Friday, May 30, 2008

The Great Gray Owl

Great Gray owl in Black spruce trees.
Canon 1ds Mark III, 500mm f4L IS with 1.4x converter, 1/500 @ f6.3, 400 ISO

It finally happened. While driving along the Richardson highway after a photo assignment, I glanced to my right and saw this owl perched along the roadside spruce trees. It was hunting for voles in the clearing. The Great Gray is one of the most impressive looking owls (in my opinion) and, up to this point, I've only had fleeting glimpses of them. I realize that staking out a nesting area is the superb way to document this species, and many people have done that with excellent results. But, for a roadside, serendipitous encounter with a mildly cooperative bird like this, in decent light, got me very excited. It was 8pm, so the afternoon light had softened enough to take away strong contrast. This, in conjunction with the amazing shadows adjustment in Lightroom rendered a pleasing tonality. The bird flew from branch to branch a few times, and I inched along in my car and had a few different shooting opportunities. My vehicle, which I get some abuse over since its a women's car designed for grocery shopping and soccer mom transports, is perfect for what I do. And in particular, the fully opening sun roof gives me countless photo ops without scaring away wildlife by getting out of the car. I use a bean bag on the car top for stability, and it works excellently. This frame was taken with a 500mm and a 1.4x converter for a total focal length of 700mm.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

High Dynamic Range: HDR

One advantage of shooting digitally is the higher dynamic range compared to slide film. This allows greater shadow and highlight detail, bringing photography one step closer to what the eye is capable of seeing.

Sometimes, however, it's still not enough. When this is the case, one option is to create an HDR, or High Dynamic Range photo. HDR can also be used to create unique effects, but this example is geared more towards making difficult scenes look more vibrant and real than the camera can do alone.

Shooting for HDR requires some foresight; you must shoot several frames of the same scene. Generally, 5 frames is enough. More can help, but the frames must line up perfectly, so fewer can be beneficial. Since the frames must align, subjects in motion are usually not an option. Even a light breeze can cause problems with trees. With the camera on a solid tripod, preferably using mirror lockup and auto-bracketing, shoot five frames no more than one stop apart. Exposure changes must be made with the shutter, or else the depth of field will change between photos.

Here are three photos from a series of five. The middle one looks OK, but is a little dark, under-saturated, and has some overexposed areas. The lightest image reveals all the shadow detail, and the darkest image will be used for the highlight detail from the sun.

Using the Merge to HDR command in Adobe Photoshop CS3, we blend the five images. First we apply adjustments to the camera raw images, but we don't convert them to Tiffs. The raw images have more data. Merge to HDR outputs a 32 bit image, which has over two billion levels per color channel, compared to just 256. This allows the file to have more detail than a screen can display. Normally, pure white or black areas in a photo are just that, but with the HDR image, if there was detail in one of the original files, these deep shadows or blown highlights can be adjusted to bring out the detail.

The real trick is to show all of these details at once for display or printing. After changing to the more usable 8- or 16-bit mode, the HDR conversion dialog appears. This is where the final look of the image is determined. There are several conversion methods which work for different images. The best thing to do is simply experiment. Many photos seem to benefit from "Local Adaptation," as in this example. This also lets you dial in a curves adjustment to optimize contrast at the same time. The final result is a photo that reveals the glowing, pastel colors of this frosty morning.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Nature Photography: Occupation? Vacation? Addiction? Affliction?

Nature photography as a profession may be described by all of the above. My friends have told me that my job is one big vacation, and I've quit trying to persuade them otherwise. The benefits of the self-employed life are many and they come with the intrinsic cons as well. For a nature photographer the weather becomes god and the work is dictated by light and location not by a structured week or timed event. I've learned that scheduling is largely a waste of time except in the most general sense. I seem to change plans as much as I make them.

Feeling the affliction of the addiction to catch light is part of the occupation but certainly not the vacation. For example: For years I've been attempting to capture a mountain landscape which includes the beautiful rich spring greens that fill the boreal forest canopy at this time of year. It is a short seasonal highlight and fades quickly. As summer unfolds the shiny lime leaves turn a dark green and the leaf miners begin their destructive chlorophyll consumption. Last week, the perfect evening unfolded but I had scheduled unchangeable personal plans. So, I did my best to conceal my angst and enjoy the visual beauty of the night. It is a hard thing to turn off!

Ironically, the next day I had a scheduled photographic event which took me a few hundred miles into the mountains that I was so fondly admiring the previous evening. Cloudy skies moved in and I scarcely took one landscape photo. Had it been the night before I would have burned up the flash cards. But, the weather is what it is. By the way, that scheduled photo event was delayed another day.

All of this to say that while the shrewdest scouting, planning and weather surveillance is of great benefit, one should not become too demanding upon nature. While I appreciate all elements of weather it is not easy to appreciate them all the time! Successful nature photography performed consistently requires a tenacious but harmonious combination of persistance, patience and flexibility. Often it seems, the occupation feels like a vacation only when one can appropriately manage the addiction so it does not become an affliction!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Birds passing through

Northern Shoveler on small tundra pond, Fairbanks, Alaska.
Canon 1Ds Mark III, 400mm f5.6L, cropped

There is a small pond alongside the road that I pass on my way to downtown Fairbanks. It is an interesting little index of the season. This time of year, many migrating waterfowl show up for an overnight or two before continuing on their journey. Later in the spring, some Grebes take up residence and raise their young on the pond, which is surprisingly small, and right next to the road. Roadside traffic, humans running and walking by, and dogs are abundant. Last year, the eggs never hatched, and I'm not quite sure if it can be attributed to disturbance or not. I'll be anxious to see if the adults return this year. This Northern shoveler was busily feeding in the evening sunshine last night.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Entry fee

One troy ounce of gold was part of the entrance fee for the All Alaska Sweepstakes dog mushing race held in Nome, Alaska. The photo was taken for an article published in Mushing Magazine.
Canon 1ds Mark III, 100mm macro f2.8 flat field lens, 1/30 sec @ f8, flash lit with 580EX and soft box.

I made this photo last month for an article published in the May 2008 issue of Mushing Magazine, featuring the All Alaska Sweepstakes sled dog race. The race, unique in many ways, requires one troy ounce of gold along with some cash for the musher's entrance fee. A friend of mine let me use his gold (and his $100 bills!) along with a vintage 1889 cigar box as props. I used a Canon 580EX off camera flash in manual mode, triggered by another 580 as a master. It was 100% lit by flash using a small soft box help create the wrapping light.

The cover shot of Lance Mackey was taken with a Canon 500 mm lens, just as he was heading out of Nome at the start of the Sweepstakes race. By the way, Lance did not win the Sweepstakes, the cover title "Lance does it again" refers to his second consecutive win of the Iditarod race a few months earlier. Lance took 3rd place in the Sweepstakes.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Searching for Photos . . .

New searchable maps at to help in the photo search process.

My searchable website has exceeded 20,000 photos! Wading through them can be time consuming, sometimes frustrating, and at times, overwhelming I've been told. The challenge continues to present itself: How to make this process easier and more accurate for the photo researcher and browser? The solutions create many trade-offs. Web page real estate is valuable, and the variations in monitor sizes and web browser programs are abundant.

I chose the route of a large home-page load (Google says they don’t like that) mainly for functionality. An essential “text side bar” loads with categorical photo searches, in a dynamic expanding arrangement. While it is not perfect, I find this side bar to be helpful and it remains consistent throughout the website.

We have found a way to zip it on the fly to reduce download size. To further augment the photo search conundrum, I built a series of searchable maps of Alaska that have links associated with the respective categories. At this time, they include maps for Geographic regions, Mountain ranges, Public lands and Towns and roads. I’ll continue to expand this, and streamline it for efficiency and functionality. I’ve got some ideas, but then again, I’m a photographer and it is high time to get out of the office and make some images. I’m always open to suggestions, comments and feedback about the website’s functionality and performance.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Little signs of spring

Canon 1Ds Mark III, 100mm macro, 50mm extension tubes, 1/13 sec @ f11, ISO 400

Alaskan's are anxiously awaiting the real immersion of summer, and it is very near in Fairbanks. Birds are abundant and their morning songs resonate in the boreal forest. This weekend, while walking through the forest I noticed this insect, some sort of lady bug (anybody know the species?). I thought it was an appropriate indicator of the season. I took it laying on the ground using a bean bag with a 100mm macro lens and 50mm of extension tubes.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

AlaskaPhotoGraphics Newsletter

Finally, after nearly two years, we got back in the groove with an E-Newsletter, which will be sent out more frequently than our previous record! You can view it in its full format on our website-it looks a little prettier. If you would like to receive this Newsletter in the future, you can Register on the site and check the little box that says notify.

Greetings from Fairbanks, Alaska

Winter has lost its grip here in the north, and soon new color and new life will burst forth on the surrounding hillsides. It’s been a long, long time since our last newsletter update, and since then, lots of changes have taken place on our website. In addition to that, abundant travel plans are scheduled for the upcoming nightless summer months in Alaska, so expect to see more new images.

Video Website Tutorials

website video tutorials

We now have more than 20,000 searchable images on our website, and are always seeking ways to make them more easily accessible. We made a few on-line Video Tutorials that discuss the site's basic features with hopes towards helping visitors maximize the functional use of the website. This includes the various methods of searching as well as a discussion of the display options and Lightbox Utilities, which include the ability to save, email, print, and download a lightbox.

Image Stacks

image stacks

When viewing a page of search results, similar thumbnails have been grouped into a "stack" to allow more image variation on the monitor screen. This is indicated by the little yellow arrows under the thumbnail. You can toggle through the stack by clicking on the yellow arrows.

Watermark Free Comps

If you are a photo researcher or designer, we offer the ability to download 1200 pixel watermark free comps directly from the website. Even better is the functionality to download an entire lightbox of watermark free images to your desktop in one click using the Lightbox Utilities. To get this privilege, you need to register (very simple process) and send us an email requesting the feature be associated with your account.

Alaska Children's Book

"Alaska" by Shelly Gill and Patrick J. Endres. Blending poetry and humor, Alaskan author and adventurer Shelley Gill takes readers on a seasonal tour of the 49th state. Veteran photographer Patrick J. Endres captures Alaska’s enduring spirit in his crisp images. Hardcover: $19.00 includes shipping, autographed by the photographer.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

This popular article is specifically written to address photographing the aurora borealis with a digital camera. It discusses:

  • Where and when to view the aurora
  • How to dress and deal with cold weather
  • What kind of camera and gear you need
  • File formats, exposure and histograms

Website Additions

Featured Prints

Wading through thousands of photos can be overwhelming. To help out, we have listed a few galleries of popular photos in our featured prints section, the help streamline the browsing experience.

2009 Fairbanks & Interior Alaska Calendar

The 2009 Wall calendar will be available in June, in its fifth season. See previews on-line.

2009 fairbanks calendar

On-line Slide Shows

We added a few new slide shows from some Beyond Alaska travel destinations: You can view them from our Slide Shows page.

  • Wildlife of the world
  • World Travels
  • Africa Portraits

Thank You

Thanks for your past patronage and interest in our Alaska imagery. Stop by and visit again at

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Don Sheldon Mountain House details

The mountain hut flanked by Mount Dickey.

The Mountain House:
Few are the people that have not seen pictures or heard of the Don Sheldon Mountain House. Situated in the splendor of the Alaska Mountain range, perched on a rock outcrop in the middle of glacier at 6,000 ft, it commands superlative stretching views in every direction. Ever since I first saw a picture of it, I said to myself, I have to go there! The Hut was built by the legendary bush pilot Don Sheldon. For an intriguing read of his amazing flight adventures try Wager with the Wind from amazon.

One normally needs to reserve this place well in advance, but due to a cancellation I was fortunate to get a three night stay with just a few weeks notice. The Alaska Mountaineering School, based in Talkeetna now manages the hut and they have the current information. In 2008 it rented for $132 a night. For those interested in the details and logistics, I'll share some of that here, as I was very curious of what take, and what to expect.

How to get there:
First of all, the hut is accessed from Talkeetna, Alaska via plane on skis. The flight is about $400 round trip per person, and you can take 125 pounds of gear each. That sounds like a lot, but photographers carry a lot of extra weight, which, when coupled with skis, snowshoes, cold weather gear, tripods, etc., adds up quickly--especially when you throw in the wood for the stove. Due to weather more volatile than the current stock market, one needs to bring enough supplies to get weathered in for an extra three to five additional days. One entry in the mountain house log stated: "We were supposed to be picked up six days ago, need I say more?" The hut is a short hike from the landing spot on the Ruth Glacier, and depending on conditions, you may or may not want snow shoes or skis to haul your gear. A plastic sled is a bonus. Speaking of landing strips...for our departure, we had to stamp down an approaching and departing runway in 16 inches of fresh snow. For this task, some skis and snowshoes were invaluable, as was frequent breaks for chocolate and water. Discuss your pilots needs for a runway before you leave.

What to Take:

  • Bring wood for the stove, (which is usually for sale in small bundles at the gas station near the spur road entrance to Talkeetna), no longer than 16 inches. It is a small but comfortable hut, and heats up quickly. Managing the stove temp is critical and easier to do with chopped wood as opposed to round logs. There was a hatchet there.
  • Cooking stove and fuel. Don’t bring propane canisters; the pilots won't let you fly them in. You don't need a fry pan since I accidentally left mine there-a rather nice one! There are plenty utensils for eating, and a few cups and bowls, along with large pots for melting snow for drinking water.
  • The National Park Service requires a pack it in/pack it out policy, which includes human waste. Stop by the Park Headquarters in Talkeetna and they will issue you special containers for the transportation of human waste, with full explanation save a demonstration.
  • If you plan to ski, you will want a pair of skins, some rope and enough skill to feel comfortable traveling on crevasse potential glacial terrain. Don't forget your sunglasses, ski goggles, and sun screen.
  • SAT phones
  • I rented a SAT phone, $20 for the first day, $10 for each additional day, which is cheap. I’d recommend it.

About the Hut:
The six sided building has four lengthy benches with pads, which sleep four people very comfortably and plenty of storage above and below the benches. The 5th side is the counter and cooking area and the 6th side is the door. You are surrounded by windows, which render impressive views. The wood stove is in the center. If you have a larger group, tents may be set up nearby the hut or down on the glacier.

I was really hoping for some clear skies and an opportunity for aurora borealis photography, but the clouds did not part for that wish. Two hours after we landed, a blizzard began, which lasted for a day and a half, dumping about 16 inches of fresh snow. It was white on white, and blowing about 30-40 mph at times. I took lots of white on white pictures, blowing snow, and a few moments of good light opened up on our departure day. I'll be returning for sure, with a better idea of what to expect, and a longer stay. Check out some photos of the journey below

Packing a lot of gear in the Talkeetna Air Taxi bush plane.

Just landed on the glacier on skis, a few hours before the blizzard started.

Hauling gear to the Mountain hut.

The brown box on the rock, that is the outhouse.

A morning trip to the outhouse in white-out conditions.

White on white, and the hut.

Mountaineers weathering out the storm.

Cabin fever?

Hugh Rose telemarking in the blizzard.

The spacious, hexagonal, mountain hut.

The things photographers do when bored during a white out.

Looks worse than a game of scrabble.

Morning light and lightening skies.

A rest from making the runway in 16 inches of snow.

Mark Lead climbing a 200 foot wall by the mountain hut.

Wow, there was some light after all.

Wilderness magic

Youth, the color white, and welcomed skies.

Mount Dickey.

A little blue sky.

Our plane arrives.

We depart the Ruth Amphitheater, into the Ruth Gorge. Wow! you have to be there.