As promised, here is a final recap of my Alaska bear trip containing the entire diary, links to videos on Vimeo, links to behind the scenes images on Flickr and links to the final images on Photrade. This is ongoing. I haven’t even had time to process all the images/video yet so monitor these links if you’re interested in seeing more. I won’t be talking about it here on the blog again in the event that some folks may be getting tired of hearing about it.
Link to Vimeo videos…
The complete text diary…
(Nikon D3, Gitzo Tripod, Mongoose 3.5 Gimbal Head, Nikon 200-400 F/4 VR at 200mm, ISO 800, +0.5 EV. F.5.6 @ 125th Sec. straight out of the camera without post processing other than exposure adjustment and cropping – may appear too bright, too dark, wrong color, right color – depending on your monitor)
EDITOR’S NOTE: (I am in Anchorage and flying back to Seattle Thursday or Friday. I will post the rest of the diary in two and three part sections with a few photos, and then repost the entire group of entires with more photos next week.)
UPDATE: Here are a few snaps from the trip.
Alaska Photo Diary Part 3
Kodiak and Katmai
I’m here in Kodiak getting ready to board our chartered flight to Katmai where we’ll pick up the chartered yacht and finally embark on the final leg of the journey that will hopefully take us to the bears.
I’m trying to take some time to reflect on what I want to accomplish during this trip. One thing that sets pros apart from amateurs is we go into a photo shoot with specific goals in mind. I find it easier to get great shots when I have a theme. If I just go out and shoot everything I see, I am not focused enough (no pun intended) to come away with a solid portfolio of work.
So I am not even sure what my theme will be on this trip. But I have a few things in mind. Conditions will often help dictate the theme. Weather, subject, mood, light, and other considerations can cause me to change a theme.
Short of those situations, I think my theme this trip will be somewhat general… I want to make images that will help people look at life through the bear’s eyes. Perspective is something that’s often lacking in today’s busy world. I know my perspective. I might even know your perspective if I spend enough time with you. But do I really honor other perspectives? Do I really take time to learn from other people’s perspectives? And moreover – is there anything to be learned from the bear’s perspective?
This is the starting point for my theme this week. It could change. But that’s where I am going to begin.
And I’ll use my old standby photojournalism trick. . . EDFAT – Entire, Details, Focal Length, Angle and Time. I’ll shoot using this tool to remind myself to shoot scenes at different angles, with different lenses, closer and farther, higher and lower, at different times of day, using slow shutter speeds in some cases to capture the mood of motion or freezing action with a high shutter speed so that I can seriously study every detail in the bear’s face.
There’s a great deal to think about – and notice, nothing I’ve written here refers to gear or gadgets. Great photos start in the mind’s eye. Now I just have to capture in my camera over the next few days those photo’s I’ve already pre-visualized in my mind.
See you on the other side.
Alaska Photo Diary Part 4
We got up at Zero Dark Thirty for our flight to Kodiak where we (and our gear) were weighed for the floatplane trip. We chartered three planes for the entire group and our gear.
After a quick breakfast we headed out for Kinak Bay to meet the two 62 foot yachts we chartered. These two boats will be our “hotel” for the next week. We’ll eat all our meals, shower (occasionally), sleep and organize our images on the yachts.
If you’ve ever watched “Lockup” on MSNBC and seen the prison cells featured in their news stories, you’ve seen something resembling my “executive, private stateroom” on the boat. In fact, those cells on the TV show look BIGGER than my little bunk. As president of the horizontally-challenged photographers of America, I lodged an official protest with the ship’s captain, but it didn’t do any good. 🙂
After we unloaded the gear and supplies we got our photo gear lined up and headed out on a skiff to find some bears. We didn’t need long. Our first bear encounter was at about 3:30 pm. A large sow came down the creek fishing for the Pink Salmon that was running past our feet. From there, it got better and better. We saw a total of six bears on our first afternoon. Not as many as we hoped, but enough to get some great shots. We had one magnificent boar that must have weighed 900 pounds flanking us and coming around behind us so he could walk up the creek to fish. He was about 40 feet away and seemed MUCH closer. The light was great. For bears, you NEVER want sun. Cloudy, overcast days are best and that’s what we got all day.
By 7:00 pm it was still light, but the bears seemed to move on and we decided to as well. Everyone was cold, so we walked back to the skiff and went back to the yacht to download, eat and sleep.
So far, I’ve managed to survive the three airplane rides as well as the boat and the bears.
Alaska Photo Diary Part 5
In case you didn’t know it, yacht captains don’t encourage the use of boat showers. They want us to conserve water so sponge baths were the order of the day.
I got up after about five hours sleep as is my practice. Usually I’d be answering hundreds of e-mails at this time of day. It’s been 24 hours since I had Internet access and I’m having some slight anxiety thinking about the thousands of e-mails that will be waiting for me when I get back.
The trip leader is my pal Artie Morris and he’s having fun. I was also glad to find out that one of our TWIP listeners Marc Katz, was able to come on the trip. We’ve been hanging out and enjoying the experience together. Marc’s a heart-surgeon who has developed a love for photography. It’s cool for me to be around someone who’s just starting to really get serious about photography. He’s smart and he’s like a sponge so he’s in a position to learn a great deal on this trip.
Now it’s time to deal with my first day’s worth of images.
I off-loaded all my images onto the Macbook Air and then realized I forgot to install Capture NX2 on the laptop so I can’t see my D700 images. But I did copy them onto both the hard disk in the Air and onto one of my portable USB drives. They’ll have to wait until I return to Gig Harbor. I didn’t shoot much with the D700 since the D3 had the 200-400 attached. That was the lens I needed most of the day, and of course the D3 images go into Aperture.
Before I get to that I’ll mention that the gear performed very well yesterday.
The 1.7 teleconverter performs well on that 200-400 lens. You give up two stops and loose some detail, but it’s an acceptable compromise.
If we get to a place where the bears are closer, I’ll test the difference shooting without it.
I’m starting to rethink my theme – as often happens. I might shift to a theme that revolves around bears and water. Water plays such a big part in these animals’ lives that it’s hard not to include it.
We’re working Kinak Bay again today because there seem to be fewer bears in general, and fewer bears in Geographic Harbor than we found when scouting.
For those of you wondering, we’re about an hour (by boat) from the place where Timothy Tredwell found out you can’t pretend bears are like people. It’s called Kaflia Bay and we’ll probably avoid it since the bear maze is supposed to be fairly well devoid of bears at this time.
Back to the images…
I’m using Aperture to go through and select my best images from the first day.
My workflow is pretty simple. I import into a new project, use the auto-stack feature to get similar photos in a group, then I move to full-screen mode and shift through the images. I start by rejecting (using the “9” key) the images I know I don’t like. These are still in the library, I just can’t see them once I reject them. Then I mark the remaining images with four or five stars. The five-star images are those I know I’ll keep for further editing. The four-star images are those I might keep for later.
Then I go back through and reject any images that are remaining. I do some basic metadata work like adding simple captions, etc., and I’m done.
I think it’s a mistake to edit in the field. You’re too close to the subject to be objective. In my case, there’s also the problem of working on an underpowered computer. The Air is not a machine I’d want to use as a regular photo-editing machine. It’s just a way to do basics and nothing more. I’ll save the real work for when I get home to my color-calibrated 24″, fully-loaded iMac.
Time to get geared up for today’s shoot.
Alaska Photo Diary Part 6
We had a great second day of shooting. I was too tired last night to write so I am writing this the next day.
I made some amazing photographs on the second day. Bears standing up, eating fish, etc.
But the day was also brutal on me physically. We left the yacht in the skiff at 7:30AM and didn’t return until 6:30 PM. We walked a total of about three miles in and out over tough terrain. It just about did me in but, it was worth it.
The first two days of the trip we had near perfect weather for wildlife photography. The skies were high, thin overcast. We had occasional bouts of blue sky and sun which is actually much harder to deal with.
As I write this, we’re shut out by a major rain and wind storm. Frankly, I welcome the break. I’m bone tired.
Yesterday we had about a dozen bears. We also saw the first cubs of the trip. Unfortunately the new cubs we were tracking last year for this trip were killed last fall by a boar. No doubt he ate them or, he killed them because he knew their mother would go into estrus and he could mate with her again.
The cubs we did see were second year and were just learning to fish. Their mother actually did the catching of the fish and shared with her offspring. We were close enough to hear the cub moaning and whining for his food. It was great.
Another experience that was truly inspiring involved listening to the bears break the bones of the 20-pound salmon. The bears were very successful in their fishing, and we were successful getting photos of them in action.
We did have our first encounter with a dangerous bear – but it was a pretty mild encounter. He more or less let us know he didn’t like us, but was never a real threat. He did stand up for us which led to my favorite photo of the day.
We saw fresh moose tracks and droppings, but no moose. We saw seals, eagles, and numerous other avian species.
My gear performed well the second day. The weather was shifting so my layered approach was successful. I had a wicking t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, my fleece, and a Gortex raincoat. I removed and added layers as needed. It was never really cold. But did get cool from time-to-time.
The second day was the best of the trip so far.
Alaska Photo Diary Part 7
This morning were into some real weather. We had to move the Coastal Explorer (our big yacht) to a new location that is protected from the wind. There are gusts up to 45 knots in the area and that means no photos this morning.
We’ve been working the salmon runs around Misty Lagoon but it looks like we’ll be moving after the storm into Geographic Harbor proper.
I’m spending some time today writing and viewing my images. I’m using Aperture to select from the hundreds of images that I’ve made. The compare and select process in Aperture is as easy as pie. I’m really enjoying the time savings it offers.
Since there won’t be much photography this morning, Arthur Morris the trip leader is offering Photoshop and composition lessons. I’m going to try to catch some much-needed sleep in my 4-7′ cell, er I mean stateroom. 🙂
Alaska Photo Diary Part 8
The storm is over and wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be, but it still skunked us photographically. Today we won’t have to worry about a storm, but there’s little light and it’s raining. This is typical Alaska weather. We will shoot in the rain later today if it lets up at all.
In the meantime, I’m going through my day one and day two images. I am really happy with the results, but I want another chance to go out and perfect the techniques I’ve been working on.
Since there is a lull in the activity, I thought I’d describe what it is like to live on the boats. We have a 62′ Seamark yacht and a 64′ Seamark cruising yacht. There are 14 of us total including the ship crews and our party.
Everything we eat and drink has to be flown out to us by seaplane. At $1500 per round trip for a seaplane run, we’re trying to make sure we conserve our supplies long enough to last the week.
The ship’s cook has been doing a fantastic job of keeping our stomachs happy. He’s cooked everything from grilled pork chops to Halibut Chowder.
I am on the newer of the two yachts – called the Costal Explorer II. We have modern bathroom facilities including an incinerating toilet. But it’s sort of odd. You have to put a special paper sack into the toilet. You do your business, then “flush” by pushing down on a pedal located on the front of the toilet. This causes a 1000- degree heated element to incinerate the waste.
The shower is about the size of a typical RV shower. To conserver water, we’re taking showers every three days. I have to admit it felt like a luxury to take one.
I’ll try to take some pictures of the facilities to show everyone.
We have delayed our move into Geographic Harbor due to weather, but may move there this afternoon. Some of the crew also want to take a break to do some fishing, so I’ll take a break and photograph that activity.
I’m going to have to clean the sensor on my D3 today. It got a big dust spot during the second day. I sure hope the new D3X has a built-in sensor cleaner.
I’ll report more later.
UPDATE: I have started posting my bear photos on my Photrade account. You can see the first 10 at Photrade.
UPDATE UPDATE: I have added some generic trip photos, minus bears to my Flickr account.
Alaska Photo Diary Part 9
We finished our second rain day pretty much as we did the first. We sat around working on our images from the first two days of shooting, we ate a great deal, and we enjoyed each other’s company. I personally did something I don’t usually get to do…I really relaxed. I love being on the water. I love the peaceful setting. And I really love Geographic Harbor.
Due to the storm’s movement, we came into Geographic Harbor late, but it was worth the wait. Wow is this beautiful. Eagles, black-legged kittiwakes, puffins, harbor seals, harloqin ducks, mew and glaucas gulls and of course bears, have been plentiful. A few of the team went ashore to scout in the rain and I am sorry I didn’t go with them. They got some great shots of the bears playfully wresting in the rain. They admitted that the conditions were miserable, but since they put up with those conditions they got the shots. Lesson learned. No matter how ugly the weather is today, I am going out to shoot if ANYONE decides to go to the beach.
A few of the crew as well as some in our party went fishing yesterday. The catch wasn’t overwhelming but it was tasty. We got three 15-25 pound halibut between the group, and one sand shark as well as some fish I have never heard of. Within three hours of the catch, our cook had made the filets, seasoned them and thrown them on the BBQ! Then, he made a home-made, fresh tarter sauce that was so good, I don’t have words to describe it. He left the skin on the fish and cooked it skin-side down. When the white blood raises to the top, the fish is done and again, all I can say is wow! I have never had any halibut taste like this. It was amazing.
We have quite an interesting group. Since we’re spending so much time on the yachts during the bad weather, it’s easy to get to know everyone. We have a commercial airline pilot, a heart surgeon, a commercial real estate broker, a mortgage broker (and his wife,) the owner of a boat-based sightseeing company in Florida, a physicist, a mortgage broker, a third-generation butcher who owns a meat-packing company, and a lovely ex-nurse who is Arthur’s friend; acting as his assistant for the trip. All three of the crew have been taking turns acting as my assistant and doing a good job for me.
Our crew consists of Chuck, who owns both the yachts and captains the older boat. He’s also the bear trip guide and an accomplished photographer in his own right. The skipper of my boat is Rick, who is a 47-year-old native Alaskan who has been working on fishing boats, and guiding in these waters since he was nine years old. He’s worked on the big commercial fishing boats like you see in the show “Dangerous Catch,” and has the scars to prove it, but he’s a heck of a nice guy and also a pretty good photographer. Our cook is Aleksey (Alex) He’s Russian and in his 20s. He also helps casting off lines, helping keep the boat clean, and entertaining the group with his friendly smile. All of the crew have been taking turns assisting me with my gear on this trip and I really appreciate their help.
Since this IS a photo trip, I’ll get back to photography for a minute. I had time to look through all my images (except for those I made with the D700) and I got some amazing shots. My favorites include a bear standing up, a bear walking around on the mountain in the volcanic ash, and a shot of a big boar walking up the river.
I noticed that the images with the 1.7 teleconverter are still pretty sharp, but lack some detail of the images made without. I am looking forward to using the Nikon 600 mm VR lens next time I need more focal length. I am also very impressed with the D3’s low noise performance. I shot several images at ISO 1100 during the heavy overcast. While I see an almost imperceptible loss of detail there, I see virtually no noise, and am confident I could print those images in the 16×20″ range with superb results. It’s wild. If I’d had ISO 1100 in the film days, I can’t image how many great shots I would have gotten that I had to let go due to lack of light.
I am feeling more and more confident about the decision NOT to bring the Nikon SB900. I can’t see any situation here where it would have helped. And since I feel VERY comfortable shooting all the way to ISO 3200 and maybe a bit beyond, I won’t miss flash.
This morning, the weather looks pretty rough but, the thing about Alaska’s weather is this – it can and will change. I’m hoping it clears up this morning. After today, we have two more mornings here, then the seaplanes come back for us and it’s off to civilization. While I’d be happy with the images I got if we didn’t get another chance to shoot the bears, I’m hoping for at least one more shot.
We might also go after some more kittywakes today. Artie has an idea that we may be able to bring them in using some chum off the side of the boat.
Alaska Photo Diary Part 10
I’m about to turn in for the night but thought I’d jot down an extra entry. Today was fun and frustrating all at the same time. We had terrible weather which meant we were shut out again in terms of bear photography. But the good news is we did have some fun photographing birds outside the harbor. We went out in some pretty rough seas, and three of our group got sea sick. The rest of us stood on the stern of the yacht and did flight shots of gulls and other sea birds fighting for chum.
It was cold and rainy but we had decent light. Add to that the challenge of six-foot swells and more than half our shots were wasted. But heck, it’s digital so why not? I did have fun shooting the birds, but would have rather shot the bears. We came back “inside” as the seamen called it, to the safety of the harbor. There we spent the rest of the day telling jokes, looking at images, talking gear and of course eating. We had what appeared to be tuna – salad sandwiches that were actually halibut – salad sandwiches. If nothing else, we’re eating well.
Tomorrow’s forecast is encouraging and we’re probably going out to find bears no matter what the weather. Our first float plane is scheduled to land here Wednesday morning at 11:00 am to bring the first group back to Kodiak so we can catch our afternoon flight to Anchorage. I am hoping to be in the last group that flies out so I can maximize my chances of one more bear shoot.
It’s hard to believe it will all be over in a few days. While I have been challenged physically in the first few days of the trip, I have been rewarded with a real sense of peace and rest the last few days, despite the frustration of no bear photography.
Alaska Photo Diary Part 11
Today was a great day for bear photography. Even though the weather started out wet, it cleared up enough to get some great shots. Since we’ve moved to Geographic Harbor we’ve been tracking the same five bears – two cubs, the sow that’s with them and two sub-adult boars. Much to our surprise we also found a two-year old blonde cub separated from its mother, a giant 900 pound boar, a large black and another four-year-old male.
We were on a point that was literally surrounded by bears on all sides. The sow and her cubs walked within 15 feet of us. The sow hissed at us a bit because the cubs were so curious about what we were doing. But other than that, we had no close calls. We did have one funny event…a boar started guarding our skiff. In fact, our captain was worried the bear might try to climb into the skiff so we started making noise to scare it away. It decided to sit down blocking our way back home. We decided to wait on the bear.
We headed in for a late lunch and some of the group went out to photograph gulls. I stayed behind to process the 600 images I made today.
I can’t believe it’s all about to end. We might be moving back to Kinak Bay tonight to wait for the seaplanes. If we get decent weather, we’ll take one more run on the skiff to photograph the bears before the planes start arriving at 11:00 AM. It’s about an hour flight to Kodiak where we’ll collect our belongings and go to the airport for the commercial flight to Anchorage at 4:45 PM. Most of the group is flying straight home. I am staying the night in Anchorage and flying out the next morning.
I still have hundreds of images to edit and that will no doubt keep my busy on the flight home.
Alaska Photo Diary Part 11
This is the last morning. A portion of our group went out to shoot, but between my aches and pains and the fact that I got scheduled to go out on the first seaplane, I decided to stay back at the yacht and pack so I could be ready when it was time to go. Fortunately, I did not miss much according to the captain.
I walked around the ship and did some photography of all the small ship-board details. I also just took in the final views I’ll have of beautiful Geographic Harbor. We decided to anchor here last night instead of going back to Kinak Bay. I’m struck by how minute-by-minute the engine that is Alaska works. Everything is VERY closely tied to weather and that changes VERY quickly. Kinak is fogged in. Geographic isn’t fogged in. So we stayed in Geographic.
I count 29 seasonal waterfalls that I’ve seen on this trip. I’ve been so focused on the wildlife that I almost forgot to do some documentary shots of the natural beauty of the harbor. Last night I made a couple of HDR images and shot some panos of the bay. I’ll post them if I think they turn out well.
Our final dinner was prime rib, served up with the Alaska twilight. Everyone who is not shooting this morning is hunched over their computers looking at what will no doubt be, the best grizzly bear pictures many of them have ever seen, let alone taken.
I am ready to leave, but not ready to go. Nevertheless – the seaplane is on the way.
Alaska Photo Diary – The Final Chapter
Our trip back to Kodiak Island on the floatplane was great. We saw a Fin Whale pod. We ate lunch at a local pub that featured more great seafood. We breezed through security and made it to Anchorage where some of us spent the night and still others went on home.
I’m sitting on the plane headed back to Seattle. I’ve looked through most of my images, and am happy with the results. I’ll be sharing those results here on the TWIPPHOTO.COM blog and perhaps via my Photrade portfolio. I’ll put some of the travel stuff shot with the G9 on Flickr and I’ll also post some video on Vimeo as soon as I get time to edit it. It might be a few days before this all gets done, since I have to get re-aclimated to civilization.
I think the G9 is toast due to moisture – oh well, I guess I’ll have to buy a G10. 🙂 Just kidding – the G9 is fine, but I’ll still get a G10!
This trip was informative. I didn’t learn that many new lessons, but old lessons were brought to mind and it’s good to be reminded of things you learned long ago.
And most of what I learned had little to do with photography. I learned that life is hard (and very expensive) in Alaska. I learned that you have to work together with people just to survive up there. I also learned that you have to go with the flow. While I was originally hoping for a chance at the larger Kodiak bears, what we found were the small (800-900 pound Grizzlies.) While I hoped we could spend the majority of our time in Geographic Harbor, we ended up spending half our time there and the other half in Kinak Bay. But what did it matter? By relaxing and letting the trip just happen, I ended up with more than 1200 images to work with. I leave on every trip hoping that I get just one great photo every day. I got dozens of great shots and dozens more that I can publish. I got to spend time with some old friends, and met some new ones. I got to see one of the most beautiful parts of America, and I got to have fun, relax, and break my routine. I also found out that even though I am challenged by age and some medical issues, I am still able to “cut it” when it counts. That part of the trip was really edifying to me.
I want to thank all those involved in the trip. My pal Artie Morris, the world’s greatest avian photographer – for arranging it; the crew of the Coastal Explorer I and II – Alex, Rick and Chuck; the bush pilots of Seahawk and Andrews Air who flew us and our supplies into and out of Katmai; the great photographers I met on the trip and of course; last but not least, I want to thank the bears and other wildlife of Alaska for allowing me to be a guest in their world. It was a great trip. I encountered more than 25 different bears – at times surrounded by half a dozen or more.
In addition to overcoming any technical issues involved with a shoot like this, my medical problems didn’t keep me from success. My mental state is improved. My portfolio is fatter. My sense of accomplishment is great.
Whether or not I get to do big trips like this in the future seems less important to me than the fact that I did this one, against tough odds – and I flourished. It makes me proud and happy to know that I’ll have these memories for the rest of my life, and I thank you for letting me do my best to share them with you, and for your patience in reading through this diary.