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Over the years, as I grew as a photographer, I wanted to expand my horizons and photograph exotic and epic places. Tops on my list was Alaska. I wanted to photograph the grandeur of the Alaska Range, of Denali, and the beauty of the nature and wildlife. I found Alaska to be full of beauty and opportunity, but at the same time, a difficult place to photograph.
The first challenge in photographing in Denali is the weather. It is said that 80% of visitors to Denali National Park never see the mountain (known as Mount McKinley or Denali). Denali (the mountain) generates its own weather pattern. This was illustrated on my second visit there, when I camped at Wonder Lake for 4 days. I saw the mountain as I traveled in to the campsite on my first day, and saw it as I left the park on my way out on the 4th day. The days in between, it was never seen again.
The next challenge I found in Denali National Park is the range of contrast in the landscape. Even late in the day, The range from the bright sky to the foreground was huge. I found graduated neutral density filters to be essential in helping to control the dynamic range of an image. Generally the mountains would be in bright light, while the foreground would be several stops darker. A 3 stop or 4 stop ND grad was perfect for bringing the two closer together.
After spending all that money to get to this remote part of Alaska, I wasn’t about to let bad weather get in the way of my photography. As I mentioned, 80% of visitors to Denali don’t get to see the mountain. The tallest peak in North America is obviously a major focal point when trying to photograph in Denali. When that’s taken away, it just means you have to work a little harder to find the shots. But Alaska is chock full of natural beauty, and there is no shortage of photos to be taken.
One of the best things I did in Alaska was get a different point of view. Flightseeing tours are offered within the park. I took one with Talkeetna Air Taxi, which is based at Kantishna Air Field, at the very end of the park road. It was a 1 hour flight, bringing me as close to the mountains as I’d ever get. You’re forced to shoot through the plane’s windows, but the reflections are pretty well controlled. I used a 5D Mark II and EF 24-105 f/4L lens for the entire flight. That gave me enough range to not have to change lenses during the flight. The cloud cover was already moving in on this day, but we got some dramatic shots of peaks poking through the clouds, glaciers making their way through mountain passes, and kettle ponds on the tundra reflecting blue skies.
Wildlife is abundant in Denali, though you do have to get a bit lucky to see it. The big five is moose, eagles, Dall sheep, bears, and caribou. A long lens is a must. To save weight in my bag, I used a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, with a 2x extender to give me an effective focal length of 400mm. While we weren’t able to get close enough to any bears, we did get close to a wolf, Dall sheep, and a golden eagle that buzzed the bus we were on heading to our campsite. You’ll need to be ready as the wildlife doesn’t stay still for very long. The bus drivers will stop whenever you ask as long as it’s safe, and you can hop off one bus and onto another if you decide to hike around some.
To view more of my Alaska images, visit my website at www.rickberk.com.
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