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.