Alpine Flora of the Alaska Range

“He who can take no interest in what is small, will take false interest in what is great.”  -John Ruskin

Bear Flowers and Stream, Clearwater Mountains

Bear Flowers and Stream, Clearwater Mountains

The mountains of the Alaska Range command a visitor’s attention. It often takes days to allow oneself to look beyond them, or more accurately, below them. I just returned from a trip into the Clearwater Mountains. My goal was to focus on the more intimate side of the mountains, to see beyond the grandeur.

I want this project to be a complete visual story of the Alaska Range. The plants, lichens, mosses and insects are a small but vital part of the mountain landscape. The mountains are stoic, they do not share their weaknesses, the plants, lichens and insects however, can tell us much about the health of the Alaska Range.

Lichen, Clearwater Mountains

Lichen, Clearwater Mountains

Caribou antlers and waterfalls, Clearwater Mountains

Caribou antlers and waterfalls, Clearwater Mountains

Rosewort, Clearwater Mountains

Rosewort, Clearwater Mountains

Pink Plumes, Clearwater Mountains

Pink Plumes, Clearwater Mountains


Two New Interviews

Babel Tower, Revelation Mountains, South-West Alaska Range

Babel Tower, Revelation Mountains, Southern Alaska Range

Two new interviews are up online.

Mother Nature Network interview

Alive Photo video interview

Enjoy and let me know what you think.

The Famous and the Nameless

Clouds and shadows,  Peak 9073 and the Gillam Glacier

I went to the Gillam Glacier to photograph Mount Deborah and fell in love with the lesser known peaks like Geist, Balchen, Hess and this nameless beauty Peak 9073.

During our 2012 traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier, it wasn't the famous peaks that I found the most interesting, it was lesser known peaks, like Thunder Mountain

During our 2013 traverse of the Kahiltna Glacier, it wasn’t the famous peaks that I found the most interesting, it was lesser known peaks, like Thunder Mountain

I have never been an icon chaser, never been interested in mountains only because of their notoriety or their size. I have always been attracted to the nameless, the remote and the ignored peaks and glaciers of Alaska. As a photographer I care about light, form and texture, not fame and names.

West, south-west face of the Peak 12,360, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

West, south-west face of the Peak 12,360, Hayes Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

Of course, with the Alaska Range project, it is important to tell a complete story which includes both the famous mountains and the places few have ever seen. This summer will be full of both.

The Ramparts, Denali National Park and Preserve

The rarely visited Ramparts, Denali National Park and Preserve

I am exciting by my next trip into the Nutzotin Mountains at the far eastern end of the Alaska Range. My partner and I will be exploring the last glaciated peaks of the eastern Alaska Range and will also attempt to climb one or two of them.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska range.

Unnamed, unclimbed mountains, Hidden Mountains, South-West Alaska Range.

There is a good chance that few, if any, of the peaks in the area have been climbed. Only one of the glacier’s has a name, which appropriately is, Carl Glacier!

Caribou under unnamed mountains, north side of the eastern Alaska Range

Caribou under unnamed mountains, north side of the eastern Alaska Range

One of harder peaks to photograph in the Alaska Range is the grand daddy, Denali. I find Denali pretty unattractive, a big, massive mound of rock and ice. For the 14 years I lived in Alaska, I have never taken a photo of it. I have never had an interest in climbing it. Obviously, Denali needs to be in the book, so the challenge will be to get a few images that are unique from the millions of images of Denali that flood the internet, books and calenders, it will be tough and I am looking forward to the challenge.

First image I have taken of Denali for the Alaska Project. One of this year's goals is to try and get some unique image of the beast.

This is the first image I have taken of Denali for the Alaska Range Project. One of this year’s goals is to try and get some unique images of the beast.

See you in a few weeks.

Heading to the Gillam Glacier

Expedition Season Begins

I took this photo of Mount Deborah in 2006. Its taken from the south as I was flying over the Clearwater Mountains. We will be landing on the other side, under the super steep north face.

I took this photo of Mount Deborah in 2006. It’s taken from the south as I was flying over the Clearwater Mountains. We will be landing on the other side, under the super steep north face.

I am prepping for my first Alaska Range expedition of the year. My friend Opie and I will be flying into the Gillam Glacier on Saturday. I tried to reach the Gillam Glacier in September but got weathered out (read my trip report here).

Our main focus will be to photograph Mount Deborah and Mount Hess. I would also like to photograph Mount Giddings, Balchen and Geist, which is a beautiful peak that I have never seen a photo of from the ground. I will also photograph many of the unnamed 9000+ foot peaks and glaciers in the area.

We are having an amazing stretch of good weather that I hope will hold, but it looks like a minor storm might move in while we are up in the mountains, cross your fingers. If the weather goes bad we are prepared to do some glacier cave/moulin exploration, something that both Opie and I are very fond of and experienced in. Together we have explored some spectacular glacier caves and caverns throughout the years.

The biggest concern is the wind. This will be my third trip into the Hayes Range during Spring and the wind can really hammer you. We plan to climb and camp on some small peaks to get the right perspective but that makes us very exposed to the elements. Rumor is that the lower section of the glacier is blown free of snow, as are the ridges. This can make for some exciting glacier travel!

Because of the long days of spring and summer in Alaska, I don’t have many opportunities to do night photography in the Alaska Range. However, since it still gets dark out I decided to rent from my friends,, a 24mm 1.4 lens to use for some night photography and if we are lucky, some aurora images.

My photo kit for this trip is:

Nikon d800E

Nikon 70-200 F4 (my primary mountain photography lens)

Nikon 24mm 1.4 lens

77mm Polarizer and 10 stop ND Filter

Cable release

6 batteries.

My Gitzo tripod with my old Linhoff ball head.

Make sure you Follow the blog and like my Facebook page so you can stay up to date with all the new images and expedition news.

Talk to you soon!

Alaska Range Project featured on the Adventure Journal

The fantastic light arrives on the ridge. North side of the eastern Alaska Range

The fantastic light arrives on the ridge. North side of the eastern Alaska Range. 2013 Alaska Range Project trip.

Excited that the Adventure Journal, possibly the best, online outdoor magazine, has featured the Alaska Range Project.

The link is:

And if you missed it, the Alaska Range project has been getting all kinds of love from all over the web!

National Geographic Adventure Blog:

Nature Photographers Network

This type of support really gets me excited about this year’s trips and erases my memory of all the troubles from last year! Thanks to all the editors who have picked up this project and have shared it with the world!


Planning a Remote Wilderness Photography Trip Using Google Earth

I have six major trips planned this year along with a handful of shorter jaunts. I have spent the lasts few weeks digging through maps and staring for hours at Google Earth.

Obviously, the first thing I considered is “What areas offer the best chances for successful image making?” For some of my trips, there is a at least one major objective, and for the Alaska Range project, it’s usually a big mountain.

After I choose an objective, I look for bodies of water or other features that could add to an image of the major objective or just give me more variety. Other mountains in the area, steep valleys that could have waterfalls, glaciers that may have caves or interesting features and of course lakes, especially ones that have chances for reflections. Variety is key. There is always a good chance that your main mountain will never be seen, so there should be plenty of other interesting things to go explore.

Google Earth helps me figure out if a location has enough variety. One of the main issues I have found by using only topo maps is that its hard to figure out if you will be able to see your objectives. I have been in valleys that were too tight to see the actual mountains and have had views blocked by small hills that I hardly noticed on the map.

Google Earth’s Street View isn’t exact and should be only used as a guide but its usefulness can’t be denied. Once you have found the location you can use Google Earth’s night/day feature to determine if and when light will actual hit you main objectives. You can also get exact sunset and sunrise times along with the moon’s cycle. You just type in the exact dates of your trip and watch the screen as the light crosses the landscape, pretty cool.

lima bean lake

Google Earth View of Lima Bean Lake (it’s the blackness in the front) This is the Street View. This tells me that the mountains are in view from the lake shore and that there is potential for a reflection type shot.

Unnamed mountains reflected in Lima Bean Lake (local name), central Alaska Range

Lima Bean Lake, Denali National Park and Preserve. My study of Google Earth showed possibilities at this lake and  it proved right.

I never plan a trip where I am trapped by the terrain. I like to explore and if the there is just one possible angle of a mountain and not much else, then its just not worth the trip. If there are impossible icefalls, dangerous rivers, steep terrain or just too much bush whacking, then I look somewhere else.

Google Earth is really good for determining where the “green zone” is these days. Most topos of Alaska are over fifty years old. The green zone on those maps (the areas with bushes and trees) has changed dramatically. Some areas that were pretty easy to access just ten years ago are now nightmare bush whacks. Google Earth can also show you how far the glaciers have receded, which I find very useful since most of my trips involve glaciers! Pay attention to the date the images were taken (its in the lower corner of the screen), this can  help you decide when to go and what the terrain really looks like. Some images were taken in winter, which really doesn’t help you plan a summer trip. But I find late season images great for planning routes, especially on glaciers.

The next question is if you can actually get to your location? Are there lakes a float-plane could land on? long enough glaciers with enough snow coverage? Or gravel bars that a tundra plane could land on? There are plenty of secret strips in the mountains of Alaska and sometimes I can spot them on Google Earth.

Probably the most valuable tool for me, is using  Google Earth to identify mountains I have taken photos of, especially aerial images.

Google gives a pretty wide angle images but its still very useful for indentifing Mountains.

Google Earth gives a pretty wide-angle image but it’s still very useful for identifying Mountains. Can you see the shot below in the Google Image above?

The Citadel and Peak 8505, Mount Iliamna in the distance.

The Citadel,  Peak 8505 and Mount Iliamna in the distance. These peaks were easy to identify using Google Earth and a topo map together via the Hillmap Website.

If you don’t have two big monitors then its difficult to use a topo program and Google Earth at the same time, which can be frustrating. Luckily there is an awesome website called Hillmap. It splits your chosen topo with Google Earth and seamlessly moves them together, so what’s on one side is mirrored on the other, Brilliant! Their website is

Google Earth has its flaws of course. Most of the remote areas have poor resolution, making the usefulness of the images questionable. We should try not to get our hopes up either. It’s always best to enter a remote area with a fresh mind, open to new things and not filled with all the possibilities you saw on a computer screen hundreds of miles away.

Happy Travels!

Kahiltna Trip: Part One

Into The Mountains

The North face of Mount Hunter, One of the most beautiful mountains faces in the world.

The North face of Mount Hunter, One of the most beautiful mountains faces in the world.

It was snowing when I woke up and all I could think was “How many days do we sit around Talkeenta, waiting to fly, before we call it quits?” I kept checking the forecast, it looked bad, really bad. Chris and Sy arrived in a car packed to the gills, yet, somehow we managed to squeeze two more sleds, another duffel, pack, skis and myself inside.

We left town in a whiteout, counting how many cars were in the ditch along the way. As we headed north we began to see changes in the weather, a little blue here, a little there and then wham! Blue sky and Denali, clear as could be. Our speed picked up and our conversations became more positive and full of excitement.

We arrived at K2 Aviation around 11:15. “I am going to take some tourist up first and will check out the conditions.” Randy our pilot, told us. “Go into town and eat, come back in a few hours”. We hated the idea, it was clear, we need to go now, is all we could think. We over stuffed ourselves at the Roadhouse and rushed back to hanger, weighed our gear and stacked it next to the plane. We were excited, we were ready.

Randy returned and gave us the green light. We packed the Beaver and loaded up, Sy taking the shotgun seat. Some developing clouds made us nervous but as we left the foot hills and approached the mountains, all fears vanished. We flew over our route, which was important because there is only one way through the Kahiltna icefall, a skinny smooth path. I photographed the route, which was obvious from the air.We flew between the towering walls of Hunter and Foraker and then took a quick right to the South East Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier.

The Kahiltna Glacier is the longest glacier in the entire Alaska Range. From Kahiltna Pass, it slithers 44 miles (71K) down between Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker and their numerous off-springs. The South East Fork is where the Kahiltna International Airport and base-camp is for those attempting the popular routes on Denali and Foraker. From Late April to Mid July, the place is hopping, with constant air traffic and hundreds of climbers and their tents scattered about.

I have always wanted to go to the Kahiltna but was never interested in climbing the western routes on Denali and had no interest in being in the mountains with literally hundreds of others climbers. This is the main reason I decided to go in March, solitude. Our goal was to climb up to Kahiltna pass and ski and photograph the entire length of the Kahiltna, getting picked up at the Pika Glacier.

The route through the Kahiltna Icefall

The route through the Kahiltna Icefall

The Beaver sank into the deep snow as it slowed to a halt, Randy spun the plane around quickly, pointing it down hill. It was sunny and beautiful, the temp was a balmy -5F. Before we knew it, The beaver was gone, just a roar echoing through the mountains. The north face of Mount Hunter was amazing, huge and so close, its beauty made it hard to focus on getting packed and moving up the hill to establish a camp. I was excited, it was clear, there could be good sunset light, maybe even aurora?

Unloading the Plane

Unloading the Plane

We passed a strange cache site and wondered if someone else was out in the mountains. All the famous solo climbers were gone for the season. We found a great spot with straight shots of Denali, Foraker and the fantastic Mount Hunter. Sy and Chris dug in, allowing me the opportunity to photograph. They would dig a few feet, probe for crevasses and dig some more. Within a few hours we had a fortified camp and hot water was brewing. A stiff breeze was coming down the glacier and the temps were creeping lower.

Chris skiing to camp one. Mount Crosson in the background.

Chris skiing to camp one. Mount Crosson in the background.

Another of Mount Hunter. I just couldn't get enough of that mountain!

Another of Mount Hunter. I just couldn’t get enough of that mountain!

All was quiet except for the thunderous avalanches that would pour down Hunter’s north face. I positioned my camera, mounted on a tripod, right at the area that was most active and waited. Then perfectly, while I was looking through the viewfinder a huge ice avalanche erupted, I got the entire sequence. However, when I went to take another photograph, the camera said “This card cannot be used”, and the Err signal kept repeating. I turned off the camera, same thing. I switched over to my second card slot, back to normal.

avalanche #1

avalanche #1

Avalanche #2

Avalanche #2

avalanche #3

avalanche #3


“That was weird” I thought to myself.

We decided to do a quick ski down the glacier to warm ourselves up a little. On the way down we saw the soloist heading towards his cache, he was moving painfully slow, dragging a sled with huge poles suspended from his shoulders (they were in case he fell into a crevasses.) We waved and continued our ski.

unknown solo climber below Mount Francis

unknown solo climber below Mount Francis

Epic Failure

The sun began to dip behind the massive Foraker and the temperatures plummeted. -10f, -15f, -20f. The funny things was, we were all warm, full of excitement and warm from our ski and hot drinks. I started taking photographs of the fading light on Mount Hunter and then, Err, what? I turned off the camera and started again, Err. I took the card out and reloaded it, Err. “What the Hell!” switched batteries, Err. Sometimes the camera would fire and then make a strange noise then Err. No images were being recorded. The camera was fried! I was panicking, couldn’t figure out what was going on. The batteries were warm, fully charged. It was the camera itself, was it just too cold? I took the hand warmers I had, stuck them to the camera, put it in the case and shoved in my sleeping bag, hoping that it just needed to warm up a little.

The light faded fast and Denali began to turn red. I pull the camera out, Err! “F#*@” I paced around camp, trying to figure out what was happening.

“Hey Carl, you still have your sun glasses on.” Sy informed me. I took them off and opened my plastic glasses case, snap, it shattered into pieces.”It must be cold.” I thought to myself.

I had brought a few freezed dried meals that a friend left me last summer after he had climbed Denali. I usually don’t like freezed dried meals but I wasn’t really craving anything and I figured I get one of the out-of-the-way. I sealed it up tight and put it inside my DAS parka. We sat quiet and admired the emerging stars and the glow of the rising moon.

All of a sudden I looked down and I was covered in Kathmandu Curry, the freezed dried meal had leaked. I was really a wreck, everything was going wrong and we had just got there! In a few minutes I was able to just brush off the now frozen food on the outside of my pants, though the inside of my jacket and numerous layers were still wet and smelt like Nepal.

I went into the tent, I had to figure out what was happening with the camera. Okay, I took the cards and the battery out. I let it sit. Put the battery and the cards back in. Checked the photos I had already taken, good, I hadn’t lost anything. Tried to take a photo, Err.

“Okay Carl, step by step, we have been a pro for twenty years, we can figure this out” I assured myself.

” It’s not recording images, why? Maybe its the shutter or the aperture on the lens is stuck?” I took the lens off. Put the camera in full manual and fired a few shots, shutter was working. Looked on the back and reviewed the images, they had recorded, okay. I put my other lens on (I had, at the last moment, decided to rent a second lens, the 70-200mm f4, to shoot details of mountains). Switched the lens (my 24-70) to manual focus. Fired are few frames, it was working.

Moonrise above Mount Hunter

Moonrise above Mount Hunter

I rushed outside and shot a few, hastily composed night shots, the camera worked. The images had been recorded. The night was mind-blowing. The near full moon lit the mountains up like daylight, we all watched in awe.

“Its 11:30!” Chris said. With those words the spell of the night and mountains broke and we all began to feel the cold. We rushed into our tent and settled in for a cold, restless night.


Part Two: The Storm

Nikon D800e Review

UPDATE 4/20/2013 I have had some serious issues with this camera since I did this review, please have a look at my other post, especially the Kahiltna Trip Day. It appears that certain cards can crash the camera, the culprit for me was a Lexar Pro 64gb 800x.

Is this the best digital camera for mountain photography?

I have now owned the Nikon d800e for about five  months and I feel comfortable reviewing its abilities. I will only be discussing it as a possible wilderness-mountain photography camera and won’t be doing a general review of its features or broad appeal.

I have written before on what I look for in a digital camera, it is a short list and I will go through my requirements and discuss whether or not the D800e fits my needs.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

If you are patient and practice solid techniques, the D800e delivers stellar quality.

Image Quality

The term image quality can be subjective. What  I am looking for are sharp RAW files, excellent dynamic range, low long-exposure noise and good high ISO noise.

The RAW files that come out of the D800e are the sharpest I have seen from a non-medium format digital camera. Yes, you need to either have fast shutter speeds or you need to use a tripod, mirror lock up and a remote release to get maximum sharpness (and of course, excellent glass). The web is loaded with complaints about people’s inability to get sharp images, well I hate to break to them but it isn’t the camera’s fault. Photography and photographers have gotten lazy and impatient. I would love to have heard the laughter if someone ten years ago wrote on a forum saying “I can’t get sharp images from my medium format film camera when hand holding it for landscape images”. The higher the resolution the more you need to slow down and think, pay attention and practice the solid fundamentals of photography.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

The D800e asks to be pushed to its dynamic range limit.

Can a camera have too much dynamic range? Sometimes I think the D800e does. I find myself crushing blacks and boosting highlights just to get some contrast in my images. That is not a bad thing, it’s great, in fact, it even helps lighten up my bag, I can leave all those graduated nd filters at home. Did I just say that? Yep, I no longer carry my trusty graduated nd filters!

Are we talking HDR looking images, no and thank goodness! I really dislike the HDR look. In fact, I enjoy the graphic nature of photography and I WANT deep blacks without detail and pure paper whites.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure and looks clean.

Star trails and serac. 40 minute exposure, iso 200 at 2.8. The image is clean and almost noise free.

I like long exposures and shadow noise from long exposures have always bugged me about digital photography. Guess what? The D800e has almost zero long exposure induced noise. Now let me clarify something, it is winter in Alaska and cold. The main reason noise appears during long exposures is because the sensor gets hot, well,  taking images when its 0f and colder keeps that sensor from getting hot.  So we will see this summer whether the temperature is what is helping the camera’s stellar performance.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

Stars above seracs. ISO 2500, 25 seconds at f2.8. Noise cleaned up well but detail suffered.

I don’t shoot at extreme ISO’s very often. My main concern is performance between 400-800, which I use when I am hand holding the camera or trying to stop motion. At 400 the camera is great. At 800 I see some obvious loss in detail but noise is easily fixed in post. Above that the camera is good but not great. I found the loss of detail at 3200 almost unusable though noise cleaned up well.


I hate buying new cameras and I really want a camera that will last. I purchased this camera for a four year book project. I will be on at least 15 long expeditions in Alaska, so it needs to be reliable. On the surface the camera is more than tough enough, not too cheap and not over built. Seals seem tight and so far the lens fits tight and secure, which is very important for wilderness photography, that connection is a major weak spot.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e's batteries than expected.

The cold had less of an effect on the D800e’s batteries than expected.

Battery life is what plagues digital cameras, especially in the cold. I have a very elaborate system when it comes to keeping batteries warm and working. For the last few months I have ignored my system so I could gauge the D800’s battery ability. One test was an overnight trip where I left the battery in the camera the whole time. I also reviewed every exposure, pixel peeped, used Live View to check focus (a major battery killer) and finally made a bunch of long exposures, some as long as 60 minutes. The verdict? Excellent! I took about 180 photos, between temperatures of 20f to -10f and the battery still had one bar left. Am I going to abandon my battery saving techniques,? No, but I will probably bring fewer batteries on trips.

The true durability test will be in a few weeks when we spend ten days on the Kahiltna Glacier in the heart of the Central Alaska range.

Other Positives

Auto focus on my model has been accurate with the lenses I own. No left sided focus issues that plagued early models. I tested focus tracking on the two hardest subjects on earth, moving kids and dogs, and was pretty impressed when teamed up with my Nikon 24-70.

Keeping things simple is key to me. I was able to simplify the D800e to my style and can work quickly. None of the features I use, need to be dug up from inside of menus and folders. The viewfinder is easy to see through with glasses.

Auto focus was accurate, even under flat conditions.

Auto focus is accurate, even under flat lighting conditions.


Not much to say here except that the camera doesn’t need the majority of the features that are included. Photographers really want (or need) less. Nikon please, follow Fuji and Leica’s lead and make us a super simple DSLR with the image quality of the D800e, like a digital F3 High Eyepoint!

The D800e could be considered heavy and bulky for a digital DSLR, especially when compared to all the mirror less cameras popping up.  But compared to any of the film cameras from my past, its light enough and even rivals the quality of my medium format film cameras (no it doesn’t challenge my 4×5 or 8×10 images but its sure a lot lighter and smaller).

Is this review too good to be true? Hey the camera delivers, to me at least. Don’t worry, I am no fan boy of anything, if I thought something was bad, I would be the first to tell you!

Questions about the camera? Bring them on!

Choosing a Camera for Wilderness-Mountain Photography: Part Two

Reliability and Features

Exploring an ice cave, Ruth Glacier, Central Alaska Range

Exploring an ice cave, Ruth Glacier, Central Alaska Range

There is no use in carrying a camera into the remote wilderness if it’s just going to fail, or cause you constant frustration. Notice I say reliability instead of durability. Most mid priced digital cameras are more than durable enough to handle wilderness photography. But can they deal with the moisture and cold, dirt and wind?

The number one issue with a digital camera is battery life. Some cameras are better than others, most are just bad. One of the problems is the trend towards fully digital cameras that rely too much on the battery. Using live view is the quickest way to drain a battery and any camera that doesn’t have a mirror or optical finder, is essentially in live view at all times. I try to avoid cameras that I can’t see through the finder if the camera is off. I often set-up and compose images before I ever turn the camera on. In extremely cold weather I often don’t have a battery in the camera until I am ready to actually take a photograph. I also try to keep any viewing of the histogram or checking of sharpness to a bare minimum.

When using mirror-less cameras, I keep all the batteries next to my body at all times. I also remove the battery from the camera when not using it. If you are very diligent, you can make mirror-less cameras and their batteries last, but it takes discipline.

Electronic viewfinders can often go “wild” in the cold, producing strange effects or just failing. Without an optical viewfinder, your out of luck. I prefer dials to buttons. A good camera has sealed buttons so moisture can’t get in. The seal between the lens and camera needs to be tight and secure. If moisture or dust gets between the camera and lens things can get bad fast. Electronic viewfinders can also be hard to use in the dark.

Contrary to camera manufacturers propaganda, cameras need very few features. The unfortunate trend these days is to add hundreds of menus and special modes that try to remove the photographer out of the process, to make things easy for the photographer. The dumbing down of photography and development towards “smart” cameras that do everything for the photographer is sad.

Manual and aperture priority, excellent manual focus ability, accurate meter with spot metering ability, RAW recording, mirror lock mode (switch is better), what else is needed for wilderness photography? I do use a few other features like a moderately speedy motor drive,3 fps is nice when doing aerials or photographing people. Accurate auto focus is good, especially as I get older and find some situations difficult to focus manually in.

I have been following the trend of camera companies like Fuji, creating simple, manual cameras that have stellar image quality. Their reliability hasn’t been great but they are working out the kinks and I feel a Fuji camera in my future!

What about weight and size, isn’t that a major concern? Yes, but that is why I train hard and use the lightest weight outdoor gear possible. Even then, modern dslrs are pretty light compared to medium or large format film cameras of my past, even lighter than many of the pro 35mm film cameras. Having a little weight actually makes a camera more stable on a tripod. It also depends on the trip.The guideline I use for size and weight is simple: The weight and the size can not threaten the success of the trip or the safety of myself or other expedition members! On a week-long summer backpack trip, a dslr with a two lens kit is usually fine. However, if a trip is longer than a week, involves technical terrain, I am on somebody else’s trip or working as a guide, then I try to get my kit down to a bare minimum, this is where the smaller cameras pay off. Unfortunately, tiny cameras have tiny batteries that perform poorly, and as mentioned before, you need to be very disciplined with the batteries to keep those cameras working.

I often find it’s the bulk of a dslr kit that is more the problem then the weight. Having an unstable, poorly packed pack can be unsafe and tiring. If you shoot lot’s of expedition images, then you need to be able to access the camera without taking off your pack, this is something I struggle with when using dslr cameras and one of the major benefits of the smaller mirror-less cameras.

If you have any questions about cameras, please ask. Upcoming post about photography will include: Dealing with cold weather, accessories for wilderness photography and my Nikon D800E review. Please keep in touch.



Choosing a Camera for Wilderness-Mountain Photography: Part One

Image Quality

Sunset, Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park (not in the Alaska Range)

Sunset, Steamroller Pass, Chugach State Park (not in the Alaska Range)

There are plenty of factors to consider when choosing a camera for remote wilderness photography, the first and foremost is image quality.

Since the early days of mountain and wilderness photography, from Vittorio Sella to Ansel Adams, maximum image quality has been the goal. The old rule was “carry the largest negative possible”. Today we could argue the motto should be” carry the highest resolution you can afford”.

One of the most frequent questions I get is “Does the number of mega-pixels directly translate to high image quality?”  If we had two cameras that were created equal, with the same processors, dynamic range, ISO performance, but one had a higher pixel count, then in theory the camera with the more pixels would produce an image with more information and essentially higher  image quality. But not all cameras are created equal. Each manufacturer has their own designers and engineers, some are just better than others. I would go with the most you can afford as long as the mega pixel count doesn’t affect the other important qualities like dynamic range and noise (which I will discuss later).

What about sensor size and its relationship with mega pixels and image quality? In the early days of digital photography, image quality was all about pixel size, the bigger the sensor, the lager the pixels and the higher the image quality. Those days are slowly coming to an end. We must remember that we are dealing with programming and with each new year programmers and engineers create new processors that work more efficiently and create better images, regardless of the size of the pixels.  There is also the issue of depth of field, the larger the sensor, the narrower the depth of field, something that is critical for portrait and video work, not so much for landscape and mountain photography.

Another factor that controls image quality is noise performance. Modern digital cameras are truly amazing  when it comes to low light image taking. Noise and other  artifacts are rarely present under ISO 800 on most high quality DSLRs. Some look great even up to 3200. Just the ability to change ISO whenever you want seems like a miracle to anyone who has worked with film. But why would a wilderness photographer need a high ISO anyways? While it is true that I almost always use a tripod and rarely shoot over ISO 200, there are times when having the ability to switch to a higher ISO is essential. The two most common times are when photographing in high winds when either my camera is being blown around(even on the tripod) or my subject is (flowers, grasses, leaves…). The other time is on the flights in and out of locations.  I also use a higher ISO for those needed expedition shots of people.

Dynamic range is another factor of high image quality. In layman’s terms, dynamic range is how much detail is recorded in the highlights and shadow areas. Unlike the fake looking HDR images that have taken over the photo world, in camera dynamic range is a gradual, nature, smooth transition between tones. A camera with good dynamic range will allow you hold highlight detail while at the same time be  able to pull shadow detail without those shadows getting noisy and full of artifacts and that terrible HDR glow.

What about that AA (anti-aliasing ) filter? The highest quality digital cameras, medium format, don’t use them and I don’t think DSLRs should either. On rare occasions, cameras without them can produce a moire effect when photographing certain patterns. That is what the filter is there for, to remove the moire effect. But that filter slightly softens the image. The AA filter is just not needed for outdoor photography, I would prefer to get maximum sharpness right from the start.

The higher the resolution, the more attention we must pay to craftsmanship and technique. Photography and photographers have gotten lazy. If you aren’t willing to take the time and photograph with patience and attention to detail, there is no reason to purchase a high image quality camera. Wilderness and mountain photography demands high image quality and solid techniques.

 Next Post Part Two: Camera Durability and Essential Features