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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Autumn In Alaska


Tips from the Field, Denali National Park, August 2010

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A grizzly bear in fine condition prowls the riverbeds in search of soapberries, a fall food staple that’s abundant in Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska. Canon EOS-1DS Mark IV attached to a Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L lens and 1.4X tele-extender (total of 910mm). The camera was set to ƒ/5.6 and 1/180 sec. with ISO 800.

I spent the last week of August deep in the heart of Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve as the visiting specialist for Camp Denali’s photographic Special Emphasis program. Seven days of serious photography on the brilliantly colored tundra with 10 advanced, eager photographers brought up lots of great questions and problem-solving challenges that Kathy and I can share with our OP readers. So here’s the latest edition of Tips from the Field, direct from one of the most photogenic national parks in North America.

By the time you read this, Denali will be covered with snow, bears will be hibernating, and snowshoe hares will wear their white winter fur. But late August is full-on fall in Denali, and the landscape literally vibrates with flaming poplar, light-green willow, deep red and blue berry bushes, and bright mosses and lichens. Set against this fabulous backdrop, moose, bears, wolves, foxes, caribou, and a myriad of birds and small critters reveal themselves to diligent observers. The participants in the program anticipated photography of wildlife, landscapes and macro subjects, all of which Denali generously supplied on a grand scale.

Denali maintains strict rules of access to parklands and wild subjects, so we needed to work within some constraints. Photography during the workshop was restricted to the park road and its immediate proximity. We used Camp Denali’s bus and expert guides, who helped us to reach great wildlife subjects while staying legal and keeping the tundra untrampled and ourselves and the wildlife safe and relaxed. Wonderful opportunities for landscape and close-up photography presented themselves, and we frequently photographed from tripods alongside the road or out on the tundra, or even from atop the parked bus. While specific to the Denali experience, the tips and observations we’re offering here apply to photography in many managed natural environments such as refuges and other national and state parks, and they’re useful, too, for working from vehicles on back roads.

Protecting The Gear
For months before the workshop began, we heard from participants as they grappled with ways to transport their gear, which necessarily included long lenses and multiple DSLRs. On my way to Alaska, I—well, okay—Kathy carried onto the plane a Lowepro Lens Trekker 600 AW that held my 500mm lens with a 1.4X tele-extender and camera body attached to it; this isn’t something I would ever check into the belly of the aircraft! Other participants packed their big glass and other photo gear into padded camera roller bags that are carry-on-possible. One participant kept the lens in its original hard case and shipped it FedEx to friends in Anchorage. It arrived safely, but the hard case was cracked.

Never check the big glass in original equipment cases with an airline. The case is easily recognizable and screams, “Steal me!” A colleague flying with me a number of years ago lost his 600mm lens that way. If you really must check expensive camera gear, place it in ordinary luggage with good packing material and a TSA lock on it, then cross your fingers.

In the field, protect your gear. Use a tripod designed for heavy bodies and lens combinations, and tighten/lock the legs every time you set up. Be sure you’re on solid ground (the tundra is spongy!) and that the equipment is level and balanced to prevent the disastrous crash as you turn your back—a mishap that occurred with one of the participants at Denali. His entire rig, with 500mm lens, went over on the side of the road, breaking the attached 2X tele-extender and the tripod mount on the lens.

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