Tips for Photographing Alaska Wildlife
If you plan a trip to Alaska, the following tips for photographing Alaska wildlife will prove very helpful. Photographing Alaska wildlife is a rewarding experience, but it is also a challenging one. Alaska is vast, and access to remote locations can be riddled with finicky weather. But these are components that are common to amateur and professional photographers alike.
Persistence and patience, scouting, and good planning are essential ingredients, and they will pay off in the end. I composed a few Alaska wildlife photography tips below for an article some time ago but have expanded on them—they are things to consider before embarking on your trip to photograph Alaska wildlife.
Tip 1) Choose the appropriate personal wear
Dress appropriately and have your camera gear well packed and prepared for the type of travel, hiking, or trekking necessary for the task. This is a significant issue in Alaska due to the widely varying weather. Depending on the season, weather can be extreme and highly variable. Whenever I travel to the mountain country in the summer, I pack shorts and a down jacket. Days can be hot, but I’ve been snowed on every month of the year. So, things of great value are down sweaters (or synthetic), rain pants, wind/rain jackets, light gloves, hats, and suitable merino wool base layer clothing. Dressing correctly for Alaska’s frigid winter weather requires substantial down parkas, insulated pants, boots, and warm gloves. Throw in some hand warmers, a facemask, and a warm hat. If you are pursuing your bucket list of photographing the aurora borealis, check out my article on tips for photographing the northern lights.
Tip 2) Choose the appropriate camera gear
Selecting the proper equipment may be the biggest challenge in your pre-trip planning. To effectively photograph Alaska wildlife, you will need the necessary tools. Gear will vary based on the subject you are targeting. The more general you go, the more equipment you will need. This is often the case for me; I have lenses from 14mm to 500mm in my bag, along with a tripod or two. As for the correct camera bag….well, there isn’t one. However, there is one that will best suit your specific trip. I’m fond of the Kiboko bag by Gura Gear. I like its simplicity. It is light and rugged. On a long day trek, it is a little shy on extra space for carrying clothing, etc., but I’ve stuffed it fully and got by o.k. As my years accumulate, I become more fond of slimming down on gear to reduce my daily weight load. Carbon fiber tripods, light but tough camera bags, and newer lenses that are lighter all add up. But it is true; you pay dearly for the absence of a few pounds of gear in general.
Tip 3) Get in shape
Get in reasonable shape for the physical demands that await you. One could take this to the extreme, but the general rule is to avoid the recovery phase that often follows the first few days of high activity or doing tasks unfamiliar to your daily routine. So if you are packing your camera bag on 5-mile treks each day looking for wildlife, make sure to do this a few times before your departure. You will be in a better place to take advantage of all opportunities, and you won’t be reaching for Ibuprofen as often.
Tip 4) Research your subject
Know your subject. Understand and respect a comfortable working distance from the wildlife you seek to photograph. Do a little reading and research your targeted species. Most animals are creatures of habit, frequent similar areas, and can be somewhat predictable. However, it takes a little time to discern and anticipate their movements. The more you know about them, the better situated you are. Be a keen observer when you are with them in the field. Be careful of proximity, especially to habituated animals. You can tell if you are too close to a subject, whether it feels comfortable with your presence. Some National Parks (like Denali National Park) have guidelines on minimum distances from various species. You need to be apprised of these. Brown bears, or grizzly bears, inhabit much of Alaska, and if you are camping, cooking, or eating, you need to be careful and informed on the protocol for good camp and food etiquette in bear country.
Tip 5) Work with the light
If possible, scout the area ahead of time and know the lighting conditions: when, where, and how the morning and evening light and shadows fall. This is somewhat obvious but also difficult. The weather in the mountain country is often cloudy, and you don’t have the luxury of predicting where the light will fall. But do not underestimate the value of really exploring the light. You know, it is what makes those outrageous images. There is simply no way around it. Check out my blog post on iPhone apps; a great one called Focalware will tell you sunrise and sunset times based on lat and long coordinates. This is very valuable. Also, Alaska’s sun is at extreme angles, especially near the summer and winter solstice. Where it appears in the sky is essential, especially in landscape photography. Perpendicular light or some degree of angle creates dimension. If you are in a mountain range that spans an east-to-west orientation, you will likely be shooting in front light during the golden hour, which is terrible, even though the golden color is beautiful. Research your spatial orientation.
Tip 6) Use a tripod if necessary
A tripod will help in tracking and following moving wildlife. Please, do yourself a huge favor and get a good tripod and ball head. And yes, they are costly, I know. I know; I own many. But they are a very critical element in your gear lineup. A few companies that offer these are Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises. Gitzo and Bogen offer tripods; you could probably trade your car for a nice Gitzo carbon fiber tripod! With maybe enough cash back to get a good ball head too! After having said that, you don’t need the biggest, heaviest tripod out there. I have moved towards much smaller, lightweight versions, especially for landscape photography, in conjunction with the Image Stabilization lens options. Use a tripod when necessary, but don’t be anchored and made unproductive by being chained to it. I shoot my 500mm canon handheld all the time, and the images are impeccably sharp. It is possible with a little technique.
7) Consider perspective
An Eye-level position will help portray a more natural scene of the animal in its environment. But there is more to consider than a straight-on perspective on your subject. Be creative. You might need to shoot lying on your belly, climb up on a ladder, in a tree, or whatever, but do what it takes to make the perspective look natural and interesting.
Tip 8) Avoid tunnel vision
Repeat; beware of tunnel vision. This is a bad habit easily acquired when shooting moving subjects, especially with the long telephoto lenses standard in wildlife photography. One of the best tips for photographing Alaska wildlife is to take a moment and evaluate your setting and consider what precisely you want to capture. It is easy to get absorbed in the moment, aim and shoot repeatedly, but not evaluate the composition. The result is that you end up with your subject centered in every frame. It is not easy, but try to anticipate your subject’s movements and bring some space and composition to your frame. If possible, occasionally examine the full-frame area of your image. Experiment with focus points that are not just the center one. You are not just targeting shooting; you are or should be, composing. It is challenging, especially with actively moving subjects and attempting to keep your autofocus targeted correctly. Think about your subject, but think about the space around it, and…shoot a lot!
Tip 9) Work fast
Have extra film, digital media, or batteries readily accessible should a quick change be necessary. If you plan to work from a tripod with a long lens, then practice and be fast and efficient with its use. Know the essential functions of your camera to make quick changes, like focus points, methods, exposure compensation, etc. Get a system that allows access to a second lens or possibly a second body and lens together. Sometimes you find an animal makes a closer approach than expected, and your long glass is just that – too long, and you miss an exciting shot due to lack of the proper lens.
Tip 10) Experiment and broaden
Use telephoto frames, but back off to capture the animal in its environment, too. Context means a lot and can say much. Step back and look around you. Attempt to place the animal in space, time, and place. Include some of its environment that helps tell the story of where it lives.
Tip 11) Blend patience and persistence
Do your best to blend enjoying being out in the natural world with the sheer persistence and patience often necessary to capture the image. Wildlife photography often includes downtime while waiting for the subject, weather, or both! Some people have a greater tolerance for waiting, and it helps if you anticipate this and consider ways to keep yourself occupied. That might be reading a book (your camera manual, for example), hiking, or watching other subjects…whatever it is; it does help to anticipate it and be prepared.
Tip 12) Be weather-wise
Inclement weather can provide situations for spectacular photos. They offer mood and feeling. Dress appropriately and go out in the dramatic weather as well as the pleasant weather.
Tip 13) Get up early, stay up late
If you happen to have the ability to sleep anywhere, anytime. Good for you, I’m envious. Generally, the light never ends when shooting in Alaska, particularly during summer. Furthermore, the golden hour becomes a very late and very early experience. You have to stay up late and get up early to get this quality of light. In the high arctic, I’ve had to switch my entire sleep schedule and start shooting around 10 pm and end at about 5 am, crawling in a tent hoping to catch enough sleep to be refreshed for the next day. Consider where you are traveling in Alaska and the sunrise and sunset times for that location and time of year; it varies considerably.
In summary, photographing Alaska wildlife is exciting, at times boring, challenging, fascinating, and fun. You might not always come away with award-winning photos, but hopefully, you will learn about the land and the wildlife and capture many memorable moments. I hope you find these tips for photographing Alaska’s wildlife helpful as you plan your trip to the Greatland!