Another year come and gone! This year has been nothing short of life-changing. I graduated with my masters in Wildlife from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, moved from the Interior to the incredible Southeast Alaska, married the love of my life, and have a job I love! Life is great, and life has left me less time to blog recently (lack of time compounded by no internet at my house). However, that doesn’t mean that my camera has been sitting picking up dust in the corner. On the contrary I’ve been out photographing the wild beauty of Hoonah and Alaska all year. Some of these images from 2016 have made their way onto Facebook. You can “like ” my page for daily photo updates at www.facebook.com/ianlww. For other images this is the first time they’ve been shown off! Previous year-end recaps have been in different formats such as dividing by month in 2014 and dividing by topic in 2015. This year I’m just going to scrap the text and the give you the top shots 2016 from around Alaska. I hope you enjoy!
As soon as we stepped out of the car in the parking lot the distant thunder caught our attention and I looked at my wife and smiled. Large thunderstorms just 24 hours earlier had swelled the Gooseberry River to massive proportions. The Lower, Middle, and Upper Falls at Gooseberry Falls State Park cascaded over rocks and fell up to a few stories, generating the giant sound that we were listening to. I glanced up at the full moon of the 2016 Summer Solstice, packed up my camera gear, and we set off for a moonlit stroll.
You never know what you will see at night, and our first surprise was the clickity-clack of deer hooves on the cement trail. The doe was probably surprised to have such a late night visitor! Down the trail the gleaming eyes of a northern flying squirrel peered at us comically from the crotch of a birch tree. It was a unique treat to see the Northern Flying Squirrel since their activities are nearly 100% nocturnal.
Gooseberry Falls State Park has three primary water falls. After our short walk, the first that we came to was Middle Falls. The falls is easily the widest of the three, and the rush of water over the huge expanse crashed to the river bottom and drowned our ability to communicate easily. We shouted back and forth as the dark-brown water flowed furiously past. I took advantage of the light of the full moon and began to pull together my shots. From the Middle Falls we headed to the upper falls and ended at the lower falls at 2AM.
The opportunity to photograph Gooseberry Falls at night was a unique one! I particularly like how the small rainbows showed up in many of the photographs, as I did not realize the moon was casting them until I went through the pictures. It was also amazing to consider that just a year ago I was enjoying solstice in another amazing (but totally different) part of the country. I hope you enjoy this unique documentary of a beautiful region!
Incredibly I have been in Hoonah, Alaska for an entire week already. There is so much to see, learn, and do in Southeast Alaska that I cannot wait to dive into life here more fully, but I hope to give you a small taste of what I have experienced up this point and foreshadow future opportunities.
Seeing as the community is along the rich waters of Port Frederick and the Pacific Ocean there is strong interest in the cycles of fish. The chatter throughout town is that the herring will be here any day and will fuel an entire diverse ecosystem. Once they arrive the whales, salmon, halibut, eagles, bears, and much more will all follow in short order. Four types of salmon may be commonly caught by simply casting a spoon from shore, and if you have a boat, the opportunity of a 300 pound halibut is just a stones throw away. I was told that whales bubble feed underneath the docks on the Hoonah Harbor. The waters here are so clear that if they are near the docks you can likely watch their underwater feeding before they break the surface. Once the salmon are in the rivers, the highest concentration of brown bears in the world will flock to the rivers to fatten up on salmon for the winter. All of these wildlife will present photographic opportunities that I cannot wait to shoot!
Clouds and rain are a staple of Southeast Alaska and fuel the temperate rain forests containing mammoth spruces, hemlocks and cedars growing to over 200 feet in height. Some regions of Southeast receive over 200 inches of rain each year and never seem to have cloudless nights. To my delight I was presented with a relative rarity in Southeast Alaska : clear skies. There are very few large towns in Southeast and light pollution is minimal. The conditions are perfect for night photography. I ambled my truck filled with camera gear high above the ocean to Gobbler’s Knob. From there the Milky Way stretched out in front of me and the aurora emanated from the far northern horizon. I listened to the sound of Long-tailed Ducks from the ocean below, the rumbled of diesel boats, and my own heartbeat. Certainly a memorable night more easily expressed through photos! The photographs below are a slice from Hoonah which I look forward to embellishing on and bringing your more of!
What I am about to recount is greater in grandeur than I ever suspected when I packed up everything I owned into one vehicle and left Fairbanks, Alaska to move to Hoonah. I found the road from Fairbanks to Haines was filled with wildlife, mountains, signs of spring, joy-inducing beauty, and adventure if I sought it. Herein lies the account of my travels.
Of the Aurora Borealis, I cannot speak more highly of its beauty and grace. From my perch above Castner Glacier, just south of Delta Junction, Alaska, I watched the blues and gold of the sunset fade away. Clear skies danced with twinkling stars, and a brilliant full moon hung in the sky; it was nearly to bright to look at. From my ridge post, I looked far up the valley to the illuminated peaks of the Alaska Range. Directly in front of me, the looming face of the glacier was hidden in the shadow of the valley. Its ice was banded with layers of sediment and polished clean by the winds which occasionally blow violently down the valley. Fortunately, on this night there was not even a breath of wind. Eventually the aurora built to such proportions that it arched over the full glacier. It danced in pinks in green that must have released many positive endorphins inside of me, for I felt very calm and at peace.
Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory is an enchanting valley of ice. The morning after I arrived, I stood on the ice in the pre-dawn to watch the sunrise. Surrounded by high mountains on each side, the sun takes a long time to break the plane of the mountains. Slowly the mountains to the west were lit in an ethereal orange light until the sun broke the ragged edges of the mountains to the east. At that point the light turned white and the day had begun. At the southern extremes of Kluane Lake I found many big-horn sheep. Although none of them had the large, signature curls of a mature ram, it was fun to watch the kids and ewes feed along the mountainside. A wildlife bonus was watching the crossing of two coyotes across the center of the lake. They were dwarfed by the magnitude of the mountains.
Along Kluane National Park I surprised to see the first signs of spring in the Taiga. Willows were opening their fuzzy buds, and even small rivers were beginning to open and trickle through the snow. I met the most enchanting little bird along the waters of a fast moving river. An American Dipper was feeding for fish from along a small ice flow. It dipped and bobbed its butt in the signature dance move of the small bird.
From the river bottoms of Kluane National Park I climbed into the enchanting winter-wonderland of Haines Pass, at about 3,500 feet. Up there, tyrannical winter was still in full control with only a few inklings that spring had a foothold. Much like the high arctic,most large trees were relegated to river bottoms out of the wind. Although prime habitat for the all-white Willow Ptarmigan, I saw only a few. Snow accumulation, to my best estimate, was around 6 or 7 feet in the pass. I was fortunate the road was cleared and the day so beautiful! The mountains landscape was truly more than I expected, and I say without pause that its beauty was intoxicating!
I descended to Haines, Alaska where it was evident that Spring was fortifying itself for a full on attack on Winter in the highlands. In Haines, the rivers flowed with vigor, and the mountains accented them by reflecting vigorously from the shimmering surface. I found that Haines in the night was perhaps even more beautiful than in the daytime. Jutting mountains stuck up from behind the city and lit by a full moon it was truly a sight to behold. Seeing as this was the first time I have seen Haines, this will likely be how I always remember it!
Well, dearest Reader, I hope you have enjoyed the account of my trip from Fairbanks to Haines. I do hope you have the opportunity to partake in it someday and extend upon the numerous opportunities of which I have only scratched the surface. The images below may also help tell the story as they are set chronologically from my departure to my arrival.
A New Southeasterner
For the last year I have strapped my camera to my back, placed it in my backpack, or put it in the front seat of my truck to meet my goal of taking a picture a day for 365 days. My intent of the project was to simply take a picture each day to improve my photography skills. Looking at the results I am shocked by how the project changed my view of photography and my photography skillset.
30 days in the project I was already starting to feel that I was repeating the same shots days after day. The constant feeling of the need to do something different each day forced my growth as a photographer. It was critical I go out of my comfort zone of wildlife and landscapes by taking advantage nearly any shot that presented itself and finding an opportunity when there was an obvious one. The greatest lessons I learned was defining the difference between “taking a picture” and “creating an image”. I think creating an image captures the essence of the object or the moment and is ultimately at the heart of the what brings me joy in photography and continues to make it interesting. The difference seems subtle, but to illustrate it, standing parallel to the horizon and taking a picture of the sunset is different than making an image of that same sunset by adding in the reflection of the water through the trees. By creating an image, you can tell a story through photography. That became my goal as the days ticked on by.
The results of this project provided a picture diary for a year. Be sure to flip through full gallery from January 1st – December 31st, 2015 here . As I flipped through them it was a trip down memory lane. I selected images exemplifying essential lessons I learned from this project. Many of them are connected to each other and all of them helped me create an image rather than just take a picture.
10 Takeaways When Creating an Image
- A portable system is a huge benefit. First and foremost I really appreciated the portability of my Olympus OMD Micro 4/3 system. The small size enabled me to carry a full featured camera and an array of lenses everywhere that I went. That portable system helped me take advantage of the opportunity to capture this Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I was biking to the office when I encountered it and was able to snap a great moment.
2. Take an opportunity when you have it. I learned really quickly that if you intend to take a picture every single day, it is absolutely critical to capture an image regardless of the cost. Okay, I am definitely being a bit facetious, but this particular sunrise caused a five-minute tardiness on my way to class. It was just too beautiful to pass up, and I needed time to set up a tripod!
3. Be creative. I often mounted only a single lens to my camera, and then forced myself to capture an image with that lens. In line with taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2), it is was also necessary to look for opportunities. The particular image below was created because I had an f/1.0 50mm lens. I knew that depth of field would enable me to have tack-sharp pieces of an image, and a soft background which I think was effective in this skull image.
4. Diversify by taking advantage of all forms of photography. As I searched for shots, I extended into photography that is not my bread-and-butter wildlife or landscapes. Learning to set up food shots, portraits, and composites all helped build my photography skill set.
5. Light is everything. Photography is the “art of capturing light”, and living in Fairbanks, Alaska most of the year presented a significant challenge in the winter months. Short days ensured that if I was going to take advantage of an opportunity (see #2) in the daylight I had to be quick. I also had to get creative (see # 3) on cloudy days by either moving indoors or finding a shot that worked in flat light.
6. Make something out of nothing. There were a lot of cloudy, dark days where I never got the opportunity to take an image outside. If that was the case, it was time to be creative (see #3) by designing indoor scenes, capturing phenomena in the dark (aurora borealis, moon, or stars). I dug around in the kitchen and provided some side-lighting for this scene (see #4 on diversity). In these situations my goal was creatively create an image.
7. Have fun editing. As a wildlife photographer I often consider my work to be documentation, rather than art. I would point to a critical difference that documentation should represent the subject closely whereas art is the utilization of creative license. It was a new realm for me to experiment within Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to manipulate imagery and create art out of them. Often I used effects to emphasize the subject of the image.
8. Take advantage of your cameras settings. I pulled up to the train tracks right as the arms went down in front of me. I had not taken a picture yet (see #2) and was drawn to the stationary cross arm. Rather than “stop” the train, I slow down my shutter speed and stabilized my camera on the dash of my car. By taking advantage of my cameras settings I was able to capture an interesting shot showing motion.
9. You won’t always knock it out of the fence. It’s inescapable that poor lighting (see #5) and not taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2) will result in a less than optimal image. That’s OK!! I found the most important aspect of this challenge was to find an object and capture it in the most interesting way possible by taking advantage of interesting angles or the camera’s settings (see #8).
10. Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are beyond the realm of “not knocking it out of the park” (see #9). Mistakes are fine unless you only have one image from the day. The image below is a mistake that was meant to be a starspin. However, I learned why the image did not work (see #8), so that I would not repeat it in the future.
In summary, this project provided incredible growth for me. A photography growth spurt if you will. The results created a photo journal of an entire year of my life and I hope that you can take away a few key points along with enjoying the imagery of my self-imposed assignment! Just in case you missed it, you can review the full gallery HERE!
A landscape transformed by fog and cold
Crystallized grasses and bejeweled trees
Dazzling and glinting in the sunrise
The slightest physical touch or force of nature
Will fracture the delicate crystals
So you hold your breath and get as close as possible
Then a death knell begins as a distant puff of wind
Slowly it grows, stripping the trees and grasses
Casting the flakes like diamonds into the breeze
A blink of the eye and the trees are naked and plain
Anyone driving by would never know what the wind erased.
When I stepped outside today the world was transformed. The skies were blue, the sun was white, and hoar frost bejeweled the world. I was astounded by the fragility of the phenomenon as mother nature used the wind to erase her artwork in only a few minutes.
You are sitting on a warm, tropical, beach drinking a margarita. As you watch the day wane away the sun dips lower on the ocean horizon, and the landscape transforms into brilliant oranges and purples. Behind you the palm trees are bathed in orange, and the landscape has taken on incredible colors with accentuated shadows of even the shortest plant or sandcastle. Almost certainly you bring out your cell phone or camera, because, like all photographers, you find the beauty of the Golden Hour to be irresistible, and you know the peak experience will be short lived. Perhaps you even think to yourself that you wish the beauty of that light could last forever. What if it could?
The Golden Hour is also called the “magic hour” and for a landscape photographer there is no better time to be outside. The terms refer to the period of time when the sun is 6 degrees or less from the horizon. In many regions, like the balmy beach scene above, the moment as the sun sweeps through that 6 degree sweet-spot is relatively short. However, in Polar regions like Alaska, the winter sun has such as a low, southern trajectory, that the sunset-like colors almost never fade.
There are a variety of tools, apps, and websites to calculate the solar angle at your location. I used the NOAA ESRL Sun Position Calculator to determine that in Fairbanks the sun dips to the 6 degree mark on October 24th, 2015 and will remain below 6 degrees until February 26th, 2016. To illustrate the effect of the polar magic hour the images below showcase the colors, and shadows achieved by the low-lying sun. For 3 months, the silver lining of our short, winter days is a luxurious landscape lit by an eternal Golden Hour.
I used several key resources for this article. If you are interested in calculating your sun angle check out :
The feedback on An Early Christmas Part 1 has been really great, thanks! I wanted to share with you how I have embellished on that first concept of shooting Christmas ornaments under the Northern Lights and also get a bit poetic about the aurora. The aurora this week has been remarkable thanks to a coronal hole from the sun allowing high speed solar winds to reach earth.
I walked out on the ski trails behind my house because the broad and brilliant band of aurora overhead indicated to my aurora-sense it was going to be an early showing. I meandered through snow covered trees maintained in their icy encasement by complete lack of wind for nearly two months. The trail was firm, but as I stepped off my body sunk into thigh deep snow which even though it had fallen 6 weeks ago, was still perfect, soft powder thanks to consistently cold temps. In fact, on this night my breath steamed away at -15F, and a few days earlier I woke up to -23. My anticipation grew as the aurora continued to build in strength and at 10:30 PM an auroral bomb exploded in the sky. The metaphor of a bomb is perfect because it was so sudden that I was caught off guard, and was forced to shoot my camera where I stood in an effort to capture adequately the green and pink shrapnel which rippled and writhed in the sky. The explosion caught me in a towering cathedral of spruces which in the images all point to the source of the disturbance. In five minutes the waves of light ended, but it was only the beginning of series of barrages that kept me awake and in awe until 3AM.
I have been building on the initial ornament concept in a few ways. Although it is difficult to hide a camera in front of a mirror, I am placing it in ways that is not obtrusive. From its hiding place I have shot a full 90 minute star-lapse in the bulb! That image, featured below, is the only one not taken on the night I described. I have also shot a full time lapse in the ornaments which turned out quite wonderful! I hope you enjoy the festive twist on the aurora 🙂
Last night I did it again, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Yup, when I bring someone out for their first aurora and they are so excited that they can barely stand, I share in that excitement. Their grin is my grin and their joy is my passion. Their exuberance was warranted, as the aurora put on a beautiful show for us over the dogyards of Black Spruce Dog Sledding and for Alaskans across the state. It was hard not pull up one of the empty sleds that beckoned to the watcher to layback, relax, smile, and enjoy the show. It truly is a beautiful world.
If you are interested in purchasing “Take A Seat for the Aurora”. Please top by my Fine Art America Site 🙂
It has been awhile since you’ve heard from me, but all of that is about to change as I get my blog’n legs back under me. Until now I have been prioritizing my thesis which has now been defended. There will be several upcoming articles on the results of my work. I see no use in writing it if noone is reading it! I deem the upcoming articles as science communication”, and I hope you will find them informative.
I want to give you an update on the calendars too. Thanks SO MUCH to those who have purchased one. The response and feedback to them has been tremendous. I am now on my second and last printing. If you have been considering ordering one, now is the time! Visit: https://ianajohnson.com/customproducts/index.php/product/2016-alaskan-calendar/
Now onto the meat of this entry. Yesterday was my first day back in Fairbanks after being away for over 10 days. When I left, the remnants of a huge September snowstorm (17″) still lingered on the ground in low, shaded areas, but for the most part the ground was barren. It is amazing how only 10 days can change that. We now have 16″ of pure powder on the ground which is maintained by cold nights. Yesterday morning when I awoke it was -15F with a promise from forecasters that those temperatures will continue through at least this week. A seasonally late sunrise began at 9:15, and by noon the low light illuminated the tree tops and extenuated the shadows. I nearly skipped with joy into the spruce bog behind my house where snow hung on the trees. I passed under trees that with a touch would have doused me in snow, and found pure joy in the beauty of this winter wonderland.
Later that night the landscape of refracting light and black spruce shadows transitioned to twinkling stars shining through a moonless night. I retraced my steps from only a few hours earlier and watched as the aurora built to the north. I watched for awhile and smiled outwardly at my knowledge of the stark contrast in light from just hours earlier.