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.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Breaking and entering?

From my observations, young bears exhibit a mischievous behavior more often than adult bears. Chalk it up for play, curiosity, or too much energy--who knows why. This second year bear took a liking to the wood slats on the walkway to the bear viewing platform in Katmai National Park. Each year the park maintenance crew have some repair work to do from the various antics of bear chewing and non-malicious demolition. I scared it away once but it returned for more, so I grabbed a quick photo before deterring it again.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Can you imagine!

Photographing wildlife within a landscape has always been an interest to me. Doing very close portraits of animals, although it can be challenging, holds less appeal. The more space visible in a frame, the more "stuff" you have to manage in respect to light and composition. So dramatic landscapes with wildlife in them is a challenge in direct proportion.

It seems difficult enough to get the light just right, skies, temperature, color, blah blah all perfect and then it is a stretch to expect some creature to come walking into the frame. Well, that very thing did happen to me on a recent trip, but I was unprepared for the fleeting moment. So the next opportunity I was ready. All set up, waiting, and waiting--but you cant wait too long because the daybreak light fades quickly. And so it was, I was waiting for a bear to walk along this shoreline like a few days previous, but no luck. So, I stepped out and did a few self timer shots just to help you have empathy for what the shot could have looked like. Can you imagine a bear in this scene! Maybe next year, or the one following.

I did get many interesting shots on this trip, but the elusive hopefuls take a while to loosen their grip.