Archive for the ‘Aerial’ Category

Up, up and away

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010
Up, up and away

Imagine if Santa Claus, instead of dropping down the chimney to give you gifts, instead called you on the phone with good news.  Getting a call from a pilot on a day like today, with clear skies and sunshine as far as the eye can see, and lots of fresh snow on the ground, is a lot like that … when he is asking if you want to go up in a plane to do some aerial photography.  This is the kind of day, with the kind of light, with the kind of ground conditions that makes aerial winter landscape photography the absolute best thing to be doing in the entire world.  (Of course, taking two hours off from the middle of the day meant I would have to stay at the office a bit late, but that is just fine.)

Oh, the plane.  A brand spanking new 2009  Skyhawk SP Cessna 172SP, complete with leather seats, phenomenal GPS and killer graphics to boot, nice heating system, smooth start and engine … and it spends its days in the protection of a hangar; not very common around here.  I took the back seat, not only because it would be better for weight distribution, but I wanted the flexibility of shooting out of both sides of the plane.  And, generally speaking, the rear windows have fewer obstructions than the front.  No wing struts to get in my shot.

We took off from Merrill Field for a “Campbell Departure,” which means to the south over the Campbell Creek area and down toward the Turnagain Arm.  Once the Turnagain Arm was in sight, I saw that it was completely covered in fog, making for some interesting shots of the area.  A bit disappointing, though, as the tide was outgoing and I was looking forward to some tidal flats shots.  I was able to get a good shot of the tidal flats just at the mouth of the Arm, where the fog had not reached.  The light was clear and bright all along the way, making for some nice shots, but not the sort of magical light that really gets a photographer’s juices flowing.  We found that light when we went over Portage Pass and past Whittier into the Prince William Sound.

A quick note on aerial photography is in order.  Obviously, this is not the time when you should follow the cardinal rules of sharpness in photography for landscape photos: tripod, shutter cable, and mirror lock.  None of them do you any good in a moving object that is going over 100 mph.  So, the key to sharp images is a higher ISO to ensure you are always shooting at a faster shutter speed.  With a bright day like today, you don’t need too high of an ISO – 400 will do the trick.  This is because you also do not need to shoot at the highest f-stop available, which is typically around f/22.  Rather, since there is no foreground to consider for depth of field, you can shoot around f/4.0 or f/5.6 and still have everything in the frame sharp.  Landscapes are very compressed when doing aerial photography.  Of course, the rules for hand held stability still apply: hold the camera close to you, bracing your left elbow against your chest as you hold the underside of your camera.

Back to the Prince William Sound.  Shortly after heading over this massive collection of bays, islands, channels, glaciers and open water, the light started to hit its magical hues.  The low light angle that dominates our winters here create for some great sidelighting on ridges, shadows on trees, and reflections in shaded waters.  I was simply shooting almost non-stop for this portion of the flight, finding magic around every ridge and in every little bay.  I noticed several places that would make for great stopping points for a kayaking trip.

As the light continued its descent toward sunset, we made our way over the mountains and over the Colony Glacier and Knik Glacier, which is the head of the Knik Arm, the twin to the Turnagain Arm on the other side of Anchorage.  We got up close and personal to Pioneer Peak, where I noticed for the first time that it was a twin summit.  Here the light was starting to produce alpenglow, the one thing that makes life in the far north truly amazing.  I could never live in a location that doesn’t have alpenglow.  As we continued on toward Anchorage, rounding Eagle River, we started to get good views of the Tordrillo Mountains and Mount Redoubt (which was steaming when we started our flight and seemed to have calmed down now).  I knew our time was short, but I would loved to have spent some time going over the Knik River some more – the reflections and patterns were really enticing.  Some other time.  As long as we get a few more days like this in the winter, I know there will be time again.

Christmas Eve aerial

Thursday, December 24th, 2009
Christmas Eve aerial

If you like doing aerial photography, it helps to know people who are pilots.  When they call and ask if you would like to go up and do some shooting, even if the light isn’t that great, it’s best to take advantage when you can.  So, when I received a call from such a pilot on the morning on Christmas Eve asking if I was interested in going up, I said yes.  Of course, the clouds were dominating the sky, and there were few breaks, but I am ever the optimist when it comes to photography.  I generally try to not let current conditions dictate future photo plans.

We met up over at Merrill Field.  Our aircraft for the flight was a Cessna 172 Skyhawk II, a four-seater of common size for use in Alaska.  The original plan was to fly down along the Turnagain Arm to Portage, but the clouds were getting pretty thick up there.  So, instead, we flew along the Powerline Pass area, across over to Ship Lake, then down along the Ship Creek drainage before turning back for a return along Bear Valley.

It was the first time I had ever glimpsed this portion of the Chugach Mountains.  You get a sense of how connected the valleys and drainages are by looking at them on a map, but you really don’t get a true appreciation for it until you can see the connections from the air.  I visualized many routes that would make for good backpacking trips.  One of the great things about living in Anchorage is the accessible wilderness.

Gates aerial work

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009
Gates aerial work

Once my pilot and plane got me over to Bettles, it was too late on Wednesday evening to do any shooting.  So Seth, who is a law enforcement ranger and pilot (the two seem to go hand-in-hand in Gates), and I sat down with a map and did some planning.  I wanted to be able to get a good autumn image of the Gates formation, and spend some time in the western areas of the park, particularly the Kobuk River, I had not yet explored.  In four flight sessions, only two of them produced some decent images.

For our first morning, on Thursday, we headed north in hopes of getting some first light on the Gates – Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags.  A thick band of clouds blocked morning light from hitting Frigid Crags, but I think that the sunrise was too far south to actually hit both mountains at first light at this time of year.  Instead, we spent a bit of time shooting around Mount Boreal and Mount Doonerak, both of which were getting some great light.  Dramatic storm clouds and peeking shafts of sunlight provided some really inspiring scenes.  My shutter clicked repeatedly, and I had Seth go back and forth across a few scenes so I could make sure to capture the light and the scenery the way I wanted to.  It was also a bit challenging, as I used my Lee graduated neutral density filters in flight for the first time.  I used the grid lines in my Nikon D300 view finder to help level the horizon in flight.  As the morning grew later, we started our way back toward Bettles, checking out a Dall Sheep population along the southern edge of the border to ensure there had not been any poaching.

That evening, we headed west out across state land to meet up with the beginning of the Kobuk River near Walker Lake in the park.  We followed it wind its way down and west toward its eventual delta at the Hotham Inlet of Kotzebue Sound.  We were not planning on going that far; rather, our destination was a mining community at Dahl Creek, where the park service has a couple of cabins and fuel shed.  Designated as a Wild and Scenic River, it certainly earns its name.  I found it one of the most beautiful rivers in the park, winding back and forth with several braids and sizable gravel bars and islands.  As we headed west, the sun reflected and sparkled across the surface of the river.  Since it is moose hunting season, Seth was also in law enforcement mode, checking out some known moose hunting camps (the Kobuk River sits mostly within the Preserve part of the park, where hunting is permitted).  Along the way, we spotted four bears – the Kobuk has a late chum salmon run – including a sow with cub.

When we landed at Dahl Creek, we had a rude awakening for us at the park service bunkhouse we expected to sleep in for the night.  The keys we brought with us fit in the locks, but would not turn the lock.  We were an hour flight away from a place to stay, no tent with us, and faced with the challenge of finding a place to sleep in the dark (the sun had set forty minutes ago). Fortunately, we found the Alaska State Trooper cabin and were able to stay in it for the night.  (The troopers and park law enforcement frequently collaborate on law enforcement matters of mutual concern, even sharing some facilities, so each officer has a set of keys to the other’s facilities.)  The next morning we were grounded due to fog, so I spent some time photographing the foggy scene and reading Galen Rowell’s “High and Wild.”  When the skies cleared enough, Seth picked up two backcountry rangers who were on patrol on the Kobuk, Greg and Christian, and brought them back to Dahl Creek.

We somehow managed to load up all of us and our gear, making it back to Bettles at about 5:30, with a plan to head back out for an evening flight at 7:30. By then, the clouds had rolled in thickly to the west, cutting off much if not all of the light from hitting the land.  With no significant light falling directly on the mountains, I started thinking about light differently.  Like the previous evening on Walker Lake and the Kobuk, the light was still providing interesting reflections on water bodies.  The brightly reflected water in combination with the deep shadows of the mountains and valleys created stark graphic representations of the land.

The next morning proved very disappointing, with a thick overcast reaching as high as 9,500 feet, well above the tallest mountain in the park, Igikpak.  I captured some images above the clouds and below, and we headed back early to call it a morning.  A couple of hours later, Seth and I, along with Pam Rice, the acting Director of Interpretation for the park, headed back to Coldfoot.  The light and rain gave us a few treats along the way, and we tried one more look at the Gates.  No joy on account of clouds.

The thing with photography is that sometimes things do not go as planned.  But you have to be out there on location, trying to capture the scene in order to have an opportunity to capture anything.  Trips like this can be frustrating, but they provide opportunities still.  I was able to capture things on the Dalton Highway I have been wanting to photograph for the last two years.  I was able to see new parts of the park and imagine future opportunities.  And even with the disappointing weather, I felt I captured some dramatic images that expressed the truly wild and untamed nature of the park.  And, Seth and I had an opportunity to get to work together and plan for future work this coming winter.

Into Denali

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009
Into Denali
After a bit of a break from my two weeks in Colorado, it was time to head out into Alaska and spend some time photographing the home turf. This time, I was not flying solo. Rather, I had my wife, Michelle, and my nephew, Daniel, who is visiting from Texas. After staying a night with some friends in Talkeetna, where I heard for the first time the rather freaky shrieking howl of a lynx, we decided to take advantage of the clear weather and catch a flightseeing tour. 

After ten years of living in Alaska,this was my first Denali flightseeing tour of the south face. My only other flightseeing tour was from the north side, taking off at the Kantishna air field and checking out the north face. Today’s tour of the south face started in Talkeetna, taking us the 35 miles to Denali, checking out the nearby peaks and glaciers, like Huntington Peak, Ruth Glacier, Moose’s Tooth, Mt. Hunter, Mt. Foraker, and winding our way around the back side to the Wickersham Wall – a 14,000 foot vertical drop, the highest in the world – and up and over both summits. It was not the best of light – the flight left at 11:00 a.m., about five hours after sunrise. But it was a good exposure to aerial photography of the south face, giving me some ideas for areas to focus in the future.

 We left Talkeetna and headed north to Denali National Park & Preserve, about two and a half hours away. We had a permit for three nights at the Teklanika River Campground, about 27 miles into the park. As always, we took our time driving in, looking for wildlife. In the past, when I have gone with other photographers all the way out to Wonder Lake, 90 miles into the park, it can take as much as twelve hours to make the drive. That’s not so much because of the slow pace of driving in general, but the frequent stopping for wildlife. But, we did not encounter any wildlife along the way. We also could not enjoy any views of the mountain, as the clear skies we had enjoyed earlier had been replaced by a cloud front from the south.

 After we settled into camp, we were visited by a snowshoe hare, looking for an easy meal. From what we heard from other campers, that animal was not the only one looking for an easy meal in the campground. There was a lynx that had been coming into the campground, no doubt following the hares that were visiting the area. The snowshoe hare population is peaking, so the lynx population is as well. Unfortunately for the hare, it is the primary food choice of the lynx. But, the same is also fortunate for nature photographers. No luck seeing a lynx this evening, though. We did have luck, however, with the sunset.

Classic Brooks Range

Monday, September 8th, 2008
Classic Brooks Range

As we were heading out of the park, I had put my camera down and was settling in for a short nap on the way back to Bettles.  I looked down and saw the cascade of shadows and light washing across the stacked ridges of the Brooks Range, a classic image of these rugged mountains.  I had Curt turn just a little bit so I could get the right angle and shoot around the wing support struts.

Magic in the Arrigetch

Monday, September 8th, 2008
Magic in the Arrigetch

Early famous for its rock climbing opportunities, the Arrigetch Peaks region of Gates of the Arctic is one of the more iconic locations in the park. It is a popular destination, accessible only by backpacking from a float plane drop off near the Alatna River. It is spectacular to photograph from the air, and I look forward to one day backpacking up in there and spending about a week exploring the area. When the right golden light hits these granite peaks, the Arrigetch Peaks truly represent some of the best in landscape beauty for a photographer to examine.

Sometimes late is good

Monday, September 8th, 2008
Sometimes late is good

So, we were able to get our arrangements made to have Bettles Air pick us up at Lake Kavacharak, a common pickup and drop off point in the Noatak National Preserve, at around 3:00 p.m. Wanting to make sure we had plenty of time to portage the gear from the river to the lake, we arrived at the lake at around noon, and had everything portaged by a little after 1:00. We treated ourselves to a hot lunch, and I relaxed against a large dry bag, reading “The Blue Bear.” We knew that our ride would not be there on time – bush taxis never are – but we were not quite prepared for the 3 hours and 40 minutes late that Bettles Air eventually was. Curt was at the wheel, of course, and helped us to quickly get loaded and get up in the air. As we flew back toward Bettles, I became increasingly pleased at the late pick up, as the light was starting to get rather spectacular. As we flew near Mount Igikpak and through the Arrigetch Peaks, I quickly filled the compact flash card in my camera. I wished we could stay out more and capture more aerial photos from this end of the park, but knew we had to get back. As it was, we landed and had the plane unloaded just in time for the sunset.

Just like in the ‘Nam

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008
Just like in the 'Nam

After completing coverage of the several rafting groups on the river, we meandered back to the lodge, capturing images of scenery and wildlife along the way.  There I was, hanging out the open door of a helicopter, toting a big “gun” of a lens, and flying over what looked an awful lot like rice paddies.  I couldn’t help but imagine myself in another world, in another lifetime, serving in a soldier in a long-gone conflict that at least our leaders cannot seem to recall.  If they could, foreign policy would probably be a bit different today.

Remote rafting photography

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008
Remote rafting photography

When I first learned of this assignment, to photograph several groups of rafters in a remote location, I imagined several possibilities.  I imagined riding with some of the groups in the raft with a waterproof camera to capture some up-close action, then stationing myself somewhere along the line to photograph groups from the shore.  When I learned that the videographer from Tony Robbins would be up in a helicopter covering the groups, I was determined to find space on that helo.  Strapped in with a door open for the best access, I switched between a camera with a 70-200mm lens and one with a 120-300mm lens for a nice range of scenic and close up action.

Wall against the fog

Thursday, July 24th, 2008
Wall against the fog

If you live and fly within Alaska, you will frequently hear about the fog in the arctic summer, how often VFR aircraft cannot land in Anaktuvik Pass. On my last photo flight for my trip up to Gates of the Arctic, I saw firsthand why. All the way flying up the John River basin, it was sunny and beautiful. As we got closer, we saw fog fronts rolling in from Anaktuvik Pass and the Chandler Lake area. Then we got above the clouds, up to around 9,500 feet, and saw a thick, dense carpet of fog reaching all the way north and into the Arctic Ocean. It was then that I realized and appreciate a vital role that the Brooks Range plays in the weather, keeping the Arctic Ocean fog at bay. This vast and menacing presence simply came to a halt at the frontal wall of the mountain range. It reminded me a bit of summers in Grand Marais, in northern Minnesota, where the cold air from Lake Superior blends with the warm, moist air of summer to create a thick fog that comes to rest at the edge of the Sawtooth Mountains.