Behind the Lens: Photographing Polar Bears

Rarely do travelers see as much of the world as Lucia Griggi, whose passion for her art has taken her from pole-to-pole, and to all continents in between. Journeying aboard Silversea’s expedition ships as the Director of the cruise line’s Onboard Photography Program, the multi-award-winning photographer has observed brush-tailed penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, danced with Blue-footed Boobies in the Galapagos Islands, and befriended Emberá people in Panama’s Darién Jungle—spurred by an unrelenting sense of curiosity, and with a strong motivation to document what she witnesses.

It was back to August 2019, though, that Griggi’s memory journeys when she is asked about a standout moment from her travels, pinpointing one highlight above all others.

Traveling aboard Silver Explorer, Lucia was part-way through a 25-day crossing of the famous Northeast Passage—Silversea’s inaugural undertaking of the route—a potentially challenging voyage of 5,019 nautical miles that encompasses remote stretches of the Arctic, from Alaska, through Russia, to Norway.

“As Silversea’s first crossing of the Northeast Passage, there was a great deal of excitement among our guests, crew and Expedition Team when we set off from Nome in Alaska,” says Griggi. “Knowing that the itinerary would take us far enough north to reach the Arctic sea ice, and given the time of year that we were traveling, I was hoping to fulfill one of my all-time dreams of witnessing and photographing polar bears on the pack ice—in complete solitude and in their natural habitat. This would be my once-in-a-lifetime, golden moment.”

The high Arctic Seas/Lucia Griggi

The search for the subjects: “I’d never photographed polar bears prior to this, despite traveling to the Arctic on various occasions previously. I shared my thoughts with some of our guests, and they were also eager to spot the bears, so I felt even more determined to get the perfect shot. The pressure was well and truly on.

We faced many challenges in delivering the perfect shots: first of all, we needed to find the polar bears, which was hard enough; we also needed to be close enough to the animals to photograph them, in the correct light, and at the perfect angle. Being limited to photographing from the ship and Zodiacs restricted us further. Everything had to align. If the conditions weren’t ideal, the guests and I would leave without a keepsake of this incredible moment.”

“This moment will stay with me for as long as I live. Capturing this sort of behavior is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Lucia Griggi, Photographer and Director of Silversea’s Onboard Photography Program

Remembering, as if with a sense of appreciation for having been lucky enough to experience the sighting, Lucia continues:

“Early on in the voyage, we called at Wrangel Island, which is said to have the highest density of polar bears per square kilometer in the world. But it wasn’t to be. We didn’t manage to get the shot, despite sighting polar bears from a great distance. I left disappointed.

I knew I would have few, if any, opportunities to capture the shot afterward. You can spend entire days traveling through mist, and so it’s easy to get complacent, but I was always prepared. And it paid off. While ice cruising a couple of days later, with the sole aim of witnessing polar bears, we were gifted with yet another chance to photograph that golden shot.

A polar bear and cub on the ice flow, Ice Cruising, Chukchi Sea on the Silver Explorer/Lucia Griggi

The moment: An adult polar bear came into view, accompanied by two cubs. It was such a beautiful sight—I’ll never forget it. The ship slowly drifted by, offering a smooth parallax movement, which enabled me to shoot from different angles. The polar bears were in close enough range that I was able to capture their details, while feeling present and in the moment.

But little could prepare me for the quality of the encounter we enjoyed later that same day: from the bow of Silver Explorer, two polar bears came into clear view, in perfect conditions. They clambered onto an ice floe and began rolling about, drying their fur. I knew this was my opportunity and I’d only have 30 minutes or so to get the flawless shot.

This particular sighting had greater meaning for me because the animals were in such playful moods, interacting with each other and undisturbed by our presence. There was such variation in their movements. Capturing this type of natural behavior is the dream scenario for photographers and videographers. This is why this moment will stay with me for as long as I live.”

Two polar bears play on the ice after a swim in the Laptev Sea/Lucia Griggi

The Process: Griggi expands on how exactly she and a colleague captured the images, describing some of the obstacles they had to overcome:

“Later, fellow photographer Richard Lynch and I were stood at the aft of the ship—him operating the drone and me poised with my Canon EF 400mm f2.8L IS III USM lens. It was very challenging to capture the shot: we were freezing cold, which made it tough to perform; I had to take still photographs while assisting with the drone shoot; and our positioning was limited because we were on the ship. Our guests were also witnessing the moment from the deck, so the pressure to capture the shot was almost overwhelming, but we worked together and remained focused enough to bring the shot home. This is essential in photography.

Two polar bears play on the ice after a swim in the Laptev Sea/Richard Lynch

To get footage from the drone was priceless, as we got a second angle with the ship in the shot and our guests were in the moment. We had to be careful not to encroach on guests’ experiences, but we couldn’t have got footage from that angle in person. So much work went into this shot, so much awareness and preparation. Which lens do you use? Do you use a tripod? What’s your position? Do you have enough card space? Are your batteries fully charged? I knew that this was the most difficult shot to date, but the conditions were virtually immaculate and we succeeded in our objective. I was so happy to be able to share these images with our guests, to immortalize the moment for them; their responses were overwhelming.”

Moment of Reflection: A self-professed perfectionist, Griggi has long yearned to capture this very moment on camera. Her passion for photography shined through with the conclusion of our conversation:

“Capturing this particular shot meant the world to me, as I’d been unsuccessful previously at Wrangel Island. These kinds of moments don’t come along often and I’ve now learned to cherish them when they do. The Northeast Passage passes through such remote and isolated regions, which emphasized the feeling of wonder when we spotted the bears. Photography is a complex art. I’ve worked hard and traveled far and wide to capture rare moments like these. And this time I succeeded. The images will stay with me forever and I’ll be transported back to that unique moment with such great fondness whenever I look at them.”