Work the Golden Hour. Don’t Leave Good Light to Find Good Light.

My long time good friend, flyfishing guide and award winning author Pudge Kleinkauf of Women’s Flyfishing once said to me while grayling fishing in Lake Clark:  “Don’t leave fish to find fish.”  I have always carried that with me with my photography.

Earlier this month we were at Molas Pass in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.  The aspen colors at lower elevations were not that good  so I came upon Little Molas Lake earlier in the day and decided to shoot sunset here.  With recent snow on the peaks, light winds and a sky full of dense cirrus clouds, this seemed like the best place to shoot later that day.  Besides, I’m always a sucker for water and reflections in my landscape photography.

I returned about an hour before sunset and found 10 other photographers there with tripods and pro level gear.  Fortunately  no other shooter occupied the spot I scouted earlier in the day.  The sky was clear on the western horizon but the rest of the sky still contained dense cirrus clouds.  This scenario usually means colorful clouds.  Cirrus, regardless of the season, are  ice crystals and almost always produce pink to orange colors pre sunrise or post sunset.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013.

About 10 minutes before sunset, about half of the others packed up to “go somewhere else.”  I’m thinking, really?  Go where?  Beautiful lake, reflections, and good color to come meant stay put and be patient.   Don’t leave good light to find good light!   I never leave when the sun hits the horizon.  Sure enough, 15 minutes after sunset the sky exploded with color.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, minutes before the setting sun.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, minutes before the setting sun.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, 15 minutes after sunset with glowing dense cirrus and altocumulus clouds all comprised of ice crystals which produces the pink colors.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, 15 minutes after sunset with glowing dense cirrus and altocumulus clouds all comprised of ice crystals which produces the pink colors.

These 4 shots are less than an hour apart.  The first shot was about 15 minutes before sunset.  Sunset was to camera right so a polarizer helped to punch up the colors.  The last shot is 30 minutes later and a little into the “blue hour”

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, into the Blue Hour about 25 minutes after sunset.

Little Molas Lake with recent snow on surrounding peaks, San Juan Mountains, Colorado on October 2, 2013, into the Blue Hour about 25 minutes after sunset.

New Work: Grand Canyon National Park Backpacking Adventure

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Standing beneath the Royal Arch, a view seen by few visitors.

In addition to showing new adventure images, I address degree of difficulty and creativity as well as sacrifice and compromise with respect to photography.

Lauri and I completed our second weeklong trip on the Royal Arch Loop with longtime friend and backpacking companion John Hoffer.  The Royal Arch is a special and beautiful place seen by few because it is a difficult multi day hike.

I feel fortunate that at 50+ I am still capable of making physically demanding treks to create images.  They are not without pain.  There are times I wish I had a normal mid life crisis like owning a Corvette and whooping it up in Vegas but no!  Instead, I do brutal backpack trips to remote places like the Royal Arch.   When I go to places like this I never lose sight of a principle of photography that has stuck with me for many years: Degree of difficulty does not correlate to creativity.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Descending the upper Royal Arch Creek.

 

Going to expensive exotic places, or places that are difficult to get to or require special skills (in this case rappelling and canyoneering skills) does not mean you will get great photography.  Your viewers, unless they were there with you, cannot relate to the physical or emotional pain and investment you make in your photographs.  Your images are judged solely on their creative merits.  And it should be that way.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Day hiking to the Royal Arch from camp.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Rappelling through the Muav Limestone above Toltec Beach

 

Photography on a backpack trip requires sacrifice but not compromise.  I’ll explain.  Sacrifice on this trip was severely limiting my equipment for obvious reasons.  I took a Canon 5D, Mark 3, 24/f2.8 lens, Sigma 15/f2.8 fisheye, a 600RT speedlight with a couple of gels and the ST-E3 transmitter.  For the first time in a long time, I went without a tripod.  That was the biggest sacrifice on this trip.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Climbing through the Tapeats Sandstone in Garnet Canyon.

 

I had to sacrifice some sweet photo ops.  As long as I stayed within the limitations of the equipment I had I didn’t have to compromise on the principles of making compelling imagery.  My focus would be on the hiking and at camp experience and making images where it was still possible to get sharp, hand held shots and shots that still looked well lit with simple fill flash skillfully applied.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Backcountry meal on the Esplanade

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Elves Chasm, below Royal Arch near the Colorado River.

 

Without a tripod and with only wide angle lenses I had to give up landscapes and many telephoto and macro ops.  I really felt the pain of what I sacrificed one evening when we had a blazing pink sunset.   I did however improvise on a full moon tent scene.  With plenty of rocks and a ziplock bag full of sand made a great stabilizer for a 2-3 minute exposure.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Camp on the Esplanade under moonlight.

 

The 15mm fisheye really came in handy as the noon sun was cresting the Royal Arch.  It is such a fun lens to shoot into the sun with and I did that a lot.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Standing beneath the Royal Arch, a view seen by few visitors.

 

Sacrifice without compromise of solid photography principles and remembering that degree of difficulty does not guarantee good imagery has hopefully resulted in a few marketable shots from a difficult to reach and seldom seen location that holds a special place in my memory.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Lunch stop along the Tonto Trail near Bass Canyon.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Second wind at sunset along the Esplanade.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Claret cup cacti in bloom along the Tonto Trail near Bass Canyon.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Clean up in the Colorado River at Toltec Beach

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Donning boots for the hike out.

 

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Elves Chasm, below Royal Arch near the Colorado River. Taking a break from the camera for a cold bath.

 

WEATHER, LIGHT and PHOTOGRAPHY Series: Photographing Snow

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Tent lit by stone on fresh snow lit by moonlight with aurora borealis display, Copper River Basin, Alaska

Intro:  Outdoor photographers all know that weather determines the quality, quantity, color, feel and mood of light, and light is the language of our art and craft.  Former weather forecaster Michael DeYoung shares his knowledge on weather, atmospheric phenomena and their effects on light and photography.

Photographing on and in Snow.  Snow and ice environments have obvious challenges like staying warm, keeping gear dry and out of the snow and getting firm footing under your tripod in deep snow.  However, in terms of quality and quantity of light nothing is better to me than a fresh snowy environment.  Snow is nature’s best reflector and the easiest environment to work with natural light in.  Even on flat terrain the snow becomes a light source beneath your subject and provides some fill regardless of whether your subject is a skier or moose.  Forest photography, especially in dark spruce or pines is virtually impossible on clear snowless days.  Cover the ground and better yet the trees with fresh white and magic happens.

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Matt sking through Twin Trees at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. A similar scenario without snow cover would not have been within dynamic range to make a good image.

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Cow moose feeding in the Teton River near Jackson, Wyoming. Light snowfall added some nice contrast to the dark fur of the moose

Even on cloudy days in a snow covered mountain environment I can shoot action at decent shutter speeds and aperture.  This shot of a skier jumping in overcast skies was shot at 1000 at f8 at ISO 200.  The same cloud cover at this same location on a snowless green/brown landscape might yield only a third of the exposure I got here.

Jimmy jumping off of Two-Bucks, Taos Ski Valley.  It was an overcast day but because of the fresh snow enough light gathered to give a 1/1000 shutter at F8

Jimmy jumping off of Two-Bucks, Taos Ski Valley. It was an overcast day but because of the fresh snow enough light gathered to give a 1/1000 shutter at F8

 

Meteorological Geek Speak on Snow.

Not much geek speak on the atmospheric dynamics of snow this blog.  It would create a far too complex and long blog.  Forecast models are better today than when I was actively forecasting at predicting snowfall amounts but there is still a fair degree of uncertainty particularly in the moisture starved west with highly variable elevations.  The ratio between snowfall and its liquid water equivalent is highly variable.  A quarter inch of water may only produce 2.5 inches (10:1 ratio) of wet snow at a location that is only marginally cold enough to support accumulating snow.  That same location after being sub-freezing for a long time and under different upper air dynamics can get 5 inches (20:1) of dry snow from the same quarter inch of precipitable water.

crested-butte-colorado1

View of Crested Butte and Gothic Mountain at dusk on a heavy snow winter. Cold interior and high elevation locations are known for dry powder snow. They often get 20:1 or higher snow to water equivalent ratios.

Snowfall is determined by available moisture, cold air and lift.  The mechanical lifting of air caused by fronts and upper level lows and short waves can be enhanced by orographic lift which is air forced to rise by terrain.  Many winter systems will bring in ocean moisture and transport it (advection) over inland regions where mountain ranges wring most of it out.  Some systems develop inland (like Alberta clippers) and don’t transport ocean moisture.  They work with moisture that is already in place over the region it is moving over which can be limited.   Interior moisture sources like the Great Lakes can produce local enhanced bands of “lake effect” snow.

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Stop sign buried in snow in downtown Crested Butte, Colorado.

The Great Lakes is not the only place where lake effect takes place.  The western slopes of the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City regularly get enhanced snowfalls from North Pacific fronts because of lake effect off the Great Salt Lake AND orographic lift from winds with a westerly component flowing off the lake and forced up by the terrain.  There is a reason why some of the best skiing is located here.

“Lake effect” is not limited to lakes.  The coastal mountains of Alaska receive copious amounts of ocean moisture enhanced by strong orographic lift that overruns the high elevation and high latitude cold air that clings to these mountains.  This is why the coastal mountains from Prince William Sound to Glacier Bay in the panhandle became most glaciated mountains on earth in modern geological time.

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Winter sunset over Knik Arm, Anchorage, Alaska

 

Snow Photography Tips.

Exposure:   Snow, especially fresh snow, is the easiest background to expose for.  I was always perplexed in the film days over how many photographers struggled with exposures in snow and consistently came out with dark snow images.  My exposure for snow is simple:  I usually meter the brightest snow and open up 1 and 2/3 stops.  If you are shooting RAW you can tweak your exposures during processing and adjust how much you open up based on your taste and camera’s bias.  Digital cameras today are better at matrix metering but they can still underexpose snow scenes.  In aperture priority mode, I usually set my exposure compensation to +2/3 to +1 stop.  Done.  Shoot.

skier-hiking-taos-new-mexico

Amber beginning her hike up Highline Ridge at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico.

Backlight:   Snowy landscapes make it fun and possible to shoot into the light even making the sun part of your composition.  I always look for a sloped hill or mountainside opposite of the sun.  Then I can shoot into the light and have decent fill without resorting to strobes.  On this action ski shot at Taos I didn’t have a nearby hill for decent fill and the sunlight was basically parallel to the slope of the Mainstreet off of Kachina Peak.  So there was another reason, other than it looking cool for having my skier kick up some snow when she got close to me.  I knew it would create a reflector bringing additional fill light to hit her face.  (This technique also works with paddlers in foaming whitewater.)

skier-kachina-peak-new-mexico

Andrea skiing off of Kachina Peak, Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. Having her kick up snow created fill light to add detail to her face.

Snowshoers at sunset, Turnagain Pass, Alaska.  Snow takes on the color of what is above it.  Purple/pink alpenglow of the sky reflects in the shadowed snow and contrasts the warmly lit snow of the setting sun

Snowshoers at sunset, Turnagain Pass, Alaska. Snow takes on the color of what is above it. Purple/pink alpenglow of the sky reflects in the shadowed snow and contrasts the warmly lit snow of the setting sun

 

While it is Snowing:  Billions of snowflakes in the air below cloud cover means maximum scattering and diffusion of light.  While this is not good for panoramic landscapes, this softbox effect, similar to fog, is great for portraits.

RUNNER IN EXTEME COLD, IDAHO

Portrait of runner with frosted face on a snowy morning in Idaho.

When the snow is flying, break out the telephoto.  Long focal length compression really enhances falling snow visually.  Better yet, look for a dark background like dark trees or even water.  I almost NEVER use flash when snow is falling because you risk having blown out snowflakes in front of your subject.

winter-hiker-south-kaibab-trail1

Lauri hiking up the South Kaibab Trail in December during a snowshower

Using Speedlights on Snow.    Sometimes, action and portraits on the snow will benefit from the use of a speedlight.   The light could be flat, the sun below the horizon or your setting lacks a big bank of snow opposite of the natural light source to use as fill.  The key to using strobes in the snow is to absolutely keep stray light off the snow and focused on your subject.  Blown out foreground snow is very distracting, amateurish and usually indicates direct on camera flash use – a big no-no for snow.  I use grids and snoots (my favorite is the Spinlight 360 system) to control and focus the light on my subject and keep it off the snow.  In most instances, it takes a little trial and error and tweaking to get your light right when dealing with snow especially when using more than one off camera strobe.

Dog musher and sled dogs at sunset.  2 speedlights with warming gels and shoots were used to separate the dogs and musher from the shadowed snow, near Willow Alaska

Dog musher and sled dogs at sunset. 2 speedlights with warming gels and shoots were used to separate the dogs and musher from the shadowed snow, near Willow Alaska

 

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Brandon out for a snowshoe/jog near Park City, Utah. Strobe was used to add detail to the subject

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Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierra on a winter dawn. A strobe with a warm gel was used to light the foreground rock and aimed to match the direction of the first light hitting the peaks

Snow, Color and Depth.  Snow, like liquid water, can take on the color cast of what is above it.  Use this to your advantage.   Colorful skies at sunrise and sunsets can create beautiful reflective pastel colors on the snow.   The warm colors of this Utah sunset reflected both in the snowy slope and in the backlit flying snow behind the snowshoer.

A snowshoer jumps at sunset up on Cedar Mountain, southern Utah

A snowshoer jumps at sunset up on Cedar Mountain, southern Utah

Shadowed snow tends to go really blue and you can use this to your advantage by using a warmed strobe or a warmed reflector to make your subject really pop from the background as seen in this wolf portrait and of the musher image in the speed light section.

wolf portrait in winter

Portrait of a wolf in winter – Montana.

Environments with partial snow cover can also enhance a sense of depth and distance.

winter-scenic-turnagain-arm-alaska

Snow covered ice floes at sunset, Turnagain Arm, Alaska

 

WEATHER, LIGHT and PHOTOGRAPHY Series: Photographing Fog

Intro:  Outdoor photographers all know that weather determines the quality, quantity, color, feel and mood of light, and light is the language of our art and craft.  Former weather forecaster Michael DeYoung shares his knowledge on weather, atmospheric phenomena and their effects on light and photography.

fog-alaganik-slough-cordova

Dissipating fog over Alaganik Slough on the Copper River Delta near Cordova, Alaska. Fair weather altocumulus clouds above the Chugach Mountains.

Photographing Fog.  Don’t get bummed out if you wake up to dense fog with cold flat light.  If no precipitation is falling chances are that magic light and golden photo ops are close by.  The keywords with fog are:  live on the edge and get high.  (Hopefully, this last phrase will make sense after reading this blog.)  There are two parts to this blog.  The first is the long-winded Geek Speak on fog.  The second part is tips and advice for photographing fog.

Swans in fog, Anchorage, Alaska

Trumpeter swans on Six-Mile Lake with morning radiation fog, Anchorage, Alaska

Meteorological Geek Speak on Fog.   Fog is a ground based cloud and along with its sister cloud, stratus, which is off the ground but very low, is ALWAYS trapped below a temperature inversion.   Fog can and does form during and after widespread precipitation events with precipitation falling from thicker clouds above such as nimbostratus.  But many times fog forms as a very shallow layer under clear skies.  It is under these conditions that fog can create great light and photo ops.  Fog and stratus not associated with precipitation are stable atmosphere clouds that form under high pressure.  Pacific high pressure during winter is the main culprit for fog in western North America.  Sometimes fog can be really thick vertically especially when there is an “upslope” wind flow into a mountain range.  In fact when fog/stratus reaches about 2000 feet in depth it produces drizzle, freezing drizzle or snow grains.

stratus clouds and clearing storm, Trail Lakes, Alaska

Stratus clouds cling to the shores of Upper Trail Lakes on the Kenai Peninsula. These clouds were the result of widespread and prolonged rain. Image made in a clearing storm scenario.

There are 3 types of fog: radiation, advection and ice fog.  Radiation fog is the most common type and occurs everywhere even in deserts.   Radiation fog forms when the sky is mostly clear but a shallow layer of air at the surface is very moist.  Cooling at night brings the air to close to saturation (close to the dewpoint temperature) and traps the shallow moisture under a temperature inversion.  A very light wind  (2-5mph) at or just above the surface mixes it up and presto, fog forms.  Let’s say it rained all day, the ground is soaked, and skies clear toward sunset with very light winds.  This is a good prescription for morning radiation fog.  In winter, radiation fog gets trapped in many western valleys for weeks.

salmon-river-idaho-fog

View of Salmon River and Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho. Stratus clouds frame sunlit peaks

Our coastal friends often get advection fog.  This is when fog over the water is drawn inland.  When you breathe on a cold window and it “fogs” up you are essentially creating advection fog.  This same mechanism happens on a large scale, when moist, relatively warm ocean air moves over a colder landmass. In the Cook Inlet region of Alaska, low tides exposes massive amounts of super cooled moisture in mudflats which is the principle cause of winter fog in Anchorage.  On the North Slope, open leads of ocean water called polynyas are the source of dense fog and even precipitation.

During summer air simply flowing from warmer water to colder waters can cause advection fog and this is a common occurrence off the west and northern coasts.   Mountainous coastal areas are subject to a double whammy of advection and radiation fogs that are often enhanced by orographic lift, where low level winds flow into higher terrain where air is forced to rise and condense.

When fog forms in winter at well below freezing temperatures it is referred to as freezing fog.  This is a natural phenomenon and is often mistaken for ice fog.  Water droplets can be “super-cooled” meaning they are liquid but below 32 degrees.  When moisture in the fog/stratus contacts very cold surfaces (roads, trees, anything) it will cause icing.  This causes the beautiful white cloaked forests after a fog event.

Frozen birch trees at sunset

Birch trees cloaked in rime ice and snow glow light pink near sunset, Anchorage, Alaska

True ice fog is a purely man made phenomena.  It forms in arctic air at -22F or colder.  Air at those temperatures can hold almost no moisture, so very little can saturate an airmass.  In winter in interior valleys of mainland Alaska and northern Canada, under extreme inversions, ice fog forms in villages and settlements.  The minute amount of moisture that comes from exhaust from internal combustion engines and building furnaces is enough to create fog at extreme temperatures, say like -40 and colder.  Ice fog is often less than 100 vertically where you can see stars above but can restrict horizontal visibility to almost zero!

 

Tips and Advice for Photographing Fog.   No need to get bummed out if you wake up to a thick fog and cold flat light.  You now know that chances are you can get high or to the edge where the light can be magical.  Or it can change right were you are.  Fog usually dissipates from the edges inward so start your photos near the edge if possible.  Fog often lifts into stratus and the tops can become a ragged edge.   The edges of the sun or moon are sharp and clearly discernible when seen through fog/stratus.   If the sun/moon edges are diffused or hidden, then that indicates there are higher clouds above the fog/stratus layer.  Any yes, there are times when none of this works and the whole day is shroud in thick cold fog.  Being on the edge or top of fog with the sun above means the brightest fog possible and this is where the light is absolutely lovely.  Like snow, fog is bright, relative to terrestrial subjects even if it looks grey to the eye.  This means it can fool meters into rendering underexposure.  I mainly meter manually but if you prefer aperture priority go with about +2/3 exposure comp.  Fog both diffuses and scatters light making a beautiful wrapping soft light on close-up subjects.  I rarely use a filter or strobe in the fog.  The exception would be if I’m above it and shooting backlit, I might use a grad ND (neutral density).

chairlift-in-fog-taos

Portrait of skiers on Taos Ski Valley chairlift. Image made near the top of a fog bank.

photographer-skiers-chairlift-taos

Michael DeYoung photographing skiers on Chair 4 at Taos Ski Valley. As we ascended above the fog into the sun, lighting became much harsher and unflattering than the shot in the fog below.

Here’s what I like to go after in fog.

Forest:  No better time for inside the forest photography than during a fog.  It helps exaggerate distances between near and far with close up subjects sharp and distant subjects fading into the mist.  The best scenario is when the sun shines through trees with lingering fog creating magical shafts of light in an alluvial fan pattern-pure magic.  Anyone who has been to the coastal redwood forests, or seen images from there, can attest to this.

Sun rays and fog, Kodiak Island

The last of marine fog scatters the morning sun through a Sitka spruce tree on Kodiak Island, Alaska

Moose in foggy forest, Alaska

Young moose in birch forest on a foggy autumn morning, Anchorage, Alaska

Anything macro:  great saturated colors and even tones and contrast.

Portraits:  No better natural beauty light than a bright fog and it can produce a better bokeh effect than any lens.

Teen skiers portrait, Taos

Teen girls portrait in the fog at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Landscapes with fog in the foreground:  This is when you are in the clear with a fog bank or stratus clouds all around you in the distance:  I love fog banks where mountain tops or tree tops rise above.  I think this effect makes mountains look taller.  Better yet if you can shoot it in backlight.  There have been several times when a fog bank has hidden buildings and power lines creating unique opportunities.   Fog also can create a horizonless landscape which is pretty ethereal.

Fog bank, Portage Valley, Alaska

Turnagain Arm near Portage Valley in spring with fog bank, Alaska

fogbank-lower-stanley-salmon-river

Radiational fog obscures the Salmon River and the town of Stanley below sunlit peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho

Being above it all:  My very favorite place to be is at the edge of the fog assuming it is sunny above.  Obviously you have to live in an area that has some vertical relief if you want to get above it. One of my favorite images took place while hiking above the fog.  Near the end of an 8-day Kongakut River trip in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Lauri and I hiked above fog advancing south off the Arctic Coastal Plain.  We spent midnight at the edge of the foothills of the North Slope of the Brooks Range watching fog dance in and out of ridges and valleys as the warm midnight sun never set.

hiker-midnight-sun-arctic-alaska

Hiker standing above Arctic Ocean fog above Kongakut River near Caribou Pass, Arctic National Wildlife Reguge, Alaska. Image about 1am showing the midnight sun

Most often for efficiency, I drive above it. On occasion, a ski resort chair lift has carried me above the fog.  I really love low angle sun skimming across tops of fog.  Shooting mountains with fog in valleys below can hide otherwise distracting elements and creates a heightened sense of well, height.  Being at or above the fog’s edge at sunrise or sunset – well it doesn’t get much better.

morning-fog-stanley-idaho

Radiational fog and stratus in early morning in the Upper Salmon River valley near Stanley, Idaho.

What Does Minus 40 Look Like? Warm Memories of Extreme Cold.

Winter frosted trees, setting moon, and morning alpenglow in Copper River Basin near Glenallen, Alaska

My “coldest” image, I think. This was a moonset and morning alpenglow at about minus 50 west of Glenallen, Alaska in the Copper River Basin. The soft arctic alpenglow at high latitudes is the most ethereal I’ve seen. I had an auxiliary battery pack that I had to keep under my parka. This was hard wired to the camera. This is the only way to keep the camera operating in extreme cold.

First, a little background story about my early Alaska days.

A client recently expressed interest in images of bitter cold. Not much of that in Northern New Mexico and western Colorado Valley this winter. I am planning a late winter trip to Alaska this year. But, I always keep up with what’s happening with winter up there.

I saw something I hadn’t seen in a while. Interior temperatures hit minus 60 the last few days of January. Minus 40’s and 50’s are common but minus 60’s have been rare in this era of climate change. The National Weather Service office even mentioned how this January was similar to the winter of 89-90.

The winter of 1989/1990 was my second winter in Alaska and I remember it well. The Army sent me camping in the Interior in January and again in March! And the coldest air of the winter hit while we were camping. I should know. I was part of an Air Force weather detachment that participated in Army exercises and made official weather observations.

The first night was only like minus 45 and we had minus 40 and colder for the entire two weeks we were out. We were lucky as we were in the hills above Delta Junction and thus a little warmer. Some of the lowest valley locations, like Nenana, south of Fairbanks, hit minus 71. Even east Anchorage got close to minus 40 that January.

Being in air that cold is just painful. It hurts to breath. It feels like slivers of broken glass in your nostrils when you inhale. When you walk it feels like the wind is blowing because the air is incredibly dense. Normally cushy vehicle seats feel like slabs of concrete. Alkaline batteries don’t work. For cheap amusement we’d throw a cup of hot liquid up in the air and it would never hit the ground as it would just freeze into ice crystals.

What does all this have to do with photography? Well something happened that first night I’ll never forget. I saw my first real aurora borealis display and it blew me away. It was a brilliant emerald green display over a moonlit landscape of fresh sparkling arctic snow.

I tried photographing them. They sucked. It was my first time. It was 40 below. I was still an amateur and I was working the graveyard shift out of a tent on an Army field trip – not exactly ideal conditions for photography. But, it sealed my interest in photographing the aurora borealis.

Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) over Kathleen River, Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

This is one of my favorite and my most commercially successful aurora borealis image. This is from Kluane National Park in the Yukon the 3rd week of March. This is the Kathleen River just downstream from the outlet of Kathleen Lake. The lake is very deep and upwelling prevents the first stretch of river from freezing. The shot took place around 3AM on a full moon night. It was balmy and only a few degrees below zero.

After active duty was over in 1992 I made journeys into the extreme cold of Interior Alaska on my own terms trying to photograph the aurora.

I’ve made some successful aurora images in winter, but my favorite and coldest photo was of a morning moon and alpenglow in a black spruce forest east of Glenallen which was minus 50 that morning. I’d been up most of the night waiting for an aurora that never materialized.

For a while there was something alluring about enduring extreme weather painful as it was. But I learned this long ago: Simply enduring adverse conditions doesn’t make your images more creative. There is no correlation between degree of difficulty and creativity. However, when you make a great or even good image during challenging environmental conditions it makes it more satisfying.

P.S: Here are some geeky weather facts.

Arctic airmasses are very shallow and dense, usually having extreme temperature inversions. So the coldest air is in the LOWEST elevations such as valley floors.

Minus 40 is where Celsius and Fahrenheit are equal i.e. -40F = -40C

Ice fog is a purely man made phenomena occurring during arctic air in settlements, villages and urban areas. At temperatures in the minus 20’s and colder air cannot hold any moisture. So moisture from internal combustion engine exhaust and exhaust from residential and commercial gas fired furnaces is enough to generate incapacitating fog that remains trapped under sharp inversions. Ice fog can reduce visibility to no more than 100 meters sometimes, but is usually no more than a hundred feet thick vertically.

At minus 20 and colder, exposed flesh can literally freeze, i.e. your nose and finger tips can turn into blocks of ice—not good!

Need more? Check out Jim Green’s Alaska Weather blog. He produces a yearly wall calendar called ‘Alaska Weather Calendar’.