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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Insider’s Passage

Get a look at America’s Last Frontier from a seasoned nature photographer who makes his home in Alaska

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Lake Clark National Park
“The sound of a glacier calving is almost more awesome than seeing it,” Niebrugge shares. “It’s hard to fathom that those walls are around 300 feet high because you have no sense of scale. You think you’re right next to them, and then the captain will tell you that you’re still a quarter-mile away.”

Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
If you have a few free days at the end of your trip and are tired of driving, or if part of the reason you came to Alaska is to get up close and personal with grizzly bears, Niebrugge suggests one more stop: Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. It’s a fly-in-only destination and about an hour flight from Anchorage.

Indeed, the unique allure of this park is the proximity—and tolerance—of the wildlife. “This is a place where you can fly in and get amazingly close to puffins and bears,” says Niebrugge. “They’re habituated to humans, and being there is just a wonderful experience.”

They’re so relaxed around humans, in fact, that he says fishermen working the same rivers as the bears have to be warned to cut their catch free if the bears show an interest in stealing their trophy.

“If you’re trying to land a salmon and a bear shows up, you have to cut it loose,” says Niebrugge. “It doesn’t take them long to learn that would be an easier way to catch fish—just lay there and wait for the fisherman to get one and then take it from him.”

Each summer Niebrugge teaches workshops while based at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, which is his lodge of choice. He suggests visiting for at least a few days, but says wildlife photographers could easily keep busy for a week.

“If you only do three days, you may leave wanting more,” he explains. “Having more time gives you freedom if there are any weather problems, or just to get different types of weather shots.”

In terms of lenses for photographing bears, Niebrugge says that while he frequently uses a 600mm lens (and sometimes a 1.4x extender) on a full-frame body, you could probably do well with a 300mm lens and the cropping factor of an APS-C-sized sensor.

Think In The Box For An Out-Of-The-Box Kind Of Shot
This image was taken in a small stream near my home in Seward, Alaska. I was specifically after salmon, but there’s always the chance of capturing other wildlife. My real hope was that a bear would show up. A buddy built me this [underwater] box. It’s made of aluminum, and has three adjustable legs and a glass front. It’s about 15 inches square.

I watched from a distance to try and anticipate the position of the salmon and then fired the camera remotely with a PocketWizard. The camera was set to manual focus, with focus a foot or two in front of the lens. I placed an off-camera flash in the bottom of the box. The photo was shot with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and a Canon 17-35mm lens at 17mm. Exposure was set to manual, and the ISO was set at 800.

I usually get a handful of cool images from a day in the field, but it takes time. I check the LCD a number of times at first to make sure the exposure is good and that the water level is cutting the frame where I want it—a half an inch of variation can be the difference between a nice split and an almost entirely underwater image.

You can see more of Ron Niebrugge’s photography at his website, www.wildnatureimages.com. Jeff Wignall is a photographer and writer. You can see more of his work and buy his books at www.jeffwignall.com.


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