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Brown Bears

In anticipation of my upcoming trip to find the rare Marsican Bear in Italy's Abruzzo National Park, for this blogpost I am taking a different kind of trip - one down memory lane - and reflecting back to when I last came face to face with this majestic creature.

2 summers ago I decided to visit the forests of southern Slovenia in search of the Brown Bear, a species which has disappeared from most parts of Europe.Kočevje is one of the last strongholds with around 400 bears in the area, and they are regular visitors to Miha Mlakar's hides where he responsibly feeds them corn and apples supplied by the local farmers. This tower hide was to be my home for the next 4 nights.

Long before my visit, I did some research. I looked at other peoples' photos taken from Miha's hides, seeing what the landscape was like, from which direction the light was coming, how close the bears were and how they behaved. This kind of research is useful for coming up with your own ideas and creating your own fresh images that no one else has done before.

The light on Day 1 was dull and overcast, with a lot of images taken at high ISOs, so I decided to test some ideas. This image was the germination of one idea. I call this kind of photograph a "sketch". Sketches don't have to be technically perfect, as they're just the groundwork for bigger ideas. I wanted many layers of trees, with the cautious face of a bear materialising among the trunks. I took inspiration from Jim Brandenburg, a great American wildlife photographer who used this "among the trees" technique for his famous series on wolves.

Although this mother bear was never bothered by my presence, she was always wary. Bears are generally more afraid of people than you might think and will bolt at the slightest sound in the leaf litter. Keeping my photo-taking to a minimum, I spent 2 nights just observing her - the way she moved lightly among her moss-coated surroundings. How to create a photo that would capture the essence of this bear?

As the light improved and I became more familiar with her routine, I could see an image form. She would always approach her favourite feeding spot (some rocks where she could look back along the path) with caution, stopping to sniff the air. In this moment, the sun's rays stroked her muzzle and the lower lid of her eye. The rest of her face was thrown into darkness.

She stepped fully into the light, with an expression that seems to relish its warm touch.

An idea was set in motion, and I spent the rest of the 3rd night watching where she went and how the sunlight moved across her face as she foraged.

The left shot was taken at 5pm. Her face is almost entirely in shadow and is unusable. The right shot is just 5 minutes later - a huge difference, with her eye and the edge of her muzzle glowing. The light is also a little warmer. To get my desired photo, both the lighting and her pose had to be perfect. And there was a very small window of time to get it right! So to the planning.

I made a pen sketch of the hide's view, marking each of the bear's feeding spots with a red X. She would usually, although not always, enter from the left trees, stopping behind the circled tree which is where I wanted her to be for my photo. I saw from my test photos that the light wasn't quite right, so Miha and I repositioned the corn/apple bait a little so that, when the bear would lift its head, the light should hopefully catch her eye and muzzle and the background trees would be underexposed. I would use the foreground tree like a shutter, directing the sun's rays like stage-lighting onto her face.

This is the result, my favourite photo from my time with her. She had just had a rough fight with a big male and was visibly shaken. I worried she might not come back. But about 30 minutes before sunset - the time I wanted her "in position" - she returned. Cautious as ever, she withdrew from the forest, her head low and ears pricked listening, her back arched and bristled. The scene couldn't have been more perfect as her graceful power mounted out of the shadow and into the light.

That was my trip back in 2015, an amazing trip to an amazing place. That last day with the she-bear was one of the best wildlife experiences and something I will remember for a very long time. It doesn't get much better than that. I now look forward to this season's Abruzzo trip and hope that the bears show just as well. Here's one to finish off with.

Thanks for reading and take a look at my Slovenia photos here!

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