New Work – On Assignment In Talkeetna, Alaska

TALKEETNA, ALASKA  was one of three places I was sent to on assignment to promote Alaska as a vacation destination.   Talkeetna, with a laid back funky vibe seemingly lost in time, has an eclectic mix of free spirits, rugged individualists, hard-core climbers and river junkies, and in summer, bus loads of cruise ship tourists.  It operates at warp speed for three months and then in near hibernation the rest of the year.   Lying at the end of a 14 mile spur road off the Parks Highway along the banks of the Susitna River, Talkeetna is the hub for the last flag stop train in the U.S.  The sweeping panoramic views of the perpetually snow covered Alaska Range, particularly Mt. McKinley (Denali), dominates the skyline.

strolling in downtown Talkeetna, Alaska near the famous Roadhouse Inn.

Strolling in downtown Talkeetna, Alaska near the famous Roadhouse Inn.

THE PERCEPTION.  Here’s the thing.  The general public always see Lauri and I working with people in beautiful locations.  This gives the impression that our job as a photographer/assistant-producer team is a “vacation.”   Of course I tell them that is what I WISHED we did all the time.

THE REALITY.  The actual location shooting is about 23.3% of the effort involved to make the shoot a success.   So this is sort of “a day in the life of a photographer” blog.  Not complaining at all.  These shoots are exhausting but very rewarding.  Here’s why.

Chillin with the locals in Talkeetna at Coffee a la  Mar.

Chilling with the locals in Talkeetna at Coffee a la Mar.

IT’S THE PEOPLE.  We knew casting, like on any shoot, was paramount.   It took 3 weeks of emails, phone calls, phone tag, and coffee shop interviews to get 8 people with busy summer Alaskan lives and jobs to go to Talkeetna, 3 hours away from Anchorage (with some road construction) to shoot at insane hours when “the Mountain” (what Alaskans call Mt. McKinley or Denali) was out.  Then there was scouting and securing permissions and property releases for several locations.   Last but not least, I arranged a flight see and glacier landing but it was on a space available and ONLY if the mountain was out.

Hula hoopin on a scorching hot day along the Susitna River below Denali and the Alaska Range

Hula hooping on a scorching hot day along the Susitna River below Denali and the Alaska Range

THE MOUNTAIN HAS TO BE OUT!   No mountain, no shoot.  End of story!  Client wants the million-dollar view.  Best light is in the morning.  Lucky me, I needed two mornings with The Mountain out!   Denali is generally only visible 4-5 days on average in July.  Got lucky this summer with a great stretch of warm, clear weather.  It helps being a meteorologist, but, after committing to  multiple people and several grand in production expenses, you bet I was shitting bricks up until the start of the shoot on both days!

Mt McKinley (Denali) view from the Parks Highway near Talkeetna, Alaska

Mt McKinley (Denali) view from the Parks Highway near Talkeetna, Alaska

SLEEP IS OVERRATED.  At 62 north in July, the days are long and the nights, when you are supposed to sleep, almost non-existent.  The night before the first shoot day, Lauri and I are standing at river’s edge catching up with an old friend and Talkeetna transplant, watching the sunset over the Alaska Range at 11:50.  Tomorrow starts in 10 minutes.  I think I’m ready.

Lauri and Rich Crain on a pleasant sunset at 11:50pm along the banks of the Susitna River, Talkeetna, Alaska

Lauri and Rich Crain on a pleasant sunset at 11:50pm along the banks of the Susitna River, Talkeetna, Alaska

HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN.   Don’t worry.  Not gonna do a play by play of two days of shooting.  Day 1:  Mountain is clear at 6AM.  All 4 talent shows up including one of my favorites, Heidi.   The day was long as usual but went off mostly without a hitch.  We had the usual problems like dealing with hard clear day light and harsh shadows, crowds and surprisingly, the heat!  At 4PM it was near 86 and we just had to siesta.  This is a rare occurrence in Alaska.  Sunny days don’t always mean the best light.  But the Mountain was out.  I was happy.  The client will be happy too.

Breakfast with a view!  At the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge with views of the Alaska Range including Denali, Mt. Hunter and Mt. Foraker.

Breakfast with a view! At the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge with views of the Alaska Range including Denali, Mt. Hunter and Mt. Foraker.

 

Talkeetna, Alaska, where the road ends and life begins

Talkeetna, Alaska, where the road ends and life begins

But I gotta tell you about our super talent Melody on day 2.  What a pro!  Day started a little rough.  First, there was the message at 4AM saying that 2 of her family members couldn’t make it at the last minute and that she would be late.  Shit!  The sun waits for nobody!  We have a one hour drive to the trailhead, a two hour one-way hike and 1500 foot climb to get to where I wanted to shoot hikers with Denali in the background.  Working with Melody and her son Adam for the first time we pushed hard on the hike to get the shots before the light completely tanked and cumulus clouds blocked the Mountain.  Needed to be at the flight service for the last glacier landing of the day.   Had to race back down the trail and boogie back to town.  There was only room for two which meant only Melody and I could go.   Lauri had to sit this out.  The pilot basically said I had 15 minutes on the glacier.  That’s it!   No problem,  all I need is 10.   OK Melody, I know you’ve already had a 12 hour day with little sleep and got sick twice but you have to be “on” and pull off being enthralled with Alaska’s grandeur in 15 minutes.  It is times like this where a real pro comes through and she did.  I just had to make sure I didn’t screw it up technically.  Got back to Talkeetna around 7:30 and did a couple more hours of shooting around town.

Hiking in Denali State Park with views of Chulitna River and the south side of Denali

Hiking in Denali State Park with views of Chulitna River and the south side of Denali

 

Taking it all in on the Don Sheldon Amphitheater on a Talkeetna Air Taxi flight see around Mt. McKinley and glacier landing.

Taking it all in on the Don Sheldon Amphitheater on a Talkeetna Air Taxi flight see around Mt. McKinley and glacier landing.

Taking it all in on the Don Sheldon Amphitheater on a Talkeetna Air Taxi flight see around Mt. McKinley and glacier landing.

Taking it all in on the Don Sheldon Amphitheater on a Talkeetna Air Taxi flight see around Mt. McKinley and glacier landing.

Walking around the snow in the Don Sheldon Amphitheater on a Talkeetna Air Taxi flight see around Mt. McKinley and glacier landing.

Walking around the snow in the Don Sheldon Amphitheater on a Talkeetna Air Taxi flight see around Mt. McKinley and glacier landing.

BONUS DAY.  Late in the evening when saying goodbye to Melody, we met Warren Redfearn, the conductor on the Hurricane Gulch train.  (www.facebook.com/hurricaneturn)  He invited us on board the next day which turned out to be another clear day with sweeping views of Denali and the Susitna River.   Since we were on assignment, Warren stopped the train for us to get out and get a few choice shots for our client.   Riding Warren’s  flag stop train to Hurricane Gulch really gave me the sense of Alaska really being the last frontier.  Everyone should ride this train at some point!

Alaska Railroad, Hurricane Gulch Train along the Susitna River with fireweed and views of Denali

Alaska Railroad’s Hurricane Gulch Train along the Susitna River with fireweed and views of Denali

Conductor Warren Redfearn of the Alaska Railroad on the Hurricane Gulch Train, the last flag stop train in America that personifies life on the last frontier.  You should ride Warren's train if you visit Alaska.

Conductor Warren Redfearn of the Alaska Railroad on the Hurricane Gulch Train, the last flag stop train in America that personifies life on the last frontier. You should ride Warren’s train if you visit Alaska.

IT AIN’T OVER YET.  With three exhausting days I now had 3500 images to edit.  For every 1000 image day in the field creates at least 1 day of post production work to get presentation-ready images to the client.  Talkeetna alone meant I had at least 3 days of post production work.  Not much of a vacation.  No worries.  It’s all part of the process.  As I edit, I keep my new bumper sticker nearby which reads:  “Talkeetna, Alaska Where the Road Ends and Life Begins.”

Young grizzly walks the Denali National Park road in early morning near Reflection Pond.

Young grizzly walks the Denali National Park road in early morning near Reflection Pond.

Assignment Shoot Marathon

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End of day ride back to Whittier, Alaska after a full day of adventure in Prince William Sound

Three days after arriving in Alaska a shoot we’d been planning for weeks luckily fell into place.  Talent, available boat, and weather all aligned in our favor.  Operating on the typical Alaska summer sleep deprivation, we shot 3,600 frames in 30 hours at 3 locations with 8 talent.  Great shoots!  Looking forward to more shoots like that.

family-jump-on-snow-alyeska-resort-alaska1

Family jumping onto lingering summer snow on top of Alyeska Resort, Girdwood, Alaska

Our 12-hour day in Prince William Sound with Captain Mike of Lazy Otter Charters had to be one of the best days ever in Prince William Sound.  We had three fine folks for talent for a variety of adventure and tourism themes to create.

 

wo-couples-sea-kayaking-glacier-prince-william-sound-alaska

Kayaking in front of Coxe Glacier in Harriman fjord, Prince William Sound, Alaska

Keeping mental focus.  I am very fortunate to have a client that gives me a lot of creative freedom.  Investing the money and time I did without a shot list seems risky or foolish but it works.  The challenge was to have fresh ideas and sharp focus and keep the talent motivated all day.  Here is how I stack the odds in my favor.

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Checking out glacial ice and icebergs at low tide on the beach at Harriman Fjord, Prince William Sound, Alaska

First, casting dependable and self-motivated talent, most of whom I’ve worked with before was a huge step toward a successful shoot.  Knowing the area and light was also a key component.  The only uncertainty is, as always, dealing with weather conditions that are not favorable to what the client wants.  We had a bit of flat light and ominous clouds in late morning.  Remaining flexible I was able to adjust my shoot ideas to work around this.  The rest of the day was just grand.

man-jumping-beach-glacier-alaska

Hiker hitting the beach in Harriman Fjord in Prince William Sound with Lazy Otter Charters from Whittier

Instead of a shoot list, I come up with a “concept” list short enough to keep in my head.  This allows me to take in the environment, the light and mood of the talent to generate ideas on the fly that convey the client’s visual message.  I also go after the ideas they want shot the most first while we are all fresh.  This approach along with good planning resulted in a successful but exhausting shoot.

woman-portage-glacier-alaska

Sunrise at Portage Lake, Alaska enroute to Whittier

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A rare sight: sunbathing in Harriman Fjord in Prince William Sound, Alaska

 

 

Behind the Lens – Sheri, an Inupiat Eskimo, as a full page in Alaska Vacation Planner

I only spent a few hours photographing Sheri on a typical cool, wet, and windy July day near Nome, Alaska. Of the hundreds of folks we meet on the long assignments we’ve done for the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA), Sheri was one of the most enjoyable and unforgettable people we’ve worked with. I’m glad to see her featured in a full page image in the 2012 Alaska Vacation Planner.

Female Inupiat Eskimo artist from Nome, Alaska wearing traditional kuspik dress

Sheri, an Inupiat Eskimo artist in Nome, Alaska appears as a full page image in the 2012 Alaska State Vacation Planner. Shot on assignment in 2011

A kind and gentle soul with a soft pretty face, Sheri had a striking presence about her. At the time she was working at the Nome Visitor Center. She agreed to model for us in a traditional Kuspuk and with some of her artwork which consisted of her handmade sealskin purses and boots. An Inupiat Eskimo from Northwest Alaska, she is an amazingly talented artist.

Sheri is from the village of Shishmaref, 100 miles north of Nome on the windswept shores of the Chukchi Sea about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Summer here is a mere fantasy, more accurately described as a “thaw season” where waters turn to liquid for 8 weeks. Shishmaref is a “bush” village meaning it is not connected to the road system. The nearest contiguous road is the Dalton Highway some 500 miles east. Shishmaref is close to where it all began some 20,000 years ago when native peoples walked across the Bering Land Bridge to inhabit North America.

The subsistence lifestyle, primitive infrastructure (many homes without modern pluming) and extreme isolation she grew up in is simply unimaginable to most people – including me. She grew up among caribou, musk ox, wolves, grizzlies and the occasional polar bear.

With her upbringing, I thought nothing I would ask could phase her. I was wrong. When I asked her to sit among the beautiful field of wild iris, she was reluctant and concerned about mice being down there. I had a warm fuzzy chuckle, thinking up to this point, that only “city” girls would be concerned over the possibility of a cute little rodent running around your feet. Luckily I was able to stomp out the area where I wanted her to sit which she eventually did and we made some great images.

The technical aspects of the shot were quite simple. More often than not in Alaska, you are shooting in flat light. The flat terrain meant not much background to work with. (Unfortunately, Russia was not visible from where we were.) The flat light meant soft skin tones but limited contrast. All I could do was fill the frame with Sheri and let her presence and the colors of her kuspuk and iris carry the shot. The breeze lifting some of her hair was icing on the cake. This image is a good example of the 80/20 rule where 80% of the success of the shot took place before the camera even came out of the bag.

Like most of the fine people we’ve met and photographed on our Alaska assignments, our paths are not likely to cross again. I wish Sheri the very best and I hope she continues pursuing her artwork.

Working With Creative and Capable Talent Saves The Shoot

Woman skier jumping in air Utah

Jaqueline in telemark ski gear jumping on a trampoline near sunset.

Several years ago I was doing a winter catalog shoot in April. On the shot list was a skier jumping in a particular jacket. Samples arrived on Friday. The local ski resort closed for the season on Sunday. Saturday brought a blizzard with near hurricane force winds on the ridge tops and we were shooting the other catalog shots at lower elevation in the wet, spring snow. Sunday was bright, clear and warm and I was ready to rock and roll on the ski shots.

Enter an unforeseen problem: My ski model got pinned down and disoriented in Saturday’s snowstorm while backcountry skiing and spent the night in the wilderness, returning too late and exhausted on Sunday to shoot. Understandable.

For the first time I am faced with the horror of calling the client and explaining how they would have to pay an extra 1K to get crew and talent to a ski area 250 miles away that was still open. My model also worked so the client would possibly have to approve of new talent. Really didn’t want to make that call. Time to think outside the ski area box and test your problem solving skills.

We tried to get some jumps in on back-country trails. No luck. Spent half the time climbing uphill. Warm day. Heavy slushy snow made it difficult to get any “air time”. Aha! Our model lived near 9,000 feet on the mountain above town and a neighbor had a trampoline. She had a strong husband with a snow shovel. Viola! Ski jump shot. Just had to crop out the trampoline. Never told the client anything. Just submitted the images. They ran the back-lit shot (they use a lot of rear view shots) but I really liked the front-lit version because of Jaqueline’s great facial expression.

Woman skier in telemark ski gear taking air

Jaqueline in telemark ski gear jumping on a trampoline.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Client: Title Nine Sports
  • Location: Cedar City, Utah
  • Lighting: Natural late afternoon light

Fast-forward seven years to this February. Good talent saves the day again on a ski shoot. My assignment is at Taos Ski Valley. I’m shooting action ski shots on Taos’ famous expert terrain off of Highline Ridge. Needed to make it look fun and dynamic but not death defying.

Advanced female skier at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Andrea skiing off a cornice on Hildalgo, a double black run off Highline Ridge, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico.

There was plenty of ski season left but due to scheduling and talent availability this cold morning with a biting north wind was the slated day to make something work. The previous day brought hurricane force winds and wind scoured peaks. The snow was difficult being wind packed and fast and Lauri and I basically resorted to “survival” skiing to negotiate the slope – quite embarrassing in the company of six, young expert skiers and boarders. My background setting is less than ideal, but the light was decent and my expert, well-styled and capable talent carried the shots making the difficult look easy and fun as experts often do. I went with tried and true composition and design techniques (like a strong diagonal line and clean foreground) to get some solid shots. The talent made my day and hopefully the client’s too.

Skiers skiing down Hildalgo run off of Highline Ridge at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Andrea and Matt ski Hildalgo off of Highline Ridge, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Client: Taos Ski Valley Chamber of Commerce
  • Location: Taos Ski Valley
  • Lighting: Natural 3/4 backlight with fill light from the snow