Photographing in Southeast with Heather Kiesel

Photographer Heather Kiesel (Photo courtesy of Heather Kiesel)

By Jasz Garrett

Juneau, Alaska (KINY) – Heather Kiesel is a wildlife photographer in Juneau. She shared some tips for anyone curious about wildlife photography.

First, Kiesel introduced herself as a lifelong Juneau resident.

“I have a really great interest in photography and wildlife specifically in Southeast Alaska. So, I have a hard time going anywhere else in shooting because of the opportunities that I have found here in Juneau,” she said. “And probably because of my early childhood, growing up in a logging camp on Prince of Wales Island. Being around bears and around wildlife out in nature has really been a driving force behind my interest.”

She said her love for photography stemmed from her love of the outdoors.

“I started working at TEMSCO out of high school in 1985 and just opened up to tourism and all the activities that they were offering to the visitors in our capital city. So, I rode along in some of those and took my camera along and started at that point,” Kiesel said. “Put it down for a while, but then probably around 2015 I hooked up with some friends that were out doing it and it kind of blossomed from there.”

She said that once she picked up a camera, the world changed.

Kiesel made it clear that she is no bear expert; however, here are some safety tips she follows when hunting for a photo.

“Safety is always priority one at any time when you’re doing this. So, along with my camera gear that you would expect and a bit of knowledge on where I’m going, the two things that I really would emphasize are a buddy. And of course, a joke is somebody slower than you,” she said. “And I always buy fresh bear spray every year.”

She advised wildlife photographers to carry bear spray and know how to use it.

“This is before I got a cotton carrier which allows me to carry my camera in the front with hands-free. But I did have bear spray in my pocket. We were out on a bear photography trip. We were dropped off by floatplane,” Kiesel recalled. “We were walking along the beach in an open area because you never want to be walking through dense woods or brush or anything like that. We were coming around the corner up the river and all of a sudden two heads popped up…brown bear cubs.”

She said her first instinct was to look for where the momma bear was. Then she made herself look bigger, raising her tripod up high. The people she was with grouped into a tight circle. One did have a weapon if they needed to use it. Thankfully, no bear spray or weapon was needed.

“We were in an area where the bears were used to people walking through it. She stood up, looked over the scene, and decided we weren’t worth it. Dropped down and they all three went into the woods,” Kiesel said.

She added it’s important to pay attention to a bear’s reaction to you.

“I was in a meadow and walking a trail that you could tell the bears frequented. And I did spot a black bear ahead of me quite a distance. So, I moved to get a closer angle on the bear. And as I got closer, he looked up. And so, I stepped out so he could get a good view of me. I waited to see what his reaction was. He didn’t seem at all concerned. And so, I proceeded to get where I wanted to get to position for the photos with the background that I was looking for,” she said. “But then what happened next was another bear came out. And you could tell these were subadult bears, so, probably three years old. But the cinnamon bear became very agitated once he located me.”

She said that she could tell the second bear did not want her there. With a creek and distance between them, Kiesel backed off to give the bears space.

She also studies bear behavior throughout the winter. Here are her Southeast book recommendations: Tongass Odyssey by John Schoen, True Stories of Bear Attacks by Mike Lapinski, and No Room for Bears by Frank Dufresne.

She gave beginning photography tips to keep in mind.

“One is, of course, a long telephoto lens if you can possibly get that. Learning your camera before you get out there, back button focus. Practice that, that’s a game changer. Get down to eye level, if possible, it’s great for perspective in that dynamic photo. So, the lower the better,” Kiesel said. “And there’s this thing called the 20-60-20. So, when you arrive on scene wherever your wildlife is, whether it’s the swans that are out at Amalga right now to finding a bear in a meadow, 20% get a shot of the animal. And then 60% of the time is spent being mindful of composition, of lighting. And then the last 20 is getting creative.”

Kiesel has a 2024 Bears of the Tongass National Forest calendar available for purchase through her Facebook and website. She credited the inspiration for making a calendar to Leslie Dahl.

The calendar month of Nov. 2024 features a bear Kiesel has photographed for four years in a row sitting on her favorite rock. She said the bear likes to relax there after fishing. (Photo credit to Heather Kiesel)
The first year she photographed the bear, there were other bears with her, another sibling and a mom. Now Kiesel sees her with one other bear. She is curious to see if they’ll still be together next year. (Photo credit to Heather Kiesel)