Friday, January 23, 2009

Cold Weather Photography

Cold weather in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I'm asked frequently about photographing in the cold weather, so I posted an article on my web site. Here is a brief excerpt of that, which I plan to update in the future. Read the full cold weather photography article.

There is a rare beauty in Alaska’s winter, both in the quality of light and color, and its silence and simplicity. But it can be extreme in cold temperatures, particularly in the interior and arctic regions. To experience and document this season, you need to reconcile your working photography system with cold weather. One needs a method that keeps them warm enough to function, as well as enjoy the experience. While I like being in the cold, I do not like being cold. There is a big difference here. Like most things in life, we feel most comfortable and confident once we have personally tested ourselves in a given situation or set of conditions. This applies for working in the cold as well.

Two ways to stay warm:

There are two basic ways we stay warm. One is to generate heat within through exertion and then retain that heat with clothing, or we can absorb the heat from another source like a wood stove, chemical hand warmers, or drinking hot fluids. Sometimes, putting on more insulation or clothing just does not help, and some sort of additional heat is needed. A combination of both work best for me. I should first state that by comparison with my other hominid friends and colleagues, I seem very susceptible to cold hands and feet. Over the years it seems as if I’ve tried just about everything in the attempt at staying warm. I have found no magic solution. However, my constantly tweaked system seems to work o.k., if implemented well. I’ll discuss here how I dress and deal with photography in cold weather. By the way, this is about the human body, not the camera gear. I’ve found so far, that the weak link is me, not my cameras and gear (save that of having extra batteries).

General Clothing:

When photographing in Alaska’s super cold sub zero temperatures; I’m very seldom expending great degrees of exertion. Generally, I’m standing around waiting for the aurora borealis, or waiting for the proper light to fall upon a landscape. In these conditions, I break ranks with the conventional wisdom of clothing layering. Layering IS very critical when your body temperature varies considerably due to heat generation through exercise and you need to adjust with clothing by adding or removing layers. As for the deep cold, when you are not exerting yourself, what you want is loft and insulation. This is best achieved with down, like a hefty down parka, although some synthetics work well also. I start with a base layer of wool (merino wool—soft on the skin, or capelline). Definitely not cotton! Then over that goes a mid weight shirt of similar fabric, one that has a collar reach to cover the neck, then a down sweater, then my hooded down parka. This does the trick pretty well, and my body core stays warm even at very cold temps. I use similar base layers for the legs with an outer layer being appropriate for the conditions. Generally that is a pair of insulated bib overalls. Avoid anything “tight” fitting... Read the rest of this article >>

Monday, January 19, 2009

Fairbanks celebrates Alaska's 50th Satehood Anniversary

Fireworks celebration of Alaska's statehood, Fairbanks, Alaska

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-80mm f2.8L, 1.6sec @ f2.8, ISO 200

Fairbanks has been washed in warm temperatures recently, reaching 50 degrees above zero. This followed nearly two weeks of cold temperatures reaching minus 40 degrees and colder! Due to the cold temperatures the fireworks celebration for Alaska's 5oth year anniversary of statehood was postponed until last Saturday. Conveniently, it was about 30 degrees, a very balmy temperature for the event. I grabbed a few token shots with my Canon 5D Mark II, just to experiment a bit with the new camera, and, I took a few video clips, one of which is posted below.

I picked up a 5D Mark 2 to test it out as a lightweight camera for international travel, and potentially as a good landscape camera. I doubt it will replace my 1D series camera's completely, but a little experimenting in the near future will give a good idea of its performance in the field, specifically for the kind of shooting I do. This point is critical, since the subjects and style of shooting become a big factor in the final choice of a camera. The wonder camera is still elusive. But, I do like the light weight bonus of the 5D Mark II. I just wonder how it will do when I eventually drop it during some crazy escapade!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Your Favorite Place to Photograph in Alaska?

I’m often asked this question, but find it very difficult to answer. Part of Alaska’s lure and fascination to me is found in its tremendous diversity of environment. Sampling from one makes the others uniqueness more prominent. I like winter because of summer and I like summer in part, because of winter. Change and diversity really make travel across this landscape both distinctive and remarkable. Then there is the equation of wildlife, which is quite different in the arctic than in southeast Alaska’s marine waters, both of which are astonishing in their own right. So as unsatisfying as it seems to not “name” a particular spot or location, Alaska’s collective spaces win me over. I was raised in the Midwest and became addicted to wide open spaces very young. I like the ability to see for long distances and across great vistas. Alaska feeds this addiction well.

Often a given location is great for one particular subject, but has a few drawbacks in other ways. For example, Katmai National Park at Brooks Falls is an amazing place for brown bear photography, but for this very reason, there are lots of people there. Dealing with groups of people can far more difficult than dealing with the bears!

So instead of naming a favorite, I’ll list a few places that I enjoy photographing—mainly from a photographic perspective, not necessarily the pure nature experience or absence of people. They are not secret spots in any measure, rather well known really, but they are that for a reason indeed.

Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park:
I like the topographical relief of this area , the nearby mountains, the aqua blue water of Naknek lake, the orientation of the sunrise, the diversity of wildlife, and yes, of course the amazing congregations of brown bears.

Sunrise over Naknek Lake and the Brooks river

Brown bear peers through grasses, Katmai National Park

Prince William Sound
The long fjords choked in lush green hillsides are fantastic in this sheltered waterway of southcentral Alaska. Glaciers are thick and active, dumping huge icebergs into the sea. The weather can be wet, but not as severe as southeast Alaska. Its coastal landscapes and wildflower meadows are amazing. The bird life, marine wildlife, and the interface of human participation through kayaking and/or maritime industry make it intriguing. It’s growing in popularity and number of visitors, in a large part, due to the road opened through the tunnel to Whittier.

Lupine and floating icebergs, northern Prince William Sound

Harbor seals hauled out on icebergs

The Brooks Range:
This is a massive region. It is extreme, austere, beautiful and rugged. Far less populated than the other areas mentioned above, it is equally more difficult to access. But the landscapes fascinate me, the rugged mountains, the infusion of light in the summer (and mosquitoes!!). I hope to do more work in this area over the next few years.

Fresh snowfall on mountains, Brooks range.

Caribou migrate through the snow in the Brooks range

Denali National Park:
While I often go to Denali Park with mixed feelings—there are soooooo many people to contend with along the road corridor—it does remain a very productive and beautiful place to photograph. The road moves through four different mountain passes, which parallel rivers with grand vistas--all in just 90 miles! I know of no other road system in the state with this diversity in such a short distance. The wildlife is abundant, relatively speaking, and diverse as well. It is also one of the few places to effectively and safely photograph interior grizzly bears—presuming one has a professional photographer’s permit which allows the luxury of traveling the park road in your own vehicle.

Sunrise over dwarf birch, Cathedral mountains, Denali National Park

Caribou on mountain ridge, Denali National Park

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Northern Voices Lecture Series

As part of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center's "Northern Voices", I'll be giving a presentation at the Noel Wein library in Fairbanks on Thursday, January 8 at 7:00PM. It's titled "Visual Notes from Alaska's Landscape". If you are brave enough to buffet yourself against the minus 40-50 degree temperatures we have been having across interior Alaska--see you there! I'll show some photos that capture the abiding lure of trekking and photographing across this immense State. A little Q and A will follow.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Polar bear photos

We have added a few new polar bear photos to the website from a trip in October to Alaska's arctic coast of the Beaufort Sea. Additionally, we made a polar bear gallery to supplement our polar bear information page.