Humpback Whale Breach 117

Humpback Whale Breach 117

Here is another amazing humpback whale breach that I photographed during my July trip in Southeast Alaska. Breaching whale encounters never get old. I wish that I could photograph whales every day, but for a variety of reasons it would be impractical, least of which is that they don’t cooperate like this very often. This juvenile humpback probably breached close to 100 times over the 2+ hours that I spent photographing it. This gave me ample time to maneuver my inflatable into position with the sunlight at the best angle and with the most pleasing mountains in the background. I did not anticipate where the whale was going to breach correctly every time, but when I did, I was rewarded with images like this one. The hardest part of photographing breaches is having my camera pointed in the right direction and responding fast enough before the entire moment is over. I used my Canon 7D and 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens with a shutter speed of 1/1300 second to stop the action.

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Alaska Exposed December 2010

Alaska Exposed December 2010

One of my new Steller sea lion images is featured in the Alaska Exposed section of the December 2010 issue of Alaska. Typically, it takes me a few months to process my new images before I get them on my website or submit them to my agents. However, Alaska saw this image on my blog back in September and immediately contacted me about publishing it. In my experience this is an unusually quick turn-around from creation to publication.

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Mt Fairweather Lenticular Aerial 1

Mt Fairweather Lenticular Aerial 1

BLECH! That is exactly what I felt like doing during my recent aerial shoot of Mt Fairweather. My pilot gave me ample opportunities to back out of the flight. He told me that even though the weather was clear in Haines that it was going to be a bumpy ride over Glacier Bay National Park to the outer coast. I repeatedly assured him that I was an experienced photographer who was not afraid of anything. I was wrong.

While the initial flight went smoothly, the enormous lenticular cloud over the summit of Mt Fairweather in the distance was indication that it was going to get a lot more interesting. I was disappointed that I was not going to photograph the summit, but my compensation was this dramatic multi-layered cloud. I also anticipated that my earlier photos were going to have the best light since the sunset was going to be prematurely blocked by marine clouds on the horizon. As promised, the flight eventually became much rougher as we flew over the highest mountains en route to the outer coast. As we worked the small plane into position to start taking pictures, I looked down 14,000 feet to Lituya Bay and reminisced about the week that I spent there photographing wildflowers in June 2009. I opened the window every few minutes, but the combination of cold air rushing in and turbulence made me regret not having taken a Dramamine earlier. The prominent ridges and shadows beneath the mountain appealed to my vision of how I wanted to photograph the mountain. I had to concentrate like never before in order to open the window and use my camera through the hard-banking and bumps. Physically, this was one of the most challenging photos that I have created, but I am pleased with the results.

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Chilkat Bald Eagle 242

Chilkat Bald Eagle 242

What my recent trip to Alaska lacked in eagles in action was more than made up for by cooperative eagles in beautiful light. I photographed hundreds of images of eagles waiting for a decisive moment to unleash a glaring stare or unrestrained call. Most of my best new images involve direct eye contact. I mostly deleted my images where the eagles were simply too complacent. This image resonated with me because the eagle’s stand-up attention made it appear noble and proud. However, this common anthropomorphization does not necessarily agree with their lazy and opportunistic nature. I created this image with my Canon 7D and 500mm f4 IS lens using minimal digital processing. For this photo, I precisely positioned my camera so as to render the distant snow-capped mountain, forest, and bushes as pleasing bokeh. I always advise photographers that, when using a long telephoto lens, what is behind the subject is just as important as the subject.

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Chilkat Bald Eagle 200

Chilkat Bald Eagle 200

I just got back from leading my 2010 Haines Bald Eagle Photography Tour. It was awesome, but Alaska always is. I had 4 clients signed up to join me, but at the last minute only 2 were able to attend. This was the first time that I worked with Paul & Kim and we had a great time together. Paul had never used a real camera prior to our trip and was skeptical about taking a photo tour, but I made him a believer in dSLRs as his photography skills improved each day. There were not as many eagles around this year, possibly due to the unusually warm fall weather, but we made the most of the opportunities we had. What was lacking in eagle numbers and activity was more than made up for by close-up portraits in beautiful golden light. To create this image, I used my Canon 7D with a 500mm f4 IS lens and 1.4X tele-converter. That is effectively an 1120mm lens! If you’ve never done it, I highly recommend micro-adjusting your camera bodies and lenses. I can not believe how sharp my images are after doing so, especially when using the tele-converter. I was able to get within 15 feet of this cooperative eagle for almost an hour. I placed my camera in a position so that the trees bathed in golden light behind the eagle rendered as this pleasing red bokeh. I like this image because of the eagle’s open beak when it briefly called out to another eagle flying by.

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Humpback Whales Bubble Feeding 100

Humpback Whales Bubble Feeding 100

I always say that if I could photograph only one thing, that it would be whales. Unfortunately, they are the most difficult and expensive subject that I photograph. I have swam next to these gentle giants and watched them repeatedly breach into the air, but the most amazing behavior I have documented is humpback whales bubble-net feeding in Alaska. This phenomenon involves a group of whales diving beneath a school of fish and blowing a ring of bubbles underwater to effectively form a net as it rises to the surface. The ring can be up to 100′ in diameter. The fish get scared by the bubbles and become concentrated in the center. At the last second the whales swim up from beneath the school of fish with their months open swallowing everything they can in one enormous gulp. Research has shown that the individual whales repeatedly take up the same positions as they come out of the water during each attack. The best photographs include the most dominant whales in the center positions as they burst above the surface and slam their mouths closed. An incredible amount of patience and luck is involved in anticipating where the whales are going to form a bubble-net. If I am close enough and can see the bubbles rising at the last second, I have to react fast enough to capture the moment as they lunge out of the water. Magnificent!

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South Sawyer Glacier Harbor Seal 2

South Sawyer Glacier Harbor Seal 2

Over the Labor Day weekend, I wrote an article for one of the big photography magazines about how to photograph Alaska’s wildlife. It is scheduled to be published in the upcoming January issue. I want to share an excerpt from the article and a new harbor seal image that I created in Tracy Arm in July. I hope that you look forward to the complete article, but for now, please enjoy this teaser:

Most of the tidewater glaciers in Alaska support communities of harbor seals resting on icebergs, but it is difficult to approach these skittish animals. My best photo opportunities have happened by drifting amongst the icebergs in my inflatable in order to quietly observe the seals.  You will need to have a long lens in order to get in tight. I own the Canon 400mm f4 DO IS lens, which when combined with my 7D becomes a very hand-holdable 640mm equivalent. I prefer my images to be as close to eye-level at the water as possible, so try to get down to the lowest part of the boat. It looks much more intimate from a low angle than when shot down on them from up high. If you are unable to get in close enough for a frame filling shot, look for complimentary iceberg patterns around a seal in order to show it in its environment. Also, remember to over-expose your image at least +1 stop when you are photographing bright subjects like icebergs!

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Humpback Whale Tail 101

Humpback Whale Tail 101

For marine mammal photographers like myself, photographing whale tails is not that hard to do, but creating a striking image is. This is the only part of the animal that most whale watchers will ever see. It’s not the most dramatic behavior, and certainly nowhere near as photogenic as a full body breach. Over the years, I have taken tens of thousands of whale tail images. I am grateful that I no longer have to spend money on film since most of these images are utterly useless and unworthy of even the 1 second of my time that it takes for me to hit the delete button. Still, every once in a while I photograph a nice tail, like this one. Here’s how the sequence of events needs to work in order to create an image like this. A whale has to surface within a few hundred yards of my boat. It will normally take 3-5 breaths on the surface before diving, which might give me enough time to close the distance on the tail and take up a position behind the whale, not slightly to the left or right, but directly behind it. When the whale begins its dive, there is usually 1 image where the tail is almost at its apex and water is pouring off of it. I am also ever vigilant for a pleasing background, like these snow capped peaks and non-distracting blue mountains in the distance. The entire image has to come together, not just any one part. You can also see other whale photos when you visit my whale photo galleries.

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Humpback Whale Breach 108

Humpback Whale Breach 108

Another freakin’ humpback whale breaching photo? Well, yes, it is! I normally prefer breaching images at the peak of the whale’s trajectory, because they don’t appear as powerful in the limp-coming back down phase, let alone when the big splash happens. However, what I do like about this image is that it shows the power of the whale’s tail propelling it almost completely out of the water. You can see that there is very little of the whale still connected to the surface. I had to keep moving my inflatable for safety, but I also wanted to keep the whale on the inside of me in order to photograph it against the pretty blue mountains in the distance. See more photos of humpback whales.

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Yasha Island Sea Lions 2

Yasha Island Sea Lions 2

By now, my regular readers and social networking followers are probably aware that I had engine trouble last week while using my boat on Prince William Sound for the first time. The repair bill is pretty bad, but not as catastrophic as I had initially feared. It’s par for the course in trying to shoot unique images in remote locations. I have not had a trip go sour in almost 2 years, so I can not complain. During my short visit, I was absolutely blown away by the beauty and potential images that I saw in the College Fjord area, let alone the rest of PWS. I hope to go back to Alaska in the next week and maybe even get out on my boat once it is repaired one last time. Either way, I have a lot to look forward to next summer.

Here is a new Steller sea lion image from my July trip to Southeast Alaska. I spent 2 days visiting the Yasha Island pinniped colony. The cacophony of sound plus the overpowering stench of the colony is impossible to share, but at least I created some interesting images that capture the spirit of the place. I used my inflatable boat to drift in the kelp in order to get a low-angle view which best conveys a sense of being in the water next to these curious creatures. Steller sea lions have bulging eyes which make them look like aliens, which really comes across in this image. I think they are even kind of cute. I used my Canon 7D and 400mm f4 DO IS lens to create this photo. This setup is excellent for being able to hand-hold a big lens on the water.

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