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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Discover Alaska Wildlife

From the sea to the mountains, the vast wilds of Alaska give nature photographers an opportunity to find and photograph some of the most iconic wildlife in North America

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I first visited Alaska almost 10 years ago and became so enamored with Alaska's snow-covered summits, tidewater glaciers and wildlife that I decided to make it the focus of my photography. I've traveled all over the state, but there are still more than several lifetimes of explorations waiting for me. Photographing Alaska's wildlife is never easy, but it's incredibly rewarding. I've spent countless days boating, hiking, rafting and whatever else I needed to do in order to photograph the incredible animals that live in Alaska. The weather is often terrible, even during the summer months, but when it's brilliant, there's no other place that I'd rather be. I've created beautiful images on days that most photographers and even some of the marine mammals would find too wet, so there's no excuse for staying indoors. Here are some of my favorite locations to photograph Alaska's iconic wildlife and the techniques that I use to guarantee spectacular images.

Alaska is home to many elusive creatures that are impossible to plan on photographing, but you have to be ready when they do make an unexpected appearance. An encounter with a wild lynx is incredibly rare, but I was fortunate to be able to spend 15 minutes with one while leaving Denali National Park and Preserve. It was at 6 in the morning on the last day of my professional photography permit when a lynx crossed the road in front of me. I cautiously rolled down my window and reached into the back seat for my camera with my big lens still attached. I eventually was able to get out of the van and lay down on the road so I could eliminate the distracting branches from in front of the lynx's face. To deal with the low light, I increased my camera's ISO to 1200.
Denali National Park and Preserve, Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4 IS, Gitzo GT2931 tripod, Acratech GP ballhead, Wimberley Sidekick

Brown Bears
Most photographers put an encounter with a grizzly bear, or brown bear, as they're known in Alaska, at the top of their wish list. If you really want to create some spectacular brown bear images, you have to visit Katmai National Park. Brooks Falls is a great place for photographers to get their first photos of a powerful brown bear up close, but seasoned photographers will want to visit more out of the way destinations like the McNeil River, Hallo Bay or Kukak Bay. Spending time very close to these animals is never something to take lightly; however, they're also not going to just run up and eat you. Photograph them from a safe distance with a long telephoto lens and get down as low to the ground as possible in order to blur the distant background. Using a right-angle viewfinder really helps you get lower than you ever thought imaginable. I've also experimented with remote camera triggers in order to photograph the bears with an unusual wide-angle perspective.
Katmai National Park, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4, Aquatech 5DmkII underwater housing with flat port, Aquatech PocketWizard housing, 2 PocketWizard Plus II remotes, Gitzo aluminum tripod, Acratech Ultimate ballhead

Humpback Whales Bubble Feeding
Humpback whales visit Alaska each summer to feed during the long days of sunshine. The whales typically feed alone, but in some areas of southeastern Alaska, particularly in Icy and Chatham Straits, they form cooperative groups. This spectacular behavior known as bubble feeding involves the whales diving deep beneath a school of fish and blowing bubbles out of their blowholes while spiraling up toward the surface. As the bubbles rise, they act like a net, trapping and scaring the fish into a tight ball in the middle. At the last second, the whales swim up from below with their mouths agape, swallowing the bait and snapping their mouths closed when they burst above the surface. I've been lucky enough to observe them do this for days in a row, and it never loses its appeal. Guessing where the whales are going to bubble-feed and to point your lens in the right direction takes a lot of patience and skill. Increase your opportunities for getting a dramatic shot by listening to the whales' attack song using a hydrophone. When the whales stop singing, be prepared with your medium telephoto zoom lens.
Chatham Strait, Canon EOS 5D, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 IS

King, sockeye, pink and chum salmon all migrate upriver to spawn during the summer months in Alaska. Almost every river and stream is full of salmon at some point. If you're interested in salmon, consider photographing them underwater. You'll need to locate a clear stream with shallow pools and slow-moving water to focus your efforts. You'll also need to have some specialized underwater equipment. While a simple waterproof bag to protect your camera is the most affordable, I prefer to use a dedicated underwater housing like I normally use while scuba diving. A wide-angle lens with a large dome port works best. Hold your housing beneath the surface and simply press the shutter release button every time a salmon swims past. I've also experimented with placing my housing underwater while mounted to a tripod and remotely triggering it.
A shallow river in Kuliak Bay, Katmai National Park, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4, B+W +3 diopter, Aquatech 5D mkII underwater housing with 8-inch dome port, Aquatech PocketWizard housing, 2 PocketWizard Plus II remotes, Gitzo aluminum tripod, Acratech Ultimate ballhead

Polar Bears
The most amazing animal I've been fortunate to photograph in Alaska is the polar bear. Many photographers still think that Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, is the best place to photograph polar bears, but more intrepid photographers instead will want to make the journey to Alaska's Arctic. In the village of Kaktovik, the Inupiat still practice subsistence whale hunting each fall and dispose of the carcasses near the village's edge. The polar bears are patiently waiting on the nearby barrier islands for the Arctic Ocean to freeze over for the winter, but frequently swim across the bay to feed on the bone pile. Nothing will prepare you for having a polar bear walk right up to the truck or bus that you're waiting in. It's also possible to visit the bears using boats operated by local guides. Keep your camera ready for photographic opportunities of polar bears interacting with each other near the water's edge. A supertelephoto lens is essential, but have your medium telephoto lens ready on a second camera body just in case the polar bears are especially curious.
Barter Island, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4 IS, 1.4X tele-extender


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