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My Favorite Wildlife Photos of 2021

Denali Alaska Grizzly Bear

In the past, at the end of the year, I have only posted the summary of my previous year as it was represented in the landscape photos that I had made. As I looked through my portfolio from 2021 one thing stood out to me and that is that I am starting to have a large part of it wildlife photos.

In the past I have strictly been a landscape photographer. I have concentrated most all of my effort toward finding and representing beautiful scenes. Through my travels in search of these scenes, it’s inevitable that I would encounter various forms of wildlife. And during my travels to Alaska opportunities were passing me by. It was then that I realized that I needed to be prepared for wildlife encounters.

I encourage any landscape photographer to learn the techniques that one needs to know about wildlife photography and invest in a long lens. I am thrilled with my Tamron 150-600 G2 lens. All of the photos shown below were made with one.

Now, none of these photos are Nat Geo quality, but I like them. I know what it took to make them, and they bring back memories of the adventures that I was having when I encountered and photographed these beautiful creatures. That they aren’t Nat Geo quality doesn’t matter to me. Each one of these photos represent an increased level of skill that I’ve gained that I can use in the future when that Nat Geo moment happens.

I hope that you enjoy this series.

Seward Alaska Bald Eagle
Seward Alaska Bald Eagle
Kenai Alaska Grizzly Bear
Kenai Alaska Grizzly Bear
Eastern Oregon Great Horned Owl
Eastern Oregon Great Horned Owl
Kittiwake, Aialik Bay, Kenai Fjords  National Park, Alaska
Kittiwake, Aialik Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
Coyote with porcupine quills in his nose, Kenai Peninsula Alaska
Coyote with porcupine quills in his nose, Kenai Peninsula Alaska
Loon at Skilak Lake, Kenai Peninsula Alaska
Loon at Skilak Lake, Kenai Peninsula Alaska
Puffin at Kenai Fjords Alaska
Puffin at Kenai Fjords Alaska
Black Bear at Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
Black Bear at Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
Ptarmigan at Denali National Park
Ptarmigan at Denali National Park
Denali Alaska Grizzly Bear
Denali Alaska Grizzly Bear

Desert Solitaire

The desert’s of Utah provide some of the most diverse landscapes fit for photography than most any other place in the United States and possibly in the whole world.

I may be a bit biased as the Utah wilderness deserts and canyons have become a part of who I am through years of hiking and exploring. Through years of exploring I’ve developed an understanding of these unique landscapes.

I would call this an abstract. There’s no references within the photo to give the viewer scale. It’s more about tones and patterns in the landscape than it is a representation of the whole of the scene. It gives no indication of where or when it was made. It’s not about documenting. It’s about using a small component of a grand landscape to give the viewer more to imagine or to ponder. The end goal of this photo is to provide something aesthetically pleasing to view.

This photo was made using my 70-200mm lens at 140mm. I was perched high on a 400 foot edge looking over this incredible desert floor.

Nikon D850 – Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII
Focal Length – 140mm
Shutter Speed – 1/80 sec Hand Held w/stabilization
Aperture – f/8
ISO – 800

Factory Butte Utah

Situated between Capitol Reef to the west, the Henry Mountains to the south, the San Rafael Swell to the north and the San Rafael desert to the east. This butte is a popular spot for both Photographers and OHV (off highway vehicles). This situation has created a conflict of sorts as the landscape has tracks through it. This causes a challenge in the hope of getting a pristine photo of this location.

The most common method of photographing this beaut of a butte is from the air via a drone. From the air the tire tracks are plain to see. It takes some time to repair the photo by cloning out the tracks.

This is a scene that I have been wanting to photograph for a while now but with this being a pretty common location for landscape photographers, it’s a little difficult to create something unique.

I had the opportunity to go there last week to photograph this area, including Factory Butte. Because I only had a couple of days there I didn’t have the epic skies that I had hoped above this landscape.

I brought this photo up and decided to try to process it into something, anything to justify the time that I spent there – and the time spent repairing it. I took a lot of time working on the foreground but when I was done that plain, blank sky stared at me. I almost hit delete.

Now I have always said that the reason people will drop in a sky is because their time is limited and the time spent at a location didn’t produce the results that were hoped for. This was the exact situation that I was in with this image. As I sat there carefully brushing out tire tracks that blank sky taunted at me.

Once I was done with the foreground repair I saved the file and then decided to play with some different skies and boom. I saw this.

I have always said that if a photo is a composite I’m just fine with it as long as the artist is honest and transparent about it being so. I’m not one to criticize a person’s creative expression. All I ask for is honesty.

And so in my attempt at transparency, I explain the process that I went through to create this image for you. This is a composite of two images combined to create the image that I had hoped to create naturally.

I hope that you enjoy it for what it is.

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

Visualizing The Photo – An Outdoor Wedding Portrait

Mount Hood Oregon Wedding Photography

I am glad to be known more for my landscape photography than I am for any other photography style or genre that I dabble in, although I certainly do not limit myself strictly to landscapes, it’s what drew me back to photography in the beginning. This brings clients to me who want a unique heirloom portrait of themselves in the outdoors. As a landscape photographer I have many locations in the back of my mind that would work for the photos that my clients expect from me.

This photo is an example of one such session. The clients wanted a photo of themselves with Mount Hood behind them. We were fortunate to have a window of time when the skies would be clear, and a view of the mountain could be had. I chose White River Snow Park on the east side of Mount Hood. The park is busy, but we did well, and I can always take out the errant person in the distance with a clone brush tool in Photoshop during post processing. We walked up to an area with some trees which gave the photo the feel of being at the edge of a wilderness forest with the incredible mountain in the distance. The scene gave a sense of solitude to the feel of the photos even though there were people all around us.

I took a series of photos varying my focal length from 24 millimeter to 35 millimeter according to the composition that I was trying to achieve. They all turned out fine, but I had a vision in my head of a photo with the couple in the foreground with Mount Hood looming large in the background. An effect that I could not achieve with a wide-angle lens. I had this idea before we arrived and as we drove into the parking area, I surveyed the location to find a place to get the shot. I knew this location very well and so I drove right to where I knew that I would have the best luck in creating the photo. We did not have to walk far, fortunately, as the couple were surrounded by snow and dressed in their wedding clothes.

Once we had finished the photos, and were about to return to our cars, I asked my clients to stay behind with my assistant while I returned to my car to change lenses and take a photo of them from there. They were up on a ridge of snow above where I had parked with Mount Hood positioned perfectly behind them. As I stood in the distance, I mounted my 200 mm lens to my Nikon D850 and then zoomed in to 160 mm to compose the frame. I then stopped the aperture down to f/14 for a clear depth of field. Once my assistant had posed the couple, I took the shot. I had used a method of enlarging the mountain, in this case five miles distant, to fill the frame to give the illusion that the subject is much closer to the background than they were. I and my clients were pleased with the outcome.

Understanding your location and the capability of your gear makes it easier to visualize a photo prior to arriving at the location. And visualizing your photoshoot prior to the day of the event will allow you to be more prepared and to be more relaxed once you go to work. In addition, knowing the capabilities of your equipment will allow you to understand basic concepts or methods such as lens compression to create more compelling photographs.

The Blue Room

The Blue Room

An ice cave at Hatcher Pass Alaska.

What a great day that my wife Darlene and I had. We hiked up the April Bowl Trail to the tarns that are there. As we were hiking up the trail I saw a patch of snow that bridged the creek coming down from above. I told Darlene and I wanted to come back and walk down to see what kind of a photograph that I could get there. At the most I thought that it would be a cool shot of a creek coming out from the bottom of the snow patch.

We returned the next day and Darlene decided to hike to the top of Hatch Peak with a couple of our friends. I told her that I was going to forgo the hike up the mountain to explore this patch of snow. She went on her way and I dropped down to the snow patch with my tripod and camera. I set up below the snow and photographed the creek coming from the bottom of the patch and thought that the photos were a bit unremarkable. As I stood there I examined the opening that the creek emerged from and decided to explore it further. When I approached I could start to see the blue ceiling and the expanse within.

I stood at the ice cave entrance in awe and then proceeded to try my best to capture its beauty. This photograph is the result of my effort.

I have decided to offer this print for sale. You can find it at this link. Thank you.

https://www.gary-randall.com/product/alaska-ice-cave/

Comet NEOWISE at Mount Hood Oregon

Comet NEOWISE at Mount Hood Oregon

Here’s my contribution to the wave of photos that photographers have been getting of this miraculous celestial event. This comet wasn’t even discovered until March of this year, 2020. Whenever there’s an event such as this, which involves the night sky, you will find leagues of photographers armed with their cameras and tripod searching for the best spot to sit and enjoy the view while they create their own version of NEOWISE.

For this photo I decided to go to White River on the east side of Mount Hood to do my best to get a shot of the comet with Mount Hood in the frame. I am satisfied with my attempt. I’m glad that I was able to get a photo that included a place. A foreground that could give the photo more interest and a feeling of being there.

It was quite dark and the snow cats on Mount Hood were shining their lights as they groomed the ski slopes. Photographing the mountain from this direction will most certainly include the lights from Timberline Lodge. I just roll with it.

To create this photograph I took two shots, one being a super long exposure at a lower ISO to reveal details in the foreground, and then a shorter exposure at a higher ISO to capture the sky without any streaking of the stars or the comet. I then stacked and blended the two using layers and masks in Photoshop.

Settings:
Photo #1 Foreground: 180 sec (3 min) exposure – f/4.2 1600 ISO
Photo #2 Sky: 20 Sec exposure – f/4.2 – 6400 ISO

Prints of this photo are available at this link: https://www.gary-randall.com/product/comet-neowise-at-mount-hood-oregon/

Pacific Northwest Rhododendron Season

Mount Hood Oregon Rhododendrons

It’s rhododendron season again on Mount Hood. The “rhodies” are revered here on The Mountain as they are, most likely, the most popular wildflower that blooms around us. We even have a town that is named for the beautiful pink flowers that line our roads every Springtime. They’re very photogenic and my wife Darlene and I are always glad to see rhododendron season arrive. 

The name rhododendron is derived from the ancient Greek words for rose and tree. Of course rhododendrons are neither a rose nor a tree. They’re a part of a genus of over 1000 species of woody plants in the heather family. They’re found mainly in Asia but are also widespread in the mountains of the American Pacific Northwest as well as in the highlands of the Appalachian Mountains. Azalea are related to rhododendrons. Rhododendrons have been domesticated and come in many colors, but the natives are a beautiful blushing pink. Many homes in the area have domestic rhododendrons of varying colors in their yards, but the beautiful native flowers are my favorite. 

Rhododendrons are so beautiful that they seem to be out of place in the forest. I have been asked several times by those friends not from here if they were planted along the highways as a beautification project. Of course these beautiful flowers also grow far from roads throughout the forest but they love sunshine. You can find them growing along the roads because of that. They also love burned areas or even clear cut forests. You can find places where they cover a clearing in the forest. As photographers we can capitalize on that by going to a clearing with a beautiful view of Mount Hood for our photo. But these beautiful flowers will also grow in the forests among the trees with beautiful columns of trees surrounding them. Many views can be found by taking a hike on many of the trails in the area. Or even by taking a drive on some of the forest roads that are near us. 

They are beautiful in a wide angle photo as well as a macro photo. The flower’s pastel pink blossoms, in contrast with a beautiful blue sky, are a perfect color combination and when blended with a beautiful snow capped peak. This creates a classic composition fit for a calendar or a postcard or even a framed photo for your living room. 

And furthermore the bear grass blooms along with the rhododendrons on a typical year. The shape of these flowers, with their stem shooting up from the ground and their hundreds of small, white sparkle like blossoms flaring out into an orb reminds me of fireworks bursting in the sky. 

There’s really not a lot more to say about these beautiful flowers besides my encouragement to take some time to appreciate this local flower that represents the beauty of our forests. 

To make this photo I took focus stacked five images due to how near the minimum focus distance the flowers were. This allowed