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.