day if you pick up your lens in Anchorage!

If you want higher-quality images, you can go for an own-brand option, although those often stretch into the hundreds of dollars for a day or so of rental.

Though it's often thought that cameras are more important than lenses in photography, I wouldn't recommend renting a camera for your Katmai trip unless your current camera isn't compatible with the lens that you choose.

For example, if you're the owner of a Fujifilm camera, you don't have the option to rent a 600mm lens for your own camera. I'd recommend renting an APS-C Canon camera, like the Rebel T8i or EOS M6, for your Katmai photography.

Canon cameras are the most widely used, so they're easy to repair. They're also the choice of a large number of wildlife photographers, so you can exchange shooting information and tips with other Katmai visitors.

Once you have your gear, it's time to focus on shooting technique. Your camera's settings should be optimized for fast, sometimes erratic action, and speed.

The first step is setting your camera to continuous shooting. This will allow you to fire off bursts of photos -- allowing you to capture the uniquely Katmai moments - and photographs - that you would otherwise miss.

Though it varies by camera, you can change this setting by turning a dial or setting your menus to an icon with three overlapping rectangles. Depending on your camera and manufacturer, you should be able to shoot between 3 and 20 frames per second (although some can go higher).

You should also set your camera to autofocus continually, so it can keep up with your subjects. On Canon cameras this is a setting called AI Servo, but with other brands, it's often simply called continuous autofocus. When you focus, you'll often feel fast, erratic movement in the camera or lens.

This autofocus setting is constantly readjusting (you don't need to press the shutter button), so it won't miss that incredible moment when a bear is running directly at the lens, or the movement of its claws as it hunts for salmon. In tandem with a long lens, it'll allow you to get the best possible bear photos in Katmai.

Katmai National Park Photography

Though Katmai's bears are iconic, its landscapes - like the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes -are just as beautiful. What's remarkable is that your landscape setup will be very similar to your wildlife gear.

Landscape photography in Katmai is about movement. You will likely be shooting from a vehicle, and, just as with wildlife photography, speed is key.

Your overall settings will be the same as the ones you use for wildlife photography: continuous autofocus and continuous shooting. What's different is your lens choice.

A kit lens will work just fine for Katmai landscape photography, but if you want more versatility than is offered by the customary 18-55mm focal length, you should consider renting a 24-70mm lens.

The 24mm focal length is wide enough for family snaps and wide, sweeping Katmai landscapes. It's not as wide-angle as your kit lens, but it isn't far off. And giving up some wide-angle photos opens you up to a wide range of possibilities at longer focal lengths.

70mm is an essential focal length for Katmai photography. The distances are simply so massive that a wide-angle lens would "push back" the park's stunning mountains and make them look small in the frame.

70mm is a medium telephoto focal length, so it's also perfect for seascapes and portraits!

If you follow these simple Katmai photography steps - from lenses to continuous shooting - you'll come away with some incredible images - and memories - from your trip to Katmai. Enjoy!


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