fbpx

Adventuring in Alaska August 2021

Alaska is a special place for my wife Darlene and I. We return as often as possible. We recently had the opportunity to return to spend five days with a small group of photographers to show them the beauty of the state. 

We visited the Kenai Peninsula in our search for wildlife, especially bears, where we spent time at the Kenai and the Russian Rivers. We saw huge red-sided Coho salmon making their way upriver to spawn. We also photographed loons at Skilak Lake. We were disappointed that we saw no bears but it was a day full of adventure and breathtaking scenery nonetheless. The Chugach Mountains, Kenai Mountains and the scenic Turnagain Arm dominated the scenery that we enjoyed as we travelled the Seward Highway. 

On our second day we took an excursion boat out of the coastal town of Seward. We cruised through Resurrection Bay into the ocean. It was drizzling with some fog but it didn’t keep us from standing out in the clean ocean air photographing dreamscape like images of the rugged, forested Alaska shoreline and the Kenai Fjords towering rock Chiswell Islands. We saw wildlife including sea lions and a myriad of sea birds, puffins and bald eagles. We even had a humpback whale surface right next to our boat, raising its tail above the water. We then travelled to the face of the Aialik Glacier to watch the calving of the ice into the sea, while harbor seals floated on the dislodged chunks of ancient ice in an attempt to avoid being eaten by Orca whales.

On day three we travelled north into the massive Talkeetna Mountains with their jagged peaks and glacial scoured valleys, green with tundra and decorated by scattered late season wildflowers. We explored Hatcher Pass and the dilapidated Independence mine. As we travelled through Hatcher Pass we photographed sweeping vistas and aqua blue-green glacier fed rivers. 

We eventually met the Parks Highway and turned north to our second lodge located in Talkeetna, an eclectic little tourist town south of our ultimate destination, Denali National Park and Preserve. As we drove we passed through Broad Pass with forests stunted from the harsh winter conditions that they must endure to survive. The incredible scenery was dotted with beaver ponds that mirrored the foothills of the Alaska Range on their still surfaces.

On our last day we arrived at Denali National Park and Preserve early to another wet, drizzly day. We boarded the park bus and started our journey through the park, enjoying some of the most majestic scenery in the world in spite of the clouds and fog that came and went through the day. We saw, and photographed, ptarmigan, caribou and grizzly bears in the distance along the way. We eventually made it to the Eielson Visitor Center deep in the park where we watched two grizzlys grazing on the tundra in the fog on a high ridge above us. When we left the visitor center the bears had made their way down the ridge to a hillside very near the road. Our bus stopped and we photographed them until they crossed over the hillside and out of our view. We were able to take some incredible Denali grizzly bear photos. 

After an uneventful but scenic ride back to the park entrance we left the bus and then went to have a warm meal. As we ate we talked about the two things that the group wanted to photograph but wasn’t able to, a moose and the massive Denali, the third most prominent mountain peak in the world. 

We finished dinner and made our way south on the Parks Highway toward our lodge in Talkeetna. We had gone approximately 10 miles when we came across a bull moose near the side of the highway munching on the vegetation. We pulled over and carefully positioned ourselves to get the moose photos that the group had hoped for. We didn’t mind that it was along the side of the road. 

The weather had been mostly clouds, drizzle and some rain throughout the week. Not enough rain to spoil our fun but enough to obscure the view of “The High One” Denali. We all went to bed on the last night of the workshop feeling satisfied for the amazing week, but a bit disappointed in not being able to see the mountain, our last piece of the puzzle. 

The next morning was one of reflection on the week that we had just spent. Tired but satisfied, we packed our luggage in the van and proceeded to leave our lodge and make our way back to Anchorage. We left under a clear blue sky that morning. We drove up the road to a viewpoint with a clear view toward the Alaska Range, the home of the elusive Denali. We stood in front of a majestic crystal clear view of a pure white snow covered Alaska Range and standing head and shoulders over its neighboring peaks we finally saw Denali. 

Our Alaska adventure was complete. My friends could hardly believe the week that we had. They left for home on their flights filled with memories that will last a lifetime and camera memory cards full of reminders. 

Photographing The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights over Vista House and Crown Point Oregon

I will never forget the first time that I saw the Northern Lights. It was on my first trip to Alaska. I’m talking a real, bright, dynamic display straight above my head and not a faint glow off on the distant horizon like I have seen in Oregon in the past. In Oregon the Aurora could barely be seen with the human eye but was clear to the camera’s sensor after a relatively long exposure.

Trillium Lake Aurora
Trillium Lake Aurora

Photographing the aurora in Oregon required that I set the exposure at around 15-20 seconds on average because of how dim that they were. There was no real definition in the glow nor was there any discernable movement in the light. It was mostly a colorful glow.

Aurora near Hood River Oregon
Aurora near Hood River Oregon

My first real experience with the aurora was on a trip to Alaska to visit my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, who was living near Palmer in a cabin on the edge of the Knik River. My flight arrived at Anchorage at approximately 11pm. Darlene came to pick me up at the airport before we drove to her cabin, arrived there at around midnight. We were sitting in her dining room discussing the lay of the land that surrounded her home when I asked if it would be practical to take a midnight stroll to the river. She said that it would be fun so we grabbed our tripods and cameras and off we went.

The Northern Lights from the Knik River in Alaska
The Northern Lights from the Knik River in Alaska

It was a moonlit night, which would completely cancel any chances of seeing an aurora in Oregon, but I hadn’t even considered that there would be a chance of seeing it anyway. Off we went down a path and through the forest that lined the edge of the river. As soon as my eyes had adjusted to the night and we were about to emerge from the trees I could see a beautiful green light in the sky. When we got to the beach at the edge of the Knik River I was amazed by the scene before me. In front of us was the placid and mirror like water of the Knik River and just beyond in the distance stood the rugged peaks of the Chugach Mountains and above it all was the most incredible aurora. The lights were a vivid green and were moving like curtains in a soft breeze. Over my right shoulder was a moon illuminating the scene. The whole scene was reflected in the surface of the river that slowly flowed past in front of us. Of course I was completely blown away by the view and didn’t know if I should stand and watch it or divert my attention to photograph it. Of course I set up and proceeded to take some photos.

The Northern Lights over Anchorage Alaska
The Northern Lights over Anchorage Alaska

My approach to setting up to get the photos was to start with some longer exposures. That’s the approach that I would take for most any night photos, and was my experience with the aurora here in Oregon, but when I reviewed the photos and looked closely at them the definition of the curtains that I saw was gone. The aurora looked like just a big green cloud or something similar. Then it occurred to me that the lights were moving and were blending together during the long exposure. I thought that I should use what I’ve learned about photographing a moving creek. If I expose longer the water smears. If I want to freeze it I want ta fast shutter speed.

An aurora near Anchorage Alaska
An aurora near Anchorage Alaska

At that point I started to raise my ISO and shorten my shutter speed. I also made sure that I didn’t underexpose the shots. By making sure that the photos were exposed properly, and wouldn’t require me to raise the exposure in post, I would reduce the chance of ISO noise from using a higher ISO. That’s something that I can’t stress enough. It is better to use a higher ISO and to expose the photos properly than to use a lower ISO and underexpose the shots and then raise it in post. When you raise the exposure of an underexposed photo the noise will be greater than one with a higher ISO that was exposed brighter.

Upper Trail Lake Kenai Alaska
Upper Trail Lake Kenai Alaska

Next make sure that you check your exposure by using the histogram. There are two reasons to keep an eye on your histogram. The first is to make sure that you’re ETTR – Exposed To The Right, as much as possible and to make sure that you’re not over exposing the aurora. On exceptionally active auroras the light can be quite bright.

The aurora near Talkeetna Alaska
The aurora near Talkeetna Alaska

And so the short answer to the question about how to photograph the Northern Lights would be to use a shutter speed that is as quick as possible. I wouldn’t recommend exposing longer than 2-3 seconds in Alaska, and 10-20 seconds in Oregon, for instance. It’s acceptable to use a larger aperture opening (f/2.8-f.3.5) to bring more light in, which will help to shorten your exposure time. And last but not least don’t be afraid to raise your ISO. In the case of the aurora it would be better to have a more defined aurora than one that is smoothed together from a long exposure.

The last thing to remember is that although you’re using a quicker exposure to capture the lights, the exposure times will still be too long to hand hold so don’t forget to bring your tripod.

Summary:

  • Use as fast a shutter speed as possible
  • Use an open aperture
  • Raise you ISO
  • Use your histogram
  • Use a tripod
  • And don’t forget to take time to just watch and experience the incredible light show.
A selfie under the Northern Lights in Alaska
A selfie under the Northern Lights in Alaska

Alaska Workshop 2021

It’s time once again to start planning for our trip to Alaska next August 15-21.

Darlene and I have worked hard to plan another spectacular Alaska adventure. Perhaps the most epic trip yet. Join us for our Alaska Workshop 2021! This Alaska adventure is all inclusive except airfare to and from Anchorage. We will have comfortable private home accommodations in beautiful locations for you to enjoy.

Click on this link to read more.
https://www.gary-randall.com/product/alaska-workshop-2021/

Alaska Grizzly Bears

Alaska Grizzly Bear

I enjoy being a landscape photographer. Being a landscape photographer allows me opportunities to be out within Nature to photograph its beauty, many times in breathtaking conditions. Being out in Nature also allows me to enjoy encounters with the creatures that inhabit these beautiful sceneries.

Landscape photographers are typically unprepared to photograph an encounter with a deer, a squirrel or even an occasional bear, primarily since a landscape lens is a wide-angle focal length. A wide-angle lens will not do justice to any kind of wildlife photography. Most of the creatures will be small and obscure within the scene. A typical focal length for a landscape scene will be somewhere around 18mm/24mm. In the world of wildlife photography life begins at 600mm and so an investment in a long focal length zoom lens must be made. I use a 150mm – 600mm lens.

Photographing wildlife takes a different approach as well. A landscape photographer will set their camera up on a tripod and, basically, take their time constructing the shot. There is usually no rush at all and the shot is usually made with manual settings. But with wildlife the animals do not pose for you and are usually fleeting in their appearance. Your photos usually must be made in a blink of an eye and hand held. 

My method for photographing wildlife is to set my camera up on either Aperture Priority of even Shutter Priority. I then will set my ISO to Auto and make sure that the range will cover all lighting conditions. In Aperture Priority you will set the aperture and the camera will choose the best shutter speed and ISO, again making sure that the shutter speed is quick enough to get a shot without any kind of motion blur. Open the aperture all the way and push the ISO. Some photographers prefer to set the shutter speed and not the aperture to make sure that it is always fast enough. In that case you set the shutter speed and the camera adjusts the aperture and ISO. Either method works and depends on personal preference or conditions. But it is important to make sure that you have a fast-enough shutter speed. Either way these settings will be preferred over manual operation as it allows you to make a shot quickly without having to manually adjust as the animal is moving. Give it a try. 

I had the opportunity to photograph wildlife in Alaska recently. Black bears, grizzly bears, moose, harbor seals, sea lions, sea otters, eagles and other animals, but the grizzly bears were the most thrilling. This allowed me to use these techniques to nail the photos as the bears were going about their business feeding on fish in the river. Grizzly bears are very focused on fishing and are not aggressive toward humans in this situation unless they were to feel threatened. Using a 600mm focal length allowed plenty of room between us and the bears and allowed them to go about their business as we went about ours. We sat on the opposite side of the Kenai River and watched them as they pulled fish from the river.

Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority works well in other situations as well. Photographing people in quick moving situations, such as candid photos of wedding guests for example, will allow you to pay attention to your subjects and not have to deal with the camera settings. Also a longer focal length zoom lens works well for that too as you don’t have to get up close to your subject, allowing for more candid photos.

I recommend any photographer that wants to photograph wildlife to invest in a “long lens” and practice. Try the automatic settings Aperture and Shutter Priority. Use it in your yard on squirrels and birds and then go out to a wildlife refuge or a natural place frequented by animals and become a wildlife photographer. While you are out in the wild please be careful of your safety as well as being respectful of the animal’s space and safety. And as always when in Nature, leave it better than you found it.

Photographing Alaska Glaciers and Fjords

Whittier Alaska Tour with Gary Randall Photography

Photographing Alaska Glaciers and Fjords – The gurgling sound of the twin 200 horsepower outboard motors mounted in tandem on the stern of our excursion boat mixed with the sound of camera shutters and the random “ooh and ahh” as we cruised back and forth through the still, ice laden water at the face of the massive wall of glacial ice before us. Once everyone was through photographing this incredible scene our boat captain eased forward on the throttle turning the gurgle to a roar as we left the sheltered cove to head back to where we started this incredible day. Our group of intrepid photographers sat at rest enjoying the views after a full day of cruising the Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska photographing wildlife and the immense, wild remote scenery that surrounded us.

Our day started at our log lodge located near Palmer in the beautiful Matanuska Valley located about an hour northeast of Anchorage. We had a drive to make and a schedule to adhere to as we had to be at the Whittier Tunnel on time to pass through with the regularly scheduled opening that allowed visitors and residents to get to the little town of Whittier located at the other end on the majestic and scenic Prince William Sound. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, commonly called The Whittier Tunnel, is a tunnel that was made through a mountain between the town of Whittier and the the Seward Highway, which is a major thoroughfare taking traffic to and from the Kenai Peninsula to Alaska’s mainland.

The Whittier Tunnel is a one way, single lane, tunnel 2 ½ miles long. It’s the longest highway tunnel in North America. The roadway includes a set of train tracks to accommodate the Alaska Railroad. The inside of the tunnel is rough rock, almost cave like, and is a bit claustrophobic the first time through, but is a bit exciting nonetheless. There’s a time schedule for opening the tunnel that accommodates the train as well as car and truck traffic in each direction at different times. If you miss your scheduled opening you must wait an hour before it’s open again in your direction.

On this morning our group awoke with adventure on our minds. We all climbed into the van and headed out. We were right on time, although the bathroom break along the way threatened to cause a little concern about catching the tunnel, we made it with time to spare. Our destination this morning was Epic Charters and the boat that we had reserved to take us out into the fjords of the Prince William Sound to photograph not just scenery, but also for the chance to photograph its wildlife.

The day was calm with some overcast skies. The ride out into the sound was calm and exhilarating. The Chugach Mountains surrounding us tower up from the water to reach an average height of 4000-5000 feet with peaks as high as 13,000 feet. Many have majestic glaciers covering their flanks and filling their valleys with some ultimately crumbling into the ocean waters. As we travel along we pass small islands covered with sea lions, rafts, as they’re called, of sea otters and eagles flying overhead while we hope to see orcas on our search for black bears.

Our skipper navigated our boat into a couple small bays, one of which was the location of a remote salmon hatchery where we found at least a dozen or more opportunistic black bears roaming the shore, dipping their paws into the water and dragging out a fish with little challenge. We left there and made our way to another bay where we found several more bears away from man made surroundings, a small group of which consisted of a mother and three cubs hiding in tall grasses on the shoreline. Their heads peeked up every so often just to keep an eye on the boat full of shutterbugs sitting in the water beyond the shoreline.

We left that bay and made our way further into the sound to a little island where we all stepped off of the boat to stretch our legs for a little while before making our way into the incredible Harriman Fjord, a finger off of the sound into the realm of huge hanging and tidewater glaciers. Our boat made it to the face of Surprise Glacier where we floated around taking in the massive mountains and huge flows of glacial ice. Massive waterfalls flowed down huge solid stone walls from the ice fields and hanging glaciers above. The boat slowly cruised through the iceberg filled water, several of which were the size of the boat itself as we observed walls of ice calving into the ocean creating waves that would gently rock the boat as we stood there in amazement of the scene surrounding us.

In time we turned to head back to Whittier. As we skimmed over the calm water we passed by the glaciers in the College Fjord before heading back into deeper water and passage back. The boat’s captain pushed the throttle further and brought the boat up onto a plane as our group sat at the stern watching the scene disappear behind us. As we sat there taking it all in for one last time, and recalling all that had happened on that day, a rainbow appeared behind us as one final parting gift from this spectacular land.

Our group left the pier and our captain as we gathered together to make sure to catch the tunnel scheduled opening for our trip back through and to the Seward Highway for our drive back to the lodge, with one more stop for a meal at the Turnagain Arm Pit, a favorite barbecue restaurant along the way. Once back at the lodge all everyone wanted to do was rest and look at all of their photos from this amazing time. This trip has become a favorite part of our yearly Alaska Adventure tours, but is only one day of the five that we spend photographing Alaska. Each and every day is filled with another incredible experience.

 

 

Turnagain Arm Sunbeams

Turnagain Arm Sunbeams

Turnagain Arm Sunbeams – The Turnagain Arm is a waterway in the Gulf of Alaska and is one of two branches of the Cook inlet, the other being the Knik Arm. It happens to be one of my favorite places for photography.

The Turnagain Arm was named by William Bligh of the HMS Bounty fame who served as the sailing master for Captain James Cook, British Explorer and cartographer, on his third and final voyage on his quest for the Northwest Passage. In the exploration of the Cook Inlet a party was first sent up the Knik Arm only to return reporting that it led to a river. A second party went up the next Arm only to turn back saying that it too was only a river. In their frustration of having to turn back again they named it the Turnagain River, later to be designated an arm of the Cook Inlet, thus the Turnagain Arm.

The Turnagain Arm’s geography affects the weather in dramatic ways. On the south side of the waterway lies the Kenai Peninsula with its mountain peaks averaging 3000′-5000′ while on the opposite side rise the Chugach Mountain Range with peaks comparable in size to the Kenai Mountains but, because of their position to the Cook Inlet set world records for snowfall with averages 1500 cm (800 in). With the waterway between the weather can be intense, and the sun being low on the horizon most all seasons, the light is incredible an inordinate amount of times throughout the year.

Another unique part of exploring the Turnagain Arm is it’s bore tide. A bore tide happens only in a small handful of places around the world. A bore tide is a tidal phenomenon where the incoming tidal flow meets an outgoing flow of the bay or a river. The leading edge forms a wave that travels up the arm on the incoming tides. It’s always fun to go to the Turnagain Arm and chase the bore tide.

We always make the Turnagain Arm a primary feature of our Alaska workshops. When the bore tide happens just before a sunset, magic can happen. We had the opportunity on this particular evening to chase and photograph the bore tide and the Alaskan surfers along the Seward Highway, a sunset and as a bonus we experienced Baluga whales breaching just below where were were standing taking in the last light of the sunset.

These experiences are hard to describe, even with a photograph to accompany the narrative. They are things that one must experience in person to appreciate. Darlene and I have a combined total of over 25 years of experience exploring Alaska. If you have ever considered an Alaska adventure please consider signing up to one of our Alaska workshops.

Knik River Ice Cracks

Knik River Winter Ice

Knik River Ice Cracks  – This was a great day of photographing the patterns in and on the ice on the Knik River near Palmer Alaska. Darlene and I were invited to shoot by our friends and Alaska photographer Calvin Hall. Another fantastic photographer, Jason Dahlquist joined us for the evening. It was cold. It was 5°F (-15C) but there was no wind. The wind pulls the heat from you as you stand outside in this kind of cold. We lucked out and our cold weather gear kept us comfortable.

I was able to come away with a shot or two that I like from this location, this one included.

After we were finished here we relocated closer to Palmer to photograph the overflow ice on the Matanuska River. It was there that we photographed the sunset.

Alaska on Ice

Jason at The Knik River Alaska

Alaska on Ice – During my last trip to Alaska I and Darlene were able to met up with two of Alaska’s best photographers, Calvin Hall and Jason Dahlquist. Calvin took us all down to the Knik River to photograph the river ice. The temperature was about 5 degrees fahrenheit (-15C) but the temperature was the last things on our mind. The ice had patterns, layers and bubbles as well as beautiful little ice flower crystals. In the distance were the Chugach Mountains. It was incredible made better by being with friends.

While we were photographing the ice I glanced over and decided to get this photo of Jason. In this photo you can see the patterns in the ice, and Jason’s dashing smile. 🙂

Alaska Winter Bush Plane Glacier Adventure

Knik Glacier Alaska
Ice Columns of the Knik Glacier on an Alaska Winter Bush Plane Glacier Adventure. 
 
This photo is of the huge ice face of the Knik Glacier in Alaska. I was able to photograph this miraculous location due to my good friend Bill Nafus and his amazing new hand built Super Cub bush plane. Bill built the airplane from the ground up and it’s perfect in every detail.
 
Our plan was to fly up the Knik River and then back down, not expecting to land. We flew across the face of the glacier, very near the surface below us when I noticed that Bill was throttling back and dragging the huge balloon tires across the snow. He then pushed into the gas and we lifted back up again, circled tight and then returned again to drag the tires through the same grooves made by the first pass. And we lifted off again, circled back and this time we dropped into the tire tracks and stopped.
 
I was stoked. Was this actually happening??
 
Bill and I hopped out of the airplane and we walked out across the snow covered Knik River braided riverbed, not knowing what was under it, testing it along the way. It could be sand, ice, overflow ice or even open water. As we walked we watched for anomalies in the surface that may indicate danger, we got closer to the big ice wall.
 
The light at the glacier was amazing in its smooth even forgiving nature. I was easily able to take the photos by hand without the need of a tripod. This allowed me to be able to keep walking and taking photos as I saw them. It also allowed me to keep walking to keep warm in the -5F cold. The moon would peek out from behind the top of the glacier as i walked. The ice walls were a deep blue and transparent and as shiny as glass with a web of cracks lacing it giving it texture and depth.
 
In about an hour we made our way back to the plane, got back inside and flew back to Bill’s home in Palmer.
 
I was so excited! As we flew that day we saw moose, Dahl sheep as well as a Jeep Caravan that had made its way up the frozen river to a spot not far from glacier and was returning back to civilization. We flew above deep blue crevices, ice canyons and ice fields of no less than four glaciers. We flew through and past the jutting granite peaks of the Chugach Mountains.
 
Just the action of taking off from a frozen lake and flying around Alaska is sensational on a bucket list level, but to add the landing at a glacier to the trip made this day one that I will never, ever forget. I can’t thank my friend Bill enough. He’s a man that makes things happen.
 

I love Alaska, but I love her people even more.

 

Upper Trail Lake at Moose Pass Alaska

Upper Trail Lake Kenai Alaska
 A front row seat to the light show at Upper Trail Lake at Moose Pass on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.
 
The story behind this shot… Darlene and I had scouted this location out earlier in the day and then drove in the Seward to get a room for the night and some food in our bellies. We returned about dusk to wait for the show. When we arrived there were two guys there with their tent set up.
 
We parked and I approached them and said hello. They were from Germany and were touring British Columbia and Alaska by car. They flew in to Vancouver, bought a cheap used car and hit the road.
 
We had a great time visiting and shooting the aurora. Darlene wasn’t feeling so well that night and so as she was sitting above and behind she decided to take a photo of us down by the shore. When she showed me the shot I had to do it too, of course. 🙂 This is my version of the scene with our new German friends and Darlene standing at the shoreline getting their shots of the aurora.
 
The other detail that might complete this scene was that there was a beaver who would swim past every now and then and slap his tail on the water to try to chase us away.
 
Props to Darlene for standing back and capturing the scene and not just the scenery. 🙂