Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dog mushing

The dog mushing season is about to unfold in Alaska's interior. The Yukon Quest, a 1000 mile race between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Canada, begins on Saturday Feb 8th. Following that will be many sprint races at the Dog musher's race grounds and the North American Limited and Open series in March. More daylight and warming temperatures entice people outside.

Dog mushing is a fun sport to photograph but sunny conditions on white snow can make for contrasty images. With a digital camera, it is easy to check your exposure against the histogram, shoot on manual, and go from there. Lower ISO settings and "exposing to the right" optimizes shadow detail and will give the most ability to boost the shadow areas in the RAW processing. In this case, I needed a little more depth of field, and a pretty fast shutter speed to stop the action in the dogs. There is a always a compromise to be made, since as you can see, that even at f10, there is not a lot in focus!

Open North American dog sled race, Fairbanks, Alaska
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 300mm f2.8L IS, 1/640 sec @ f10, ISO 500

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cold weather photography

Fairbanks is a great place to experiment with cold weather photography. And experiment is an appropriate word, particularly in respect to the effects of extreme cold temps on camera equipment and the human body. Generally, the latter fails first for me. As far as equipment goes, I'm amazed at the heartiness of my Canon 1D series cameras. While the LCD screen slows down a bit, it still functions at minus 30 and 40 degree temperatures. The batteries last a much shorter time, but keeping a spare one inside my down parka pocket, and trading them out works well. In the old days of micro drives, I've had some problems with cards, but for the past few years the San Disk extreme cards have performed without problem.

As for the human body, the hands and fingers are my weakest link by far. My current system is a pair of beaver mittens large enough to fit fleece gloves inside. Add a chemical hand warmer to the mix and I can maintain functionality. The leather pads on my mitts are supple enough that I can operate the camera dials and buttons with the mitts on in most cases, and when necessary, I can pull the hands out and still have a pair of gloves on. The wheel on the back of Canon's cameras is a great mechanical feature operable with mittens.

After frostbiting my face a few times by pressing the metal angle bracket on my camera up against my face, I now add moleskin padding to the camera parts that inevitably get pressed against my face and nose.

Minus 40 degrees and ice fog in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 24-105mm f4.0L IS

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sea otter in Prince William Sound

Prince William Sound is home to abundant marine life. And one of the favorites is the sea otter. Once decimated to near extinction for their prized fur, the US west coast population has come back, thanks to protective measures. They are ravenous eaters, and they appear cute and cuddly. In fact they are quite large, and like all wild animals, can defend themselves with vigor. I've been photographing annually in Prince William Sound since 1989, with extended thanks to captain Dean Rand of Discovery Voyages, for offering access to this marvelous place. For one of Alaska's classiest and authentic Alaska excursions, check out what they offer. It is superb. The best results photographing otters from a motor vessel are achieved with a long lens, preferably image stabilized, shoot from as low to the water as you can get, and plan to slowly motor past them in a non-direct approach.

Sea otter in Port Wells, Prince William Sound
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 500mm f4.0L IS, w/1.4 extender, 1/1000 sec @f9.0, ISO 400

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Self-portraits in the dark

I took a trip with a friend to the White Mountians last April to do some aurora borealis photography. It was a little late in the season for ideal snow conditions, but the skies cleared for a few nights of shooting. It is a challenge to include people in aurora photos due to the lengthy exposures. I made this photo with Canon's 24mm f1.4 lens, which allowed for a short exposure of 3.2 seconds. With no available models around, I was forced to play both rolls. Actually, I used a cable release on self timer and just let it roll for about a minute's worth of successive shots. The wood stove in the cabin fills about half the room and it was "hotter than Georgia asphalt" in there, to quote from one of the cabin journal entries.

April 3, 2007: My self portrait in the White Mountains Recreation Area.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 24mm f1.4L, 3.2 sec @f1.4, ISO 800

Friday, January 25, 2008

Red-necked grebe and chick

Red-necked grebes nest in many ponds across Alaska. It is also common to see the young riding on the back of the parents for protection. Adults take turns caring for the young and collecting food. Grebes dive for small aquatic animals and fish, and the little ones eat an amazing amount of food. Hours were spent in a small boat waiting for good light and an opportunity to get closer to this protective adult and chick. At one point a strong wind blew the boat close enough for a good shot.

Red-necked grebe and chick
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 500mm f4.0L IS, hand held, 1/320 sec @ f4.0, ISO 500

Thursday, January 24, 2008

An ear full - I mean "pull"

Each year the World Eskimo Indian Olympics are held in Alaska. They were first held in Fairbanks in 1961, and now alternate annually between Fairbanks and Anchorage. A little summary from their website gives background:

For time immemorial, Native peoples of the circumpolar areas of the world have gathered in small villages to participate in games of strength, endurance, balance, and agility. Along with these athletic games, dancing, story telling, and other audience participation games took place. This provided an opportunity for friendly competition, entertainment and laughter. The hosts provided food and lodging, and visitors brought news from surrounding villages and expanded opportunities for challenge building and renewing old and new friendships. This is the background of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and the atmosphere, which we seek to replicate.
The specific photo shown here is the Ear Pull, sort of like tug of war between two seated people, only using your ear and piece of twine. If it looks painful, that's because it is. It is a game specifically geared for pain tolerance, an attribute essential to survival in the extreme arctic conditions. I have many photos on my website from the annual event: World Eskimo Indian Olympic photos

The Ear Pull, an event of pain endurance at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 70-200mm f2.8L IS, 1/160 @f4.0, ISO 800

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

International Polar Year stamps

In 2007 I had a few images selected for publication in a souvenir stamp set commemorating the International Polar Year, which extends from March 2007 to March 2009. The two photos selected represent the people and wildlife of the arctic region, and were taken here in Alaska. The IPY is a large scientific program that will involve over 200 projects, including thousands of scientists from over 60 nations. They will examine a wide range of physical, biological and social research topics focusing on the Arctic and Antarctic.

International Polar Year Souvenir commemorative stamp set.

Polar bear on ice berg, Beaufort sea, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 500mm f4.0L IS, w/2x converter, 1/500 sec @f10, ISO 200

Inupiaq woman (Bertha Leavitt), Barrow, Alaska
Canon EOS3, 70-200mm f2.8L IS, 1/250 @f4.0, Fuji RDP 100

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fishing wolf

Photographing wolves in a wild, natural setting, requires patience and persistence. In this case however, I can claim neither of those virtues, should they be ascribed as such. Sometimes, just the sheer amount of time spent in the field delivers its respective dose of serendipity. While photographing bears in Katmai, this wolf occasioned the Brooks river shore a few times seeking the same nourishment that lured the bears - red salmon. I heard from people that on the previous day, the wolf caught a number of salmon, in all probability, returned to the den to feed young ones. On this visit however, the wolf did some serious looking, but no active fishing. Never the less, the little challenge I encountered to grab the scene was quickly throwing on a 2x converter to get the necessary reach. Always having those extenders accessible is a maxum worth following for any wildlife photography pursuit.

Gray Wolf fishing for salmon, Brooks river, Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 500mm f4.0L IS, w/2x extender, 1/250 sec @ f 8.0, ISO 400

Monday, January 21, 2008

Where and When to see the Aurora?

I've been getting many questions regarding when and where to go to see the northern lights in Alaska. I've addressed these questions briefly in an aurora article on line, but will reiterate some of that here. The aurora can be viewed frequently in Fairbanks and interior Alaska, and often in the Southern latitudes of the state, in the vicinity of Anchorage (but a lot of light pollution to avoid). The real critical factor is a clear night and a location away from light pollution. The northern edge of Fairbanks offers many locations since the aurora often appears in the northeast to southeast sky, which if you are on the north side of town, means that your camera will be pointed away from the city light pollution to the south. (and there is no light pollution north of Fairbanks!)

Aurora borealis over the Beaufort sea, Barter Island, Alaska
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 16-35mm f2.8L, 25 sec. @ f2.8, ISO 800

Aurora activity is directly connected with solar storm activity on the surface of the sun. Therefore, being aware of this will help determine the optimal times for viewing the most active aurora displays. The Spring and Vernal equinoxes have been noted as especially good times (March 21/Sept 21 - approximately) However, I've seen amazing aurora during all times of the year. Furthermore, nights forecasted to be low or moderate in activity can still be good for photography, it just may mean less colorful, and shorter displays. A few web sites offer forecasts of aurora activity:

Friday, January 18, 2008

Katmai sunrise

September in Alaska is one of my favorite times of the year for photography. This is so because the sunrise and sunset events comes back into a little more harmonious schedule. Any nature photographer is linked to these two events (save the night sky photographer), since the quality and angle of light is most conducive to pleasing photos. On this morning, a pre-dawn survey suggested a possible dramatic sunrise. I waited for the critical subject--in this case a brown bear--to walk into the landscape. Low light, a moving bear, and strong wings did not make this easy. However, thanks to effective high ISO quality, I managed to get a few usable captures.

Brown bear fishes for salmon, Brooks river, Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 24-105 f4.0L (47mm), 1/40 sec @ f4.0, ISO 800

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Spruce Grouse

Spruce grouse in Alaska are known to be rather tame, and approaching them is often easy. They inhabit the dense spruce woods and feed on berries and spruce needles. The varied color and pattern in their feathers make them an attractive bird. Males have the distinct red band around the eye. A population distinction between the "Taiga" and "Franklin's" can be noted by the rusty band (Taiga) on the outside rim of the tail feathers--as observed in this male bird. It can be difficult to get acomplete bird in a frame, showing feet and all, and for this reason, I like this image. Additionally, the slight ruffle of the breast feathers shows distinct pattern. See more spruce grouse photos.

Male Spruce grouse, Brooks range forest, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 100-400 mm (235mm) f5.6L, 1/80 sec @f5.6, ISO 500

Male Spruce grouse have a distinctive red band around the eyes.

The rusty band on the tail feathers is one way to distinguish the "Taiga" population from the Franklin's population.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hoar frost ice crystals

On the theme of frost, which visits Fairbanks generously during a given winter, this image reveals a brilliant pattern which sparkles under a low-angle sun. Hoar frost, or sometimes called radiator frost exhibits itself well in the Fairbanks winter conditions, partly because it is both cold and not very windy.

Surface hoar frost, Fairbanks, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 24-105mm f4.0L, 1/8 sec @ f14, ISO 50

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Outside in

Yesterday morning was minus 23 degrees at my office, and about noon, when the sun rose over the distant mountains and cast its glow, I was struck by the light on the window frost formations. The near perpendicular angle of the sun is the cause for the amazing separation and differentiation between the crystal shapes. A little blue from the sky and a little yellow from the sun add pleasing tones to the image. This was the last frame in a series shot with the 100mm f2.8 macro in which I added a 25mm extension tube to allow a tighter composition. This specific lens has a flat-field design which is optimized for edge-to-edge sharpness of flat subjects. One needs to be very careful however to be exactly perpendicular to the subject, since depth of field becomes extremely minimal under high magnification photography. The second image reveals detail by zooming in on the frame.

Frost crystals on window pane, Fairbanks, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 100mm f2.8 Macro, w/25mm extension tube, 1/2 sec @ f11.0, ISO 100

Zoomed in crop of the above image.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The price of milk in Barrow, Alaska

I spent some time in Barrow, Alaska this summer, which is located in northern Alaska, along the Arctic ocean. Its an Inupiaq (Eskimo) community with a rich culture, and like many of Alaska's native communities faces a host of challenges due to changing lifestyles, economics, and climate. If you find yourself miffed at the price of gas for your car, you can be glad you don't buy milk at the prices in Barrow.

Milk at $8.99 in the Barrow, Alaska grocery store.

Friday, January 11, 2008


One of the most elusive animals that travels the Alaska landscape is the lynx. In my experience, the only other animal that I've encountered less is the wolverine. So, any opportunity to photograph one of these cats in the wild, in a natural settings, is a delight. This summer, I had one chance, although fleeting. I did not have time to alter the camera settings to make a technically perfect image (focus issues) but it is not bad, and usable. I shot 8 frames before the cat slid into the grasses never to been seen again.

Lynx along a grassy field, Katmai National Park, Alaska
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 500mm f4.0L, w/1.4x, (700mm) 1/160 sec @ f6.3, ISO 200

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Fast lenses and northern lights

This image illustrates one main advantage of fast wide angle lenses--they offer shorter shutter speeds. Shorter exposure times mean more detail. A five second shutter speed in this case captures more distinctive shapes commonly found during the coronal display. These shapes tend to get all blurred together with long exposures.

To achieve this however, you need some money. That is to say, fast lenses are usually expensive. In this case, I used Canon's 24mm f1.4L, it goes for about $1300. If a 24mm f2.8 lens was used--same focal length but two stops slower--the exposure would have been 20 seconds. That would have rendered a different looking image indeed, lacking the detail in shape. This is especially true when the aurora is moving quickly. The focusing of this lens however, is very finicky and I've had many frustrations with slightly blurry images. In contrast, my 16-35mm f2.8L, focused in the exact same manner, in the same conditions, works beautifully. I'm often shooting two cameras, one with the 24 f1.4 and one with the 16-35mm f2.8.

There is much to say regarding Aurora borealis photography. I've written a brief and basic article, which can be read in full here: "How to photograph the aurora with a digital camera".

Aurora borealis coronal display, high arctic, Alaska
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 24mm f1.4L, 5 seconds @ f1.4, ISO 640

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


The natural elements contribute an edge both to a photograph and the experience of its capture. I photographed this Common loon for about 20 minutes before the rain began, and during this time, it drifted near me on the shore for an almost full frame view. Unfortunately, by the time the rain fell, the bird drifted away. My retrospective hopes were to capture rain drops splashing off its back. With little available light, I pushed the margins of exposure. A shutter speed of 1/500th of a second would have been ideal to stop the drops just a little bit more. I spent some time in 2007 photographing loons, and those images can be viewed here: Common loon photos

Common loon in pouring rain.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 500mm f4.0L, 1/250 sec @f.4.0, ISO 500

Monday, January 7, 2008


Photographic perspective is often a process. Many times, the initial approach to a particular scene requires a little study, some idea generation, and close observation of light direction. I chose these two images to illustrate this process on a shoot this summer. The first image is environmentally interesting, and is sort of "o.k." but the second image, which was at the end of the session shows some movement towards creative perpective, interesting angles, and general composition. It takes a little time, but in the end, the rewards are usually relative to the input. Not to mention, this is simply a very cool place to start with -- icebergs from a tidewater glacier stranded upon the beach of tidal lagoon in Prince William Sound, Alaska.

The beginning shot - stranded icebergs in a tidal lagoon
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 16-35mm f2.8, 1/180 sec. @ f20, ISO 160

The final shot - after a little work on the perspective
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 16-35mm f2.8, 1/60 sec. @ f18, ISO 100

Friday, January 4, 2008

Star trails and aurora

The Brooks mountain range, which crosses Alaska's arctic region, is the farthest north mountain range in the United States. Just north of Atigun Pass--the highest road pass in the state-- is Atigun canyon, the location where this photo was taken. The northern lights were not that bright to the naked eye, but timed exposures are able to record more light and render more color. Circumstances prevented further experimentation with subsequent long exposures, (namely a semi-tractor accident nearby) which I wanted to do burn in longer star trails, but this one image turned out with a pleasing effect of motion and color.

Northern Lights over the Brooks mountain range, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 24mm f1.4L, f4.0 @ 8 minutes, ISO 400

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Over and under

While over/under photography is nothing new, I wanted to experiment with a few ideas last summer. Both returned usable results, but not without plenty of experimentation, and trial and error. The equipment to do this right, i.e., the underwater housing for a Canon 1D series camera costs between 5-10K! There are cheaper methods, for example, the EWA Marine plastic housings, which introduce some compromises but with a little work-around effort, can perform well.

A full frame sensor and a wide angle lens are critical. What else do you need? A good idea, and expect to get cold, that is if you are shooting in Alaska's fresh water mountain streams. I've used a wireless remote to capture some scenes, which allows you to be far from the camera. These two images however, were hand held. Getting the camera perpendicular to the water to minimize the transition line is a challenge. On the red salmon photo, I actually stuck my head partly underwater, bent over, since it was not possible to lay down in the water. It's not the easy way to ensure accurate horizon lines, but with many, many shots, I achieved an acceptable image or two. You can see a few more from the red salmon photos here.

Gold panning in a mountain stream.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 16-35mm, 1/320 sec @ f10.0, ISO 400, EWA Marine Housing.

Red Salmon in a freshwater mountain stream, interior, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark II, 16-35mm, 1/640 sec @ f8.0, ISO 640, EWA Marine Housing.