Category Archives: Alaska

Whales and Otters and Bears…oh my!

My wife loves cruising and I love my wife.  So I find myself on a cruise boat on a regular basis.  I make the best of it by booking shore excursions that allow me to feed my photography habit.  That can be real challenge in some locations (like the Caribbean).  Alaskan cruises on the other hand are packed with shore excursions that should make any photographer happy.

So, last month I found myself on a cruise ship with my incredible wife heading up Alaska’s Inner Passage.  I’ve never photographed Grizzlies fishing for salmon and this was the trip I planned to correct that oversight.   Taking no chances, I had booked tours in both Sitka and Ketchikan where we would take floatplanes to secluded rivers where you can photograph Grizzlies fishing for Salmon.  On first tour we flew twenty minutes and were ready to land in the lake by the bears before the pilot decided to turn back because of poor weather.

Okay, no big deal.  I had another chance in Ketchikan.  But then that tour was cancelled due to rain before the plane even got off the ground. So a bit of a disappointment.  But since the second tour was cancelled early in the day I was able to book a backup tour.  This was a ground tour that didn’t go to a secluded stream…it went to a Salmon hatchery down the coast.  Not what I had planned but I did manage to get a couple (black) bear shots…

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Bear with Salmon

This poor old bear just didn’t seem to have a knack for fishing…she struggled for quite a while before she caught a big juicy salmon.

2017 08 31 Alaska 2939A few minutes later I noticed an eagle feeding on salmon by the edge of the same stream.  While the rest of the tour spent quality time in the gift shop, I walked back out and watched the eagle hoping to catch it in flight.  A few minutes before our bus pulled out, I was rewarded when the eagle suddenly took to flight and I ripped off a series of shots.Alaskan Wildlife Photography Bald Eagle Alaskan Wildlife Photography Bald Eagle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Bald Eagle

Our third port was Juneau and my wife and I took a four hour wildlife tour.  Its one of those tours that goes out on a two decker catamaran packed with tourists during the middle of the day.    So not exactly ideal for wildlife photography (a kayak heading out at dawn would have been nice), but I was determined to make the best of it.Alaskan Wildlife Photography Immature Bald Eagle with Abalone Shell

We weren’t more than 20 minutes out of the harbor before we came up to our first set of eagles (which seem as common as pigeons in Alaska).  They were high in trees backlit by the overcast skies…which made for difficult photography.  Then I noticed a immature Bald Eagle not more than 50′ from me down on the shore chomping on a Abalone shell.  To be honest, I had no idea what had in its beak until I got home and processed the photos.

 

Not more than 20 minutes later, we came upon a raft of otters.  I managed to find a spot on the lower deck which allowed me to shoot from only a foot or two over the water and got some decent shots of these adorable critters.

2017 08 30 Alaska 2649_1

2017 08 30 Alaska 2619

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Otter

It’s hard to believe these guys were hunted to the thin edge of extinction…that would have been quite a loss.

But the best was yet to come.  The captain spotted a Humpback whale in the distance slapping the water with it’s tail and he set off  on an intercept course.  At first I was a bit frustrated because I wasn’t in a great spot to see the whale and a lady with long, long blowing hair was right in front of me making it impossible to get a shot that didn’t include her bright red mane.  I was afraid that the whale would dive when we got close and I’d miss getting a tail shot.  But I had no reason to worry.  We pulled up near the Humpback and it continued to slap the ocean…for ten full minutes.  The captain said he had been doing tours for over twenty years and he had never seen a whale do tail slaps for more than a couple minutes.  We considered ourselves quite fortunate.

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Humpback Whale Tail

Close enough to see details on the barnacles attached to the tip of the tail!

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Humpback Whale Tail

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Humpback Whale Tail

As much as I like the full frame shots, I think I like the ones that include the distant shoreline even more…

So, I got a LOT of whale tail shots (like over a thousand…which is easy to do when you are taking ten frames per second).  In fact, the whale was so close that my telephoto lens was too long.  Over half of my shots cut off at least part of the whale’s tale because it filled the frame…a problem I was very happy to have.

Alaskan Wildlife Photography Humpback Whale Tail

Our humpback waves goodbye one last time before its final deep dive.

I had wanted to get good whale tail photos for years but my luck had been spotty.  So you can understand why these ten minutes were the highlight of my trip.

We headed back to port and it was hard to keep the silly grin off my face.  It was a great day.

Like all trips, this one had it’s share of luck…good and bad.  But even if I hadn’t taken a single frame on the entire trip I would have come home content.  I find it impossible to spend time our largest state without coming home recharged, refreshed and with a renewed appreciation for the wonder that is Alaska.

Jeff

 

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Photography Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

Q:

How do you know that you just might be a photographer?

A: 

When you are photographing out on the open deck of a boat during a storm of freezing rain and sleet and you realize that every single other passenger (including your wife) is snug inside the warm and dry cabin, drinking Hot Chocolate (and probably making jokes about that moron outside with two cameras hanging around his neck)!

Yup…welcome to my life:)

Oddly enough, I’d bet that I was probably the happiest person on that boat.  We were on a small sightseeing catamaran cruising up Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska.  While other passengers were bummed out because of the crappy weather, I was ecstatically bouncing around from one side of the deck to the other trying to capture the dramatic views.  4000′ Mountains covered by wispy clouds were jutting out of the fjord to either side of me and the sea was filled with hundreds of icebergs and chunks of ice.

As one of the passengers said when he briefly stepped out “You’re clearly having way too much fun.”

And he was right…I was smiling from ear to ear.  Well sure…my hands were numb and I had to dry my lens after every single shot, but the views were awesome.  I had photographed the same area once before years ago…but that had been a pretty day and the resulting photos were okay…but bland.  Blue skies, grey rock, green trees…ho, hum.  But what I was seeing was anything but boring.  It was truly awesome.

Take a look yourself:

Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

Was I right?

I’ve been to Yosemite more than a few times hoping to get photos of the clouds as they swirled around the valley after a storm…but no luck.  On the other hand, the vistas in the fjord that morning were all I could have hoped for:

Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

2015 Northwest 06 29 209

The lack of light sucked the color out of the landscape and I thought these views were made for black and white.  Even so, some of the little icebergs were a beautiful deep blue: Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

At the end of the Fjord, we came to Sawyer Glacier and I understood where that color had come from.  When the skies are overcast, the entire glacier seems to glow cobalt from within the ice.

It is hard to convey the size of such a thing, but that is a big, two-story boat you can see to the right:  it helps provide a sense of scale…

Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

Sawyer Glacier

 

Of course, I really wanted to see and hear the glacier calve:  “White Thunder”.  It did a couple times, but they were pretty unimpressive and I missed them anyway.  Being the stubborn type, I waited patiently.  And waited.  And waited some more. And then I heard what sounded like a gunshot as a huge slab of the glacier fell away and shuttered into the sea creating a huge wave.  Fortunately, I had my camera ready and ripped off a series of 24 shots.

Yesterday I processed those shotS and here is the best image:

Sawyer Glacier Calving

Well, that’s really not very impressive is it?   To be honest, I was pretty disappointed.  The photo was in focus, it was well exposed, it covered all the photographic basics…but the image utterly failed to convey the size, the action and the sheer violence of the moment.

I realized that I had made a mistake.  I should have shot a video.  The camera I have now (a Nikon D800E) is the first one I’ve owned that can take video but I’m guilty of being stuck in my ways…I just hadn’t thought of trying a video.

So I was pretty PO’ed with myself for missing the opportunity…I mean how many times am I going to be able to go to Alaska and see something like this?   But…I DID have 24 sequential shots…Maybe I could make a pseudo-video by processing the frames like I would a time-lapse.  How hard could it be?

Well, here I sit a full day later.  The project did not exactly progress flawlessly.  In other words, I had no idea what I was doing and I learned it all the hard way…but I did learn.  Honestly though, it really frustrated me.  Or, as Ricardo Montalban said in the Wrath of Kahn:  it “tasked me!”   I simply had to keep working on it till I bested it…darn it!

And now I’m the proud owner of a six second video (that probably took me six hours to make…possibly not my most productive use of time)  Just the same, it’s kinda cool:

Soon we had to head back to port.   As the boat slowly cruised back, the sun tentatively begun to polk thru the overcast.  As it did, I spotted this eagle who had clearly been drenched and was trying to dry out his wings.Photographer Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

By now the other passengers had started coming out of the cabin and the camera shutters started clicking all around me.  But for me, the magic had dissipated along with the fog so I just went back into the cabin, got a hot coffee, snuggled up to Anita and enjoyed the ride back into Juneau.

It was a good day to be a photographer.

Jeff

 

 

 

 Photography Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

Photography Nirvana: Tracy Arm Fjord

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An Arctic Walkabout: Photo Tour of the village of Kaktovic Alaska

Have you ever gone on an expensive trip to a dream location but afterward what you catch yourself thinking about isn’t the ‘Big Name’ place?  You mind keeps drifting back to a little, no-name stop you visited as an afterthought?

This happened to me last year.  You probably haven’t heard of Kaktovik.  kaktovik_alaska[1] That’s not surprising because Kaktovic is a tiny village of 350 hearty souls located on Barter island…which is nothing more than a small spec in the Arctic Ocean off the north coast of Alaska.  There isn’t much else even remotely near it…in fact, it’s the only town in the entire 30,000 square mile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  But Kaktovic’s claim to fame are the dozens of polar bears that gather there every year to feed on the remains of the whales that the Inupiat are allowed to harvest.  The whales attract the bears and the bears attract photographers…which is why I was there.

There are no roads to Katovik.  A small group of us had flown in and we were hyped to see the bears.  But the weather was bad…and it got worse.  In fact the waves were so high that the local captains refused to take us out on the boats to the area where the bears hung out.  Since we couldn’t photograph bears most of the folks decided to chill out at the lodge.  That didn’t work for me.  I figured I could chill out when I got home…heck, I had come halfway around the world to take some darn pictures.  One of the other guys, Cesar Aristeiguieta, felt the same way, we so grabbed parkas, mud boots and cameras then headed out to see what wonders Kaktovik might hold.  The drive from the gravel airstrip hadn’t revealed much…a few roads, boats, clutter and trash…but nothing ventured, nothing gained, so off we went.

As we walked thru the thick fog, we couldn’t help but think about the warning our guides had given us:  Keep your eyes open for scavenging polar bears.  I’m a pretty good runner, but I wasn’t positive that I was faster than Cesar, so I kept alert!

As we headed east, an old graveyard was the first thing that caught our eye. An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska It sat in the middle of the tundra surrounded by a wood fence.  Since we were guests in the village and wanted to be considerate to the feelings of the residents, Cesar and I stayed on the road and didn’t actually enter the cemetery. The solid overcast made the atmosphere somber and almost oppressive. But it sure fit the scene.

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

I processed this shot to resemble the look created by the 19th century glass plate cameras. I think it adds just the right character for the shot.

During the cold war, the U.S. maintained and listening and communications station on Barter island.  As the fog started to lift we could see the huge radar dome in the distance thru the cemetery’s gateway.   An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

Cesar snapping a final shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we strode away, I noticed a long ridge of tall wooden fences in the distance.  Being from Florida, it took me a bit to realize that these were snow fences.

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

Never see these in Orlando!

We headed down to the lagoon and came upon an old bowhead whale skull.

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

I took while to compose this shot. Fortunately I had a travel tripod with me so I was able to take multiple long exposures and process this scene via HDR when I got home.

Right next to the whale bones was an old wooden wreck.

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

The texture of the grass wood really worked well in a black & white exposure but I like the scene in color as well.

 

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

As I looked around the harbor, I could see that there were a number of old wrecks..

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

WW 2 era Landing Craft abandoned along the shore

 

We continued walking back toward the center of town and came upon this child’s wagon.  It’s bright color really jumped out.

2014 Alaska 091714 04013

 

House on skis!

House on skis!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By this time we had walked to the far side of Kaktovic.  Just past the homes was a second cemetery.  We later learned that this was the ‘new’ graveyard.  The fog started to thicken as we approached.An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

 

As the visibility worsened, we decided to head back.  As we started trudging along, I looked down and my heart skipped when I saw this:An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

I’m sure the locals had a good laugh as they watched the two ‘Qallunaats’ sprint back to their lodge!

Over the next few days we did get a chance to finally photograph the bears (see my blog about that incredible experience).   The bears were awesome.  They were magnificent.  I will never forget my hours photographing them as long as I live.

But I won’t forget my stroll around Kaktovic with Cesar either.

Jeff

 An Arctic Walkabout:  Photo Tour of Kaktovic Alaska

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Landscape Photography, Roadtrips Tagged , , |

The Bears of Kaktovik: Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

My passion for photography has resulted in a fair bit of traveling over the years, but photographing Polar Bears in the Arctic was undoubtedly my most exotic photo excursion so far (and certainly the most expensive)!

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

I was lucky to capture this touching moment between a mom and her cub…

A couple of months ago I had the chance to visit the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island in the Arctic Ocean just off the north coast of Alaska. kaktovik_alaska[1]This tiny town (250 hearty souls) is the only permanent settlement on the North Slope portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Although small, Barter Island’s claim to fame is that dozens of polar bears conjugate here every fall before the ocean freezes.   The native people of Kaktovik (the Inupiat) are allowed a substance harvest of 3 Bowhead Whales each fall and the carcasses of those whales attract the Polar Bears year after year.

This wasn’t one of those trips where you do a bit of research on the internet, fly in, rent a car and drive off to photograph the sights.  The tourism ‘industry’ here is in its infancy and unless you’ve visited before and have good local contacts, I’d suggest you book a spot with one of the few photo tours that go to Kaktovik.  These tours  have access to the handful of rental vehicles and small boats that are an absolute necessity for polar bear photography (don’t expect to find a Hertz or Avis in town!)

I went on a tour operated by Hugh Rose.  Hugh is a real pro and has conducted Polar Bear Photo tours to Kaktovik for years.  He truly knew his stuff and he made sure his group got great shots and stayed safe as well.

It is an adventure just to get to Kaktovik.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Judging from this wreck next to the runway, I’m pretty sure the safety record at the Kaktovik Airfield isn’t exactly perfect!

There are no roads to the island, so nearly everyone has to fly in.  We first had to drive 500 miles on the Dalton Highway (aka: the “Haul Road” of Ice Road Truckers fame) from Fairbanks to Deadhorse before a short 100 mile flight in a puddle jumper to Barter Island (there are direct flights from Fairbanks, but our tour included two days of Aurora and wildlife photography in the Brooks Range along the way).   The Kaktovik airport is little more than a short gravel strip with no control tower.  Bad weather makes delays and postponed flights pretty common..so you need to be flexible in your scheduling.

After the five-minute drive from the airstrip, we unpacked in our home for the next few days…the Waldo Arms.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Rustic would be a good description of the Waldo Arms Hotel

 

Basically, the Waldo looked to me like a half-dozen mobile homes pushed together with doorways cut open between them.  The bedrooms are tiny, the bathrooms are communal. There is a dining room and lounge but don’t be expecting the Ritz (or even Motel 6).  With that said, I don’t think we noticed the rough edges after a few hours…the Waldo made up for its lack of style and sophistication with friendly staff, great food and a funky, comfortable, Arctic lodge atmosphere.

No...you don't have to empty your own bedpan...the Waldo does have real bathrooms:)

No…you don’t really have to empty bedpans…they have real bathrooms:)

No granite countertops here,,,

No granite countertops here…

Arctic Humor?

Arctic warning label.

 

Reminds me of my old college dorm!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once we dropped our bags in our rooms, Hugh called us together to review our options for photographing the bears:

  1. Rental vehicles (retired ‘shorty’ school buses) are the most common option.
    The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

    Just can’t get there from here…

    You just put your camera on a bean-bag and shoot through the open windows.

    •  The primary down-side of buses is that they can’t always get to where the bears are.  The bears like to spend most of their day hanging out on a sliver of an island about a 1/4 mile or so from Barter island.  There isn’t a bridge, so you have to wait for them to swim over to you.  Fortunately, the bears do make the trip over nearly every day to feed at the boneyard (where the whales are butchered).  However, this area can flood at high tide, so even if the bears are there, the buses can’t necessarily reach them.
  2.  Photographing from small boats is expensive but it is your best way to get great shots.   You are right at eye level…which makes for much more impactful images.  Plus, if the bears aren’t at the boneyard, you can just cruise over to that little offshore island and photograph them there.  In addition,  you might get a chance to catch the polar bears in the water…which is an incredible photo-op!
    • A word to the wise:  If the cost of renting boats is not included in the cost of your tour, get a firm price from the boat owner when you get to Kaktovik.  My impression was that prices can fluctuate substantially depending on supply and demand.  The boats hadn’t been out in 3 days because of bad weather when we were there…so I think the owners made up for lost revenue by charging a hefty premium over the ‘regular’ rate .  This wasn’t Hugh’s fault, the boats are independently owned and operated by locals…and they have clearly learned the fundamentals of American free-enterprise capitalism;)

      The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

      Yes…I said small boats!

  3. Don’t even think about hiking out to the boneyard on foot.  Polar bears have little fear of man…so you don’t want to be walking around anywhere alone, especially after dark or in poor visibility.  In fact, the bears occasionally cruise right into the village (see this link for a recent incident).

Once we heard these three options, well…naturally, we all wanted to go out on the boats.  But the weather was too rough…none of the boats had been able to get out of the little harbor for a while.  Instead we loaded into our school bus and made the short trip to the boneyard.

The boneyard was kinda gruesome and it frankly gave at least a couple of folks in our group the ‘creeps’.  Just the week before, the village had caught and butchered whales (in fact, they had actually caught all 3 of their allotted bowheads in one week…a rare event).

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

After butchering, there are still plenty of scraps that draw in the bears

Parts of the boneyard were nearly ten feet high packed with the bones from years of whale hunts.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Looks like the set from a George Romaro horror flick.

There wasn’t a bear to be seen when we first got there.  Well, we could see them…with binoculars.  Over two dozen beautiful white polar bears were cruising up and down the beach just a few hundred yards away on the little barrier island just off-shore of the boneyard.  But just as it started getting close to sunset, things really got interesting!

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

A mother polar bear and her two cubs emerge from the surf…

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

and walk right by one of the buses filled with photographers as they amble over to the boneyard

We parked our bus close to the bone pile and waited.   Hugh spotted three bears jump in the water and start swimming toward us.  Soon they were joined by others…many others.   Most of them ignored us, but the cubs seemed to be curious about people.

One cub got bored with the bones, rose up, sniffed the air and looked over at us.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

I smell a photographer…

Then he headed right at us……and he didn’t stop…

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

At a distance, I thought this cub was cute, but as he got closer I was very happy to be inside a nice steel bus!

He rambled right up to the bus.  We enthusiastically honked the horn, yelled and reved the engine to scare him away.  Hugh clearly felt a great responsibility to prevent the bears from getting too close…and too accustomed to humans.  As he explained, those were the ones that eventually might threaten the locals…and end up getting shot in self-defense.

Within a few minutes nearly a dozen bears were milling around within 250 feet of us.

Bear Buffet

Bear Buffet

Inside the bus all you could hear were shutters frantically clicking as the photographers desperately tried to capture the spectacle right before them.

 

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Looks like a spinal column in his mouth…sure hope it belonged to a whale.

 

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Two big bruins take a bead on brunch.

Before we knew it, the light faded beyond the ability of the best camera sensor.  We put our equipment down and silently watched until it was pitch black.  Only then did we head back to the Waldo.

The weather worsened overnight.  Morning dawned with waves whipping across the lagoon.  That meant no boats again.   We checked the bonepile, but the bears weren’t around, so we had a few hours free.  I grabbed a new buddy I had met on the trip, Cesar Aristeiguieta, and we used the time to head out and do our own ‘Photo-Walk’ around Kaktovik.  The village itself is a wild blend of people and culture..both old and new.  It was truly fascinating.  I’ll publish a separate blog about Kaktovik next month and show you some of the shots I took on our walk.  Even without the bears, there is plenty to keep a photographer busy here.

2014 Alaska 091514 01484

Early Warning Radar

After lunch, the weather still wasn’t cooperating, so Hugh took us out in the bus to explore the rest of the island.  We drove past the Cold-War DEW-Line radar facility and out into the tundra to check-out the wildlife.

A number of the folks on the tour were birders and they had a field day over the next couple hours as they spotted one unusual bird after another.  Cesar and I may have been the only non-birders on the tour and, yes, maybe we did joke around a bit and say ‘hey, look…another small brown bird’, but even we had a good time.

After another home-cooked dinner at the Waldo, we suited up in our muck-boots and parkas, climbed into the bus and headed out to find some bears.   It was heavily overcast and the light was far from ideal but there were tons of bears at the boneyard, so we weren’t complaining!The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour RecapThe Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour RecapThe Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

We woke up the next day to find that the wind had finally settled down.  There were a lot of photographers on the island from other tours that had also been waiting a couple of days to get out in a boat, but Hugh’s long-term relationship with the locals allowed him to snag one for us.  Cesar and I headed out soon right after breakfast and it took no more than five minutes to cross the lagoon.

Although the sun wasn’t exactly shining, the cloud cover did thin out and we were finally able to get some good light.  Better yet, the bears were very active …it was what military pilots call a ‘target-rich environment!”  I took more photos during the next couple hours than I took on the rest of my entire 10 day tour.  The most exciting 40 minutes of the trip unfolded when two cub siblings ran into the surf and had a rambunctious (but good-natured) battle:

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“Battle Royale!”

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“What did you just call me?”

After a while (and over a thousand photos), one of the cubs seemed to notice our boat..

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

and then he started to give us the evil-eye… The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Suddenly, he put his head down and started swimming right at us.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

He must have been over 100 feet away, but he covered the distance in a flash.  Our boat captain was paying close attention and  fired up the engine and moved us away.  But the bear got close enough that I didn’t need a zoom for this shot!

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“Another couple of seconds and I would have had that Nikon for lunch!”

Soon after, the cubs got bored and headed for shore.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour RecapThe Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

It was amazing how the bears shook water from their fur…like a huge white dog on steroids.

The siblings kissed and made up:

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“Sorry if I got carried away bro”

And right about then it seemed that every bear within sight decided it was naptime:The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

Sleeping bears are cute but soon we started cruising up and down the coast looking for activity.  Although there were still a lot of bruins in sight, they were all snoozing.  After six hours on the boat, my cash was tapped out, so I decided to call it a day and had the captain drop me off at the harbor.

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

The Great Sphinx of Kaktovik

I met up with the rest of the group and we headed out to the bonepile one last time.  By then the light was fading, but one bear was playing on the bonepile like it was a jungle gym:

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

“King of the Hill”

The Bears of Kaktovik:  Polar Bear Photography Tips & Tour Recap

I loved it when this bear stood upright and grabbed this part of Bowhead skull…couldn’t have posed him better!

And just like that, the adventure was over.  The next morning, it was time to go.

2014 Alaska 091414 00379

Seeing these magnificent apex predators in the wild was an incredible, emotional and intense experience.  One that I will remember the rest of my days. I made a bunch of new friends, learned a lot about wildlife photography and got a real feel for a world far different from the one I was returning home to.

Polar Bear Photography Tips and Suggestions for my Fellow Photographers who might make this Trip in the Future:

  • You will need a good zoom.  I found my Nikon 200-400 with a 1.4x teleconverter to be perfect.  Even when the bears were a distance away, the 400mm was adequate and the flexibility of a zoom was a godsend as the bears moved around.  Plus I think that you would find anything larger than a 400mm to be unwieldly in the bus and on the boat.
  • Bring a second camera mounted with a 50mm or a small zoom (24-70mm or so).  Keep this handy if a bear approaches your bus or boat.  Otherwise you might find you can’t focus close enough to get a shot.    Also, there isn’t a camera shop within 500 miles, so a second body will serve as a backup if you have problems with your primary camera.
  • You won’t really need a tripod/monopod for the bears, but bring a small travel tripod if you get a chance to shoot the Northern Lights at night.  Plus it will come in handy for landscape photography around the island.
  • If your funds aren’t unlimited, schedule your time on the boats to be early in the morning and near dusk.  Although the bears can be active at any time of the day, they seem to be less ‘frisky’ during the middle of the day.
  • Shutter Speed. If the bears are just walking around, a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second will be fast enough to stop the action.  If they are playing in the water and there is water spraying around, you will need something around 1/100th.
  • Aperture.  If light is poor, you may have to shoot wide open.  If the bears are at a distance, then depth of field won’t be a problem.  However, if they are close, you may have to select a higher aperture to avoid having part of the head out of focus.  If so, adjust your ISO up (or set your ISO on an auto function so it does it changes automatically).
  • Fast Memory Cards/Big Buffer.  I love my D800E, but it wasn’t the ideal camera for this experience.  You need a camera that can shoot quickly and has a buffer big enough to hold a lot of shots.  Often the action is fast and furious when the bears are playing in the water.  I missed shots when my buffer filled up.  My friend Cesar, was shooting with a D3 was able to get twice as many frames per second…and his his buffer could handle it.
  • Dress appropriately.  The buses have little heat (but more than the boats!) and the wind on the water can be nippy.  If your extremities are going numb, you won’t be likely to take great shots.  Good gloves, insulated ‘muck boots,’ chemical hand warmers, warm hat and a parka should be considered mandatory.

I hope you get a chance to visit the Bears of Kaktovik…it is quite the adventure!
Jeff

 

PS:  If you would like to see some of my other blogs about photography in Alaska, check out my story about seeing the Aurora Borealis and my write-up about How-to-photograph the Northern Lights.  You might also be interested in my article about the Highlights of my Alaska trip.

 

Also posted in Wildlife Tagged , |

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

The Earth is blessed with many beautiful and emotionally provocative sights, but I seriously doubt that any of them can top the Aurora Borealis for sheer sensuous and awe-inspiring beauty. The Northern Lights have amazed mankind long before the ancient Romans named ‘Aurora’ the Goddess of Dawn and the Greeks called the wind ‘Boreas’.   Unfortunately for most photographers, the ‘Dawn Wind’ is not something we get a chance to capture often.  When we do, it is often after travelling long distances and spending some serious dollars.  So, if you do get the chance to photograph the Northern (or Southern) Lights, you probably want to make the most of the opportunity  That became very clear to me after I published my last blog, which was a recap of a recent Aurora photography trip.  I was deluged with emails asking for specifics on how to take Aurora photos.    So, in this blog, I will share with you the Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography.

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

Scout locations that include water for some great reflective shots of the Aurora. D800E / 14-24 Nikkor f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 400

Where can you find the Aurora?

  1. The Northern Lights are sometimes visible far below the Arctic Circle…but if you are going to plan a trip to see them, you really need to go north…way north!  The northern areas of Alaska, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Finland and Russia are all prime locations.  For most of us, the best choice will depend on how close/affordable each option is.
  2. Most of the towns in these areas are pretty small, so city lights are not much of a problem.  Fairbanks Alaska, for example, has only 32,000 residents and I didn’t find light pollution to be much of an issue.
  3. Personally, I thought Fairbanks was an excellent Aurora location.  It had a fine international airport with lots of daily flights, rental car agencies and plenty of hotels.  Plus, if I got tired of town,  it had good roads heading out into the back country that I could explore and photograph.  It also didn’t hurt that I spoke the language and felt very comfortable there.
    • Keep in mind that if you live in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis might be your best bet.  This counterpart of the Aurora Borealis is visible in Antarctica, of course, but sometimes can be seen from the South Island of New Zealand , southern Australia (especially Tasmania), and southern Chile/Argentina.

When is the best time?

  1. Aurora Borealis season in northern polar latitudes (Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia) runs from August to April.  During the summer months of May thru July, the sun rarely sets and it is just too bright to see the Aurora.
    • Statistically, the equinox months of September and March are best for aurora activity. The winter months of October to February should be your second choice.
  2. You will still be at the mercy of the clouds.  A few clouds can be a nice accompaniment, but if your trip is only for a few days and it is totally overcast every night, you are out of luck.
    • Schedule as long a trip of you can to increase your chances of having at least one or two clear nights.  When you consider a location also take into account if it has any daytime photo ops that would keep you busy if the Aurora is elusive/
    • Check out the long-range weather forecasts and historical weather patterns for the locations you are considering.  See how many clear nights they usually experience.
      • Iceland, for example, is overcast nearly 90% of the time.  Plus, the clouds are constant…one time of the year is about as cloudy as the next.
      •  Alaska, on the other hand, does have fewer clouds in the spring…about half the nights are clear or partially cloudy.  In the fall, however, it is cloudy nearly 80-90% of the time.   On my last 10 day tip to Alaska in September, for example, I had only 3 clear nights.
  3. The Aurora can be pretty bright, which means you don’t have to schedule your trip during the part of a month with moonless nights.  In fact, I prefer full moons, since they light up the landscape with out you having to try to do so with your own lighting.
  4. There actually is a daily forecasts for the Aurora.  If you are going to Alaska, check out the University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ Geophysical InstituteIceland and the other places you might travel to also have their own forecasts, just Google it.
    • However, if you’ve travelled a great distance to photograph the Aurora, you shouldn’t write off a night of photography because of a bad forecast.  Like weather forecasts, these aren’t always accurate.
    • Forecasts range between 0 and 9 with the higher numbers indicating more intense Aurora activity.

Scout Locations during the Day

Any photo of a nice Aurora is wonderful, even if the surrounding landscape is flat and boring.  BUT…the same photo can be magnificent with a killer foreground.  Spend your day driving around looking for locations that will add interest to your shots.

  • Calm rivers and lakes can make wonderful mirrors for the Aurora.
  • Mountains and hills will break up the horizon and give your shot some pizzazz.
  • Putting a cabin or tent in the foreground (with a light on inside it) is a great touch.

The Aurora usually appears to the northwest/northeast.  If there are any cities around, look for potential locations that would allow you to photograph the Aurora to the north but place the towns behind you (to your south).

Consider hiring a local guide

I rarely hire guides.  I like doing things on my own.  I’m tight with a dollar. One of the few times I did hire a guide, was the last time I went on an Aurora Photography tour…and I’m glad I did.

The fact is that the Arctic is much different from the world most of us know.  Here is one example: Many of the best locations for Aurora photography in Alaska are north of Fairbanks off of the dangerous Dalton highway.  However, it isn’t legal to drive most rental cars on the Dalton.  Which means either you hire a puddle jumper, take a heck of a chance and illegally drive your rental car anyway or pay an insane amount of money to the few rental agencies that will let you take their vehicles on the Dalton.  My guide had his own custom-made van, has driven the Dalton for years and knew the best spots for Aurora photography.

I worked with Hugh Rose.  He lives in Fairbanks, has been a photographer and tour leader there for decades and he seriously knows his stuff.

Have the right equipment

I’m personally a bit sick of hearing “It’s not the camera…It’s the photographer!”  The statement is true…to a point, but even the best photographer would be up a (frozen) creek without a paddle if he/she didn’t have the right equipment when photographing the Northern Lights

  1. The Camera.
    1. The new, full frame DSLRs truly excel at low-light photography.  The Nikon 600/700/810s, etc, as well as the Canon 1D/5D/6Ds are all excellent choices for this type of work.
    2. ASPC cameras (“cropped-frame”) are certainly more affordable but they can’t quite deliver the same quality.  Nevertheless, I’ve seen them produce great Aurora shots.
  2. Tripod.   Since you are taking long exposures, a tripod is mandatory.  Use a tall tripod so you won’t spend all night bending down into uncomfortable positions as you try to review your camera’s LCD screen.
  3. A cable or wireless shutter release.
  4. Lens:  Fast!
    • The Aurora is much brighter than most subjects you would normally photograph at night so you might think you wouldn’t need a particularly ‘fast’ lens.  However, unlike the slow-moving Milky Way, Auroras can move across the sky at a pretty good clip.  As a result, you need to take much shorter exposures in order to capture the  quick-changing aspects of Auroras.  Some details, like the ‘curtain-effect’ (see the reddish area of the Aurora on the left side of the photo below) will be blurred and  lost with exposures over 10-15 seconds.  Therefore, I’d suggest a 2.8f lens or faster.
    • Let’s put this in perspective:  A 2.8f lens is twice as fast as a 3.5f.  In other words, if you took an 8 second exposure with a f2.8 lens and then switched to a f3.5 lens, you would have to take a 16 second exposure to get the same amount of light.   By the same token, a f2.0 lens is twice as fast as a 2.8f and so on.

      Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

      I love how the red Aurora reflected off the river in the bottom right of this shot, while the green Aurora on the left reflected off the Dalton Highway. D800E / 14-24 Nikkor f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 3200

  5. Lens:  Wide
    • Aurorascan be WIDE…they can stretch from horizon to horizon.
      Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

      Moonlight backlit this Aurora and turned it into something truly special. D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 30 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 2200

      • If you have a full frame camera, then 14mm would do the trick.  I use my 14-24mm Nikon 2.8f zoom and have found it to be an excellent choice for Aurora photography.  For Auroras that span from horizon to horizon, you might want to try a 16mm fisheye lens
      • If your camera is ASP-C format, then a regular 10-12 mm would work ( or a 8 or 10 mm fisheye),
    • Panoramas?
      • With the Milky Way, you can take multiple shots with lenses that aren’t particularly wide and then stitch them together in Photoshop (or a similar program).   However, since Auroras move quickly, panoramas are usually not an option….so you really need that wide lens.
  6. Photoshop.  Right out of the camera, Aurora shots can be amazing.  But often you are going to need to process the photo in Photoshop, Elements or a similar photo processing program to get the most out of the image.
  7. L-Bracket.  This isn’t a Must-Have…more of a ‘really Nice-to-Have.”  L-Brackets attach to your camera and allow you to connect it to your tripod in a portrait orientation without having to swivel your camera sideways on your ballhead.  This means that you don’t have to lean over so much and it gives your tripod better balance. L Brackets are available from a number of companies (Kirk, Really Right Stuff, etc).  Basically no more than a well-machined piece of painted aluminium, the pricing can be surprising high.  I have found that  Hejner products to be high quality and reasonably priced.
  8. Headlamp.
  9. Extra Batteries.  The cold will drain your batteries quicker than normal.  Keep a couple spares in a warm pocket.
  10. Warm clothes.  This topic could be the source of a whole article.  Obviously if the temperature will be low and you will be standing outside for hours, you won’t be able to concentrate on the Aurora if you can no longer feel your extremities!  Pay particular to your feet…the cold will seep into them from the ground.

Technique

  1. Focus. 
    •  The best idea is simply to focus on an object in the far distance before the sun sets.  Then turn off the auto-focus and put a couple pieces of tape on the focus ring to hold it in place.  This way, your camera will already be pre-focused before it gets dark and you can be assured your shots will be perfectly focused.  Otherwise, you have to try to focus in the dark, which is more difficult.  Plus, without the tape, you will likely bump your lens at some point…and that will throw all future shots out of focus.  Unless you review EVERY shot at full magnification…which you should do of course (but that is a habit difficult to learn…at least for me!)
    • If you don’t get a chance to focus before it gets dark you need to keep in mind that your autofocus won’t work well at night.  So you will need to switch to manual focus.
      • Simply setting your lens to ‘infinity’ usually won’t work…many lenses don’t have a hard stop on their focus ring at infinity…if you go a bit too far the stars will be unfocused.
      • Focus manually on the moon,  a distant streetlight…or particularly bright star.  Take a shot, then review it at full magnification to see if your focus is crisp  (use a loupe if you have one available).  Then lock your focus (if your camera has that ability) or use tape.
  2. Camera Orientation (portrait or landscape)  simply depends on what the Aurora looks like the night you are photographing. Most of my shots are taken in portrait orientation, but within a few minutes, the Borealis can shift and you might find that a landscape perspective would be the better choice. Be prepared to shift your camera between both orientations (another benefit of an L-Bracket).

    Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

    The full moon really illuminated the fall foliage on the other side of the Chena River in this image. D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 400

  3. Lighting.  If you are shooting under a bright moon, ambient lighting might be all you need.   However, if there isn’t much moonlight or if you want to draw attention to a particular feature in the foreground you will need to illuminate it yourself.  Sometimes a headlamp will do the trick but for larger subjects you might need a portable spotlight.  Bring both so you are ready for any eventuality.
  4. Composition Test.  Once you have selected what you want to include in your composition, take a trial shot.  If it is too difficult to really see the results on your LCD screen, increase your ISO to 10,000 and run your shutter speed up to a full minute.  This will result in an overexposed shot, but you will be able to clearly see if your composition is perfect (you can also use this technique to check that your focus is perfect).
  5. Aperture.  Now that your composition is determined, set your camera to Manual Priority and dial in the widest aperture your lens is capable of.
  6. Shutter Speed.  First set a  shutter speed of 8 seconds (or put the camera in “Bulb Mode” and count the seconds yourself).  Take the shot and look at your histogram.   If  the histogram is bunched completely to the left (too dark), reset your camera to a slightly longer exposure and try again.  Keep adding seconds to the exposure until you get proper exposure (the  histogram should be bunched somewhere near the center).
    • Ideally, you want an exposure in the 8-15 second range.
      1. Anything over 15 seconds will ‘blur’ detail in the Aurora.  Some Aurora’s don’t have much detail, so that might not be an issue
      2. Anything over 30 seconds will likely result in ‘streaked’ stars.
  7. Adjust your exposure.  I find it helpful to dial in a +2/3 to +1 Exposure compensation
  8. Shoot in RAW.  If you are a pro, you are already using RAW exclusively.  If you’ve never shot anything other than the default JPEG format, then give RAW a try.  Unlike JPEG, which condenses and throws away a lot of the data your camera’s sensor captures, RAW files keep all the data.  As a result, the files are larger, but they also give you the potential to do much more with your shot.
  9. ISO. This really depends on your camera and just how bright the Aurora is on the night you are shooting.
    • The newer full frame cameras can take good quality shots well over ISO 1600, while older cameras and those with smaller sensor might create so much noise that you might not be able to go over 800.
    • The brightness of the Aurora, however, will be the primary factor that determines your ISO.  I’ve seen some nights that the Aurora was so bright you could read a newspaper by its light.  In that case I was able to shoot with an ISO as low as 400 with no problem (see the shot to the right).  Other nights, the Aurora was be much dimmer (but still beautiful) and I’ve had to dial the ISO all the way up to 2200 with my Nikon D800E.
    • The way to figure out the right ISO is simply to take practice shots after you first set up and adjust from there.  Find out how high you really need to set your ISO for your camera and the brightness of the Aurora.  Remember that the lower your ISO, the less noise in the resulting image.  Also keep in mind that the Aurora’s brightness will change during the night, so you might have to adjust your ISO setting accordingly.
  10. Turn off your IS/VR.  This is the ‘anti-shake’ function built into your lens.  Since you are shooting from a tripod, it won’t be necessary.
  11. Remove any filters from your lens.  Many photographers, myself included, attach high quality UV filters to the end of every lens and leave them there.  They provide some protection to the lens and don’t affect the quality of the image.  However, some reputable photographers have reported issues with these filters when photographing the Aurora, especially during severe cold.  My advice would be to remove any filters…no reason to take a chance on ruining a once in a lifetime shot.
  12. Blend the Foreground. If there isn’t much moonlight, the foreground will likely be little more than a silhouette.  That can be a really nice effect, but also try some shots that  include some detail in the foreground.  The best way to do this is take your 8 second (or so) shot of the Aurora and then, without moving the camera, take a much longer exposure (try 30 seconds to start) which will better expose the foreground.  Later, you can blend the two images together in Photoshop which will give you a shot perfected exposed for the Aurora and the foreground.
  13. Test, Test and Test Again!   It can be a real temptation to just start ripping off shots of the Aurora because you are afraid it isn’t going to last.  I’ve fallen for that temptation myself.  But trust me, the right thing to do is to slow down and try different settings and then methodically review them.  Experiment!   Since each shot takes less than 10 seconds, you can afford to take a number of test shots to get everything perfect.

Post-Production Processing

This is where the pure technique ends and you get to be creative!  I will give you specific Photoshop pointers but other photo processing software can give you the same results.

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

If you want a real processing challenge, try a shot with both the Milky Way AND the Aurora!
D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 30 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 3200

  1. Temperature   I adjust the slider between 3000 and 4800 until I find a spot that has a nice balance between the cold blues and warm oranges.
  2. Exposure   Try increasing your exposure to see if it make a lot more stars visible without washing out the entire frame.
  3. Tone Curve  Darkening the shadows and brightening the highlights often makes things ‘pop.’
  4. Clarity.  A small shift to the right on the clarity slider can really help the stars appear nice and crisp.
  5. Hue/Saturation/Luminance.  Here is where the real fun starts.  Your challenge is to coax your camera’s digital image to accurately reflect what you actually saw.  Be careful not to oversaturate the colors or shift hues to extremes.
  6. The targeted adjustment tool is a great way to focus your efforts just on the main part of the Aurora.   For example, I often find that enhancing the ‘clarity’ of the Aurora can help define details.  This tool also helps you isolate hue/saturation adjustments to specific parts of the image.
  7. Noise adjustment.  You are going to have noise in your raw image.  The amount will depend onyoursettingsandthe quality of the sensor in your camera.
    1. You are going to need to reduce the noise to create a high quality image. There are a number of noise reduction programs you can use (I use Nik’s Dfine 2)
    2. No matter what software you use, remember that noise is usually a lot more noticeable in the foreground elements (darker areas) than in the bright areas of the Aurora, so don’t use a ‘blanket’ or overall adjustment.  If nothing else, just put the foreground on a different layer and apply a different level of noise control.

With these directions and a bit of practice, you should be set to go out and take your own impressive Aurora photographs.  However, I’ve provided only the basics.  If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend the iPhone app How to Photograph the Northern Lights  (or you can get it in an e-book/PDF ).  Written by Alaskan resident Patrick J. Endres,  this is an exhaustive 280 page review on how to photograph the Aurora.  It costs about $25, but if you are spending serious bucks to photograph the Northern Lights, then it would be  a pretty small part of that investment.

The Aurora is truly one of natures greatest wonders, I hope you get a chance to watch a performance soon!
Jeff

 

 

For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595-96), Act III, scene 2, line 379.

Also posted in Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , , , |

A Childhood Dream Come True; Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

Once, when I was a kid, my family was on vacation in Canada.  We were out on our boat fishing in Lake Huron and the wind came up.  It was blowing so hard we couldn’t make it back to camp and we had to spent the night on the rocky shore.   That night, after my brother and I went to sleep, the Northern Lights came out.  Although we had never seen the Aurora  before, my Mom and Dad didn’t wake us up, thinking we really needed our sleep.   The next morning, the wind had calmed and we were able to get our boat back to camp.  But when I found that I had missed a chance to see the Aurora, I was terribly disappointed .   I carried that regret for the next forty years.

Last month, I got a chance to finally fulfill that childhood wish.   I took a ten day trip to Alaska on a Hugh Rose Photography Tour.  My primary goal was to  see (and photograph) the Aurora Borealis.  In this blog, I’ll share with you some photos and highlights of that experience.

The tour group met for dinner the first night in Fairbanks and our guides (Hugh Rose and Ron Niebrugge) gave us some pointers about shooting the Aurora.  They suggested we get some practice that night, so  I set my alarm for 11pm.  When it woke me up in my nice, warm bed a few hours later, I peeked out my window and saw a bit of green in the sky.  It wasn’t much, but it was an Aurora, my first!  I quickly gathered my gear and walked down to the Chena River, which was no more than two minutes behind my room at  the River’s Edge Resort  .  I quickly set up and here was my first effort:

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

I didn’t particularly like the lighted highway bridge, so I hiked upstream until it was out of sight and found  a spot where the river turned north (toward the Aurora).  This bend made the river look a lot wider, which allowed me to capture more of the Aurora reflected in the water.  As time passed, I noticed that the Borealis gradually increased in size and intensified in color as well.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis           A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

By now it was midnight and for the next three hours I was totally enthralled by the spectacle in the heavens above me. It was glorious.  What really surprised and delighted me was that the Aurora MOVES.  I had seen time lapse videos which showed the Lights moving, but I thought it did so slowly…I didn’t think you could watch it move  with your  bare eyes.  I was wrong.  I stood there in awe as it slowly and sensuously danced across the sky.

There was a full moon, which did a wonderful job of illuminating the trees across the river.  Fall had come to Fairbanks early, so those trees were blessed with a riot of autumn colors as well. The river was flowing slowly and with long exposures, I was able to capture great reflections!

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis             A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

The next morning at breakfast, the tour group was excitedly bubbling about what a wonderful exhibition we had seen the night before.  It turned out that there had been a massive solar flare a few days earlier and it had just hit the Earth’s atmosphere.  And since the Aurora is caused by the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric charged particles, the result was the killer display we had witnessed.

The forecast for the upcoming night promised an even better and more intense Aurora.   Plus, the Northern Lights tend to be better the further north you go and the higher in elevation you are.   Since our plan was to spend the night in Wiseman, which was 270 miles north and at an elevation twice that of Fairbanks, our expectations were thru the roof.    But wouldn’t you know it…as it turned out, the night was pretty much a bust.  The Aurora was pretty wimpy compared to the previous night and to make matters worse, it clouded over as well.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

That little spot of light by the river is the headlamp of a disappointed photographer (me). Photo by Cesar Aristeiguieta

We never did figure out why the Aurora didn’t live up to the forecast.  But the really frustrating thing was that those clouds that had rolled in didn’t leave.  In fact, we didn’t have clear skies for another week.   Fortunately, we had plenty of wildlife to photograph (see my upcoming blog about Polar Bears on Barter Island).

Over the next week, I got up every night a couple of times to see if the weather had broken, but I had no luck.  With the trip nearly over, we were driving back to Wiseman at midnight in the middle of the Brooks Range when I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the sky was clearing…even better, I could see color in the heavens.  Our vans pulled over at a great spot a few miles ahead that Hugh had previously scouted and we piled out to set up our tripods.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

This was a wild view. The nearly full moon backlit this scene and really boosted the Aurora’s brightness…it looked like a rainbow on steroids. This effect was visible for less than a minute and this was the only shot I was able to get before it faded.,

I was really excited to see red in the Aurora.  Red is considered rare compared to the more common green shades I had seen the week before.  I rushed around to find foreground elements and leading lines I could use.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

Possibly my favorite shot of the trip. The reds had faded to burgundy but the ‘curtain effect’ was strikingly visible on the left side of the Aurora. I loved how the red color of the Aurora was reflected in the river to the left while the road on the right reflected shades of green!

While the other folks pointed their cameras north, where the Aurora was most visible, my attention was drawn the opposite direction toward the Milky Way.  I love Milky Way photography and I  thought : “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to get the Aurora and Milky way in the same shot?”  I laughed to myself…what would the chances of that be?…

A few minutes later, the gods answered my prayer and a wide band of the Lights swung far to the south.  I excitedly fit it all in my viewfinder and got off a few shots before the Aurora shifted out of the frame.

A Serendipitous "Twofer"

A Serendipitous “Twofer”

By now, the Aurora was starting to fade…as were the photographers.  We got back in the vans and headed for Wiseman.  As it turned out, these would be my last shots of the Northern Lights,  those darn clouds showed up again obscuring the skies for my last couple days in Alaska.

As I flew home, I reflected on a wonderful trip.  I had got to see the Aurora Borealis…and it was far more beautiful and impressive than I had imagined.  I had also captured dozens of photos that would help keep the memory alive over the years ahead!

Next week, I’ll post a separate blog with detailed How-To Tips for Aurora Photography.

Take care!
Jeff

 

 

 A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

Also posted in Landscape Photography, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides Tagged , , , |

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

Hello All,

I’ve spent the last two weeks in a frenzy of non-stop Photoshop processing of the thousands of the images I took on my Alaskan photo tour.  Now that I’ve got the bulk of the photos done, I’m in a bit of a quandary about how to write a blog to accompany the pictures.  The problem is simply that it was an incredible 10 day trip packed with an expansive range of photographic subjects…everything from Polar Bears to the Aurora Borealis, so  if I tried to write a single blog and cover all these topics…well, the result would be a small book.

So instead, I’m going to break up the adventure into bite-sized topics and cover them separately in-depth.  Today I’m going to just give you a taste of things to come by providing a brief recap of my Alaska Photo Tour Highlights.

The adventure started off with an incredible night of the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks.  In fact, it may have been the best northern lights we saw on the entire trip!

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

The calm Chena River was a wonderful reflector for the Aurora!

Believe it or not, this view was not more than 20 feet behind the little cabin I stayed in.

Day two and three were spent driving up the Dalton Highway (the “Haul Road” made famous in the “Ice Road Truckers” TV show)  which was built to supply the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton is over 400 miles, most of it is gravel and there are only 3 small towns on the entire route (with a TOTAL population of less than 40, combined)!

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

The Alaska Pipeline has been controversial, but it certainly is an engineering marvel…and it can be photogenic as well!

The Alaska Pipeline was our companion the next couple days and was usually within sight off to the side of the road.

At Deadhorse (the name of the town at Prudhoe Bay) , we took a puddle jumper to Barter Island. This is a small island off the northern coast of Alaska only 70 miles west of Canada which has become justifiably  famous for the Polar Bears that can be viewed there this time of year.

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

A mom and cub share a polar bear ‘kiss’

We photographed the bears from buses and from small boats.  The weather was pretty iffy, but I got one 40 minute window with good light the last day I was there and made the most of it.  My adrenaline was pumping!

These two sibling cubs were engaged in a good-natured rumble!

These two sibling cubs were engaged in a good-natured rumble!

After three days of photographing polar bears, arctic wildlife and the fascinating native town of Kaktovik, we headed back to Prudhoe.  About an hour south of town, our sharp-eyed guide (Hugh)  spotted a herd of Musk Oxen.

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

Truly prehistoric beasts!

It was pretty cool ‘stalking’ these huge critters!   You have to walk in single file to avoid appearing like a predator.  Even so, it took every bit of 550mm to get this shot.

Heading down the Dalton a few hours later we noticed that the Northern Lights were making an appearance.  We stopped for an hour or so along the road and didn’t get to our rooms until 3am, but no one was complaining.  Of course, then I had to stay up for another couple hours drinking beers with the guys.  It sure seemed like a good idea at the time…

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

The Aurora was absolutely breathtaking!

I was the only one up for sunrise…I got precious little sleep but I had plenty of time to make up for it during the 23 hours it took me to fly home (thanks to a couple long layovers).

Sunrise over Wiseman Creek

Sunrise over Wiseman Creek

Okay, I know that this blog was brief, but I’ve been stuck for a few days trying to get started so I’m glad I’ve broken the logjam!  I’ll be writing some detailed articles over the next few weeks about the Aurora, Polar Bears, Dalton Highway wildlife and landscapes .  I also plan to provide a review of the actual tour I was on (Hugh Rose Alaska Polar Bear and Aurora Photo Tour) for those of you who might be thinking about going yourself!

Jeff

 

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Upcoming Arctic Photo Tour with Hugh Rose

I am EXCITED!  Tomorrow I leave on an incredible adventure:  10 days in the Arctic!   I’ll be joining Hugh Rose on his Sept Polar Bear and Aurora Photo Tour.  This incredible photo tour covers Alaska from Fairbanks all the way to the Arctic Ocean (maybe I’ll take a dip and join the “Polar Bear Club”).   Click on this link to see the itinerary:  It is simply incredible!  We will be traveling in vans, small bush planes and rubber rafts…heck, I might have to strap on some snowshoes!  My wonderful wife, Anita, purchased my ticket for this extravagant tour as my Christmas present last year and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.

For a guy from Florida, this trip presented some challenges…like buying a full arctic wardrobe.  Merino wool underwear, down jackets, insulated boots:  these aren’t items that you find in many closets down in this neck of the woods!  But it has been fun planning and preparing for the last nine months.

I’m really excited to get the chance to photograph the Aurora Borealis.    I’ve never even seen it and I am hoping that I am lucky and the Aurora is visible

Next to the Aurora, the next item on my wish list are polar bears.  These predators are not afraid of humans and I’m not as fast as I was when I was younger…but like they say:  “You don’t have to be fast, just quicker than the guy next to you!”

Anita won’t be making this trip with me.  Not because it will all be about photography (she is used to that) but she gets chilly when the temperatures drop down into the mid 70s….so Alaska in the fall isn’t somewhere she wants to be.

I won’t have internet access for most of the trip, so I’m not even going to try to write a daily blog (that didn’t work out well for me when I tried it this summer:).  I will give you all an update when I get back and share my photos as well.

Jeff

(PS:  Did I mention that I’m excited?)

 

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