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Alaska By Sea

Tremendous photo opportunities await in America’s Great White North

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 6×7, 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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A coastal brown grizzly bear chases a salmon in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.

In the past, I’ve photographed eagles from kayaks in Glacier Bay and icebergs at arm’s length in Prince William Sound, and I currently use a variety of Pelican cases to keep my two bodies and four lenses both dry and available. Kayaking in wet suits and spray skirts is cumbersome compared to water shorts and Tevas on the Colorado River, but that’s soon forgotten when the sea otters eye you quizzically on a glassy morning in Kachemak Bay near Homer and continue unperturbed with their breakfast as you paddle by. Shooting at water level allows for reflections of the subject and simply is a very effective point of view, especially with wider lenses.

If kayaking with cameras seems a bit foolhardy, no worries; book a spot on the numerous small tour boats that ply the waters of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park, or Prince William Sound out of Valdez, or Glacier Bay out of Gustavus or Bartlett Cove. Experienced skippers have a fine eye for local wildlife and are worth their fee, so ask about their knowledge and bring both long and short glass.

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Hiking along the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

One of my favorite Alaskan wildlife images is of two Dall’s porpoise swimming off our bow on a surreal calm morning in Prince William Sound. They have the look of small orcas, and I used a 20mm to encompass their glide moves and a doubly reflected sun. It’s an otherworldly image and would have lost that quality with a long lens. I like to work with two camera bodies, one with a wide zoom and the other with a longer range zoom, as changing lenses invariably will cost you a critical moment.

I also love to photograph people exploring and playing in Alaska, and one fine June morning I captured 18 climbers who had just reached the 20,320-foot summit of Mount McKinley. The pilot said convincingly that he had never seen such a large group on top of this giant, and they seemed exultant when viewed through my pressurized window at 21,000 feet! That was shot from a Navajo Chieftain aircraft out of an airstrip near Denali National Park. On a calm mid-September evening years ago, I chartered a bright red Cessna out of Talkeetna and flew around Denali at 14,000 feet, marveling in a sunset and alpenglow that just wouldn’t end. The mountain glowed pink into ruby, while the glaciers in shadow turned purplish-blue—a flight and a night to savor, and part of the magic of Alaska.

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Juvenile Steller sea lions play near Point Bullhead, Glacier Island, in Prince William Sound.

On a particularly wet and cold day, I found myself wearing crampons on the Mendenhall Glacier outside of Juneau. There I photographed people sampling and saving glacial meltwater that to my eye was like liquid sapphire, and it was so appealing visually that I joined in their 10,000-year-old natural cocktail mixer and even brought a bottle home to the desert.

Another summer found me taking back roads to McCarthy, the gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. At six times the size of Yellowstone, studded with 16,000-foot peaks and endless glaciers and hikes, this is a place where you could spend all your summers and not exhaust its wonders. In McCarthy, you can book glacier hikes with climbing guides, but bring boots that accept crampons. Next summer I’ll be back again on the scenic Root Glacier, hiking the steep trails around McCarthy in search of wildlife and ice-carved vistas. This is truly a world-class park and worth the drive from Anchorage or Valdez! Plan on several days and, amazingly, the tiny town of McCarthy offers some fine dining, so you don’t have to rough it at night after a physical trail day.

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Click To Enlarge James’ Alaska photography is exclusively produced with Pentax cameras and lenses. He finds the K20D combined with the weather-sealed construction of Pentax DA* lenses to be particularly useful in the extreme environments of Alaska.

Photo cruises are one of the very best ways to see and photograph the splendor of Alaska. In 2009, I’m teaching workshops on four Alaska photo cruises between June and August. I’m also teaching a land-based workshop, Wild Alaska, in June 2009 for Friends of Arizona Highways, which will take us to Glacier Bay, Prince William Sound and Wrangell-St. Elias, plus a ride on the Alaska Railroad to Seward and Kenai Fjords. These are some of my favorite places for getting dramatic images of Alaska.

However you travel and with whomever you choose to explore, expect to be amazed and hooked on the atmosphere, adventure and the photographic richness of Alaska. Bet you won’t go just once!

To see more of Kerrick James’ photography and for information on his workshops, visit


Alaska Workshops, CVBs & Outfitters
Alaska Bald Eagle Festival
Alaska Homestead
Alaska Travel Industry Association
Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau
Copper Valley Chamber of Commerce
Cordova Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center
Denali National Park Wilderness
Dillingham Chamber of Commerce
Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau
Girdwood Chamber of Commerce
Great Alaska Adventure Lodge
Greater Healy Denali Chamber of Commerce
Haines Convention and Visitors Bureau
Homer CVB
Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris
Kenai Convention & Visitors Bureau
Kodiak Island Convention & Visitors Bureau
Mat-Su Convention & Visitors Bureau
Moose Pass CVB
Munsey’s Bear Camp
Nome Convention & Visitors Bureau
Puffin Inn
Ric Kessler Photography
Seward Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau
Silver Salmon Creek Lodge
Sound Eco Adventures Tours
The Single Star
Tanadgusix Corp./St. Paul Island Tour
Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau