Capturing a Fleeting Moment at 32,000 Feet…Always Keep Your Camera Ready.

The last time this happened it was 1988. I was on a flight from Great Falls, Montana to Seattle. Shortly into the flight I was stunned by a commanding view of the Chinese Wall of the continental divide in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Being a budding photographer back then with my Pentax K1000 and 50mm lens I tried in vein to capture the awesome scene below where in the previous summer Lauri and I spent 8 days backpacking. That was the last time I tried photographing from a commercial flight.

Fast forward 22 years. After an exhausting 8 day tourism assignment in Nome, Alaska we were on a mid afternoon flight back to Anchorage. Nothing unusual. I fly a lot but in the past 10 years I try as hard as I can to get aisle seats because of my size and the shrinking of leg room that has occurred over the years on all domestic airlines. And like the majority of air travelers I’ve become absorbed in some sort of virtual world or just try to rest when I fly. Something was different about this day. It started off as a typical Alaska flight. Low clouds, gloom and doom were present on take off. Topping off at 32k it was the typical bright and sunny with a carpet of solid white cloud below. The plane was about half full which is very unusual for any summer flight to or from or within Alaska. Start editing the shoot. Get out the laptop and iPod and get to it.

Michael DeYoung arial photo of Mt. McKinley from Alaska Airlines flight

Mt. McKinley above the clouds shot out the window of a commercial Alaska Airlines Flight.

About an hour into the flight I glance out the port side window as I gasped for air at the surreal scene below. The crown of North America and her younger brother, Mt. Foraker, towered like a guardian angel above the cellular cumulus clouds, the lesser Alaska Range peaks and the broad Susitna Valley headwaters bathed in late summer light. The summits were a mere 12 thousand feet below and perfectly side lit and positioned for a decent shot. With plenty of room to slide over to the window seat, I quickly grabbed the 1Ds with 24-105mm and plastered it flat against the new window and got probably a once in 20 year shot. Not satisfied with just the intense blue high altitude I pulled out a little used filter, the Singh Ray blue/gold polarizer. I know that the uv filter in the plane window will mess with the colors but like Wow! Now I got something! Had to tone it down a little. OK, so I’ve been photographing Denali for 20 years even doing some clear air winter aerials from military aircraft but I’ve never seen it like this, from above, towering above these beautiful cumulus clouds.

Michael DeYoung photo of Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker from 32,000 feet.

Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker of the Alaska Range above cumulus clouds over the northern Susitna Valley. Phogographed from an Alaska Airlines flight from Nome to Anchorage in late July. Shot with a blue/gold polarizing filter

Thanks to dumb luck where I was able to keep my lens flat against a clean almost scratchless window I got some decent images that are sharp enough for a full page print. Once again even after shooting 5,000 images in the past week, I was thankful that I kept my camera at the ready for a fleeting moment such as this.