Photographing Alaska Glaciers and Fjords

Whittier Alaska Tour with Gary Randall Photography

Photographing Alaska Glaciers and Fjords - The gurgling sound of the twin 200 horsepower outboard motors mounted in tandem on the stern of our excursion boat mixed with the sound of camera shutters and the random “ooh and ahh” as we cruised back and forth through the still, ice laden water at the face of the massive wall of glacial ice before us. Once everyone was through photographing this incredible scene our boat captain eased forward on the throttle turning the gurgle to a roar as we left the sheltered cove to head back to where we started this incredible day. Our group of intrepid photographers sat at rest enjoying the views after a full day of cruising the Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska photographing wildlife and the immense, wild remote scenery that surrounded us.

Our day started at our log lodge located near Palmer in the beautiful Matanuska Valley located about an hour northeast of Anchorage. We had a drive to make and a schedule to adhere to as we had to be at the Whittier Tunnel on time to pass through with the regularly scheduled opening that allowed visitors and residents to get to the little town of Whittier located at the other end on the majestic and scenic Prince William Sound. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, commonly called The Whittier Tunnel, is a tunnel that was made through a mountain between the town of Whittier and the the Seward Highway, which is a major thoroughfare taking traffic to and from the Kenai Peninsula to Alaska’s mainland.

The Whittier Tunnel is a one way, single lane, tunnel 2 ½ miles long. It’s the longest highway tunnel in North America. The roadway includes a set of train tracks to accommodate the Alaska Railroad. The inside of the tunnel is rough rock, almost cave like, and is a bit claustrophobic the first time through, but is a bit exciting nonetheless. There’s a time schedule for opening the tunnel that accommodates the train as well as car and truck traffic in each direction at different times. If you miss your scheduled opening you must wait an hour before it’s open again in your direction.

On this morning our group awoke with adventure on our minds. We all climbed into the van and headed out. We were right on time, although the bathroom break along the way threatened to cause a little concern about catching the tunnel, we made it with time to spare. Our destination this morning was Epic Charters and the boat that we had reserved to take us out into the fjords of the Prince William Sound to photograph not just scenery, but also for the chance to photograph its wildlife.

The day was calm with some overcast skies. The ride out into the sound was calm and exhilarating. The Chugach Mountains surrounding us tower up from the water to reach an average height of 4000-5000 feet with peaks as high as 13,000 feet. Many have majestic glaciers covering their flanks and filling their valleys with some ultimately crumbling into the ocean waters. As we travel along we pass small islands covered with sea lions, rafts, as they’re called, of sea otters and eagles flying overhead while we hope to see orcas on our search for black bears.

Our skipper navigated our boat into a couple small bays, one of which was the location of a remote salmon hatchery where we found at least a dozen or more opportunistic black bears roaming the shore, dipping their paws into the water and dragging out a fish with little challenge. We left there and made our way to another bay where we found several more bears away from man made surroundings, a small group of which consisted of a mother and three cubs hiding in tall grasses on the shoreline. Their heads peeked up every so often just to keep an eye on the boat full of shutterbugs sitting in the water beyond the shoreline.

We left that bay and made our way further into the sound to a little island where we all stepped off of the boat to stretch our legs for a little while before making our way into the incredible Harriman Fjord, a finger off of the sound into the realm of huge hanging and tidewater glaciers. Our boat made it to the face of Surprise Glacier where we floated around taking in the massive mountains and huge flows of glacial ice. Massive waterfalls flowed down huge solid stone walls from the ice fields and hanging glaciers above. The boat slowly cruised through the iceberg filled water, several of which were the size of the boat itself as we observed walls of ice calving into the ocean creating waves that would gently rock the boat as we stood there in amazement of the scene surrounding us.

In time we turned to head back to Whittier. As we skimmed over the calm water we passed by the glaciers in the College Fjord before heading back into deeper water and passage back. The boat’s captain pushed the throttle further and brought the boat up onto a plane as our group sat at the stern watching the scene disappear behind us. As we sat there taking it all in for one last time, and recalling all that had happened on that day, a rainbow appeared behind us as one final parting gift from this spectacular land.

Our group left the pier and our captain as we gathered together to make sure to catch the tunnel scheduled opening for our trip back through and to the Seward Highway for our drive back to the lodge, with one more stop for a meal at the Turnagain Arm Pit, a favorite barbecue restaurant along the way. Once back at the lodge all everyone wanted to do was rest and look at all of their photos from this amazing time. This trip has become a favorite part of our yearly Alaska Adventure tours, but is only one day of the five that we spend photographing Alaska. Each and every day is filled with another incredible experience.

 

 

My Photography Lens Filters

Little Creek Swirly

One of the most asked questions of me is one concerning lens filters. So let’s talk about filters for a minute.

Filters are round glass elements that screw onto the end of your lens, or in some cases glass or resin panels that are placed on front of the lens using a fixture. The purpose of these filters is to affect several different things when you’re taking a photo.

During the era of film photography many colored filters were used, mostly used with black and white film. These colored filters would block or cancel certain colors of light causing corresponding areas of color to respond in different ways. An orange or red filter will darken blue tones and lighten reds, while a blue one will darken reds and lighten blues. In digital photography these colored filters are not needed as the sensor has the ability to filter Red, Green and Blue light.

During that time we also used UV filters to cut the effect that ultraviolet light had on film. Today the digital sensors have built in UV filtration so they are no longer necessary. Today they're used to protect the lens element from scratches. The only caution that you need to consider is that you should remove them at night. Even though they're clear, they can cause light to reflect between the filter glass and the lens glass. This can cause a double image of any light in the scene.

In digital photography the most commonly used filters are a circular polarizer and neutral density filters.

A circular polarizer, or a CP filter, will do a couple of things to your photo according to how it’s used. The primary purpose is to reduce glare and reflections on things such as the surface of water or even wet leaves. It will also turn the sky a deeper blue. It is made with two elements, one which you can turn to adjust the amount or place of polarization. The filter glass will be somewhat dark so it will stop light, the amount of which varies depending on the darkness of the particular filter but a typical CP filter will stop about 2 f/stops.

The next filter that is most commonly used in digital photography is a neutral density filter. A neutral density filter modifies the intensity of all wavelengths of color. In short its purpose is to block or stop bright light. The purpose typically is to extend or lengthen one’s shutter speed during bright light such as a sunny day. When a photographer mentions neutral density filters, they typically call them ND’s or ND filters. ND filters come in a variety of “darknesses” stopping different levels of light. They can vary in optical density from almost clear to nearly solid dark. The most common ND’s are ND2, ND4 and ND8 with a corresponding 1, 2, and 3 f/stop reduction. Another common ND used for extreme stops of light some choose an 8 or 10 stop ND filter.

Neutral density filters also come in what is called a graduated neutral density filter. This filter is just as it describes. It has a graduation from top to bottom making half of the filter dark and the other half clear. This is used in neutralizing the exposure when you have an extremely bright sky and a dark foreground, It stops the light of the sky making the exposure more even.

As mentioned previously I use my circular polarizer to affect the blueness of the sky, to remove glare and reflections from water surfaces and wet foliage which will allow the color and texture to show. I love using it for creeks and waterfalls, especially on a rainy day or a day where it’s recently rained as the water will typically reflect the bright light from the sky. So too will the leaves and plants reflect this light from the sky. Once you polarize them the shine goes away and color and textures start to show through. An important thing to remember is that a CP filter works best when the light is coming from 90 degrees from the direction that you’re shooting. As the angle changes so does the amount of affect that the filter has on the photo. Also, the filter will allow me to extend my shutter speed to smooth the water a little more to give it a feeling of movement or flow.

My primary purpose for ND filters is to allow me to extend my shutter even more than I could without them under extremely bright light. They come in handy if you show up to a creek or a waterfall during mid day sun.

As for graduated ND filters, I use them as little as possible as they tend to darken areas that don’t necessarily don't need to be. A good example is if you want to darken the sky but there are trees or buildings that extend into this area. The most ideal case for the use of one would be at the coast in a photo of the ocean with an even horizon line.

Whew. This can all sound a bit complicated, but once you use them it will become easy to understand. If you use your camera on the Manual setting it’s also easier to understand as you probably have encountered some of these problems while trying to get that shot at less than an ideal time. I do my best to show up at a scene in good light. If I want to extend my shutter at a creek or a waterfall I find it best to show up when the light is right. Good light from a creek or a waterfall is subdued light with little or no glare or reflection on the surfaces in your photo. I find it best early in the morning or later in the afternoon, but I love it best when it’s drizzling or an even overcast cloudy sky. Bright light is not your friend in these cases. Surprisingly, the CP works under cloudy skies too.

In the photo included in this blog post you can notice a swirly in the water. This little eddy was caused by a current in the water that held bubbles that were caused by the little pour off in the scene. It took awhile for the bubbles to make a circle so I wanted to extend my shutter as long as I could so I had to block light in any way possible to me. I lowered my ISO, stopped down (narrowed) my aperture and applied my CP for two more stops of light. By doing this I was able to get some decent shots at up to 6 seconds exposure time.

I hope that this helps clear up this subject a little. If you’re serious about your photography put a CP and some ND’s in your bag.

Ricketts Glen Pennsylvania Winter Waterfalls

Ricketts Glen Pennsylvania Waterfall

As some of you already know, I just returned from a trip to Pennsylvania. I didn't have as much down time as I had hoped and that which I did have was taken up with cat naps. I had a tummy problem the whole trip. This put a damper on my hike in to Ricketts Glen, which was a hike that I had been so looking forward to. Bad tummy or not, I was going to attempt this.

For me this was more of a trip to spend time with my buddy Chris Byrne my new friend Neven Dries and to meet up with another new found friend, Zachary Bright. When we arrived at the park it was closed to the general public but the ranger allowed us in as long as we had crampons, the cleats that you put on your boots to keep you from slipping, ice axes and a section of rope. So we outfitted ourselves in anticipation of the hike.

Truth be told I was hoping for inclement weather, and the weather leading up to this morning promised some beautiful conditions at it had snowed the day before down in Reading. I was hoping to hike in fresh fallen snow, but when we got there the bright sun was shining and the temps were starting to push 40° F. This made for a beautiful walk, but challenging conditions for photos what with bright highlights and deep shadows, but I had to get some photos.

Once I was in the creek and trying to find my comp I regretted lightening my pack by taking out my Neutral Density filters. I did have my circular polarizer with me thankfully. By lowering my ISO, stopping down and adding the CP I was able to get some photos that were acceptable, but certainly far from optimal image quality. Here in Oregon I prefer to shoot creeks and waterfalls in the rain or soon after a rain, ideally under an overcast sky. This is one of the photos that I took that morning.

In this photo you may notice that There's a lot of complexity. There's a lot going on in it. I did my best to compact the comp and to balance the light. It was a struggle, but I hope that I pulled it off. I'm imagining this same place in the Spring or in the Fall.

Although I love the Pacific Northwest, it was a great adventure for me to explore these Atlantic Northeast locations. I really, really can't wait to return.

Thank you Chris. You're a good friend. Thank you Zachary. You're a good man and I can't wait to shoot with you once more. I appreciate all that you guys did to make this happen.

And most of all Neven Dries who helped facilitate this trip, the primary purpose of which was to talk to the amazing people from the Burks Camera Society of Reading Pennsylvania. I will never be able to repay your kindness. I'm so glad to have met you my friend.

Please, once you find some time, go check out their work. You won't regret it.

Nikon D810 - Nikon 20mm f/2.8 prime - 0.6 shutter - f/22 - ISO 64

Photographing the Columbia River Gorge

Photographing the Columbia River Gorge

Photographing the Columbia River Gorge  - A day Photographing the Columbia River Gorge with my client and now friend Chris Byrne from Chris Byrne Photography. This was a great day for a photography adventure.

This video was taken a couple season's ago prior to the recent Eagle Creek fire that devastated the Columbia River Gorge. Most all of the trails in the gorge are now closed for the foreseeable future. The last that I had heard, as of the writing of this blog post, Multnomah Falls trail will be closed for a year minimum while the area is stabilized and trails cleared.

In this video you will visit Latourell Falls, Shepperds Dell, Ponytail Falls (Upper Horsetail, Elowah Falls, Wahclella Falls and seen from a photographer's perspective.

Please keep an eye on my blog to hear of news of trail openings.  You can also see the work of one of my students, Candee Watson at this link. <--

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