Kevin Smith is an explorer and photographer with a love of nature, wildlife, boats, and people’s experience of adventure. As a geographer and former marine park ranger in Canada’s remote regions, he is an expert wilderness guide and one of the top bear-viewing guides in the country. Since 2001, he has operated a boutique expedition cruise company in British Columbia and Alaska, guiding people to photograph the places and experiences he loves. He shares some tips for photographing bears and other wildlife in the islands and rainforest fjords of British Columbia’s north coast.
Tatooles: Do you have a favorite location on the North Coast of British Columbia to photograph?
Smith: There are a few places, distinguished by what they give you. One is a small, verdant estuary at the foot of thousand-foot-high mountains in the Great Bear Rainforest. You get mountain-fjord scenic shots – sometimes misty, sometimes sunny – seals and ducks, wildflowers, and brown bears on the shore against the rainforest. Another is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Haida Gwaii.
The dozens of Haida monumental poles here – each a unique piece of art, and each carved from cedars – are greyed and decaying with age but still project a proud presence. The mood changes as the weather does and it’s fun to photograph them dwarfing people, or photograph people’s awe of them. Or to shoot a close-up of a carved bear’s face to suggest the story of all that these poles have seen come and go.
Tatooles: Okay, I know you’re a Canon guy, do you have a “go to” lens you always carry?
Smith: I am inseparable from my Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS II. When I’m guiding I don’t have time to get fancy with frequent lens changes or tripod setups so I literally shoot from the hip while on the move or driving the boat.
Tatooles: What are some tips you can give a photographer who wants to capture that special wildlife moment?
Smith: Take the time to really watch the animal. You must understand why he or she is there. What about that particular bit of habitat is important to the animal? In time you may start to see the greater context of the struggle for life that exists in all wildlife and with this new knowledge you may anticipate the perfect shot. Then all you have to do is be careful not to disturb the animal and simply wait for the magic. Get comfortable, be patient. It might take awhile.
Tatooles: Describe the best photographic experience you have had on the North Coast?
Smith: Top of the long list has to be mama grizzly bears with young cubs. I’ve gotten to know a few generations of bears in some special places and, honestly, when I’ve spent so much time photographing these bears I feel an indescribable connection.
I’m well aware my existence is inconsequential for them, but when they acknowledge me as NOT a threat and just go about foraging, playing, teaching, and even suckling their cubs, it’s powerful stuff.
Tatooles: Are there any advantages to doing a live aboard on a ship like the S/V Maple Leaf?
Smith: We are a small ship expedition and we can get into places that big ships can’t and that only super skilled private boat captains dare risk. These are always the best spots for wilderness and wildlife. Since we push hard to get to the very best places it helps to have comfortable accommodations and a top tier chef and crew along for the ride. Also our captains and guides are all wildlife photographers themselves so we get it. We will do whatever it takes to help our guests get the shot.
Tatooles: How have you used your photography to promote wildlife conservation?
Smith: Amazingly, there is still lots of wildlife conservation required in British Columbia – although we do have a few successes to celebrate, too. One campaign I’ve dedicated a lot to is to stop the trophy hunting of grizzly bears and other top carnivores. Even though bear viewing trips like ours generate 12x the revenue as trips to kill these bears for sport, and 90% of British Columbians want the trophy hunt ended, we cannot get the hunt stopped. I have donated my photographs to conservation organizations working to end the hunt.
One of the most innovated conservation moves ever was from one of them, Raincoast, which just decided to buy the permits to become trophy hunters themselves. Suddenly you had a conservation organization owning huge swaths of territory. And guess what? They just cannot seem to bag a bear, although they have a lot of happy “hunter” clients. And in those areas, we are able to run great bear viewing trips now because the bears know we are not going to kill them. It’s amazing how quickly they figure that out. I am proud that my photos and my guests (through donations) helped in their small way to make this happen. And we have more territory to buy still.
Tatooles: What is the best time to visit British Columbia for photographic opportunities?
Smith: Spring through autumn is great, for different reasons. In the south in spring, you can capture the season’s fresh bursting of life: wildflowers, thousands of seabirds, shining leaves and ocean. In the north, snow still highlights the mountaintops, making the landscape pop; it’s also when the estuaries and forests are about a hundred different shades of green against blue mountains. You get brown bears in green sedges, too. Fall is good for wildlife as well as misty, moody landscapes. Obviously the angle of the sun is great in spring and fall as well. Summer gives you access to wild, far-flung beaches, sunny days, and whales.
Tatooles: What’s a common misperception about photographing on the B.C. coast?
Smith: Weather is your friend. A bright blue sunny day is not necessarily the best for creating winning images – although we do get plenty of those. But embrace the creeping mists captured in front of an island. It adds a linear, structural element. And as weather builds so does the potential for great photography. And sometimes horizontal rain is just all the excuse you need to finish the day’s photography and dive down below for a bit of après photography over a glass with your new tribe of photography explorers.
Tatooles: Tell us about Maple Leaf’s trips and what opportunities they could provide a photographer?
Smith: One of our expedition leaders, who is also a professional photographer, once said, “I’m always amazed at the range of photographic opportunities available on each trip.” You can get everything from terrestrial wildlife (bears, martens) and marine wildlife (whales, dolphins, sea lions), to birds, to landscapes and seascapes, people shots, and close-up opportunities. If you like textures there is the color of a sunset on a rippled sea, or the skin of a salmon’s flank, or the repeating pattern of false lily-of-the-valley under the giant spruce, hemlock, and cedar trunks. You can get ship details and village life and dramatic skies. It’s really a rich place geographically, biologically, and visually. They are all great but from a photography trip standpoint probably the most popular are the Great Bear Rainforest, Haida Gwaii, and Alaska.