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
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
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
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
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 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.
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.