Archive for February, 2014

From “Northern Exposure” to “Wild West Alaska”

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

There are countless aspects of the show Northern Exposure that appealed to me, and as I have lived in Alaska for 15 years, I have come to realize that the show understood Alaska. But more than exposing me to the idea of Alaska and its culture and the wonder of the northern lights, it also gave me an idea for a piece of photo equipment I would lust over for years to come.

It was the episode where Holling goes on a “hunting” camping trip (“A-Hunting We Will Go,” Season 3). For decades, Holling had set aside killing animals (through hunting or trapping), and now he only hunted them with a big lens. But rather than drag a tripod out into the backcountry with him, Holling had a lens mount built onto a rifle stock so that he could hand-hold his 300mm lens and have extra stability. I always liked the idea. And as I came more and more to shoot from moving platforms – like canoes or kayaks or boats – I came to long for a rifle stock with a lens mount, fitted with a shutter trigger in the same location where the normal trigger would be found on a rifle.

Over the years, I would occasionally skim through magazines, then through web search engines, looking for something like Holling’s rifle lens mount. But I never could find just what I was looking for. And then, a discussion with some friends drifted to the idea of having one custom made. Since I am not much of a gun owner, I was not aware of where to go for such a thing. Then the suggestion rang out: Wild West Guns, a specialty gun shop in Anchorage.

And before I knew it, not only was I approaching Wild West Guns, but I was roped into their reality TV show, Wild West Alaska, as well. (Not being much of a gun owner, I was not aware of this show, either.)

I won’t tell the whole story of how things unfolded at Wild West Guns. You can see the episode on Animal Planet or for download on The episode is called “Hell on Wheels.” My only disappointment from the episode is that they did not use a whole interview sequence we shot at Wild West Guns where you can see how I got the idea for the rifle stock. But what Mitch created for me is a complete work of art, performing exactly as how I had envisioned. And like I say on the show, it makes my 500mm lens feel about half the weight, and makes it much easier to hold the lens for longer periods of time.  I also have come away with a higher percentage of sharp images, even for distant subjects.

But, if you follow this blog, you have already seen how my first fieldwork with the new rifle lens mount went. And while I couldn’t say during that original blog post about a trip to Prince William Sound what TV show I was out there for, now you know.


Mitch and the Animal Planet crew behind my episode of “Wild West Alaska.”

NOAA Nails It!

Monday, February 10th, 2014
NOAA Nails It!

In his opening scene in Twin Peaks, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper said, when referring to the ability of a meteorologist to accurately predict the weather, “If I could get paid that kind of money for being wrong 60% of the time, it would beat working!” We have all at one point in our time complained about an inaccurate weather forecast.  But how often do we praise the weatherman when he gets it right? What about when the Earth weather and space weather forecast is right on? Well, when it leads to an amazing night of aurora borealis photography, some praise is in order.

If you have read my prior blog post on “How to Shoot the Aurora Like a Pro,” then you would know that I subscribe to an email aurora forecast service provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  More than once a day, I will receive a table – like the one indicated in the graphic below – showing the forecast for the next 72 hours.  Since the time table is in GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), I have to adjust it for Alaska Standard Time, which means subtracting 8 hours. Thus, according to this table, there was going to be some good action between 4 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. on Friday night, Saturday morning, February 7-8.


Having an idea of what the space weather might do is just part of the planning.  The other part is the Earth weather forecast. For that night, NOAA had forecast that most of the Southcentral Alaska region – from the Kenai Peninsula up through the Matanuska-Susitna Valley – would remain mostly cloudy through the night. However, the forecast did say that for the area north of Talkeetna and through Cantwell, the skies would be clearing in the evening. So, at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, I headed north, with a goal of Broad Pass in the Alaska Range – just a short distance south of Cantwell.

By the time I got to Broad Pass about four hours later, there was still some twilight in the sky.  And, consistent with the NOAA forecast, the skies were completely clear. I drove to the last pullout in the pass before the descent to Cantwell and got out to take a look at the sky. I could already see some pillars of aurora off in the distance, so I composed some images to include the Parks Highway and some nearby trees. But the lights were way to the north, and it was still early (it wasn’t even fully dark yet), so I continued on into Cantwell, and east on the Denali Highway as far as I could go. In the summer, you can drive from Cantwell to Paxon – but in the winter, the road is not maintained and you can only go a few miles before you run into a barricade.  (If you have a snowmachine, though, it’s a great place to go!)

But, consistent with the space weather forecast, when I pulled over and stopped at the end of the maintained area, there they were – the lights of the aurora borealis dancing over the Alaska Range to my north. They danced for a while, then subsided, and then a while later they were calmly dancing overhead and to the south.  Then, they built up and kept going on a crescendo until a sky-filling climax at 11:30 that lasted a half hour.  They still kept going with a gentle, shimmering display for a while after that.

So, let me say, “Thank you very much” to NOAA for a forecast that put me at the right place at the right time to capture some amazing images of the aurora borealis!



Embracing the Monochromatic

Saturday, February 1st, 2014
Embracing the Monochromatic

It’s been a screwy winter in Alaska, where cloudy days, warm weather and rain has been the norm. Usually, one of the things I love about Alaska is its cold, clear days, where golden light is the all-day norm and alpenglow greets and ends the days. On the rare days so far when it has been cold enough to produce fresh frost or snow, I have enjoyed the opportunity to explore the monochromatic side of winter. My first formal training in photography was in black and white, using Kodak Techpan 2415 and Tri-X Pan film in a wet darkroom. My earlier classes in college trained me in the “Zone System” employed by Ansel Adams, where exposure strategy centered around tones and contrast.  On a grey day, surrounded by varying hues between bright white and dark blacks, I find comfort in exploring my black and white roots. Beauty is in shape, tone and texture, sometimes as much as or more than color.  In our modern, over-saturized, stylized digital photography world, it’s easy to forget that.