Archive for January, 2010

Come for the moon, stay for the show

Saturday, January 30th, 2010
Come for the moon, stay for the show

I arose this morning to see a large, glowing orb hovering on the horizon.  No, this is not a journal entry for someone who has a close encounter of some kind.  Rather, it was my simultaneous realization that the skies were clear and the full moon was on its way down to the horizon.  I checked the U.S. Naval Observatory sun and moon data page and learned how much time I had before the moon set.  Just enough time for a quick cup of coffee.

My original intent was to go to Point Woronzof, a rather accessible, high point along the coast with an unobstructed view to the west … and a convenient parking lot.  As I was approaching the hill that leads a driver down to the point, I noticed a side trail off to the right I had never explored before.  I quickly pulled over, grabbed the gear, and headed off.  What I discovered was an even better vantage point – higher than Woronzof, but with a long ledge to the east that gave me a good view of the downtown skyline (which was obscured in fog).  I had my regular gear in my Lowe Pro Orion II (one Nikon D300, a 12-24mm lens, 24-85mm lens, and 70-200mm lens, along with an assortment of GND filters and Moose Polarizing filters).  I had also grabbed my Nikon 500mm manual focus lens as well, knowing it was the perfect lens for larger-than-life moon portraits.

The moon went down fairly quickly after I got there, so I spent my time exploring the ledge and the view.  Taking advantage of the low light, and using my polarizing filter to take away two more stops of light, I captured some long exposure landscapes to show the movement of the inlet ice moving out with the tide.  I captured some images of the Chugach Mountains, as well as the opposite direction with the Tordrillo Mountains and Mt. Susitna (“Sleeping Lady”).  I found a nice, stand alone tree with all sorts of gnarly character that was perfectly situated for some of the compositions.  To balance out the exposures, I switched back and forth between my 2-stop and 3-stop Lee GND filters.  Knowing that there was some fresh coffee cake waiting back for me at home, I packed up and headed back for home once the alpenglow had surpassed its peak in color.

Hidden treasures

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010
Hidden treasures

One of my goals when starting my 2010 Project was to challenge myself to see more.  As a photographer, I generally tend to look at the world differently.  I see how the light is hitting a subject, I ponder the color and quality of the light, I imagine how a scene would look differently at another time of day or season.  It’s simply part of being a photographer.  But so many times I may engage in that mental process without doing anything.

This evening, I was on my way home from downtown Anchorage when I decided I would take a detour down Northern Lights Boulevard toward Point Woronzof to see what photos may lay there waiting to be captured.  To my surprise, I never made it there.  Instead, a row of lighted trees just before the Turnagain neighborhood caught my attention, so I turned around.  I found a side road where I expected to find access and drove down the street for a ways before finding the trees.  They were situated alongside a series of condos, stacked tightly against eachother in a desperate attempt to maximize space.

As is often the case, I just parked, pulled out the tripod and gear, and started working.  I managed to grab the attention of condo owners on both sides of where I was taking pictures.  One owner wondered if I was photographing a moose.  “No,” I said.  “I’m taking pictures of the trees you guys decorated.”  “‘You guys,'” came the response.  “I’M the one who did that,” she said.  “Nice job,” I said.  That seemed to make her happy, and she went back into her condo from the balcony.  A few minutes later, the owner of the opposite condo came out to her balcony, apparently alerted by the small terrier she was holding in her arms (and clamping its jaws shut).  “You taking pictures of the road?” she asked.  “Nope, just the nice lights on the trees.”  That seemed to placate her concerns about my engaging in some untoward activities, and she went back inside.  I spent a few more minutes capturing these lights, as well as a corresponding row of lighted candy canes, then struck the gear and continued on home.

Sunset magic

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010
Sunset magic

To be successful in good landscape photography, a lot of pieces have to fall into place.  Having equipment you know and can rely in is important – it really does not matter if it is the newest, or if it is Canon or Nikon (although, I have been using Nikon for 16 years and am not changing).  A tripod and cable release are important, especially for landscapes because of the depth of field desired.  Weather and lighting are right up there, too, along with being at the right location.  But having them all fall into place, and being there at the right time, is what really makes for magical landscape photography.

So it was today when I decided to go on a little zero-degree Fahrenheit stroll  along the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.  I knew because of the direction the sun has been setting lately that the Coastal Refuge would be a good location.  I first wanted to access the coast somewhere near the Bayshore subdivision in south Anchorage, but private property completely blocks access to the Refuge.  So, I entered near Potter Marsh, in hearing distance of the rifle range.  The near constant pop-pop-pop of weapons fire continuously interrupted what would have otherwise been a lovely afternoon.  I pulled out my iPod and put on some music to drown it out.

I headed out onto the ice, following an outlet from Potter Marsh.  I figured it would provide some nice foreground and hopefully some reflections of the evening sky as the sun got lower.  I never would have guessed how good those colors would get.  Once the sun dropped down below a band of clouds that were just above the horizon, the gold and eventually pink hues of the evening dominated the sky and kept me moving and firing the trigger.  Almost forty minutes after official sunset, I finally stopped taking pictures.  The fiery pinks were finally starting to fade.  I returned to my car and took one last look at the fading colors of the sky.  My toes were a bit cold, and I was a little thirsty, but those sensations were meaningless when compared to the images I had just captured over the previous two hours.

Anchorage urban landscape

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010
Anchorage urban landscape

For the last week or so, one of the things I have focused on as I continue my 2010 Project is to capture different aspects of the Anchorage urban landscape.  Lacking the size or age of Chicago or New York City, Anchorage still has many wonderful architectural and graphic elements to explore, particularly in the winter.  The color and quality of the light that strikes the buildings in the mornings or evenings is different, the types of lighting used on some buildings is different.

Recognizing our long winters, the Municipality of Anchorage has long supported what it calls the “City of Lights” campaign.  (According to Wikipedia, the nickname for Anchorage is “City of Lights and Flowers.”)  Businesses, and homes, are encouraged to string lights on their property for more than just Christmas, but for the whole winter.  Most who observe the practice use white lights.  While at the UPS Store in midtown one evening, I happened upon a couple of trees that were strung with blue lights.  I knew I had my picture of the day, using the tree to frame the distant BP Building in the background.

There is also a building that had been catching my eye that I wanted to photograph downtown, on 8th Avenue between L and K Street.  The stairwell in the building is encased in windows, making it visible to the outside.  Each floor had a different color of light.  Upon closer examination, I learned that the owner uses a regular fluorescent light, then covers the light on each floor with what looks like colored tissue paper.  I spoke with one of the people who works in the building, and she indicated that it was something the owner does every winter.  I have lived here ten years and this was the first time I had noticed it.

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.

Window view

Monday, January 18th, 2010
Window view

So I went to my friend Dave’s home in Eagle River Valley to watch the Vikings put the serious hurt on the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.  I find it amusing how many sports pundits kept referring to the Dallas Cowboys as the “hottest team in the NFC” going into the playoffs.  Sounds like the accuracy of a weather forecast that calls for light flurries and the storm instead ends up dumping 36 inches of snow. 

Anyway, back to Eagle River Valley.  The developed portion of the valley extends about ten miles in from the highway, with homes reaching high up into some serious elevations above the river.  Certainly not the sort of place to live unless you have a solid 4WD vehicle.  I could not get up the driveway to Dave’s house with my front wheel drive only Ford Focus, even with studded tires.  At the end of the developed portion is the Eagle River Nature Center, a wonderful resource for naturalist education and the starting point for a series of trails leading to public use cabins and off to farther trails, like the 23-mile trail past Eagle Glacier and over the Crow Pass. 

It is also a spectacularly beautiful valley, one of the more beautiful accessible valleys in the area.  I can see why people would risk building as high as they do and braving those steep winter roads to have the views that they have.  The same goes for the view from Dave’s house, which is the feature photo for this post.  I actually took this shot from the warmth and comfort of the inside of the house.  I took my time setting up the equipment and taking the shot, going back and forth in between plays of the Vikings game to capture this image, which is a four-photo HDR shot.

Snowshoeing through woods on a snowy morning

Saturday, January 16th, 2010
Snowshoeing through woods on a snowy morning

I couldn’t help but think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as I trekked along the Turnagain Arm Trail in showshoes this morning.  Not that I had a horse, or there were any farmhouses, or that it was getting dark.  I just had not though of that poem in a while, and somehow it made its way from the deep recesses of my subconscious to the world where my daily thoughts blend. Perhaps it was the darkness and the depth of these woods, mostly cottonwoods, on the steep slopes of the Chugach Mountains above the Turnagain Arm.  But the woods were certainly lovely.

I started at the Potter Creek trailhead over an hour before sunrise.  I knew I was not going to be able to photograph sunrise, as the clouds to the south and east were pretty thick.  But, I had my snowshoes, my camera gear in my LowePro Orion II bag, some water and a thermos of hot chocolate.  What better thing to do on a Saturday morning then trek out into the woods, in the not cold but not too warm air, and see what nature would present to me?

It took me a few hundred yards to get away from the up-close sounds of traffic on the Seward Highway, heading south out of Anchorage.  Soon, though, the only sounds around were of the crunching of the cleats on my snowshoes, digging into the hard packed snow and ice just beneath our fresh snows of Wednesday and Thursday.  As I heard the metal scraping and finding keep on the hard ice, I was glad to not just be wearing my Sorels.  The hiking poles helped also to add some additional stability with the slick surface.

Shortly after a mile along the trail, I happened upon a cow moose bedded down in the woods below me.  She was acutely aware of me, but not concerned enough to get up or otherwise interrupt her chewing.  I did not really see what she was eating, but I could see her mouth moving back and forth, gnashing her teeth against something.  Not that I really need any more photos of cow moose at this point in my career, but I liked the peaceful look of her sitting there on the ground, careless about my presence.  Good for her this is winter, as this particular stretch of the trail is known to have bear problems, including a fatal mauling of two hikers by a bear that was believed to be protecting a moose kill.

As I am packing up my gear, I notice the moose stand up.  I look up and see the source of her disturbance – an older couple coming down the trail, each with a dog.  It has been my experience that moose generally don’t care much for dogs.  I continue on down the trail toward McHugh Creek, the next intersection along the trail, and am nearly to the two-mile mark on the trail when I see something unexpected: a large spruce decorated as if it were a Christmas tree.  A couple of runners pass me by, and tell me that someone has been anonymously decorating this tree for the last few years, even leaving some of the decorations up in the summer.  Has it been that long since I have been down this trail?

I start to notice that, even though the sun has not broken through the clouds, it has risen and is starting to light up and add some color to the higher altitude clouds.  After a while, I decide to head back.  On my way back to my car, I keep looking for enough of a break through the trees to photograph Gull Rock, on the other side of the Turnagain Arm from my position.  The skies in that area definitely were starting to light up with some color.  I finally find an opening and stamp my way through the bushes with my snowshoes to get to a spot where I can set up my tripod.

I keep heading back up the trail toward the trailhead and my car, running into various small groups, mostly with dogs, along the way.  I learn from one group that the bench where I plan to take a hot chocolate break before the final descent to the trailhead was built as part of an Eagle Scout project.  I find the bench and take the time to capture some sweeping landscapes of the outgoing tide, the coast, the Kenai Mountains, and the gnarly trees on the little knob where the bench rests.  Then, I take a break for some Godiva hot chocolate.  Satisfied, I return to the trail and my car, glad to have taken the time even on this cloudy morning to rediscover a part of my extensive backyard.

Afternoon on the coast

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010
Afternoon on the coast

I took some time to take a break from the day and head over to Westchester Lagoon to catch the afternoon light.  If I were an ice skater, I would spend a lot of my time here in the winter.  Westchester Lagoon is a magificent wetlands resource in our city, nestled against the coast and near downtown.  It provides habitat to numerous birds in the summer, and wonderful recreational opportunities in the winter.  It is also an access point for the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, an 11-mile trail running along the coastal areas of Anchorage, including the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.

Shortly after leaving the Westchester Lagoon, as you head south along the Coastal Trail, you will find the Fish Creek Estuary.  Fish Creek, originall called King Salmong Creek because of its historical salmon runs, provides a home to nesting Sandhill cranes, red fox, lynx, black bear, moose, nesting owls, birds of prey including eagles, beaver, muskrat, and other small mammals.  It also serves during high tides in the summer as a feeding area for beluga whales just offshore in Cook Inlet.  In 2002, the Great Land Trust acquired an of easement that preserved this significant wetlands in the coastal area and its important habitat.

For the last several years, the Municipality of Anchorage has been working on the Chester Creek Ecosystem Restoration Project, designed to improve fish passage to help restore and sustain the natural run of salmon in Chester Creek.  Westchester Lagoon is the terminus of Chester Creek.  This has included the installation of a culvert underneath the raised track platform for the Alaska Railroad, a fish weir, and a channel leading from Westchester out to the Cook Inlet.  Prior to the completion of this project in June of 2009, the outfall for Chester Creek had been underground, beneath the railroad.

These are the kind of projects that make me very happy to have my real estate taxed.  (As I live in Anchorage, that is the only type of tax assessed against me – no city sales tax, no state sales tax, no state income tax.)  With as many wonderful natural features that Anchorage has, there are many locations, such as Chester Creek, that have been victims of development over the years.  Walking through the area even on a winter day when no salmon running still makes me happy to know that the salmon now have a chance once again to return.

Crystal Gallery of Ice

Sunday, January 10th, 2010
Crystal Gallery of Ice

One of the joys if living in a cold climate is that you enjoy the benefit of ephemeral forms of art like ice sculptures.  In many ways, ice sculptures are the ultimate art form, along with sand art in the Japanese Rock Garden.  If you consider the creative process itself, the act of making art, to be the ultimate expression of the artist or the greatest satisfaction for the artist, then ice sculptures are the pinnacle.  With ice, the artist is creating something that he or she knows will only last a short period of time.  Even in Alaska, winters do not always stay cold enough to keep ice intact for long periods of time.  Without fail, there are always a few periods of warming in the winter in Anchorage, where the temperature jumps to the forties and rain falls on our icy roads.

In Anchorage, this annual display of short-lived public art takes form with the Crystal Gallery of Ice, sponsored by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership.  While it is not quite the Harbin Ice Festival of China, or even the  World Ice Art Championships of Fairbanks, it is a wonderful, creative, colorful addition to the heart of our downtown area.

While there usually is a theme to the Crystal Gallery of Ice, I could not discern what it was this year.  The sculptures ranged from a sculpture of The Grinch on a chimney with his sidekick dog dressed as a reindeer (my favorite) to a character from “Ice Age” to twin sets of dogs and horses, to a soldier that looked a lot like the Korean War memorial in Washington, D.C.   The sculpture to earn First Place for the competition was “Cornicopia of the Sea,” which greets the public at the southwestern entrance to Town Square Park.

Progress on the Project

Sunday, January 10th, 2010
Progress on the Project

It’s been a challenging first week for the 2010 Project.  After my first two days, I came down with my annual cold, seriously quelling my desire to do anything but lie down.  Add to that the continued cloudy, dreary, and sometimes too warm weather, and my shooting options were limited.  But, I was determined to go out and about, seeking new subjects to capture.

It is all too easy to live your life in whatever location you call home, speeding by from day to day doing those things that constitute life.  Driving to and from the office, to the grocery store, to go shopping, to go to the park to ski or play Frisbee golf … whatever it is you do, it is often doing things other than really taking time to pay attention to your surroundings.  Even as a photographer who often notices many things that are often ignored, I still find myself simply considering, “I’ll have to photograph that someday.”  This project allows me to take it to the next step and take the time to either explore and find new subjects or finally turn “someday” into “today.”

So this week I did a little of everything: returning to the familiar, finally capturing those things I had wanted to for sometime, or finding entirely new subjects to explore.  For the familiar, I spent a morning along Turnagain Arm, seeking to capture a nice, sweeping panoramic.  I also headed to Point Woronzof one evening where the colors of dusk were showing up nicely across the Cook Inlet over the Tordrillo Mountains.  I have also spent some time exploring trees against the sky.  I really enjoy photographing trees in the winter because they are bare, pared down to their basic graphic shapes.  They make for great silhouettes against the colors and patterns of the sky, or, with trees like birch or aspen, can be great for reflecting the colors of the sun.

For newly discovered subjects, I found a lighted tree, all in white lights, down at the end of Potter Marsh, marking the entrance to Potter Valley.  As I am generally not headed down to that part of town in the evenings, I had never noticed it before.  For subjects I had wanted to capture for some time, I photographed the JL Towers from two different vantage points over two evenings.  I have always found the simulated aurora borealis display on the top of the building to be gorgeous, and it is an attractive midtown building, just adjacent to another attractive office building, the ASRC building.