Archive for October, 2011

The Making of a Photograph: “Denali Zen”

Monday, October 31st, 2011
The Making of a Photograph:

In the summer of 2004, Alaska experienced an unusually busy and destructive fire season.  According to the Alaska Division of Air Quality, it was the warmest and third driest summer on record.  By the end of August, nearly 6.6 million acres had burned in a total of 701 fires spread out across the state.  The bulk of those fires, though, occurred in an area known as the Interior, which spans from north of Denali National Park up to the southern foothills of the Brooks Range.  There were so many particulates in the air, recorded levels in Fairbanks were over the EPA Hazardous 24 hour level for 15 days.

At the end of August, I went to Denali National Park & Preserve for a long weekend.  I was going to stay at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna and give two evening slide show presentations, and a daytime photo session on macro photography out at Wonder Lake.

But, as a result of the summer’s fires, there were no grand scenic vistas to behold that autumn in Denali National Park.  The grand views from Polychrome Pass were absent; any view of Denali (Mt. McKinley) itself was completely absent.  I had to take a flight seeing tour with Kantishna Air and get above the smoke ceiling of 9,000 feet in order to see The Mountain.

When heading out of the park, a lone willow standing off the side of the road in Thorofare Pass caught my attention.  I hiked a short way off the road to approach the tree, and noticed how the smoke haze was affecting the overlapping mountain ridge lines in the background.  While the smoke may have obscured the normal expansive views, it helped to create delineation between the mountain ridges that would otherwise not be visible.  But the smoke also created a very bright overcast, creating some exposure challenges.

I selected a classic “Rule of Thirds” composition, placing the tree in the lower right part of the composition.  Rules of composition are meant to be guidelines, not necessarily to be followed as law.  This time, however, it worked out well for what the scene had to offer.  To balance out the exposure challenges, I used a three-stop graduated neutral density filer, placing the dark parts of the filter on the flat, smoky sky.  I maximize the depth of field, I selected an aperture of f/22 and let aperture priority set the shutter speed.

This image was selected as the Best in Category for Scenics in the 2005 Alaska magazine photo competition.  You can view and purchase it in my Denali National Park gallery.

The Ultimate Fall Colors Road Trip

Monday, October 31st, 2011
The Ultimate Fall Colors Road Trip

I often have people asking me where and when to visit in Alaska for good photo opportunities.  Recently, Seward photographer Ron Niebrugge posted a blog about what are good photo opportunities throughout the year.  Ron’s advice is sound, and he is a superb photographer.  But I thought I would take it another step further and start providing detailed itineraries about great trips at certain times of year.

I will start this blog series with what I think would be the ultimate fall colors road trip.  It takes about five weeks for autumn to run its course from the upper Arctic down through southcentral Alaska where Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula are located.  Most of the areas that provide great opportunities for fall colors landscape photography and wildlife photography are on the road system.  But, keep in mind, the distance from the end of the Dalton Highway at Deadhorse to Anchorage is approximately 850 miles.  Also, a couple of the roads through some of the more scenic areas are prohibited by a rental car contract, namely the Dalton Highway, the Denali Highway and the McCarthy Road.  Finally, before you head out on any Alaska road trip, purchase the most recent issue of The Milepost.  It is the ultimate driving guide to Alaska, providing maps, detailed information about facilities, and mile-by-mile indications of where features are located on each highway system in the state.

If you had the time, here is what I would suggest would be the ultimate fall road trip for a photo excursion in Alaska.  I would start in Fairbanks around the third week of August and head north to the Dalton Highway.  If you are driving with few stops, it is about a three day drive to Deadhorse.  But, this is a photo trip, and you always drive with stops.  In addition, I would not go all the way to Deadhorse.  Rather, my trip up the Dalton Highway would end just shy of Deadhorse in the Franklin Bluffs area.  While photographing the oil and gas infrastructure would be interesting, you cannot access it without being cleared through British Petroleum security, and there really is no reason to be in Deadhorse except for to go visit the oil infrastructure and Arctic Ocean.

The Dalton Highway begins approximately an hour north of Fairbanks.  To get there, simply follow the Elliot Highway out of Fairbanks, and keep following the signs that direct you to the Dalton Highway.  Almost immediately out of Fairbanks you will notice that the fall colors are starting to change, but are not yet where you would like for photography.  Do not worry, as you head north, the colors will change dramatically.  It is one of the true pleasures in driving north in Alaska in the autumn: the land turns into fall all around you as you go.

There are many points and locations to photograph along the Dalton Highway.  Key points include the Yukon River crossing, Finger Mountain, various points of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (particularly at the point where the highway crosses the South Fork of the Koyukuk River just south of Coldfoot), the town of Wiseman, Sukapak Mountain, various river crossings (like the Hammond and Dietrich), Atigun Pass, and Galbraith Lake.  At Galbraith Lake, you find yourself within hiking distance of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Beyond Galbraith Lake, you head out of the Brooks Range (Alaska’s largest mountain range) and head into a completely different landscape.  Here, you are above the treeline, looking out at a vast Arctic landscape with scattered bluffs and roaming caribou (they are migrating to their wintering grounds at this time).

Once you have reached the Franklin Bluffs, turn around and head back south.  The advantage of backtracking is having the chance to see the scenery from a different perspective.  You will particularly see this as you travel through the Brooks Range.  Some mountains or mountain passes look completely different as you head south compared to heading north.  A fine example is Sukapak Mountain.

The key challenges for any Dalton Highway trip include lodging, food and fuel.  The only place to refuel on the Dalton Highway, other than in Deadhorse, is Coldfoot. To call it a town or a village would be misleading.  It is a wayside, with an interagency visitor center (Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and National Park Service) that is worth visiting, the only Alaska State Trooper station for hundreds of miles, a café, a gas station, and a “motel” which consists of converted cargo trailers.  But for a place to stay, I would recommend the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman.  If they are booked, then I suggest the Arctic Gateway Log Cabin Bed & Breakfast.

But refueling in Coldfoot may not be enough.  Coldfoot is 239 miles from Deadhorse – that’s a 478-mile round trip.  Coldfoot is also 259 miles from Fairbanks, making that leg of the route a 518-mile round trip.  You cannot rely on being able to refuel in Deadhorse.  The fuel of choice in Deadhorse is diesel, as every vehicle in operation there runs on that select fuel, which is more suitable for the harsh winter climates.  The one station you can rely on is the NANA Chevron station, but they only accept cash.  The most common way to ensure you have enough fuel for travel on the Dalton Highway is to bring your own backup: fill up two 5-gallon fuel cans in Fairbanks and use them as needed until you can refuel in Coldfoot on your trip up and down the Dalton.

Once back in Fairbanks, take a break after your long drive up and down the Dalton Highway.  Stay a night at the Westmark Hotel downtown, booking your stay on Orbitz – the rate is only about $89 a night and it is an excellent buy with great rooms and a full breakfast.  After resting a night, it is time to head down to Denali National Park & Preserve.  You want to time your trip on the Dalton so that you are through Fairbanks and arriving at Denali National Park on Labor Day weekend.

While the road into Denali National Park is over 90 miles long, only the first 13 miles are accessible by private vehicle (unless you camp for three nights at the Teklanika Campground).  So, the best way to experience the park is to stay at lodging within a few miles near the entrance, then take the green buses into the park.  The green buses are for general visitor use and run rather regularly, starting at the backcountry visitor center near the park entrance from the Parks Highway.  You can also step off anytime you want from the green buses and hail one when it is time to head back out of the park.  For lodging, I would recommend the Denali Cabins, which offer two twin beds and private bathroom per cabin, as well as a nice hot tub out in the center of the compound amidst the cabins.

The two premiere locations in Denali National Park for landscape photography are Polychrome Pass and Wonder Lake.  Both offer wildlife opportunities as well, with Dall sheep at Polychrome and moose and caribou at Wonder Lake.  But, any good bus driver will stop frequently along the way to allow you to photograph and view wildlife as well as spectacular vistas.  Just be prepared to shoot out the window of a school bus to do it, with the occasional stops to get out with a tripod.

Once done in Denali National Park, head south to Cantwell on the Parks Highway and take the Denali Highway to the east toward Paxon.  The Denali Highway is an approximately 130-mile unpaved road through the heart of Alaska.  It takes you through wide open mountain landscapes, cross raging streams, and within great views of the Susitna River.  It is a common caribou corridor, especially in the autumn, providing excellent landscape and wildlife photos.

Once in Paxon, head south on the Richardson Highway toward Glennallen.  Pass through Glennallen, and keep going toward Chitina (pronounced “Chitna”).  Take the Chitina exit to the Edgerton Highway and head east to McCarthy.  The Edgerton Highway is paved, but the McCarthy Road is not.  The McCarthy Road is, without a doubt, the most treacherous road in Alaska.  It runs along an old rail line, and some debris from that old rail line remains within the road.  The State of Alaska grades the road only twice a year, and each time it does so, it kicks up old railroad spikes and other debris that are detrimental to tires.  The scenic and photographic highlights of this part of the trip include sweeping views of the Chitina River, fish wheels on the Chitina River, an old railroad tressel at the Kuskulana River, the classic town of McCarthy, and the old Kennicott Copper Mine.  You want to time your visit to McCarthy so that you do not arrive any sooner than about the second week of September.

As September heads into its third week, it is time to head back up to Glennallen and follow the Glenn Highway, a National Scenic Byway, down to the Matanuska Valley.  Starting near Gunsight Mountain and going down through Palmer, the Manatuska Valley offers incredible, sweeping views of golden aspens mixed with the flaming red caused by blueberry and bearberry bushes on the alpine tundra of the mountains above.  For a bonus, you can also capture the Matanuska Glacier and the winding Matanuska River.

From Palmer, follow the Old Glenn Highway across the Knik River and stop to spend time with the old railroad bridge, then turn north and follow the road on the east side of the Knik River to explore along this meandering, braided river.  Once done exploring, turn around and follow the Old Glenn Highway down to the Glenn Highway and take the exit toward Anchorage.

You will want to give yourself several days to explore Anchorage and the Turnagain Arm along the Seward Highway to the south.  Highlights in Anchorage include Kincaid Park and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Far North Bicentennial Park and Campbell Creek, Flattop Mountain, the Powerline Pass Trail and Willawaw Lakes Trail from the Glen Alps parking lot (primarily for photographing moose in the rut) and Potter Marsh on the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge (for migrating fowl, namely trumpeter swans).   For the Turnagain Arm, make sure to spend time near Windy Point looking for Dall Sheep, hike up the Falls Creek Trail for spectacular boreal forest and alpine autumn colors, and keep an eye out along the highway for views of the Kenai Mountains across the Arm.  Then, take time to visit up into the Portage Valley in the Chugach National Forest.  After Portage Valley, keep driving until you are up into Turnagain Pass, where you will see a mixture of both boreal and alpine autumn colors and winding streams.

Of course, the quality and timing of fall colors varies from year to year.  But, following a route that covers this much territory will guarantee great scenery and wildlife opportunities at one point or another.  For a shorter route, simply start in Anchorage, go up the Parks Highway to Denali National Park, then cut across on the Denali Highway and follow the rest of the itinerary.  Leaving the Dalton Highway out of the road trip essentially removes about ten days of the trip.

One other thing to consider for this trip is that it is late enough in the year where Alaska’s skies are getting dark.  With anywhere from three to five weeks as part of your trip, that means the skies – weather permitting – will afford you the opportunity to view and photograph the aurora borealis.  For tips on photographing the aurora, visit my prior instructional blog on the topic.

The view and purchase these and many other fall colors photos, visit my Autumn gallery.






The Making of a Photograph: “Blue Bear”

Monday, October 24th, 2011
The Making of a Photograph:

This is the inaugural post of my new series, “The Making of a Photograph.”  With this series, I will explore the creative, logistical and technical aspect behind the capturing of a particular iconic photo of mine.  I frequently receive inquiries as to how a photo was made, and I often receive very favorable feedback when I share about the making of a photo on my Facebook page.  I give a nod to Ansel Adams and his book, “The Making of 40 Photographs.”

I will begin with one of my most iconic wildlife photos, “Blue Bear.”  I captured this image during my first visit to Katmai National Park & Preserve in southwest Alaska in 2004.  The location is Brooks Falls, a popular location for bear photography in the park.  The most common way to get to Brooks Falls is to fly into King Salmon, then catch the Brooks Aviation charter float plane out to Brooks Camp on the shores of Naknek Lake in Katmai.  A short geographical note: this use of the name “Brooks” is not to be confused with the Brooks Range, Alaska’s largest mountain range, which lies above the Arctic Circle.

Once in Brooks Camp, you can stay at the lodge or in the tent camping area down the shore away from the lodge.  My preference is always for the tent camping area, as it is far less expensive and provides many opportunities to view and photograph wildlife as you walk from the camp area to the different locations to photograph bears.  In order to provide safe bear viewing and photographing opportunities, the National Park Service has erected three viewing platforms that are secured behind locking gate systems to keep the bears out.  The first viewing platform is located at the mouth of the Brooks River at Naknek Lake, the second at a series of rapids on the Brooks River, and the third, and most popular, the viewing platform at Brooks Falls.  It was at this third platform that I captured “Bear Blues.”

There are a few technical things going on to make this photo happen.  The first is lighting.  I captured this photo in the early morning, which, in early July, means that the falls are in deep shadow.  Both sides of the river at this point are lined with the surrounding spruce forest, preventing the sun from actually striking the river until later in the morning.

The second technical aspect that is crucial to this photo is the fact that I was using film instead of digital.  I used Fuji Provia 100F film in my Nikon F100 camera to create this image.  Film is rated for the warmth of direct sunlight.  When film is used in the shade (without a warming filter), the tones of the image will be cooler.  Had I captured this on digital, I would have used the “Cloudy” white balance setting, which would have added a degree of warming to the image, likely damping down the cooler blue hues.  Thus, by using film, I was able to capture a color hue that adds to the seeming sense of “blues” in the bear’s expression … waiting, waiting, waiting for those salmon to come upstream so he can feed.

Because of the darker lighting conditions, and the fact that I was using film and could not increase my ISO to adapt to the dark conditions, I had to use a slower shutter speed.  Even at f/4.0, my shutter speed was still pretty slow, certainly slower than I wanted to use with a 500mm lens.  So, I used my 300mm lens, allowing me to show more of the water falls in the frame.

In the end, I came away with a moody image that has a sense of emotion, captured at an iconic location but not a typical image for that location.  The photograph is a wildlife portrait that still incorporates elements of the animal’s habitat, something I frequently prefer to do.  I strongly believe that in order to take good wildlife images, you need to understand the wildlife’s habitat.  Including that habitat in the photo helps to tell the story about the animal.

To purchase this image, click here.

A Brush with Fame: My Peter Lik Story

Thursday, October 20th, 2011
A Brush with Fame: My Peter Lik Story

In October of 2006, I was exploring the eastern part of Glacier National Park in Montana with some good photographer friends: Nick Fucci, formerly of Alaska but then of Big Fork, Montana, and Andrew VonBank, staff photographer for the Minnesota House of Representatives.  It was early morning, and we were passing through an area that had burned in a serious fire earlier in the year.  Old, stalwart trees stood still, blackened and marred by the fierce fires of early summer.  Their darkness was amplified by the thick fog that hovered among the blackened trees, swirling around and enhancing a mood of death and despair.  Yet, despite the bleakness of the scene, patches of green, new life were coming up, literally from the ashes of the standing, dead forest.

We were drawn to the starkness of the tall, black silhouettes in the fog, the lush green coming up from charred tree remains.  So, we stopped and scrambled around for a bit, capturing our own visions.  As we prepared to leave, we came upon another photographer.  What instantly caught my attention was that he was using the new, 30 megapixel digital medium format camera from Hasselblad.  I was sporting my new Nikon D200, which only had 10.2 megapixels, but cost $29,000 less than the Hasselblad.

After chatting with the photographer for a little while, we learned that he was Australian and that his name was Peter Lik.  I had never heard of him before, and he didn’t act as if we should know who he was.  Soon,  the three of us headed on our merry way, continuing further into the park.

Once we made it through the fog, we realized that we would still have to deal with low-hanging clouds.  We would not be able to get any broad, scenic photos as we had imagined.  But, changing and unpredictable weather is all part of the landscape photography game.  It challenges the photographer to visualize beyond the preconceived photo and look for what opportunities are present.

One of the things that caught our eye was a row of golden trees along the shore of Saint Mary Lake, standing on the edge of a field of grasses.  We spent a while working our own compositions, examining how the colors and low clouds worked to create a certain mood for the scene.  After a while, our Aussie friend Peter came by with his Fuji 617 camera (a type of panoramic medium format camera), inspired by the same row of trees we had found.

Talking with him some more, we learned that his compact flash card had crashed and he had lost the images he was capturing earlier with his digital Hasselblad.  Fortunately, we all had good experience with software designed to recover images under such circumstances, and shared website information with Peter for downloading that software.  As a thank you, he went to his traveling vehicle – a pickup truck with a camper top – and pulled out three of his books.  He signed each one, and gave each of us a different book.  I thought it was a rather generous expression, and was pleased to have met him. One of the things he shared with us was that he had just opened a new gallery in Honolulu, at the cost of $3 million.  “But, I’ll make that back in three years,” he added.  Whoa, I thought.  A multimillion dollar nature photographer?

Once I made it back to where I had access to the Internet, I looked up Peter Lik online.  I found out he was practically a rock star of landscape photography, sporting galleries in Australia, Hawaii, and Las Vegas, and fielding clients of all sorts of varieties.  Over the years, I would occasionally hear more about him.  Then, with the advent of Facebook, I started to follow his work a little more closely.  This last winter, his show “From the Edge,” a half-hour photography show on the Weather Channel, debuted.  Unfortunate choice for a name, though, as Art Wolfe was already three seasons into this “Travels to the Edge” television show on PBS.  I prefer Peter’s original name for the series, “100 Miles from Nowhere.”

When Michelle and I were in Maui in January, I made it a point for us to visit Peter’s gallery in Lahaina.   We were wowed by the interior of the gallery and the presentation of the photography.  At first, the images looked like they were printed on some translucent material and backlit.  But, as the assistant gallery manager explained to us, it was printed on a new special type of Fuji paper and traditionally lit.  The paper merely reflected the light in such a way that it made the image glow.  We spent about fifteen minutes with the assistant manager, during which time he told us all about the type of paper used, the one-of-a-kind frame created exclusively in Italy for Peter, and the prices that Peter can command for his limited edition prints.  One example he cited was a limited edition print of only eight prints, where each sold for $250,000, selling out in a week.  Unknown to us at that time, Peter had just sold his first limited edition print of one, entitled “One,” for $1 million.  Michelle, bless her bias for she is my wife, strongly suggested that my photography was just as good as Peter’s.  Obviously, one of Peter’s strengths lies in his marketing and sales crew.

We thought it odd that his salespeople would speak only of the type of product used in creating the prints, in how much money Peter’s prints sell for.  No discussion or mention of Peter’s photographic philosophy, his approach to photography, how a particular image was captured; nothing on the creative process.  Quite a bit different story from the approach taken by Ansel Adams, who stressed these things above all others when talking about his photography. But Ansel Adams lived in a very different photographic world.  I think it was easier for him to stand out and make a strong name for himself with the strength of his craft and the power of his advocacy for conserving wild places.  In the modern age, marketing and sales are crucial; you can take the best images in the world but it won’t matter for making a living if you don’t have a strong marketing effort in place.

There are great images, and there is image.  As Andre Agassi used to say in his Canon Rebel commercials, “Image is everything.”  Peter has obviously taken great pride to work on developing his own image for marketing purposes.  It is an image that has grown to make him incredibly successful. But the perceptions that go with such a “rock star”-like personality tend to breed disdain among some other high-end photographers.  Is it a little jealousy? Perhaps.  I prefer not to think of such things, but rather think of the Peter Lik I encountered in Glacier National Park, the photographer out in the field, creating images, and chatting with other photographers.  There is no doubt that Peter creates stunning images, and has managed to successfully share his vision with a lot of people.  As a photographer, I can only hope for as much.  Being very successful financially at doing it would certainly be a nice bonus.

Capturing autumn’s colors

Monday, October 17th, 2011
Capturing autumn's colors

One of the focuses of landscape photography in the autumn is obviously the amazing colors as the world around us transitions from summer to winter.  We dream of capturing those amazing, broad landscapes that are exploding with golds, oranges and reds.  For some parts of the country, those colors are a matter of pride, and lots of money in tourism dollars.  If you live somewhere where you can capture those vast, dramatic landscapes, then most certainly do it.  But, don’t limit yourself there.

Capturing color can be accomplished in a variety of ways, in magical golden light of the morning and evening, as well as overcast light.  There are several different compositional and technical approaches that provide some diversity in your images as you capture color.

First, think of the elements of design for color as shown on the classic color wheel.  Look to combine colors that are on the opposite side of the wheel from each other: blue and gold, red and green.

Second, think about maybe adding some movement to your colors.  There are two techniques that I employ: one where the camera is still, the other where the camera is moving.  For the first, place your camera on a tripod and compose your image to focus on something that is moving and has color, like leaves on a tree during a breeze.  Set your ISO to 100, aperture to f/22 or higher, and exposure to aperture priority.  If it is still too bright to get to 1/30 or lower, add a Polarizing filter, which will take away a stop-and-a-half of light.  For the other method of creating color, simply hand-hold your camera under the same settings, point at some color, and then move the camera during the exposure or zoom the lens in or out during the exposure.

A third way to capture color is to capture the reflections of color rather than the trees directly.  During a recent photo outing to Potter Marsh in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, I photographed such reflections while only including grasses in the image, not the trees creating the color.  One of the common misconceptions when composing an image is that you have to include a whole subject in order to capture the subject.  Art often allows the viewer to “fill in the blanks,” to insert their own interpretation into the work.  Photography is just the same.  Another additional element that can be great to include in these reflection compositions is movement, such as a stream or river that has fall colors reflecting on it.

Of course, while creating these compositions, still consider all of the other elements of design that make for a strong photograph: leading lines, S-curves, textures, repeating patterns.  Being a good photographer involves always controlling everything, as much as is possible, that is within your viewfinder.  The more you learn to see compositions, the better you can become in photographing them.