Don’t Save the Best for Last!

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Photographer among lupines along Turnagain Arm, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

Saving the best for last may be a good way to view a decadent desert but this philosophy has no place in photography!  In fact my philosophy is “Shoot the best first!”  Whenever possible, I first go after the shots the client wants most, that I want most or those that are the most challenging.  Sometimes they are one in the same.   Your “best” or “hardest” shot may not mean the most physically demanding for you or the talent.  In most cases, for me at least, it is the most creatively challenging.  It could simply be an elusive expression or gesture that conveys the ” in the moment” feel or “sense of place” I’m looking for.

I do this while I am fresh, the talent is fresh and I have time to craft the shot and work through communication, creative and technical challenges.

This obviously doesn’t work if you don’t have a shoot list, or you don’t know what your “best” or most challenging shot is going to be.   That’s OK.  I certainly have shoots in that category.   It may also seem counter intuitive if you are shooting in the evening, knowing the best light may be at or just after sunset.

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Hiker along the Winner Creek Trail near Alyeska Resort. I’ve always loved the lush green forests around Girdwood and the inviting boardwalk. For years I’ve tried to capture the essence of what it is like to be here. And, yes, you can get good images on an overcast day!

Even on a sunset shoot, I still try to shoot what I perceive as the best first.  If the light is good an hour or two before, I’m shootin’!  I can’t tell you how many times I thought a sunset would be “epic” only to have it turn out to be a dud.   If the light gets magical at sunset, then I can repeat my “A” shots in the sunset light with greater chance of success since I’ve already worked through the creative challenges earlier.

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Sunset over lupines and Chugach Mountains along Turnagain Arm at high tide. It took about 10 tries with 2 strobes to get the lighting close to what I wanted. When the sun hit the horizon we had our lighting formula dialied in.

 

A Successful Shoot: 70% planning, 20% camera operation, 10% spontaneous creative thinking.

All season long I’ve visualized a series of action images of a small child having fun, skiing down the mountain under the watchful eye of a parent. It took me two attempts to get something I’m satisfied with. I think success is directly connected to action and planning. The more you learn about your location, your subject, and your camera gear the more successful your images will be.

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Family skiing at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. 7-year old boy skis in front of his father on a groomed intermediate run.

70% planning. Scouting the slopes and figuring out which runs were best in morning light for shooting uphill with the least amount of clutter was my first concern. Fortunately, I ski at Taos frequently enough to have learned most of the runs and lighting correlations. Casting the right family where everyone skis, has all the gear, looks good and coordinating their schedule with yours and optimal weather (kids get cold easily) took two months.

20% camera mechanics. Knowing your camera equipment intimately makes all the difference in the world when working with small children with a limited attention span. Fumble too much with your gear and you miss candid opportunities and run out of time. You have an hour or two at the most before they lose interest. Out of the gate I knew my lens, my focus point and exposure settings. On earlier shoots I tried positioning my talent uphill and having them ski a line toward me to get candid action shots. That works OK with older kids and adults who are precision skiers. Doesn’t work well with smaller kids.

To get the most spontaneous shot possible I had to get a rhythm going with the skiers and ski with them while shooting. So at the end of a 4’ boom with a Really Right Stuff BH30 head was my Mark IV and Sigma 15mm fisheye triggered remotely with my top hand. The camera ensemble is upside down and inches from the snow as we are all flying down the slope. It is situations like this I’m thankful for rugged pro gear. It took several trial and error shoots with this technique to estimate the framing more accurately.

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Family skiing at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. Mom and 5 year old girl and 7 year old boy on chairlift.

The 10% spontaneous creativity came from the game of chasing “Mr. Fish” down the mountain. Earlier on the chairlift I told Sofia I was using a “fisheye” lens and to say hello to it. So I asked her to look at and say hello to “Mr. Fish” while skiing. I think that helped her take her mind off the 200lb guy skiing 6 feet in front of her. Shot about 500 frames of this scenario with mother-daughter and father-son combinations. Got about a dozen frames that really worked. A good take.

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Family skiing at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico. 5-year old girl skis in front of her mother on a groomed intermediate run.

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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Portrait of a wolf in winter – Montana.

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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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

Alaska’s Scenic Gems: 10 Road Accessible Landscape Photo Ops

Recently, I was featured (May, 2012) in Popular Photography and interviewed about lesser known Alaska locations for photography. Expanding upon that and drawing upon my 25 years of romping around Alaska I am profiling 10 road accessible places that offer excellent landscape photo ops. You can find all of these in the Milepost which is the best road guide for Alaska and northern Canada travel. This list is subjective and there are countless scenic views along the contiguous Alaska road system. If you are new or unfamiliar with this vast area, these locations are a good place to start.

Alaska panoramic landscape. View of the upper Matanuska River and the north face of the Chugach Mountains seen near Hicks Creek along the Glenn Highway north of Anchorage, Alaska.

Alaska panoramic landscape. View of the upper Matanuska River and the north face of the Chugach Mountains seen near Hicks Creek along the Glenn Highway north of Anchorage, Alaska.

Like all subjects photographic, your lighting is a key element to the success of your images. Skies are generally sunnier in the interior and north than they are on the coast so you have a better chance of capturing Mt. Sukakpak in the Brooks Range in nice light than you would capturing Portage Pass (which experiences some of the worst weather in Southcentral Alaska.) Mt. McKinley is only out on average of 3-4 days a month during the summer and best chances are in the morning. The north side holds the iconic view rising 18,000′ above the tundra from near Wonder Lake. I like the south side better where the mountain rises above dense boreal forest. Remember, good weather doesn’t last long in Alaska so if you happen to be at one of these locations in nice light, jump on it. My guiding principle is shoot what is happening now. There is no time like the present!

1. Polar Bear and Eagle Peaks – Eagle River Nature Center, Chugach State Park

This scenic gem of national park quality is in the Municipality of Anchorage. Take the Eagle River exit north of Anchor town (Anchorage) and follow Eagle River Road 12 miles where it ends in the parking lot of the Eagle River Nature Center. The views are incredible here but walk 10 minutes down to a boardwalk and deck overlooking the clear North Fork of Eagle River. Polar Bear and Eagle Peaks rise abruptly 6,000 feet above the valley floor. Around the solstice, the sun sets near the opening of Eagle River Valley and this is a great evening shot. In late June there is usually a great display of geranium and wild rose along the trail.

Alaska landscape. View of Polar Bear Peak rising near 6000 feet above the North Fork of Eagle River, Chugach State Park, near Anchorage

Alaska landscape. View of Polar Bear Peak rising near 6000 feet above the North Fork of Eagle River, Chugach State Park, near Anchorage around 10:30PM in June.

2. Mt. Sukapak – Brooks Range From Dalton Highway north of Coldfoot

Sukapak isn’t the tallest mountain in the Brooks, topping out at less than 5,000 feet, but it is an incredible limestone escarpment photogenic from both the south and north sides at several points along the Dalton. My favorite is its morning reflection in one of several un-named ponds visible from the highway. There are good photo ops at both sunrise and sunset (3-4 hours apart in June/July) but I prefer early morning with steam rising off the lakes and sometimes even the Koyokuk River.

Alaska landscape. Brooks Range, above the Arctic Circle a view of Mt. Sukapak and reflection in early morning off the Dalton Highway north of Coldfoot, Alaska.

Alaska landscape. Brooks Range, above the Arctic Circle a view of Mt. Sukapak and reflection in early morning off the Dalton Highway north of Coldfoot, Alaska.

3. Mt. McKinley – South Side From Byers Lake

This is a developed state park with camping, boat rentals, and a public use cabin. What I like best about Byers Lake is that you can’t see Mt. McKinley from the developed (west) side. Take the trail to the east side or better yet, get in a canoe or touring kayak and paddle to the northeast end for a breathtaking view of McKinley and the Alaska Range. Be there at sunrise which means in July – 5am. More likely than not, you’ll get a great reflection of the range on the lake and if you are lucky one of the nesting trumpeter swans will pay you a visit.

Alaska landscape and recreation. Alaska's highest peak, Mt. McKinley rising above Byers Lake and a canoeist. Chulitna Valley, Byers Lake State Park.

Alaska landscape and recreation. Alaska’s highest peak, Mt. McKinley rising above Byers Lake and a canoeist. Chulitna Valley, Byers Lake State Park.

4. Mt. McKinley – South Side From Petersville Road

If you don’t have a boat to access Byers Lake then there are great morning views here of Denali on clear days. In fact, Denali views are nice along most of the road with lots of fireweed. Several miles in, there are some nice small ponds that offer a great morning reflection. The approach to the water’s edge is boggy and buggy. Plan on getting your feet wet and bring a bug jacket.

Alaska Landscape. View of the south side of Mt. McKinley, 20,320' rising above the Chulitna River Valley, viewed from Petersville Road.

Alaska Landscape. View of the south side of Mt. McKinley, 20,320′ rising above the Chulitna River Valley, viewed from Petersville Road.

5. Wrangell Mountains From Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge

After a decent dinner and a brew you can get a great panoramic view of the Wrangells with the expansive Copper River and Klutina River Valleys below. Stay up late as this is a great spot for a sunset panoramic. Also, nearby Willow Lake a few miles down the road offers some nice views from the parking lot but I like the high view better.

Alaska Landscape – Wrangell Mountains. Evening alpenglow view of 16,390' Mt. Blackburn of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park rising above the Copper River Valley.

Alaska Landscape. Evening alpenglow view of 16, 390′ Mt. Blackburn of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, rising above the Copper River Valley.

6. Worthington Glacier

You can see this gem coming at you for many miles as you travel south on the Richardson Highway approaching Thompson Pass towards Valdez. There is a developed State Park parking lot and outhouses with developed trails that take you down to the foot of the glacier. I like the view from further north before you get to the State Park turn off. In late June and July look for fields of lupine in meadows off to the west. Morning light is best here.

Alaska landscape. Meadow with lupine below the Worthington Glacier, Chugach Mountains, Chugach National Forest. Seen along the Richardson Highway near Thompson Pass.

Alaska landscape. Meadow with lupine below the Worthington Glacier, Chugach Mountains, Chugach National Forest. Seen along the Richardson Highway near Thompson Pass.

7. Keystone Canyon Waterfalls

Further down the Richardson Highway and south of Thompson Pass, the Lowe River cuts through a steep and verdant green canyon with several really nice roadside waterfalls. My favorite is Bridal Veil Falls. For many years there were great fireweed displays here in late July and August. Road crews mowed it all down a few years ago. Hopefully they will come back. This is a wet area and is one that is most photogenic during cloudy weather and even light.

Alaska landscape. Fireweed below Bridal Veil Falls in Keystone Canyon, Chugach Mountains, seen off Richardson Highway near Valdez, Prince William Sound, Alaska

Alaska landscape. Fireweed below Bridal Veil Falls in Keystone Canyon, Chugach Mountains, seen off Richardson Highway near Valdez, Prince William Sound, Alaska

8. Portage Glacier from Portage Pass

Portage Glacier Visitor Center is the most heavily visited tourist spot in Southcentral. You can’t see the glacier from the lake anymore as it has receded considerably. Most tourists view the glacier from a boat tour that takes you to the end of the lake. It’s a fine view but with a little effort you can leave the crowds behind. The best view of Portage Glacier is from the pass, a short but steep, 20-minute hike up a very well defined trail. Simply drive through the tunnel to Whittier and take the first right past the restrooms. Follow the signs to the trailhead. The glacier is only nicely lit in the morning. The light tanks about 9AM so be there early. The weather here sucks most of the time so if you are lucky to be there in clear conditions (check the FAA weather cams for Whittier and Portage) jump on it!

An Asian (Korean) female hiker on Portage Pass overlooking Portage Glacier in the Chugach Mountains, Chugach National Forest, above Prince William Sound, Southcentral Alaska

A hiker on Portage Pass overlooking Portage Glacier in the Chugach Mountains, Chugach National Forest, above Prince William Sound, Southcentral Alaska

9. North Face of the Chugach Mountains Above Hicks Creek Along The Glenn Highway

Years ago it was risky to stop here on the narrow road with guard rail and no shoulder. Now there are huge pullouts there near Milepost 100 just before the Glenn Highway descends to Hicks Creek. The Matanuska River flows between 2 cliff walls with beautiful rugged peaks in the background. The surrounding birch/aspen/poplar forest is stunning in the fall (mid September). Best time is shortly after sunrise. There are many great places to photograph this incredible mountain, river and forest scenery. The Hick’s Creek view is part of my favorite section that stretches from Chickaloon to Sheep Mountain Lodge. Along this stretch, Long and Wiener Lakes offer great photo ops.

Alaska landscape. Autumn view of the north face of the Chugach Mountains above the Matanuska Valley, Chugach National Forest. Reflection in Weiner Lake off the Glenn Highway.

Alaska landscape. Autumn view of the north face of the Chugach Mountains above the Matanuska Valley, Chugach National Forest. Reflection in Weiner Lake off the Glenn Highway.

10. Ninilchik

Many people (except salmon anglers) bypass this quaint seaside village off the Sterling Highway on their way to Homer for the classic view of the Homer Spit and Kachemak Bay. I used to really enjoy flyfishing the Ninilchik and just hanging out. The main attraction here and a photographer’s favorite is the Russian Orthodox Church that sits on the bluff on the north side of town. It is a well kept beautiful little church that has a lovely white picket fence and dazzling wildflowers – especially the fireweed and geraniums. There are several good photo ops here. You can line up the church with Mt. Illiamna and the volcanoes across Cook Inlet for a great telephoto shot at sunrise and early morning.

Alaska coastal landscape. Summer wildflowers of lupine and cow parsnip on bluff above Cook Inlet with Redoubt Volcano in background. View near Ninilchik, Alaska off the Sterling Highway.

Alaska coastal landscape. Summer wildflowers of lupine and cow parsnip on bluff above Cook Inlet with Redoubt Volcano in background. View near Ninilchik, Alaska off the Sterling Highway.

Stay Out A Little Longer And Break Out The Strobe

Hispanic family mountain biking on West Rim trail along Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, New Mexico

Mountain biking along West Rim Trail, Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, New Mexico.

On a recent mountain biking shoot we stopped at one of my favorite overlooks of the Rio Grande Gorge.  The sun was below a nearby ridge so all my foreground and most of the canyon was in deep shadow.  The low angle sun about 10 minutes from sunset was basking the west slopes of the mountains and the upper part of the opposite rim.

Just the way I wanted it.  Been here before and anticipated the lighting scenario.  No problem.  Break out the strobe, attach an orange gel and use my mobile light stand (Lauri) to position the light at about the same angle the sun was hitting the background.

First shot is OK but too much light on the rock below the cyclists.  Thanks to digital we can see that now on the spot.  It’s usually a good idea anyway to shoot on the edge of your light source feathering the light up.  The second shot matches more of the light on the opposite side of the canyon and was closer to what I wanted.

Hispanic family (father and his two daughters) with mountain bikes overlooking Rio Grande Gorge along West Rim Trail in Taos, New Mexico

Family mountain biking post ride scene overlooking the Rio Grande from the West Rim Trail. Lighting on subjects from Canon 580EX2’s with warming gels and fired off camera.

Hispanic family with mountain bikes overlooking Rio Grande Gorge along West Rim Trail in Taos, New Mexico

Same lighting in this image as the one above. Flagging the flash and blocking light from spilling on the rocks in front of the cyclists came closer to emulating the late sunlight on the other side of the canyon though not as bright. In retrospect I could have gone stronger with the orange gel to a full cut CTO. I would have preferred to get a little closer to the subjects with the strobe but couldn’t because of terrain and getting the speedlite showing up in the frame. There is a limit to a speedlite’s power with a gel and grid attached. Seems like I usually shoot on the margins of the speedlite’s capability which is a good exercise.

I’ve heard too many times from shooters that “no clouds, no color in the sky” so they pack it up after the sun goes down.  I say stay a little longer and play with your strobes.  Warmly lit subject against a cool background is a tried and true formula.

The sisters on their bikes portrait was simple to do.  No color in the sky?  No problem.  A little underexposure and a cool shift in white balance fixes that.  For the girls,  one light for each girl softened with a Gary Fong Lightsphere and a half cut CTO to compensate for the cool white balance creates a pleasing light on their faces.  Here’s a tip to remember:  A big dark background will fool your flash into putting out too much light.  So I dialed my flash exposure down -1 stop.  The opposite is true for bright backgrounds.  Say you shooting into the sun and you want to light your small subject who is not lit by the sun.  You will need to pump out more light than your flash thinks it will.

Portrait of Hispanic sisters mountain biking on West Rim trail along Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, New Mexico

Sisters on mountain bikes on the West Rim Trail near Taos, New Mexico. Usually on clear days there is little color in the dawn or dusk sky. So I make it go bluer with a bit of underexposure and white balance shift toward tungsten. They were lit with 2 off camera 580 EX 2’s softened with Gary Fong Lightspheres. All this lighting gear is portable in a pack while hiking or riding. This was a great way to end an afternoon/evening shoot.

Sometimes The Fun Shots Turn Out The Best

Mature woman (baby boomer generation) skiing through powder at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

Stevie floating on fresh powder in the fog at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

With almost a foot of new snow, no wind or crowds on a Sunday morning at Taos Ski Valley it was real hard to resist pounding powder action for as long as it lasts.  I had a trio of age 60+ ladies who were all good skiers.  Although they would not be doing any extreme stuff, I knew I would get good ski action shots from them.  What was better though was the energy and enthusiasm between these three long time friends.  This dynamic, along with flattering light, was a perfect recipe for some “fun” lifestyle shots. I know this is not as exciting as skiers crashing through trees and powder or jumping off something that could put you in a body cast for three months.  These are stunt shots and for me less challenging than getting really fun non-ski action lifestyle shots.  I did get in a few rounds of powder pounding but I’m jazzed with the “fun” shot results.

 

Lifestyle portrait of two mature women (baby boomer generation) walking and laughing with skis at Taos Ski Valley, NM

Happy skiers after a morning of fresh powder skiing at Taos Ski Valley New Mexico

Initially, they thought I’d be bummed out with fog on the lower slopes.  Little did they know I could hardly contain my excitement.  I LOVE FOG!   It is great at a ski resort when you can ride the lift above the fog then ski to the edge and shoot.  It simplifies the background and is very flattering for facial detail as you can see from the chairlift shot.  Literally 30 seconds after this shot we broke out into the harsh sun.  Shot over.

 

Ski lifestyle portrait of three mature women (baby boomer generation) skiers on chairlift at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

3 veteran mature skiers share a jovial ride on chair 4 through the fog at Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

A monopod does not make a good ski pole but it sure came in handy for the fun chairlift shot.  With my 1D, Mark IV and a 20mm lens I’m holding my monopod out and up as far as I can reach.  I’m guessing at the framing.  I have a Microsync Digital receiver on the camera gaffer taped to the camera strap.  Carol, the skier on the right, has the transmitter in her glove and she’s just firing away at my command.

 Photographer with three mature female (baby boomer) skiers on chairlift

Photographer Michael DeYoung photographing talent on chair 4 (Kachina Lift)at Taos Ski Valley with camera mounted on a monopod and fired with a remote release. Carol, the skier in brown coat is triggering the shots with a Microsync Digital. The framing is just guess work. The resultant shot above was done while still in the fog. Notice how the lighting above the fog in the harsh sun is not as flattering on the women’s faces. As for me, I’m a lost cause..

Canon Finally Offers New Speedlite But Few Are Talking About It

There’s been a lot of buzz on web groups about the new 5DMarkIII but almost nothing about a new speedlite – the 600EX-RT. I am far more jazzed about a new and more capable flash than another camera body. Why? Having a few more megapixels and frames per second will not improve your photography. But, an investment in more lighting capability, if used effectively, definitely will.

Wilderness canoe trip in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Lauri at camp in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska. This 3 day trip involved a boat taxi to a remote beach, then lining our canoe up a river that drains the lake we are camped on to the ocean. All my camera gear including 3 flashes with RadioPoppers had to be packed in waterproof cases and carried in the canoe with the rest of our camping gear.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Location: Kenai Fjords National Park
  • Client: stock shoot
  • Lighting: 2 Canon 580EXII’s with RadioPoppers
  • Technique: Group A light in canoe with Honl grid lighting subject’s right. Group B in tent lighting tent and providing fill to subject’s left.

This new speedlite, though shockingly expensive, could really expand your lighting options. It’s true that for $630 (and you need at least 2 to have a working system) you could get an Alien Bees mono light and a Vagabond battery (which I have) that would throw out a lot more light. So you get more watts per dollar. But try carrying 2 AB’s with Vagabond and stands 3 miles up a trail. If you are an outdoor shooter like me who frequently carries their gear on their back or has to stuff their camera gear among a pile of other gear on a 2 week raft trip then size, portability and performance are worth paying for.

Currently I use 580EX II’s with RadioPoppers and the system has performed well in many situations. I’ve been frustrated at only having 105mm zoom capability and having to set up Radio Poppers with brackets (which break easily) on each flash with the transmitter flimsily attached to the master flash or ST-E2 with velcro. I also have to carry an additional set of batteries for the Radio Poppers.

For me, the 200mm zoom capability and built in radio wave wireless system alone is worth the investment.

You can read more about the 600EX-RT on the Canon site.

The Canon speedlite guru who’s really been testing the 600EX is Syl Arena. On his blog, you get the full scoop and a lot more information about the new speedlite than you’ll get on the Canon site.

Young adult male on a glacier hiking adventure under Wrangell-St. Elias National Park's Root Glacier, Alaska

Hiking in an ice cave under the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska. The approach to the underside of the glacier was steep with loose footing. We had to pack camera gear including 2 speedlites with RadioPoppers in our daypacks.

 

  • Photographer: Michael DeYoung
  • Location: Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
  • Client: Alaska Travel Industry Association
  • Lighting: 2 Canon 580EXII’s with RadioPoppers
  • Technique: Group A on master flash at reduced ratio for overall fill light.
  • Group B with Honl grid held by assistant on camera left using “hand gobo” to focus light on hiker and keep it off the ice.

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

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’.

Handy Cold Weather Photography Tips

New Mexico and Alaska Adventure, Landscape, Lifestyle photographer

Michael DeYoung shooting with liner gloves and fleece windbloc fingerless gloves

I love winter light, especially fresh snow clinging to trees on a crisp winter morning! The hardest thing about winter shooting for me has always been keeping my hands warm while operating the camera system, including the tripod. Even with the big pro bodies I just don’t have the dexterity to operate the camera/lens the way I prefer with big warm gloves. So over the many years of winter sports and landscape photography in Alaska, the Yukon and the Rockies, I’ve developed a 3 glove system that works well and will keep your hands functioning for hours in moderate cold – say single digit and teen temperatures. Hopefully, these tips come in handy.

First, not to sound like I’m preaching, you must keep your head and neck warm. This is where you lose a majority of your body heat. Keeping your head and neck covered is the first step to minimizing cold fingers. When your body is trying to keep its core warm it starts by cutting off warm blood flow to your extremities.

Liners. I’m always searching for the perfect liner glove. My current favorite is the Atlas 370 which has an amazing grip on the palm and fingers. Sizing is critical. Too tight and your fingers will get cold quickly. Too big and you don’t get maximum dexterity.

Fleece Fingerless Gloves. Over the liners go a high quality Windstopper™ fleece fingerless gloves. Glacier Gloves are good. I currently use Simms that cover everything except my finger tips. They easily slide over the liner gloves. I got both of these at a flyfishing store. Steelhead anglers know all about needing dexterity in typical wet cold steelhead fishing weather. Ever try tying a blood knot with cold fingers?

New Mexico and Alaska Adventure, Landscape, Lifestyle photographer

Atlas 370 liner glove has a great synthetic palm grip that grips great on focus rings and CF tripods

A Little Chemical Help. Here’s a trick that helps most people. Place a chemical hand warmer in your palm, between the liner and the fleece windblock glove. This will help warm the blood and you can close your hand around the warmer to warm your finger tips. Remember, these things only work when they are enclosed in something.

Backcountry Christmas Holiday lit tent in Wyoming

Winter holiday scene in Wyoming. Temps were near 10F. Glove system worked well in setting up tent, props and working the camera. This image is a Palm Press Holiday Card available at REI

Big Mittens. For ski photography or traveling on foot in between locations in really cold weather, the first two gloves easily slide into a heavy mitten, the kind you can get from REI. Most high end expedition mittens will have a retainer cord. And most high end parkas will have a small d-ring about 6 inches up the sleeve. So on a ski shoot, I’m skiing to my next location keeping my hands toasty in the mittens. When I’m ready to grab the camera and shoot, I just slide off the mittens as they just dangle from my parka. With my liners and fingerless gloves, I’m ready to rock and roll.

Michael DeYoung is an adventure lifestyle photographer based out of the ski town of Taos, New Mexico and Anchorage, Alaska

Sometimes Adventure Photography Begins at Home

This week is a short one. The routine is familiar. We frantically pack for another 10-day adventure 500 miles from home while tying up loose business ends prior to our departure. It is stressful but I’m excited about our upcoming Zion shoot. It is early May and we are thinking spring. Can’t wait to see the explosion of vibrant spring greens and hopefully blooming cacti against the warm colored Colorado Plateau sandstone.

The Gulf of Alaska sent the Southern Rockies a different plan as the last day of April rolled into May first. Snow. And near record cold. Drove home Sunday from Westcliffe, Colorado. Snowed most of the way. Snowed all afternoon at home with sub-freezing temperatures, yes in May! Monday morning looked and felt more like January. Four inches of new snow cloaked the landscape with our mercury at 18 degrees at sunrise. Beautiful, but not spring like.

Never seen so many songbirds at the feeders during the heavy snow Sunday and Monday morning. The seed eaters had plenty of grub but I was concerned about our resident nesting bluebirds. Insect life was all but shut down the previous afternoon so they probably had very little to eat. They sat on a feeder perch for over an hour Monday morning making me wonder if they were just warming themselves in the sun.

In the past, we’ve offered them mealworms, soaked raisins and insect suet on snowy spring days but they never ate it so I guess they were fine weathering out the storm with little or nothing to eat. But that was March and April, not May with 5 new eggs in their nest.

Reminded myself of a lesson I stress in my workshops. Don’t forget to shoot close to home. I’ve always felt that if you can’t make good images in your backyard, you won’t make good images in some exotic and far away place. That morning was an opportunity for me to practice what I preach.

So we took a break from our business tasks and packing to shoot stills and motion. Shot the bluebirds on the perch and shot Lauri behind the camera and lens that was used to photograph Mr. and Mrs. Bluebird on said perch.

Photographing mountain bluebirds image

Lauri photographing mountain bluebirds on a perch at our feeding station.

 

Pair of mountain bluebirds in winter portrait image

Our resident and nesting pair of mountain bluebirds

 

Female mountain bluebird portrait image, Taos New Mexico

Mrs. Bluebird on a perch at our seed feeder. Shot details: Canon 1D, Mark IV, 400/F4 lens with 1.4X extender, 580EX II speedlite mounted on a Really Right Stuff flash bracket.

Normally, we sweep new snow from our solar panels at first light to maximize power on winter days. The days are long now, the sun is up before we are and we could afford to wait a bit to see if a photo idea I had would pan out. The wetter spring snow and a little more morning heat could create a thin layer of melt water on the panels. That could make some cool reflections of Lauri as she swept the snow off. Also with a backlit and sidelit scene the huge angled array with fresh snow made one heck of a fill light.

Sweeping new snow off home solar panels Taos New Mexico image

Sweeping new May snow off solar panels, photovoltaic array outside of Taos, New Mexico

 

Sweeping new snow off home solar panels Taos New Mexico image

Sweeping new May snow off solar panels, photovoltaic array outside of Taos, New Mexico

Our mountain bluebird parents are just fine and I’m glad that I had a chance to make some nice images from home. Now back to spring.
Pair of mountain bluebird portrait image

Adventure Photography While Backpacking – Grand Canyon Style

Recently I wrote a post about bare bones photo outfits for adventure photography. Since I just completed another multi-day backpack adventure in the Grand Canyon, I thought I would expand upon backpacking photography gear and share some images from the trip.

THE HIKE was 5 days starting from Lipan Point, down the Tanner Trail, following the Escalante Route downriver to Hance Rapids, then up the Tonto/Grandview Trail to Grandview Point. There were three of us, myself, Lauri – my super tough wife, assistant, and ultimate companion – and long time good friend John from Seattle. This is a backcountry route on unmaintained and unmarked trails with steep and exposed sections. We had 2 very nice camps along the river and two nice dry camps on the Tonto platform.

self portrait of photography team at backpacking camp on the western Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon

self portrait at camp on the western Tonto Trail with signature scratched legs

 

BACKPACKING PHOTOGRAPHY is always the most challenging with respect to what gear to take without breaking your back but still having enough gear to produce professional results. I’ve made some reasonably good stock sales from prior Grand Canyon backpack trips so I always take professional gear with me. Lauri and I are moderate ultra-lighters with our regular backpack gear. This allows me to carry a capable camera load without killing my back so long as I train for the trip – which I did this time.

 

Man photographing sunset on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Photographing sunset on the South Rim, Grand Canyon

 

Man photographing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Michael DeYoung photographing on the South Rim, Grand Canyon

 

ULTRA LIGHT SUPPORT. I pack the lightest weight Gitzo carbon fiber tripod (1.6lbs) the Mountaineer 0. On top is a Really Right Stuff B-25 head (7oz.) with quick release lever. This is their smallest head and the best head I’ve ever used for lightweight applications. At a little over 2 lbs. the tripod and ball head easily rides on the side of my pack similar to where you would place tent poles carried externally. The tripod allowed me to capture some nice moonlit camp scenes and low light landscapes which you will see below. It easily held a pro body with wide angle zoom in moderate winds. The key is to use a remote release to eliminate any possible shutter shake.

Man backpacking on the Tanner Trail on the south rim of the Grand Canyon with Think Tank Digital holster pack

On the Tanner Trail with Think Tank Digital Holster pack on my chest

 

WHAT’S IN THE BAG? For camera gear, I limit myself to one body and lens. Being a Grand Canyon veteran, I find the best lens is the 17-40 on a full frame body. I was planning on taking the Canon 50D but at the last minute took my Canon 1Ds Mark III. The rest of my pack was not that heavy so I opted to carry the extra 1.5 lbs for the full frame, 21 mega-pixel body. In the end I’m glad I did. The canyon is a brutal environment and dealt out a potentially damaging dose of wind, dust, sand, and river spray. The 1D series are built like tanks with weather sealed buttons and the 1Ds, III scoffed at the elements. Lesser bodies may have failed. In addition to the body and lens, I took one strobe – a 580EXII with off camera cord, some gels, and a Honl 1/8 grid. Accessories included a polarizer and a Singh_Ray 3 stop hard step graduated ND filter, extra batteries, a remote release and four 8gb and 16gb compact flash cards.

Landscape scenic image of the Colorado River just above Tanner Rapids in the Grand Canyon

Scenic along the Colorado River just above Tanner Rapids

THE BAG ITSELF. The body and lens, flash, filters, compact flash cards in a tethered Think Tank card wallet, and lens cloth all fit in a Think Tank Digital Holster 50. I carried this bag on my chest, attached to the shoulder straps and hip belt with mini caribiners. In the photo it looks awkward and large but is actually quite comfortable and provides some welcome counterbalance with all the weight on my back. For day shooting, I could quickly pull out the camera and strobe for hiking shots. The small Think Tank Lightning Fast flash bag attached to the side of my pack held the lightweight accessories and batteries that I couldn’t fit in the chest holster bag. There are similar bags on the market designed to be used with backpacks such as the Clik adventure bags. From what I’ve seen they have a better designed system for attaching a chest holster to your backpack. And they offer other than black bags – much better for hot desert conditions. But I invested in the Think Tank before Clik adventure packs were on the market.

THE WHOLE KIT AND KABUDLE. My entire Grand Canyon backpacking photography ensemble was 7.5 lbs. If we weren’t seasoned backpackers and good at getting the rest of the load down to a reasonable weight, 7.5 lbs would seem cumbersome.

 

Image of a couple backpackers resting along Colorado River just above Tanner Rapids in the Grand Canyon

Backpackers Lauri and John resting in shade as rafts approach Tanner Rapids

 

CAN I GET THE WEIGHT DOWN EVEN MORE? If money were no object, I would opt for a Canon 5D, Mark II vs. the heavier 1Ds Mark III as the best Canon full frame pro body for backpacking. Then again if money were no object I would have hired a college student with a strong back in desperate need of cash to schlep my camera gear for me. Next trip. I wouldn’t even think of leaving a strobe and accessories behind even though that would shave another pound. There are so many situations where carefully crafted artificial light was useful for hiking and camping lifestyle photography. The strobe and the ability to shape and warm the light it produces makes or breaks the difference between amateur and professional results.

Mature woman prepares backpacker breakfast of oatmeal at backpacking camp along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

Lauri prepares backpacker breakfast of oatmeal and blueberries at backpacking camp along the Colorado River.

Mature male primes a backpacker stove at camp along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon

John priming a MSR Whisperlite backpack stove at sunrise along the Colorado River

 

I could scrap the tripod but that would mean no night time or low light landscapes with lots of depth of field images. I’m not ready to make that sacrifice yet. As I look at the results from the trip, it makes all the back and joint pain of carrying my photo gear worthwhile.

 

Mature couple hiking along the Escalante Route above Cardenas Creek in the cooler, early evening hours Grand Canyon National Park

Lauri and John hiking in cooler evening hours along the Escalante Route, hiking above Cardenas Creek.

 

Moonlit tent and camp along the Escalante Route of the Grand Canyon above Unkar Rapids on the Colorado River

Moonlit camp above Unkar Rapids along the Escalante Route. Lauri is lighting the tent with the 580EX II with a green gel. The tent is an MSR Hubba Hubba without the rainfly for star/moon gazing

 

Close up portrait of woman hiking boots overlooking Colorado River along the Grand Canyon Escalante Route

close up of hiking boots along the Escalante Route

Woman backpacker writing in her journal at Hance Rapids on the Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Marie, another backpacker we met on the trail, writing in her journal in the morning sun at Hance Rapids.

Group of river rafters from Alaska scouting Hance Rapids along the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park

A group of rafters from Alaska, one of whom I knew from my Alaska days and involvement with the Knik Canoers and Kayakers, stopped to scout Hance Rapids.

River rafters run Hance Rapids on the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park

Rafters running Hance Rapids, entering on river left. With only a 40mm focal length, this is as close as I could get without swimming. This is one of the limitations of only having one lens, a wide angle zoom

Mature male backpacker descending steep rockslide to get around Popago Creek on the Escalante Route of the Grand Canyon

John descending a steep rockslide to get around Popago Creek just a half mile upstream from Hance Rapids

Mature male backpacker stargazing in his backpacking bivy sack above Hance Creek on the Tonto Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

John stargazing in his bivy sack at a very nice dry camp on the Tonto about a mile above Hance Creek. This type of shot is what makes hauling a tripod and remote trigger that lets me do long exposures worthwhile. This is a 4 minute exposure with the foreground lit with a LED headlamp. This was our last and fourth night on the trail.

ASMP’s Strictly Business Seminar is Well Worth the Cost

I attended Strictly Business 3 in Los Angeles put on by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) in January. Wow, what an enlightening and rewarding event! I’ve been a member of ASMP since 1994 but this was the first national event I’ve attended and I can’t believe I waited this long. All the speakers, most whom are working ASMP members themselves, were very good to excellent. I really appreciated ASMP president Richard Kelly. In addition to being a natural at impromptu speaking I watched him introduce himself to new and young members making all feel welcome. I think this is a great characteristic for an organizational leader to have.

Speaking of new members, I was expecting the majority of attendees to be mostly middle aged guys like me. I was pleased to see a fair amount of younger shooters and women there and interested in learning professional practices in our industry. Strictly Business has its own blog http://www.asmp.org/strictlybusiness/ where you’ll find a few more articulate posts than this one about the LA event. As in any workshop or seminar, you get out of it what you put in. This is best $250 business investment you can make. The added camaraderie and making of new friends and acquaintances was icing on the cake.

Creative Outdoor Photography Workshop in Girdwood Alaska, July 15-17, 2011

This summer I will be teaching another workshop for the Alaska Society of Outdoor and Nature Photographers. Thanks to our good friend and fellow photographer Cathy Hart, this will be my third workshop for the club. The workshop is July 15-17 and will be based out of Girdwood. You can get all the details when dates and places are finalized off the ASONP website. The theme will be creative outdoor photography geared toward intermediate and advanced photographers. I will be teaching an updated version of the workshop I did in 2008 at Hatcher Pass.

Today’s offerings of portable and lightweight lighting tools are amazingly useful for many outdoor subjects including landscapes, travel and adventure. Many photographers like going on adventure trips such as sea kayaking, river raft journeys and mountain trekking. I will discuss techniques and tips for greatly improving adventure and travel photography. This type of photography often takes place where compelling landscape imagery is also possible and I will be discussing to effectively do both. Other topics covered will include how to get the most out of your RAW images in Lightroom processing, advanced digital shooting techniques and, time permitting, the business side of outdoor photography. Cathy asked me to write a piece for the newsletter. So I thought I would describe an assignment where I applied principles I’ve taught in workshops to an actual job and post it here on my blog. (See “How Following Three Basic Photography Principles led to a Successful Assignment” under ‘Assignment & Production’.)