Autumn In Alaska

Tips from the Field, Denali National Park, August 2010

A grizzly bear in fine condition prowls the riverbeds in search of soapberries, a fall food staple that’s abundant in Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska. Canon EOS-1DS Mark IV attached to a Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L lens and 1.4X tele-extender (total of 910mm). The camera was set to ƒ/5.6 and 1/180 sec. with ISO 800.

I spent the last week of August deep in the heart of Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve as the visiting specialist for Camp Denali’s photographic Special Emphasis program. Seven days of serious photography on the brilliantly colored tundra with 10 advanced, eager photographers brought up lots of great questions and problem-solving challenges that Kathy and I can share with our OP readers. So here’s the latest edition of Tips from the Field, direct from one of the most photogenic national parks in North America.

By the time you read this, Denali will be covered with snow, bears will be hibernating, and snowshoe hares will wear their white winter fur. But late August is full-on fall in Denali, and the landscape literally vibrates with flaming poplar, light-green willow, deep red and blue berry bushes, and bright mosses and lichens. Set against this fabulous backdrop, moose, bears, wolves, foxes, caribou, and a myriad of birds and small critters reveal themselves to diligent observers. The participants in the program anticipated photography of wildlife, landscapes and macro subjects, all of which Denali generously supplied on a grand scale.

Denali maintains strict rules of access to parklands and wild subjects, so we needed to work within some constraints. Photography during the workshop was restricted to the park road and its immediate proximity. We used Camp Denali’s bus and expert guides, who helped us to reach great wildlife subjects while staying legal and keeping the tundra untrampled and ourselves and the wildlife safe and relaxed. Wonderful opportunities for landscape and close-up photography presented themselves, and we frequently photographed from tripods alongside the road or out on the tundra, or even from atop the parked bus. While specific to the Denali experience, the tips and observations we’re offering here apply to photography in many managed natural environments such as refuges and other national and state parks, and they’re useful, too, for working from vehicles on back roads.

Protecting The Gear
For months before the workshop began, we heard from participants as they grappled with ways to transport their gear, which necessarily included long lenses and multiple DSLRs. On my way to Alaska, I—well, okay—Kathy carried onto the plane a Lowepro Lens Trekker 600 AW that held my 500mm lens with a 1.4X tele-extender and camera body attached to it; this isn’t something I would ever check into the belly of the aircraft! Other participants packed their big glass and other photo gear into padded camera roller bags that are carry-on-possible. One participant kept the lens in its original hard case and shipped it FedEx to friends in Anchorage. It arrived safely, but the hard case was cracked.

Never check the big glass in original equipment cases with an airline. The case is easily recognizable and screams, “Steal me!” A colleague flying with me a number of years ago lost his 600mm lens that way. If you really must check expensive camera gear, place it in ordinary luggage with good packing material and a TSA lock on it, then cross your fingers.

In the field, protect your gear. Use a tripod designed for heavy bodies and lens combinations, and tighten/lock the legs every time you set up. Be sure you’re on solid ground (the tundra is spongy!) and that the equipment is level and balanced to prevent the disastrous crash as you turn your back—a mishap that occurred with one of the participants at Denali. His entire rig, with 500mm lens, went over on the side of the road, breaking the attached 2X tele-extender and the tripod mount on the lens.

It can be pretty wet in Denali in the fall, but we photograph rain or shine! The wet tundra shows saturated colors and dazzling early-morning frosted berries and bright leaves. Although today’s pro-level bodies and lenses are well sealed, a rain hood for your photographic equipment is very helpful, and it’s important to keep from transferring moisture from your hands and clothing to your gear.

The Ready Photographer Captures The Prize
It’s such a simple idea: Be ready for the unexpected. Yet I continually see good photographers miss the “money shot” because they weren’t ready. While traveling in the bus, I kept two wildlife setups ready from the first moment. Next to me on the seat was a Canon EOS 7D with a 100-400mm lens; the combination offered a wide range of focal lengths, a 1.6x crop factor to extend that range and a fast 8 fps. The camera was set for the immediate lighting conditions and an ISO appropriate for the camera and the anticipated action—in this case, wildlife—so typically an ISO of 400 and either ƒ/5.6 for low or early light and ƒ/8 for a brighter day, which offered the luxury of stopping down slightly for additional sharpness from the lens and a bit more depth of field. The camera was set to aperture priority to give the fastest shutter speed based on the lighting and the ƒ-stop. The relatively light setup can be handheld and was ready at a moment’s notice.

At my knee, holstered in the Lowepro long-lens bag, was a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with an EF 500mm ƒ/4L image-stabilized lens with a 1.4X tele-extender. This rig was ready for more distant subjects and even faster action with its 10 fps capture rate. The lens could be handheld or steadied on the window frame of the bus, but it was better applied when placed on a tripod outside, or atop the vehicle. This camera/lens was also preset to the proper ƒ-stop shutter speed and a slightly higher ISO of 800.

Thinking ahead counts with accessories such as memory cards, batteries and cable releases. Taking these necessities along with you in a vest or pocket can keep you in the action instead of hoofing it back and forth to your bag in the bus. Likewise, staying ready for the outdoor conditions, with rain gear and hats in place, saves time when you need to be off that bus and on the job!

The DSLR Video Component
Eight of the 10 photographers in my group carried DSLRs capable of high-def video, but most of them hadn’t used the feature and were looking forward to exploring it during the Denali workshop. On this trip, we were rewarded with some unusual wildlife behavior, and by the end of the week the group had generated a number of excellent video clips.

There’s a lot to learn when a still photographer undertakes video capture, and it’s not all about the technology; it takes a different mind-set, and I find it difficult to do both video and still photography at the same time. When you’re encountering some interesting moose bull/cow interactions, it’s hard to choose the unknown (video) over the tried and true (stills), so it really pays to practice at home before you get out in the field. But if your goal is to show the behavior, video is the better tool, and it can greatly improve your ability to convey the full story to your viewers. Two essential pieces of equipment will facilitate your success in capturing video with your DSLR: A loupe affixed to the camera’s LCD (such as the Hoodman 3.0 loupe and cinema strap or crane) will allow you to focus precisely under even the brightest lighting conditions, and a simple fluid tripod head enables you to follow action smoothly.

The second part of video capture is the presentation, keeping the story tight and interesting. You’ll need to learn some basic editing skills using simple video-editing software like iMovie for Mac or Premiere Elements for Windows users. You can do this! The future of digital imaging and digital communication undoubtedly includes video, so learning the basic concepts and becoming proficient at it makes a lot of sense for photographers who want to use all the tools at hand to express their visions.

Expand Your Creative Approach
In my seminars, I often remark that you need to understand and apply techniques that can solve problems and improve your capture—and free your creative vision—before you find yourself facing a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity. The era of digital offers remarkable, almost magic, solutions to photographic problems that have plagued photographers from the early days of the craft, but often these techniques must be applied while still in the field. Examples are High Dynamic Range (HDR) to control contrast, Extended Depth of Field (EDF) and panoramas to expand the view.

In Denali, the landscapes often have a contrast range that’s impossible to capture in one image. There’s a magnificent mountain, white as the driven snow, dominating the scene. At its base are bands of dark, rocky foothills, and the foreground is a combination of dark spruce forest and colorful tundra. Did I mention the brilliant sky and/or bright clouds? To hold detail where it’s needed, it’s often necessary to use HDR, capturing a minimum of three exposures in one- to two-stop increments. I frequently encounter photographers who despise HDR for its overdone and grungy creative effects, but in fact, HDR is a tool that can help us to convey the natural and true qualities of light and tone in nature. Think of it as a tool, not an effect.

Denali’s landscapes are vast, and you want to get it all sharp, from the dried grasses in the foreground to the mountains in the distance. Stop way down to ƒ/22 and you lose sharpness due to diffraction. One answer is the tilt/shift (T/S) lens, which uses the depth of field you have more effectively, by tilting the front element of the lens, and the plane of sharpness, along the plane of the subject. For motionless scenes and subjects, capture multiple images from a tripod, overlapping the focus in the series, and later combining the layers using either Helicon Focus or Adobe Photoshop CS5 software. The extended focus techniques are especially useful with macro subjects, such as berries or tiny lichen on the tundra.

Panoramas extend the view either horizontally or vertically and can help you get undistorted ultra-wide-angle images when you can’t get far enough away to get it all with a normal lens. The small amount of extra effort yields images of superior quality and unique perspective that hold up in large prints. Face it, a small, low-res, cropped print of Mount McKinley at sunrise with Wonder Lake in the foreground just doesn’t do justice to the miracle you’re viewing, especially when you’ve been waiting for a week—or even all your life—to photograph The Mountain.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.