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Technical

April 2009

It’s an image that Canon Ambassador Thorsten Milse refers to as his “identity card” and one that secured him the Grand Prize in the Nature’s Best Photography Awards in 2005 and a runner-up award in the Animal Behaviour category of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The ‘kissing’ polar bears was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ shot that required a mixture of patience, endurance and photographic skill. CPN editor Steve Fairclough spoke to Thorsten Milse about this iconic image.

Thorsten recalls: “I remember this photo exactly – it is my ‘identity card’ for GEO and BBC Wildlife magazine and was also the cover for my book Little Polar Bears (Kleine Eisbären). It also hung for a while in the Smithsonian Gallery in Washington DC.”

© Frank Springer

One of the world’s greatest wildlife photographers – Thorsten Milse.

The image was one of only three taken by Thorsten on a day spent in the high Canadian Arctic: “We were in Wapusk (White Bear) National Park near a special polar bear denning area. Our trekkers found a track of the mother and cub near to Fletcher Lake and we saw a polar bear with a single cub about 100 metres away. It was a really cold day – about minus 35 degrees, with wind chill about minus 45.”

Thorsten had to make a few equipment decisions: “I had an EOS 10D and an EOS-1Ds but for this picture I chose the 10D. I wasn’t sure whether to use the 1Ds and crop the full frame or use the 10D, but as it was a really long distance I thought it was better to get a close-up effect to fill the frame, so I used the 10D.” Thorsten had an EF1.4x extender fitted to his EF500mm f/4L IS USM lens to extend the focal length of the lens up to 700mm.

After a four-hour wait in the sub-zero temperatures Thorsten spotted that the mother and her polar bear cub had begun to move. Thorsten recalls: “One hour after that the mother stood up for one second, cuddled and looked left and right. I took three photos – one kiss, one when the cub looked at me and one when the cub looked away. It was about one or two o’clock in the afternoon with great light, so I added +0.5 exposure compensation. Normally you would shoot +1.5 or +2, otherwise you would get a grey bear, but the lighting that day was so good.”

He adds: “It was a perfect day for me, but I only took three shots.” But, did Thorsten know he had this amazing shot? “You know it’s the perfect moment but you’re not really sure if it’s sharp – it is really cold and your face is frozen, so it’s hard to tell. I saw the moment and then in the evening I saw the picture on my laptop – it was perfect in terms of framing.”

Five years later and the image is still probably Thorsten’s best single wildlife photograph: “You only get a picture like this once a year,” he laughs.

Technical

The 'kissing' polar bears – Thorsten Milse

Location: Wapusk National Park, Hudson Bay, Canada
Date: 4 March 2004
Camera: EOS 10D
Lens: EF500mm f/4L IS USM with EF1.4x extender (700mm)
Exposure: 1/1250sec at f/11, +0.5 exposure compensation
ISO speed: 100

Biography: Thorsten Milse

Thorsten Milse

Born in Germany, nature photographer Thorsten Milse trained as a graphics designer, but then decided to pursue a photographic career. Thorsten specialises in landscape and wildlife photography with a strong focus on conservation and endangered species. His images have been published in 25 countries in prestigious nature magazines including GEO, BBC Wildlife, Illustreret Videnskab and Nature’s Best Photography. His pictures have won several international prizes, including BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year (animal behaviour) and the Grand Prize Winner at Nature’s Best Photo Competition. In late 2011 his coffee table book 'Polar World', the result of over six years of work in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, was published.