04 September 2012

PhotoNotes: Alaska

Inspired by my professor Frédo Durand, I've decided to write about my photography adventures, including practical advice and whatnot. I hope you find it useful!

Practical Details


Alaska during late August is mild, around 5-20ºC depending where you go. Anchorage and the south were quite nice, at around 10-20ºC, but Denali was quite cold. All the areas were decently rainy. I think we got lucky and dodged most of it, having only rained hard one day when we were driving from Anchorage to Denali. It does drizzle often though, so make sure you protect your gear as necessary! The coldness does get to you while hiking, especially if it's raining, so bring gloves!


We rented a car for the two weeks we are here. We got a Chevy Malibu 1LT from Alamo, which was quite decent, save for the abysmal quality interior plastics, which showed every scuff and scratch. Unlike the Prius rental from last summer, this car doesn't struggle at speeds near 80mph. The roads are incredibly well paved, have gorgeous scenery, are not crowded at all, making driving a pleasure.

Disk Space

You are going to someplace exotic and probably a once in a lifetime trip, so shoot RAW! Beware RAW files are huge; it's more or less a 1.5:1 ratio between file size and resolution. My 1D3 was generating about 10-15MB files and my 5D2 at least 25MB. This explodes if you're shutter happy; I can easily shoot 30+GB of photos on an action-packed day, especially in your first few days since everything looks exotic and snapshot-worthy. My biggest gaffe was not bringing enough external storage, with about 60GB free space altogether.

Special Photography


I think this is common sense: to get the best photographs from the car, roll down the window to shoot! You never know how smudges on the window will ruin what may be an excellent photograph. Take care to use a fast shutter speed, otherwise you may get motion blur.


A day cruise will mostly likely be in your itinerary; I went on two. They're fantastic for getting up close to glaciers and to see sea life. Depending on the size and then length of the cruise, you may have to compete for a good spot to shoot the animals. The decks are especially windy and cold in August, so dress warm so you can keep your good spot. The boat also rocks quite a bit, so image stabilization won't help much. You won't be close to the animals (at all), so bring a (super) tele! I was very sad that my 70-300L on an APS-H (1.3x) sensor was not sufficiently long.


There's a nice zoo in Anchorage that's worth checking out. There's no indoor exhibits, so leave the fast prime at home. However, do bring your standard and tele zooms, as you can get quite close to the polar bears and petting zoo animals.

Birds and other fast moving critters

You'll want to practice AI-Servo or equivalent continuous focusing mode beforehand, otherwise you will get a lot of sort-of out-of-focus shots. Also good panning technique might be helpful if you can't shoot at a high shutter speed.



Moose are large animals that sometimes graze along a road. Be prepared to stop and shoot!

Mountain Goats/Dall Sheep

Dall sheep graze very very very up high. You'll probably need an 800mm lens to get close to filling the frame with a herd.

Sea Otter

Sea otters are the cutest. They're pretty shy animals, so they try to avoid the cruise ship unless you get lucky. You'll want something longer than a 400mm lens (35mm) so as to not rely on luck.

Sea lions

Sea lions enjoy lying down on rocks to absorb heat. They are easily heard by their bark.


Seals are timid animals. They highly enjoy sunbathing.



Orcas are usually seen in herds. They don't normally show off with a full body out of the water jump.

Humpback Whale

These behemoths are also quite hard to get. If anything, they just show their tail. 


Porpoises are pretty annoying. When they come above the water surface, they make a huge splash, so you have to shoot them when they're about to come out or else you'll get a huge splash.


Eagles are fast flyers! They generally fly quite far away, so you'll want a supertele. Rarely do you see them stationary, except at the zoo.


Diving Puffin

Horned Puffin

Tufted Puffin

Hello there!

Puffins are pretty cute as well. There are two kinds in the area, the tufted puffin, which has crazy hair, and the horned puffin has an interesting horn-like pattern behind its eye. They dive under water to get the fish up to the surface, at which point they torpedo up and grab a fish.

Common Murre

Common Murre are small penguins that inhabit crevices of rocks. They're all black and white, so it's pretty easy to overexpose them. The easiest way to practice is to shoot seagulls, since they also have a lot of white.

Musk Ox

These don't really count as I photographed them at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. However, you might just get to see them sparring or bullying each other, which is a treat compared to lazily grazing.


These also don't count since I photographed them in captivity.


These also don't count since I photographed them in captivity.

Little Wild Critter



For this trip I brought along a 50 1.2L, a 24-105L on my 5D Mark II, and a 70-300L on my 1D Mark III. The 50 was mostly unused, save for some shots on the airplane. The 24-105 on the 5D is fantastic; you get an useful range for landscapes and other nearby things. The 1D3's crop factor on the 70-300 is quite nice, giving a ~400mm focal length on the long end, which turned out not to be long enough. To add insult to injury, the 70-300 does not support Canon's extenders. I wish I had  gotten the 100-400; they're about the same price, but the 100-400L has a bit more reach and supports extenders, at the cost of being much older and weighing a bit more.

Carrying gear

For most of the time, I had the cameras around my neck, which worked fine. I wasn't afraid of rain since the 1D3 is fully weather sealed and the 5D2 is partially sealed. I stashed them into my Thule crossover backpack at the end of the day.


I had a Slik tripod that only got used once for a night shot of the starry sky at Miller's Landing, but the shot was accidentally deleted.

There were definitely deep pocketed amateurs or professionals in the wild.



Anchorage is a pretty pathetic excuse for a city. If I weren't told what the name of the place was, I would have assumed it was a suburb. It may not be pretty, but it has some great hiking trails at the Flattop Mountain in Chugach State Park around the perimeter. Plus, it has Alaska's only Apple Store in the 5th Avenue mall!

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

This is a little zoo-like area outside Anchorage along the Seward Highway. It's a pretty large portion of land in which animals such as musk ox and bears roam. It's somewhat expensive, but worth a visit.

Kenai Peninsula

On the outskirts of Seward is Exit Glacier, which has an easy 1mi hike to its viewing spot. Seward also has a fantastic glacier tour, from which we saw the Aialik Glacier and a plethora of wildlife. There's also plenty of recreational activity to do, such as camping, fishing, and kayaking.
There's not much in the city of Kenai, but there are a few hiking spots and a beach along Sterling Highway outside it.
Homer is a quiet suburb and is known for its Halibut fishing industry. There's a small gem of a restaurant called Cafe Cups, which serves phenomenal steak and seafood. The town is very hilly and walkable, especially its 10 mile coastline.


Denali is the largest national park in Alaska. It's even bigger than Massachusetts! This vast space is filled with wildlife and plenty of snowy-capped mountains, including Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in the US. Unfortunately, you'll need to take one of their tour buses (a minimum 6hr ride) into the park to see more wildlife, since they don't hang out much near the entrance (you're only allowed to drive the first 15 miles). The moose seem to come out and graze in the morning around 11am, but no bears. Mt. McKinley is also hard to spot since it's hidden in the clouds for all but 60 days. The aurora borealis is also pretty tricky; the area is always cloudy and people claim the best viewing time is in September.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, the photos of the animals are really impressive. Did you get as close to the porpoises and whales as the photos suggest, or were they taken with a telephoto lens? (Also how did you get that jellyfish)