Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Favorites from the last few years

I've been developing a new page on my website titled "alaska photo galleries" and a section includes some flash galleries which include 100 favorites of 2008. In addition, there are favorites form previous years as well. Looking back on a year's worth of travels and images provokes lots of memories and grand sights from across Alaska's landscape.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Backyard photography

I've always contended that one can find interesting subjects to photograph in their own back yard. Of course, this does depend on where your backyard is located, but in general, this is very true. I recently sold photographs to a company for their corporate calendar, and when reviewing the printed version, I realized that out of 12 photos, they picked two that were taken--well, not even in my backyard but--from my house itself. One shot of the frosty trees and mountains I took through a window from my living room and the other shot of the snowy birch trees I took while standing on my front deck.

Snow birch trees photographed from the front deck on my house.

Frosty trees and Alaska range photographed from a window in my living room.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sunrise from AlaskaPhotoGraphics

A slow sunrise from the office of AlaskaPhotoGraphics, Fairbanks, Alaska 10:00 am

This is the view from the window at AlaskaPhotographics on a wintry morning in Fairbanks. The sun is slow to appear this time of year, with winter solstice just a little over a week away. Sunrises are long and beautiful over the Alaska range mountains, visible on a clear day to the south of the city.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gallery additions

We have been updating our website with organizational interfaces to make searching and browsing for pictures a little easier. Our website currently serves a dual purpose of offering both stock imagery and fine art prints, and while a photo researcher may like many variations on the same image for layout and design reasons, this is generally not the case for someone looking for a fine art print . Plus, with 1000's of images, it takes a while to search around. The gallery pages are collections of 50-100 images that we hand picked for various reasons, and hopefully it will offer an easy way to scan through a bunch of pictures. Here are just a few quick links to some galleries with many more on the Alaska photo galleries index page.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A dog's eyes

Sled dog, North Pole, Alaska
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, (170mm) 1/320 @ f4.5, ISO 800

Last weekend the Interior Freight Dog Association had a preliminary practice for the upcoming weight pull competition to be held in North Pole on Saturday December 20th. Dogs in three different weight classes pull a sled loaded with cement blocks. This dog, anxiously waiting for its turn to pull, has one brown eye and one blue eye, a striking visual feature of sled dog breeds.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Alaska Calendars

I doubt that any other state has as many calendars available to choose from as Alaska. Some are given away free by companies, and many are available statewide at retail locations.

I joined the ranks of calendar producers in 2004 with the Fairbanks and Interior Alaska Calendar, sampling the natural beauty of Alaska's interior. That particular calendar has my work exclusively and control of image selection and design has been rewarding. For years, I've contributed to other Alaska calendars and I'll put a plug in for a few of them here, I have work published in each of these listed below.

ATT 2009 Calendar: Bull caribou in front of Mt. McKinley, Alaska

For a free calendar, check out the ATT Alascom annual wide format yearly calendar, given away at their respective ATT stores. It is a two-sided calendar and I have one side of this year. You can aslo download the image for your screensaver from the ATT website.

Fairbanks and Interior Alaska Wall Calendar
(on sale ($10) through our website with free shipping).

UAF Sea Grant Alaska Coastal Calendar (Inside)

Greatland Graphics calendars (Inside)

Your Alaska Natural Wonders Votes

Results from the Alaska Natural Wonders Votes

#1 Mount McKinley
#2 Northern Lights
#3 Midnight Sun
#4 Calving Glacier
#5 Yukon River
#6 Salmon Migration
#7 A tie between:

  • Polar bear swimming
  • Volcano eruption
  • Brooks falls bears
  • Arctic Caribou Migration
  • Tundra and permafrost
  • Super cold

Monday, December 1, 2008

Alalska's Natural Wonders: Pick #7 Brooks falls bears

This selection completes my top 7 picks for Alaska's Natural Wonders. The survey on the right shows the general results from those who chimed in.

Brown bear fishing for salmon at Brooks falls, Katmai National Park, Alaska.

Selecting any "top" subjects in a list is never simple nor authoritative, particularly with a subjective category like natural wonders. There is no rigid criterion in my selection process, and narrowing down the last one is a toss up between four or five. However, I'm casting a vote for the Brown bears of the Brooks river in Katmai National Park. There are few, if any other places in the world where bears gather in such density to feed on salmon. Furthermore, they have grown comfortable with human presence so observing them in close proximity can be easily and safely achieved. Over time the bears have learned of the protein rich food source of salmon that make their yearly migration through the Brooks river. They show up when the fishing gets good and gorge themselves on the river's bounty.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Alaska's Natural Wonders: Pick #6 Yukon River

Place your vote (right) for the top 7 Alaska Natural Wonders. This is my sixth pick out of seven, more to follow.

The 2,300 mile Yukon River, interior, Alaska

The mighty Yukon River with with its headwaters in British Columbia, Canada is 2,300 miles long. It transects interior Alaska and has been the subject of literature and lore. More notably, it served as the great river highway for indigenous Alaskans and explorers, and is still used today as an access route in both summer and winter. Many of Alaska's rivers eventually drain into the Yukon, which empties into the Bering Sea at the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Alalska's Natural Wonders: Pick #5 Volcano Eruption

Place your vote (right) for the top 7 Alaska Natural Wonders. This is my fifth pick out of seven, more to follow.

Mt. Augustine, volcanic island off the coast of the Alaska Peninsula. Incandescence lava flows on the North and North east flank.

Alaska contains over 130 volcanoes and is home to over three-quarters of the U.S. volcanoes that have erupted in the last 200 years, according to the Alaska Volcano Observatory. They are predominantly situated along the Aleutian Arc, part of the northern portion of the Pacific "ring of fire". The picture above was taken from about 75 miles away, looking west across the Cook Inlet.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alalska's Natural Wonders: Pick #4 Salmon migration

Place your vote (right) for the top 7 Alaska Natural Wonders. This is my fourth pick out of seven, more to follow.

Copper River Red Salmon (Sockeye)

Alaska has five species of Salmon, and they all are harvested for commercial, personal, or subsistence use. The King and the Red salmon however, are the most favored and their epic migration still remains a mystery in many ways. One may argue that salmon migration is not isolated to Alaska, and therefore weakens its worthiness for a position in Alaska's top 7 natural wonders. I might be partly jaded in my opinion, since I consume a lot of salmon. I've been documenting the Copper River red salmon for a few seasons and it is a beautiful and amazing creature. It gets my vote.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Alaska's Natural Wonders: Pick #3 Mt. McKinley (Denali)

Place your vote (right) for the top 7 Alaska Natural Wonders. This is my third pick out of seven, more to follow.

North face of Mt. McKinley (Denali), and Wonder lake, Denali National Park, Alaska.

North America's highest peak is Mount McKinley (20,320+ ft), situated in the Alaska range which arcs across Alaska's interior. The north face, as viewed here, shifts in a multitude of colors as the changing light makes it one of the greatest visual theaters I know of. It dominates the landscape, creates its own weather, and lures millions of visitors a year who hope to see its summit. It surely gets my vote for one of Alaska's most prominent natural wonders.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Alaska's Natural Wonders: Pick #2 Calving Galicer

Place your vote (right) for the top 7 Alaska Natural Wonders. This is my second pick out of 7, more to follow.

Meares glacier, Prince William Sound

The ancient mass of a glacier, particularly a tidewater glacier, that crashes into the sea is both a visual and audio phenomenon. Those who have witnessed it, won't soon forget its sense of power and immensity. There are many glaciers in Alaska, and I think some of the most spectacular ones are in Prince William Sound, in many ways, because of the surrounding beauty of the landscape. This frame was taken at Meares glacier, in northern Prince William Sound.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Alaska's Natural Wonders: Pick #1 Northern Lights

Place your vote (right) for the top 7 Alaska Natural Wonders. This is my first pick out of 7, more to follow.

Northern Lights over the Brooks range, Alaska.

Even though I've seen and photographed the northern lights many, many times, they never cease to amaze me. It is one subject listed under the 7 Natural wonders of the world. And it gets my vote here as well. Alaska, with its northern latitude, is well situated for viewing this phenomenon throughout the dark winter months.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pick Alaska's 7 Natural Wonders

In a conversation with friends the subject of travel arose, and with that, a discussion about the 7 wonders of the world. There are many categorical variations of this, i.e., The 7 wonders of the natural world, the Ancient world, the medevial world, and more. I wondered what the 7 natural wonders of Alaska might be. So, I thought I'd give that a stab, and you can make your picks as well through the survey on the right. I'll add my picks along with a photo, with each successive post.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Red Salmon, Brooks Falls

Red Salmon, Brooks River, Katmai National Park, Alaska
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f4L IS, 1/640 sec @f/8, ISO 1000

In reviewing some files from a trip to Katmai, I came across this image, which is the only one I kept out of many taken. It's a much more difficult acquisition than it may appear. This is so for many reasons. One never knows for sure where the fish will jump, and they jump so quickly that it is almost impossible to use autofocus. Instead I pre-focused on a spot and waited. As you will notice, the salmon is red, which indicates it is later in the year than the strong runs in July and fewer fish jump by this time. So, lots and lots of waiting, then waiting for the fish to be in the correct position, the correct color, and in your plane of focus... and, you press the shutter at the right time. Staring at moving water through a 500mm lens makes your eyes wacky real fast. I used ISO 1000 to enable me to maximize the shutter speed and the f-stop. As it is, I could have used a faster shutter speed, but it was a trade off in depth of field.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Zastrugi: wind blown snow patterns, Barter Island, Alaska
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 24-105 f4L IS, (45mm), 1/60 @ f/20, ISO 400

Zastrugi or "sastrugi" is a term used to describe patterns in the snow that coincide with the direction of the wind. In ground blizzards, snow patterns can actually serve as a compass if one knows the prevailing wind direction. They are also fantastic shapes to photograph. This was taken on Barter Island on Alaska's northern coast, looking off into the Beaufort Sea.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tamaracks in snow

Tamarack trees, Fairbanks, Alaska
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f4.0L IS, 1/160 sec @ f8, ISO 800

Alaska's boreal forest is dominated by just a few species of trees, the birch, aspen and spruce. There is one conifer however that loses its needles during winter, unlike the other evergreen species of black and white spruce trees. The tamarack needles turn a yellow gold and drop as the first snows fall. I've been trying to capture this scene for years, but I'm often out of town at the proper time. This year however, I was able to grab this shot one day before leaving on a 10 day trip. I'm still hoping to get the scene while fresh snow is falling. The colors are vibrant and it is a tell-tale sign of winter's unfolding. I used a telephoto lens to isolate a few trees, including some at various stages of needle color.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Boreal sunset

Sun and boreal forest, interior, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 700mm (500mm f4L IS with 1/4x) 1/640 sec @ f/6.3, ISO 400

Super telephoto lenses are great for tight landscape photos. I use my 500mm all the time in this manner. This was a grab shot from the window of a car after seeing the sun in the rear view mirror. The thin veil of clouds soften the suns power enough to allow for a balanced exposure. The clouds moved quickly so the shot needed to be fast and thanks to a bean bag quickly thrown on the car window ledge, I snagged a few compositions. I happened to have a 1.4x converter on the lens from a previous shot which proved sufficient since I did not have time to remove it before the clouds obscured the sun.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Why I shoot at 400 & 800 ISO

I was recently asked why many of the photographs in the recent posts were shot at 400 or 800 ISO. Do they hold up well at that ISO or was I shooting them for web resolution in mind? To answer this question appropriately involves addressing a few issues. First of all, I want to make clear that the following comments pertain to the Canon 1Ds Mark III camera. This is important to note, since cameras vary in their sensor type, capabilities and signal to noise ration. And second, my criterion in shooting 99% of my subjects seeks for end quality sufficient for a two page spread in a magazine.

Many out their in the blogosphere have done tests with ISO settings, and I don't plan to redo that here. I'll show you images I've taken and how they have been reproduced in the marketplace - which is the real test. It took me a long time to feel comfortable shooting at 400, let alone 800 or 1000 ISO. The days of film had so ingrained an apprehensiveness about quality at those values, that I defaulted to the lowest possible ISO. Now however, if the technique is correct one can shoot at ISO 800 and expect sufficient quality for reproduction in four color press and fine art prints. I'm not intimating that there is no difference between 100 and 800 ISO, but the key is to select the ISO that is optimal for your subject and conditions.

When shooting landscapes with a tripod, I can generally default to ISO 100. If I'm hand holding the camera or shooting with long lenses, I start stepping up the ISO to give me the shutter speed and/or f/stop that is appropriate to the conditions.

For example, here is a photo of bull moose that I shot at 400 ISO with a shutter speed of 1/160 sec.

(cropped tight to show detail)
slightly soft due to a slow shutter speed. ISO 800 would have been better in this case, giving a shutter speed of 1/320 instead of 1/160.

Unfortunately, due to the bull's quick movement it is slightly blurry. This is a classic example of how I should have been at ISO 800, at 1/320 sec instead, as it would have rendered a sharp image. In the end, a sharp image wins, and, if the quality is sufficient at 800 ISO why not use it! It is true that there is a little more noise at 800, but not much, and the trade off is obvious.

But, there are some important things to consider when shooting with high ISO.

  • Your exposure needs to be accurate. Post production exposure adjustment is more limited at high ISO speeds. If you are one stop underexposed and plan to boost it in your post production process, it is akin to shooting at twice the ISO. So, your 800 ISO suddenly looks like 1600 ISO. I have found that from a quality perspective, it is better to adjust your ISO in the field instead of planning to boost the exposure after the image was taken.
  • I also use an exposure style called "Exposing to the Right" which seeks to optimize the signal to noise ratio of a file by shifting more of the levels to the brighter side of the histogram, then pulling them back in post production. In a way this is sort of like reducing your ISO. There is an article on this at Luminous Landscape, I recommend reading it.
Through my testing, I've concluded that an image shot with good glass at 800 ISO, exposed correctly, can be printed at 24 x 36 inches and look beautiful. In addition to the high ISO capable camera's these days, there are programs that can help reduce noise as well, and we use Noise Ninja when necessary.

Below are some samples of images that would print 24 x 36 with adequate sharpness. I realize that such a comment is hard to see realized on the small images posted here, you will have to trust me. Note the ISO

ISO 800

Crop to show detail

ISO 800

crop to show detail

ISO 800

Crop to show detail

Monday, November 3, 2008

Snow drift art 2

Snow drifts, Barter Island, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm 4L IS, 1/13 sec @ f/32, ISO 400

This is the same scene as the previous post just looking at a 90 degree angle on the snow drifts. I used a super telephoto to compress and isolate the interesting linear dimension sculpted by the wind and snow. Bright overcast skies gave a beautiful wrapped-lighting quality.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Snow drift art

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 28mm (24-105mm f4L IS) 160 sec @ f/22, ISO 400
Snow drifts, Barter Island, Alaska

I guess most nature photographers are opportunists and a bit omnivorous in their visual endeavors. I certainly am, and although I spend a fair amount of time photographing wildlife, my history depicts a gravitation towards landscapes. A snow fence caused these large drifts which presented a playground for a landscape photographer. In this composition, the wind-blown lines take one right into the scene. The linear pattern on the ground is nicely contrasted with the circular pattern in the sky. Most wide angle photographs have a strong foreground dimension. Although not mandatory, you will see it as a general rule.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Polar Bear Tracks

Polar bear tracks on wind-blown snow, Barter Island, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 24-105mm f4L IS, 1/50 sec @ f20, ISO 400

The strong winds of the arctic blow the snow vigorously across the tundra creating patterns on the hardened surface. The pressure of a polar bear foot upon the fresh snow remains as the snow around it is blown away, leaving a set of footprints that are raised upon the surface rather than depressed. Even the slight weight of an Arctic fox is enough to change the surface composition of the snow, and a track will remain as the snow around it is eroded by the wind. The shadows from the low angle light provide the necessary depth to distinguish the pattern details.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cryptic Willow Ptarmigan

Willow ptarmigan in Atigun Pass, Brooks range, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm 4L IS, 1/500 sec at f7.1, ISO 800

Willow ptarmigan turn a cryptic pure white in the winter to blend in with the snowy landscapes. Their black beak, rings around their eyes and tips of the tail are the only other distinguishable markings. This bird, photographed along the freshly covered snowy slopes of Atigun pass in the Brooks range is in the final few days of turning completely white. The former rusty brown phase of autumn has just a few remaining feathers. The bird seemed to know this somehow, as it moved quickly between the willow branches while feeding. I took hundreds of photos, each time getting a little closer as the bird became more comfortable with my presence. In the end, it walked so close to me that I could no longer focus on it with my camera lens.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

White on white

Photography in Alaska's arctic, particularly in the snowy months, presents many subjects and scenes filled with white, and often a white subject on a white background. While traveling with a photo tour group, one of the sharp-eyed guests (thank you Skip) spotted this arctic fox curled up in a snow drift on a frozen lake.

Arctic fox, first frame from some distance.

arctic fox looked up occasionally during approach, taken on tripod

Alaska's arctic north slope is flat, and there are few geological features of relief. We decided to try to approach the fox, moving slowly. It seemed remarkably unconcerned by our slow approach, and we continued to photograph at each successively closer location.

closer yet, but lacking contrast

The white on white scene shows the effectiveness of the cryptic color phase that this fox adopts as the ground turns white with snow. However, I wanted more contrast. The only way to achieve this was to basically put the camera on the surface of the ice, as low as possible, in order to include some of the gray sky in the background. After some time, and many photographs, the fox gave us a few occasional glances, but eventually curled up in a ball and went back to sleep.

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f4L IS, with 1.4x (700mm)
Arctic fox, camera positioned on the ground to include the sky as contrast. 1/800 sec @ f6.3, ISO 800

The frames show the progression of photos from the first shot quite some distance away, to the final frames utilizing the sky for some contrast and color. There is usually an evolution in the process of shooting any given subject, and thinking about foreground, background, light direction, exposure, etc., all play into the challenge.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Caribou in taiga

Caribou in taiga, arctic, Alaska
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f4L IS, 1/500 sec @ 6.3, ISO 500, vertical crop

Most of my winter photography of caribou has been in the treeless arctic. The snow covered spruce trees make this image a little unique to my experience. This year on the north side of the Brooks range the caribou herds moved west and virtually none were visible along the Dalton Highway road corridor. This scene was captured near Finger mountain, from a group of perhaps 50-75 animals, a mix of cows and bulls.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Arctic photo tour

Polar bear on the sea ice, Beaufort Sea, arctic Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm 4.0L IS, 1/500 sec @ f5.6, ISO 800

Earlier in my photography career I guided a variety of photo tours throughout Alaska. I've recently scaled back to just one trip, which I co-guide with friend and colleague Hugh Rose. Hugh is a talented photographer and an extremely knowledgeable natural history guide. It is a foray into Alaska's arctic with a focus on the Aurora borealis and Polar bears, but other wildlife and landscapes of the arctic as well. We had a trip filled with photo opportunities, a little shy on the aurora this year, and lots of snow! I'll be posting a few images from that trip in the upcoming posts with a few comments regarding the nuances of the photos.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Aurora Lenses

Patrick is currently in the far north chasing the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights. He has with him an arsenal of equipment, not so much because such a variety is needed, but because there is no perfect aurora lens. The search for such a lens continues, and perhaps Canon's new version of their 24mm F/1.4 L lens is one step closer.

Canon's updated 24mm F/1.4 II lens promises to be sharper, less flare prone, and more expensive.

There are several important qualities to look for in a lens for photographing the aurora:

  • Speed. Light gathering ability is important. A traditionally "fast" lens with an aperture of f/2.8 still requires shutter speeds in the 30 second range. F/1.4, however is four times faster and reduces this to around 8 seconds. A faster lens also tends to reveal more stars, and the faster shutter freezes the stars that would leave trails on long exposures.
  • Wide angle. The aurora often spans a broad section, if not the entire area, of the night sky. Aurora photos are often taken in the 16-24mm range.
  • Sharpness. This is a desirable trait for any lens, but even more important with aurora or astronomy photography. Many lenses are sharp stopped down, but an aurora lens must be sharp wide open. Also important is corner-to-corner sharpness and flat-field focusing. Some lenses, when focussed at one point in the center, will be focussed at a different point at the corners. This could go completely unnoticed indoors, where only one subject is intended to be in focus. However, the sky is all essentially an infinite distance away, so a lens must be able to focus equally at all areas of the frame.

Taken on the original 24 F/1.4, this photo is striking because of the large number of stars. Unfortunately, it is not as razer sharp as we would like.