If you have ever seen a picture of a bear eating a fish on a waterfall, chances are it was taken at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park Alaska. National Geographic Photographer Joel Sartore captured his iconic grizzly image in 1999, but one doesn’t need to be a professional photographer to take an amazing picture at Brooks Falls. The key to taking a great picture at Brooks Falls is just getting there.
Brooks Falls is a now famous location for watching bears eat salmon as they swim upstream. It is only accessible via sea plane (essentially a taxi ride in Alaska), and if you are a bear or wildlife lover, it is one of the most amazing places on earth.
Unlike visiting Barter Island, Alaska to see the polar bears, you do not need an organized tour to go to Katmai. Brooks Lodge which is the only hotel in Katmai will take care of everything. Essentially from the Lodge you walk a short distance to a viewing platform to see the bears. I see little benefit in paying extra money for an organized tour, as everyone goes to the same viewing platform and stays in the Lodge.
Brooks Falls and the Lodge area have several elevated platforms and walkways to observe the bears. While the falls is best known, you will get to see bears in many different environments. It seems like everywhere you turn you see a bear. I am not a fisherman, but apparently this area has some of the world’s best fly fishing, and it is interesting to watch people fishing in the river along with the bears. -
Tips on going to Brooks Falls
- Reservations at the Brooks Lodge are coveted and there is a lottery system to book hotel rooms. I was flexible in my dates and was able last minute to find two available nights.
- Camping is also available next to the Lodge in a fenced in area to stay safe from the bears. This is an economical option to see the bears.
- It is possible to fly to Brooks Lodge for a day trip. Sea planes arrive in the morning and fly out in the afternoon. If you are not a diehard bear fan or photographer a day may be ample time to photograph the bears. My personal recommendation is try to stay at least one night but the more the better.
- You do not need professional camera equipment or super long telephoto lenses to take great pictures. From the platform you are not far away from the bears, and a cell phone can capture great shots.
- The Lodge is made up of small cabins that have several bunkbeds. One cabin can easily sleep a group of 4.
- Peak bear viewing is late July, and there can be a wait at the viewing platform to see the bears.
Bear Photography Tips
- Alaska is one giant rain forest and it rains a lot. Be prepared for bad weather and bring gear to keep your camera and other equipment dry.
- A 200-400mm zoom lens is ideal. On the platform you are not too far away from the bears so you don't need to worry about an extra long zoom lens or bring a teleconverter.
- Set your camera to a moderately fast shutter speed (1/400) and try to have a fast frames per second. The fish jump the falls quickly and sometimes a fraction of a second can make a difference between a good shot and a photograph that is amazing.
- Bears are essentially monochromatic. A vibrant fish or water from the falls can add a splash of color that makes the photograph pop.
- A tripod cam be helpful especially if you want to get an image of milky water over the falls. There is a railing at the falls where you can balance your camera, but a tripod would be usefully. Numerous other photographers will be using tripods.