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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Alaska By Sea

Tremendous photo opportunities await in America’s Great White North

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Photographer Kerrick James kayaks in the Columbia Glacier forebay in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Every summer, James makes the trip to photograph the exotic landscapes, towering mountains and unique aquatic life and tundra animals of the Alaskan ecosystem.
Analogous to the snowbirds who flock to my Arizona desert home for sun in the depths of winter, I seek cool and inviting climes every summer when our annual round of 100 days over 100 degrees begins. And every summer I’m drawn again to Alaska, not just to chill, but to revel in and explore and photograph the wonders of our 49th state. Thousands of glaciers, hundreds of islands, lakes without number, and boats and small planes everywhere available in which to explore it all make summer in Alaska a season worth the journey.

I’ve long used any possible reason to hitch a ride north to our nation’s finest real estate purchase ever, whether shooting for cruise ship companies, the Alaska Railroad or travel stories. The stunning variety, scale and scope of the landscape is matched by the richness of its wildlife and the character of its people, and for a photographer, Alaska is a potent brew. If you’ll come with me, I’ll share some of my favorite photo moments and places, followed by a way to see them for yourself in like company.

Dall’s porpoises on a glassy morning in Prince William Sound.
I’ve photographed from Desolation Sound in the far south of the Inside Passage up to the ABC (Admiralty-Baranoff-Chichagoff) islands in the north near Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, but the concentration of humpback whales joyously feeding and playing off Point Adolphus near the mouth of this grand park is one of my favorite places to photograph them. Rain or shine, I’ve never failed to see humpbacks at Point Adolphus.

For Alaska, I always bring my long glass, a rare 250-600mm ƒ/5.6 ED zoom, to photograph cetaceans and all manner of wildlife. This is a sizable lens, but with the in-camera anti-shake enabled, I’ve found that by using a stout monopod you can shoot sharp images from a gently moving vessel and track whales all across the horizon, zooming wider when they surprise you up close. And for puffins, Steller sea lions, otters, eagles and bears feeding in the intertidal zone, a lens like this is invaluable. Whatever long lens you bring, make sure it’s sharp wide open, as you’ll need a fast shutter speed to cancel out the wave roll and compensate for the narrow angle of view. I’m usually at ƒ/5.6 or ƒ/8 when shooting from a vessel. When shooting at 600mm (a 900mm film equivalent for my system), I often shoot at 1/1500 sec. and faster while seeking the lowest ISO possible.

For many years, I shot film for stock and my travel stories in 35mm and 6x7, but now I’ve gone completely digital. I’m a rare pro shooter who has used Pentax optics and bodies in both formats since the very beginning. I currently use only the Pentax K20D for all my editorial, commercial and stock outlets, and coupled with the new DA* lenses that are weather-sealed, I’m very pleased with the quality of the files for my clients. But whatever you shoot, know it well before you go to Alaska. This isn’t the time to buy a new camera body and learn it on the fly! You’ll need to make very quick creative adjustments, and blowing an unforeseen and unrepeatable moment because you don’t have the controls memorized is both maddening and a lesson best learned just once.


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