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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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Bald Eagles
Though bald eagles are frequently encountered throughout Alaska, one of the best locations to photograph them is at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines. During the month of November, several thousand eagles congregate to feed on the late-season chum salmon run. Don't settle for the typical angled-down images of distant eagles, but instead find a spot along the river's edge where you can shoot straight across and wait for the eagles to interact with each other. Eventually, you'll see an eagle displace another eagle feeding on a salmon. Be ready with your long lens during these lightning-fast encounters. At this time of year, low light can be a problem so increase your camera's ISO to get a shutter speed of 1⁄1000 sec. using your maximum aperture.
Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4 IS, Gitzo GT2931 tripod, Acratech Ultimate ballhead, Wimberley Sidekick

Harbor Seals
Another one of my favorite marine mammals to photograph in Alaska is the harbor seal. To the casual observer, they can be nothing more than distant blobs on some rocks or ice, but to a dedicated photographer they can be remarkably photogenic. One of my favorite locations to photograph harbor seals is at the South Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm near Juneau. They frequently can be seen resting on the icebergs drifting near the glacier's tidal face. In order not to disturb them, bring your longest telephoto lens. You'll most likely need to handhold it, which is one of the reasons why I prefer to use my lightweight Canon 400mm ƒ/4 IS lens rather than my 500mm ƒ/4 IS lens when working from my boat.
South Sawyer Glacier, Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 400mm ƒ/4 DO IS

Sea Otters
Sea otters are one of the cutest animals to photograph in Alaska, but they're also very shy and quite difficult to approach. I've experienced some of my best sea otter encounters on the outer coast of Glacier Bay National Park, as well as in Prince William Sound near the Columbia Glacier. I mostly work out of my small inflatable boat and prefer the low-angle perspective that I get when shooting from so close to the water. You'll need the longest lens you own, but make sure you can handhold it while on a boat. If at all possible, position yourself on the lowest part of the boat so you can minimize how much you're shooting down. Moms swimming with babies lying on their bellies are highly photogenic.
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.
Dall Sheep
Visitors to Denali National Park and Preserve usually hope to catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley, but the park's amazing wildlife is just as important. Most photographers will feel too confined spending the entire day on a tour bus, so scan the slopes as you enter the park for Dall sheep, especially between Teklanika and Polychrome Pass. They often can be observed very close to the road, but a motivated photographer will be willing to climb up to them. Be prepared to photograph the sheep against towering rock cliffs or against the valleys below. A big telephoto lens may seem too heavy to hike with, but you'll be happy that you brought it when they pose for you.

Jon Cornforth is an award-winning nature photographer and one of the Outdoor Photographer bloggers. Cornforth makes repeated trips to Alaska to photograph wildlife and landscapes, and he offers photo tours to the state. You can see more of his photography at www.cornforthimages.com, and you can read his blog posts on the OP website.


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