The Expressions of Animals: Alan Sinner’s Take on Wildlife Photography

By Casey Adams, photos by Alan Sinner

Alan Sinner notices faces. He sees eyes first, as evidenced by the opening chit-chat for this interview and article. This reflex, born of nearly 40 years of portrait photography, is what has set his wildlife photography apart.

“I’ve had a thing for bears my whole life,” Sinner says, and since he got back into wildlife photography recently, the allure of these majestic behemoths and his expertise in portraiture have blended for dramatic, intimate, even surreal results.

“I don’t do the big scenic shots with the bear crossing the river or things like that,” Sinner reflects. “I guess it’s the portrait photographer in me.”

His wild subjects—which include pikas, foxes, and more in addition to bears—get the same treatment as his high school seniors, brides and grooms, and families. He gets to know them, then he reveals their personalities, interactions and experiences with his images.

“I try to get expressions … I think the eyes are important,” Sinner says. This portrait approach is evident while scrolling through his work. The framing is tight, the eyes and facial expressions the focal point, the edges soft and the colors blended. When viewing his wildlife portraiture, it seems easy—even automatic—to attribute thoughts or a statement to the bear for you, the viewer, or Sinner in his capacity of photographer, to heed.

“I personally think animals have souls, and they have expressions like us,” Sinner says.

If you don’t believe the same, his photography may very well convince you.

The expressions of his carnivorous subjects also reveal their experiences. Drama and love seem evident through the windows to these souls. It is possible to find a sense of place alongside Sinner’s subjects, be it in the effort of shaking off the deep snow of Yellowstone Park or the satisfaction of dining in the forest of Togwotee Pass.

In truth, when it comes to tips on finding his subjects, Sinner said it often boils down to luck.

“Bears are where you find them,” he advised.

When he does find them, he makes the photoshoot intimate—with the safest of approaches. With the significant difference of a minimum of a 70×200 mm lens and two bear-spray cartridges, Sinner brings the rules of his standard, front-country portraits to his bear encounters. For example, lighting and its direction are key considerations to pair with eye contact and expression. He applies portrait-photography rules for directional lighting, favoring backlighting and the low light of early morning and dusk. The result is dramatic, highly personal images.

“I prefer more dramatic light if I can get it, but you can’t tell wild animals what to do, you know,” Sinner chuckles. The tool that best pairs with his lighting principles is patience. “A lot of patience.”

Following those golden moments when these less-than-directable subjects allow him capture a moment of their drama, Sinner works with artists to process the photos, amplifying the portrait quality of his eye for a polished, interesting take on both portraiture and wildlife imagery.
“Some of them are almost surreal, but that’s my style,” he concludes.

Bear photography safety tips, in Alan’s words

  • The safest way to photograph bears is from your car or a boat. I do like my wife’s SUV with a sunroof that retracts!
  • You need a long lens (minimum of 70-200mm). And don’t do the selfie thing.
  • I prefer a monopod because I have more ability for movement.
  • Baiting is not allowed. Don’t feed the bears.
  • Bear spray is a must. I carry one on my hip and one across the front because I have my camera bag around my neck. I take my old bear spray out and practice when it expires. It’s always fun to just pull it off and see how fast I can use it.
  • Hike with somebody that will carry all your equipment and doesn’t run as fast as you!
  • If you’re in a group, don’t surround a bear.
  • Don’t stop in the middle of the road—pull completely off, then come to a park. And watch traffic.
  • I always use that 100-yard rule. If a bear moves closer, the thing to do is back off—I don’t want a fine and that’s safest.
  • Don’t approach sows with cubs. Don’t be stupid.

Learn more about bear safety