Photo Gear for Alaska

For one important reason, I put a lot of thought into what to take on this trip:  weight.  The charter aircraft from Anchorage had a weight limit, and we were bringing a lot of heavy camera gear with us.  So, I got out the kitchen scale and started weighing lenses, camera bodies, tripods and heads, and even my photo backpack.  The weight limit required a lot of compromises.  In the end, I chose about 30 lbs. of photo gear to bring with me…

Weight (lbs.)
7.5 Nikon body and lenses
6 Fuji body and lenses
6 Tripod & head
6 Backpack
4.5 Computer, memory cards, chargers, tools, etc.
30 Total

I put all the gear into my Lowepro Nature Trekker AW backpack (a model which is now discontinued).  “AW” means all-weather; it has a built-in rain cover I could use when needed.  With the unpredictability of Alaskan weather, this seemed like a good idea.  Here’s how I packed everything in.  (I ended up replacing the 80-200 with an 80-400.)

Backpack

As you can see, I took two camera systems:  Nikon DSLR and Fujifilm X-series mirrorless.  I considered going all Nikon or all Fuji—even waffling back and forth a week before the trip.  By taking both, I got to test both camera systems in nearly identical circumstances, and compare how they performed.

 

For the Nikon system, I brought…

  • D810 full-frame body
  • 24-120 f/4 lens
  • 80-400 f/4.5-5.6 lens

 

For the Fuji system, I brought…

  • X-E2 APS-C body
  • 18-55 lens
  • 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 lens
  • 1.4x teleconverter

 

When we were out with the bears, we had to keep all our gear with us—no leaving it in the ATV trailer where bears could find and chew on it.  We were thus discouraged from taking too much gear out into the field.  I’d typically take one body with one long lens.  If I took the Nikon with long lens, I’d sometimes take the lightweight Fuji with the 18-55 lens for landscapes.  I ended up not taking the backpack or the rest of the gear into the field after the first day.

The vast majority of the time, I used the Nikkor 80-400 and Fuji 100-400, and I thought each was a good choice.  I didn’t use the 1.4 TC after the first day or two; on the APS-C body, the effective 150-600mm focal length without the TC was more than enough.  On the Nikon, I rarely wished I’d had either an APS-C body or teleconverter.  The Fuji 100-400, in particular, is a superb lens—hand-holdable up to five stops, and without the vignetting problems of the Nikkor 80-400.

I rented the Nikkor 80-400 from borrowlenses.com.  I felt like this was a great deal—12 days for less than a tenth the price of buying the lens new, and the 80-400 is a specialty lens I wouldn’t normally use in my other shooting.  Let me know if you’re planning to rent from borrowlenses.com; I can likely get you $20 off your first rental.

I brought along my di-GPS Pro receiver for the Nikon body.  This GPS receiver, from Dawn Technology in Hong Kong, plugs into the Nikon and geotags the images.  Then, in Adobe Lightroom, you can view a map of where you took your photos.  (The numbers represent how many photos I took in each spot.)

(Click any image to enlarge.)

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As you keep zooming in, you can see more and more detail.  Here’s the mouth of the creek, where the bear fish and clam much of the time.

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As I mentioned above, I was curious how the two camera systems fared compared to each other.

The summary is that the Nikon DSLR is clearly a better camera than the Fuji X-E2.  It’s also bigger, heavier, more expensive, is faster, and has more megapixels.  But the X-E2 also did a great job, too.  With a slight edge towards the Nikon, the number of “keeper” photographs was about even between the two cameras, as were the total number of photographs out of the thousands I took.

One key speed difference is that the Nikon has buttons readily available to adjust ISO, autofocus, and almost every other camera setting.  On the Fuji, many settings are behind menus that you have to navigate through.  I was not as familiar with some of the lesser-used Fuji options at the beginning of the week, and by the end of the week, I had learned how to get more out of the Fuji than I could at the beginning.  I started and ended the week still loving both cameras.  I think you could take either kind of system and come back with great photographs.

Would I recommend that anyone take two different camera systems with them to Lake Clark?  No.  But I would take two bodies—one as a backup for the other.  I’d also recommend taking a couple of lenses:  First, a 100-400 lens, ideally with a 1.4X teleconverter.  The Sigma 150-600 lens would be an interesting alternative.  Second, I’d take a shorter landscape lens—a 24-70, or 24-85.  A 100mm lens is too long to do much in terms of landscapes, or snapshots that help tell the story of your trip.

 

Rounding out my photo gear choices, I brought my Induro CLT304L tripod, with a Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead.  I briefly considered my alternate, smaller, lighter-weight tripod, a Gitzo G1027 Mk II (no longer available, but similar to the Mountaineer Series 0 tripod).  I’m glad I took the larger tripod; I would have been frustrated by the low height of the smaller tripod—and probably frustrated by having a somewhat less sturdy platform.  I absolutely love the RRS BH-40 ballhead; I’ve had mine for years.  I use Wimberley and RRS plates for my cameras and lenses.

 

One final note on other tools to bring along…  I brought a small folding hex (Allen) wrench set, useful for adjustments to the tripod mounting plates.  I forgot to bring anything to clean the camera sensor, and I started out the week with a noticeable piece of dust on my sensor.  Fortunately, one of my traveling companions had brought his blower (I use a Giottos Rocket Blaster), and I borrowed it one day at lunch.  I’d bring at least two, and preferably three, batteries—maybe more depending on how efficient your cameras are, and how much you shoot.  It’s convenient to swap out batteries at lunch for a fresh set.

 

I brought a small laptop computer with a large internal hard drive, along with a memory card reader so that I could back up my images every day.  The memory card reader failed—but fortunately, I had the right cables for connecting the computer directly to the cameras, so I backed up that way.  Having a computer also let me see how well I was doing at capturing photos, since I could view the images full size.  As an example, I could tell that my Fuji photos at the beginning of the week were great when the bears were relatively still, but the Fuji did a terrible job of continuous autofocus when the bears were running as they fished.  By adjusting to use only the mechanical shutter (instead of the electronic shutter), and by switching from single-point focus to wide/tracking focus, the action photos got a lot better by the end of the week.  I’d never really thought about those choices before.

 

Do you have questions or comments (or even suggestions) about my gear?  Please comment below.

Alaska Homestead Lodge, Silver Salmon Creek

[Updated:  See addendum at the end of this post.]

While in Alaska, we stayed at a great lodge, The Alaska Homestead Lodge.  It’s part of a small Alaskan bush community at Silver Salmon Creek.  The owners, James and Shelia Isaak, live next to the lodge and keep it in great shape.

(Click any image to enlarge.)

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The lodge itself is on the inland side of the tidal marshes, only a few hundred yards from the coast.  It was common to be sitting in the upstairs dining room and watching bears walk in from the beach, right past the lodge on their way into the forest.

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We also had a great guide, Belle, who has been guiding three years at the lodge.  There are two lodges along the coast, and the guides from both lodges cooperate with each other to share information on the radio about what the bears are doing.  The guides drive four-wheel ATVs with small trailers.  I did this trip with four of my friends, and we all rode in the trailer together up and down the beach, through the creek, and along the trails.

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Here’s a snapshot showing a typical morning at the beach, with a group from each lodge watching the mom and three cubs dig for clams.  We all wore rubber boots (supplied by the lodge) to keep our feet dry.

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A pleasant surprise was the food at the lodge.  Not just good; it was great.  Our chef’s summer job last year was at Bouchon.  Meals were prepared in the lodge’s upstairs kitchen and served at the communal dining table.  The grilled salmon was fresh and expertly prepared—I think we had it three different nights.  We also had pork tenderloin, lasagna, chicken fajitas—and fresh desserts, such as berry crisp, and chocolate pie.

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The lodge had a garden and greenhouse from which the salads came… lettuce, kale, broccolini, cabbage, and more.  For the most part, the bears left these alone—even the berries used in the desserts.

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Like much of Alaska, the only reasonable way in and out of the lodge is by plane.  We used Natron Air Taxi as our charter to get to the lodge from Anchorage.  We had cloudless, blue sky for our flight on this GA-8 Airvan.

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And here we are coming in for a landing on the beach.

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The weather continued to be great for the first five days.  The previous three weeks were rainy, and the following two weeks were predicted to be rainy—but we had five solid sunny days.  And then it turned foggy, misty, and rainy for us, too.  The lodge recommends having a buffer travel day on each side of your stay, in case you get weathered in and can’t get into or out of the lodge.  We almost were stuck at the lodge an additional day.  Tim, our pilot, persisted and was able to land further north and taxi down the beach for a couple of miles to get us.

On a positive note, the fog and clouds added some variety to our scenery and photographs.

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[Addendum]

It occurred to me after posting this that I didn’t describe what a typical day was like.  Each day, you work out your schedule with your guide.  We’d typically get up for an early shoot around 7:00 AM, then back to the lodge at 8:00 AM for breakfast.  Then we’d head back out after breakfast for a few hours, and return for lunch around noon.  Because of the high latitude, the quality of light stayed pretty good until 10:00 or 11:00 AM—even longer if it was a little hazy.  If something especially good is happening, our guide would radio the lodge to let them know we’d be running late.  After lunch, we’d often take a break (nap time), and head out again for a few hours before or after dinner.

A lot is dependent on the tide.  At high tide, the bears are usually in the meadow eating grass and sleeping.  At lowest tide, they are clamming.  Near low tide, they could fish.  During our week, high tide was in the afternoons, so we spent most of the time photographing in the mornings.

Just talk to your guide about the photos you want to take, and they’ll do their best to make it happen.  If you want photos of bears eating grass, you’ll love going out during high tide.  If you want photos of bears fishing, you might go out a few hours after high tide.

Coastal Brown Bears of Lake Clark

It was finally time.  We’d been planning this trip for almost two years, and still didn’t comprehend what it was going to be like to photograph these bears.  After arriving at the lodge, we unpacked our camera gear and went right out into the field to find some bears to photograph.  We remarked in the moment, “do you think we’ll make fun of ourselves later this week for taking so many photos of bears sleeping in the meadow?”  We acknowledged the answer was “yes”, but we took them anyway.  Several thousand photos of bears later, this photo doesn’t bubble up to be among the best, but here it is anyway…

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The excitement of watching bears graze on grass and then take a nap soon wore off, as we moved to the beach to watch the bears dig for clams.  Their keen sense of smell (and an abundance of razor clams) lets them quickly find a spot to dig into the sand with their paws and bring up a clam to eat.  Different bears have different strategies for opening the clams, but the “smush the clam on the sand, then pry it open with your teeth” technique was pretty common.

(Click any image to enlarge.)

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Watching the bears fish was the most exciting.  The bears would sit in or near the water, and then start running after a swimming salmon.  They failed many times, so it was sensational when they succeeded.  As you might expect, being along Silver Salmon Creek, these are Silver (Coho) Salmon.

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We saw three different moms with cubs.  The moms would catch fish, eat part for herself, and share with her cubs—while chasing away other bears who might try to grab the fish.

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Speaking of cubs, they have a lot of personality.  They can be playful.  They can be whiny.  They pick fights with their siblings.  And they are cute enough that mom (usually) puts up with it all.

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After eating, it’s of course time to stretch out and take a nap.

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Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska

I just got back from hanging out with bears in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, in southern Alaska about 125 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Map picture

These are coastal brown bears, ursus arctos horribilis. They’re genetically the same as grizzly bears—“grizzly” generally refers to inland bears.  A couple of hundred bears spend time along the coast here.

Living along Silver Salmon Creek, the bears have access to a varied diet of  salmon in the creek, clams on the beach, and sedges in the tidal marshes.

(Click any of the images to enlarge.)

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The focus of this trip was bears, but we saw a few birds, too—bald eagles, puffins, plenty of seagulls, a couple of harriers, and red-winged blackbirds, to name a few.  Here’s a bald eagle on the beach, thinking about fish.

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Here’s a greater yellowlegs, tringa melanoleuca, wading at the edge of Silver Salmon Creek.

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In upcoming posts, I’ll share a few more bear photos, talk about the lodge that served as home base, and discuss my photo gear choices.

Please comment if you have questions you’d like me to answer in upcoming posts.

A Few More Photos of the Alaska Range

I was going back through some of my photos, and realized that I hadn’t processed some of my infrared photos of the Alaska Range.

I use a Nikon D300 that I’ve converted to infrared through LifePixel.com.  (Please use that affiliate link if you are thinking of converting one of your cameras.)

All but the last of these images are from Talkeetna, which is about 60 miles south of Denali.  I think the view from Talkeetna gives a better overview of the Alaska Range.  The weather was also a lot better when we were in Talkeetna.  I would have loved to seen Denali from Wonder Lake on the north side, but that just didn’t work out.

Anyway, I wanted to share these, and hope you enjoy them. (Click the photos to see larger versions.)

 

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Denali

 

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Mt. Foraker (17,400 ft), Mt. Hunter (14,573 ft), and Denali (20,310 ft)

These are the three highest peaks in the Alaska Range, and the 1st, 3rd, and 10th highest in the US.

 

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Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter, and Denali

 

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Mt. Foraker.

The lenticular cloud above the summit indicates high winds.

 

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Denali

 

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Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter, and Denali

 

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Mt. Foraker

 

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Mt. Hunter

 

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Mt. Hunter, and Denali

This is taken from Denali State Park (about 35 miles from Denali), with the Chulitna River in the foreground.  In Talkeetna, stop at the Denali Brewing Company for a Chuli Stout, named after this river.

Alaska, Days 13-14

From the 63rd parallel in Kantishna, it took several flights and a seven and a half hour train ride to get back to Austin over the course of 24 hours.  When we left Kantishna, it was about 42 degrees.

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Denali Backcountry Lodge

Rather than take the six-hour bus ride from Kantishna back along the park road, we opted for a 40-minute flight with Kantishna Air Taxi.  Fortunately, the weather held out for us—cloud ceilings of 2000 to 3000 feet AGL meant that we could fly about 1500 to 2000 feet above the ground and get a good view of the tundra and wildlife on our way back to the Denali Depot.

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Our Cessna U206D Super Skywagon, built in 1969

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In the lower right of the photo above, you can see the bus used by Christopher McCandless, who was attempting to live off the land by himself before he perished.  He was the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild.

 

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Denali Depot and the main Visitor’s Entrance to Denali National Park

 

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Coming in for our landing at Denali Depot

After arriving at Denali Depot, we boarded the Alaska Railroad southbound for our return to Anchorage.  We had beautiful scenery along the way.

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We spent the night in Anchorage before our long flights to Texas.  When we arrived in Austin, it was 101.

I’ll probably create another blog post in the next few days to cover a few things that didn’t fit into my earlier posts.  Stay tuned.

Alaska, Day 12

The rain continued off and on through day 12 in Kantishna, but that didn’t stop us from hiking a bit.  In the morning, we went to Blueberry Hill, near Wonder Lake.  We tasted wild blueberries and low-bush cranberries along the way

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View of Wonder Lake (and behind the clouds, Mount McKinley) from Blueberry Hill

As you can see, it was overcast.  We hiked in mist and the occasional rainshower.  The cloud ceiling was only a few hundred feet.

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In the afternoon, we hiked to the cabin of Fannie Quigley, a woman and local legend who lived in Kantishna from 1906 (before the park) until her death in 1944.

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We also hiked a couple hundred extra yards to get to the official end of the road at the air strip.  Here’s proof…

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Next up, a long day of travel from Kantishna back to Anchorage.  More to come.

Alaska, Day 11

I’m catching up after being off the grid in the Denali backcountry.

After the great weather in Talkeetna, the rain came again.

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Storm approaching Eielson Visitor Center

We took a bus to the Denali Backcountry Lodge, at the end of the park road, 92 miles from the entrance.  It was a six-hour bus ride, which included stops when we saw wildlife.  Our driver/guide pretty much talked non-stop for that six hours, describing scenery, animal behavior, park history, and anything else relevant for our trip.

Along the way, we saw Dall Sheep, Moose, Caribou, Grizzly Bear, Gyrfalcons, and WIllow Ptarmigan, to name a few.

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More to come tomorrow, as I continue catching up.

Alaska, Days 6-10

I apologize for not posting in a few days.  Our days have been full, and the internet less than speedy and reliable, so updating the blog took a back seat.

In Skagway, we took the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad to White Pass, briefly crossing into Canada before returning to Skagway.

 

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The next port of call was Sikta, where our good weather karma started to run out.  Our last day at sea met swells up to 18 feet, and winds up to 50 knots, as a large storm passed from west to east, as we went through in the opposite direction.  This same storm caused significant flooding in Sikta the day after we were there.

In the photo below from somewhere in the Gulf of Alaska, note the relationship between the horizon and the boat.  Our motion sickness patches worked great, though._DSC1017

 

One of the highlights of our trip so far was a stop at Happy Trails Kennels, home of Martin Buser, a four time Iditarod champion.  We loved the excitement of the dogs, playing with some 10-week-old puppies, and sitting in Martin and Kathy’s home talking about dog training philosophy.

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We next worked our way up to Talkeetna, where the good weather karma returned.  Denali is only visible about 30% of the time.  Many people come to Alaska and stay for days without seeing it.  Here are a couple of photos from Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.  These are from about 60 miles away.

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Tomorrow, we will probably be off the air for a couple of days in the Denali Backcountry.  More when we return.

Alaska, Day 5

Our day started inauspiciously with an unfortunately placed iceberg._DSC0513

Said iceberg was caught on a sandbar exactly in the middle of the entrance to Tracy Arm Fjord, blocking our entrance.  Unable to get into the fjord to see more icebergs, we proceeded onto Juneau.

In Juneau, we went whale watching with Gastineau Guiding Company, with Captain Jen and photographer Andy Davidson.  Captain Jen’s excitement about the whale activity was contagious.  She did a great job of positioning our boat for photography, and Andy did a great job of inspiring us with our photography.

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Here are some whale tails…

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After returning to shore, we went to Mendenhall Glacier, one of the more famous glaciers only a few miles from Juneau.  It’s about 13 miles long and ends in Mendenhall Lake.

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There are a few markers showing the historic locations of the edge of the ice.  This glacier has been retreating for centuries.  This marker is well over a mile from the current ice limit.

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More tomorrow, if connectivity allows.  Thanks for reading.

Conservation Photography and Other Photo Adventures

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