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As the eye sees it: A polar bear on the tundra.

This post is of a slightly different nature than usual: over the past two months I have spent a considerable amount of time with bears: black bears, grizzly bears, and polar bears.  Every situation is different – the roadside encounter, alpine surprises on the trail, or actively tracking them on the tundra.  Regardless, respect for an animal’s territory is always of paramount importance to minimize their stress level.  Wanting to get too close is unrealistic, and actually getting too close is dangerous for all and unnecessary.  While I am grateful for the serendipitous moments of seeing these bears, it has been tinged with the disappointing realization that most humans lack the pragmatic skills and sensible expectations that should govern such an experience.  On a recent episode of Contemplative Creative (Episode #7: Street smarts in the field) I mentioned my feelings on this, but I thought it would be worth taking some time to use visuals to illustrate my point here.

In large part I believe this stems from the fact that we don’t spend much time in the wilderness anymore, and our understanding of wildlife encounters tends to be based off of experiences at the zoo or the consumption of imagery online.  The reality of the matter is that you will probably not have an intimate wildlife encounter at the same proximity that tourist pamphlets and Instagram photos seem to promise.  We see a lot of great photos these days that get us closer to animals than we safely can in the wild; please remember this, and don’t get out of your vehicle and approach wildlife with your camera phone.  It sounds dumb, and it is, but yet I’ve seen it happen way too many times this summer.

Wildlife is wild, and it is always good to remind oneself of this after being away from it for a while – myself included.  I’ve just returned from spending some time up in Churchill, Manitoba, photographing arctic fox, caribou, eagles, beluga whales, and the apex predator that is the polar bear.  It is not uncommon to encounter a hungry bear on the street in town, never mind on the Hudson Bay’s bedrock coast or the tundra.  To simply go for a walk you need a shotgun to be safe.  This is a sobering reminder of human mortality and our place within the ecosystem.  It is also a source of hopeful optimism: the wild spirit of animals still exists in this remote wilderness.

I thought I would share a couple photographs to try and illustrate the difference between what the naked eye sees versus what I am able to capture with my camera.  Take it as a behind the scenes look of me on assignment in Churchill, and a gentle reminder on the reality of wildlife encounters.

Fresh polar bear tracks next to tundra buggy near Churchill

Tracking animals takes a lot of time and skill, and luck.  Despite the amount of effort you put towards it, wildlife encounters are never guaranteed and it’s best to curb your expectations to avoid disappointment.  If you have one particular animal as your goal, you tend to close your eyes all the other amazing things along the way.

Polar bear at water

This day in particular, after seven hours on the tundra we finally came upon this lone polar bear.  This is an image I composed with some pretty hefty gear: a Nikon D800 w/ a 70-200mm lens and a 2x teleconverter.  Effectively this puts my focal length at 400mm; a place where I can make out a lot more detail looking through my viewfinder than with the naked eye.

Polar bear in the distance (shot from camera phone)

Can you spot the polar bear?  For perspective, this is a photo of the same scene taken with a camera phone just a few moments later.  Note for scale comparison that both photos contain the tower on the horizon and the white polar bear against blue water.  This view is more akin to what the human eye would see.  Can you imagine how close you would have to get to snap a photo with your phone with the same perspective as the previous shot?  Too close.  Please, just invest in a pair of binoculars and purchase a photo from a professional who has captured the scene ethically and better than the average Joe is capable.

November 1, 2016 - 4:18 pm

Karyn - I always wondered what it would actually be like up on the tundra. Thanks for showing a glimpse of what the eye actually sees.

November 6, 2016 - 10:22 am

David - You’re welcome Karyn. A guide I was with on this trip was telling me about a research study done up there regarding the interaction of polar bears with people, and 90% of the bears will actually curiously approach the tundra vehicles…kind of like a reverse zoo where humans are the attraction. So, there are occasions when you can get close to the bears under the guidance of a good guide – emphasis on the necessary guidance of someone who understands the animals and environment.

Interstellar Rodeo Festival: Building a Green Room.

From the wilderness to the urban jungle, this past week has been a different sort of an adventure: Adrienne Shum and I built and ran the Green Room at the Interstellar Rodeo festival here in Winnipeg.  This entailed transforming a concrete bunker tucked away backstage into a functional kitchen and cozy lounge for the festival artists.  Lighting, refrigerators, furniture, food…we had to bring all that in, alongside a team of hard working volunteers, to help us magically turn the piles of ingredients into the delicious food described on the menu we created.  Needless to say, we’d been working at this for months and it was wonderful to see the ideas percolating in our minds come to life!

This opportunity was different than my usual festival involvements, which tend to be more on the photography/media/social media side of things.  As such, photos were secondary, but I did capture some snapshots to trigger personal memories that threatened to be lost amidst the blur of busyness.  During the constant bustle of festival work the memory gets saturated, and photos such as these bring moments and details back to mind; also they are useful for reflecting and building upon our setup and workflow in subsequent years.

I receive lots of inquiries into the behind-the-scenes details of things like this, so I decided to share a photoessay here expounding on some of these points of interest.

Aside: I’ve taken a more experimental method of processing for these photos.  Since getting my most recent digital camera, I’ve come to the realization that the quality of digital has finally surpassed that which I can eek out of my medium format film camera, with the added benefit of a simplified workflow and convenience.  A lead bag of film still sits in the bottom of my fridge, but the rolls have all rolled past their expiry dates at this point.

Some days I still miss the aesthetic of my favourite films though – the colors, contrast, and grain.  With these characteristics in mind, I’ve been peripherally working to develop my own method of processing digital files to mimic my favourite films.  This series of images was shot entirely on my iPhone, and processed using my best effort to resemble the results I miss from Kodak Portra 160 after being push processed in the dark room.  This is the first time I’ve released something like this into the wild.  I hope you enjoy!

Loads of groceries

Cooking for hundreds of people over a weekend takes a lot of raw ingredients.

Cycling to The Forks with a full load

One of the best features of this festival is that it’s centrally located at the heart of Winnipeg: The Forks.  As such, it’s conveniently accessible by bike, foot, or bus.  In our classic style, we moved the piles of gear from our home to the backstage bunker by pedal power.

The empty bunker

The empty bunker.  I see potential in this bare space.

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August 20, 2016 - 5:44 pm

Jason - That’s a lot of hard work , especially on your bikes! Lol. Good job. X2

August 21, 2016 - 7:53 pm

Sara Stasiuk - I love this so much. ✨???

Postcard from Kananaskis.

Hello from Kananaskis!

After experiencing the hoards of people that flock to the Canadian Rocky Mountains during July and August last year on my Pedal Powered to the West bike tour, I swore I would never go back in the summer.  Shoulder seasons are much more my thing.

But as life would have it, an off the cuff idea from a friend turned into a spontaneous whirlwind of a road trip across four provinces to the Rockies.  Having never spent much time in the mountains, it was exciting to show him the ropes and watch his eyes light up in the magical moments.

Here he stands after rising over his first mountain pass, taking in the rewards of a hard hike.

Postcard from Kananaskis

Looking down on Ribbon Lake from the summit of Buller Pass.

August 8, 2016 - 6:36 am

Daniel - You’re not in Kansas anymore…

August 8, 2016 - 4:38 pm

David - Ha! Never was, but I certainly wasn’t in Winnipeg anymore when I took this photo. 😀

Behind-the-scenes video footage from the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Being a photographer for the Winnipeg Folk Festival I am lucky to be able to witness a lot of wonderful musical moments each year, and 2016 was no exception.  Though my visual mindset is usually focused on capturing these moments through still photography, since being added to the festival’s social media team I also periodically switch gears and capture raw, behind-the-scenes videos of these sorts of folk fest moments.

I have just finished uploading three such videos to my Youtube account of entire song performances.  Check them out below and, if you’re interested in this kind of stuff, subscribe to my Youtube channel to keep informed as I upload more of this sort of content.  There are a couple videos already up over there from last year as well, and as I find time to edit them together this public library will continue to grow.

The first of these two videos are of The East Pointers performing Secret Victory and The Stubborn Mule to an energetic crowd, and the third is of San Fermin jamming with The Staves and Mikaela Davis to come up with a unique take on their song, Sonsick.



July 30, 2016 - 10:33 pm

Matthew - Killer workshops. Heck of a fest.

Postcards from Winnipeg Folk Festival 2016.

Another year, another Winnipeg Folk Festival.  Here is a smattering of moments from a long weekend full of experiences and memories – one digital postcard chosen to represent each day.

Winnipeg skyline at sunrise as cyclists gather to ride out to the Winnipeg Folk Festival site

Wednesday: Get out to the festival site!  At the break of dawn cyclists gather against the Winnipeg skyline to pedal out to Birds Hill Park.

Relaxing in a hammock while listening to main stage music

Thursday: Relax the evening away listening to the first musical performances of the festival.

Young Performers Program - group hug with mentors

Friday: Artists are thrown on stage together and workshop magic begins.  Over at Shady Grove each Friday of the festival groups of young performers take to the stage.  This is a group hug of The Crooked Brothers and the young performers they mentored after they laid down some top-notch performances.

Lemon Bucket Orkestra - dancing and laughing

Saturday: More music, more dancing, more smiling.  Pictured: Lemon Bucket Orkestra.

Sheena Rattai of Red Moon Road looks out on the crowd.

Sunday: Goodbyes.  Sheena Rattai of Red Moon Road looks out on a crowd of satisfied folks as they close out the final workshop of the festival: a stage full of Manitoba musicians proudly representing the great music this province has to offer.

July 17, 2016 - 9:35 am

Daniella - Mirrors my day by day feelings too.
The reflection in the sunglasses of that last photo is ace!!

July 18, 2016 - 12:44 pm

Scott - I thought you said you weren’t cycling out this year? …I miss this.

August 5, 2016 - 11:02 pm

Wayne - LEMON BUCKET ORCHESTRA!!! So fun!!!!!!

August 8, 2016 - 4:47 pm

David - @Scott: Yeah – no cycling out for me this year, but I did take the assignment of shooting the Ride to the Site at the muster point at The Forks (where the first photo is from). It was an early morning rise and weird to not ride out with everyone, but I had some other things in the city that needed doing before folk festing.