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.

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15 Favorites from 2013

The season is winding down here in Alaska so I decided I would post fifteen of my favorite images from this year’s Alaska Range trips. If you have been following the blog you know it was a rough year in the mountains. I am mostly disappointed that I got nothing of merit from the southern section of the Alaska Range, except some broken toes, a sprained wrist, lots of bruises and a damaged ego.

I will be posting a larger selection of images on a dedicated page in the near future, along with photographs from my previous work in the Alaska Range. I am already plotting next year’s trips, six expeditions total.

Please feel free to comment on each image and share them through your social networks, the more people who learn about the project, the better of a success it will be when its finished.

Nikon 70-200 F4 Review

Most people think mountain photography is all about wide-angle lenses. But over half of my mountain images are taken with a telephoto. My go to lens is my Nikon 24-70, which is great when you’re in tight with the mountains. However, when I know I am going to be a far distance from the mountains, or think there will be plenty of tight detail shots of glaciers, I prefer to bring a telephoto. My new go-to telephoto is the Nikon 70-200 F4.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali. Nikon 70-200 F4 @200mm F8

When I began using digital in 2006, I went with Canon and purchased their 70-200 F4 right off the bat. When I switched to Nikon for this project (after a few years using Sony) I was bummed that Nikon didn’t have a light, high quality zoom. Luckily for me, they came out with one right when I began investing in the their system.

Is it sharp?

Really, that is all I care about. Telephoto zooms aren’t known for their stellar performance for landscapes. The edges tend to get really soft. But before we talk edges, I just want to say that the center sharpness of this lens is wicked sharp, just fantastic with tons of resolving power to match the D800e. Its performance at middle distances is off the chart, and pretty good at infinity, which is what most mountain shots are at.

It may be sunny, but its still cold! Sy's icy beard.

Sy’s  beard. Nikon 70-200 f4, 145mm @ f5, tripod

100% crop, 145mm f5

100% crop, 145mm @ f5, wicked sharp, you don’t want to photograph your teenage daughter with this lens!

The light is at the right angle to reveal the mountain's fractured surface and to reveal the warm color of the rock.

Thunder Mountain, Nikon 70-200 F4, 200mm @ f8, tripod

North Face of Thunder Mountain

100% crop, not as sharp has the one of Sy’s beard, but pretty nice. There is some color noise in the shadows, mainly from the jpeg conversion, noise can’t be seen  in any size prints.

Okay, the edges. It does pretty good job up to about 120 or so, then the edges tend to get pretty soft, not unusable, but noticeable, especially when making big prints. Kind of a bummer, because I shoot a lot at 200mm. Obviously, stopping down to f8-f11 helps a lot, making the images very usable. One of the problems is that the center is so good that the edges just stand out.

Unnamed Peak, Denali National Park. Nikon 70-200 f4, 200mm f4

Unnamed Peak, Denali National Park. Nikon 70-200 f4, 200mm f4, hand held with VR on.

Upper Left corner, 100% crop, still soft even at f8, but doesn't look too bad in a print as long as you don't go huge on it. Fine for a full page book image.

Upper Left corner, 100% crop, still soft even at f8, but doesn’t look too bad in a print as long as you don’t go huge on it. Fine for a double page book image.

Vibration Reduction

Not something I thought I would use much, being a tripod type of guy. But during my latest Alaska Range trip it was so cold that it wasn’t fair to my climbing partners to constantly stop and set up a tripod every time I wanted to take a shot. Then I went on a flight with my friend Dan Bailey and used it for the entire flight. I really didn’t think any of the shots would be sharp, especially ones at 200mm, but I was wrong, the VR worked great!

Cathedral Peaks and Kichatna Spire. Taken hand held from a plane going 80 miles an hour, VR on and did aa awesome job.

Cathedral Peaks and Kichatna Spire. Taken hand held from a plane going 80 miles an hour, VR on and it did an awesome job.

Other Things

Its bulky, kind of heavy, focuses fast with my D800e…

At this moment, the 70-200 F4 is the best Nikon option for telephoto mountain images. If you shoot portraits or back country sports, you will be blown away by its center sharpness.

If you are interested in buying this lens (or anything from B&H), consider using the link through the banner below.

Capturing a Mountain’s Character

There are two ways to photograph a mountain. One way is to try and capture its changing moods. This usually involves wider angle shots that encompass the mountain’s surroundings; dramatic light and weather are often part of the image. The other is trying to capture a mountain’s character. But what do I mean by character? In simple terms, I mean photographing a mountain in a way that reveals the mountain’s “structure”. Is it smooth and featureless? Or blocky and fractured? Is a mountain a series of ridges or hanging glaciers? Or is it a single sheer wall, that rises from the ground to sky without interruption?

When capturing a mountain’s many moods, we usually photograph during that magic light of early morning or late evening and sometimes during storms when the mountain is barely visible. But to reveal a mountain’s character, we must spend a day observing the light as it travels across the mountain, waiting for that time when all of the mountain’s secrets are revealed. Some photographers find this to be boring, preferring the drama of capturing a mountain’s mood over its character, which can often be during the middle of a bright, sunny day.

Obviously, the time of the year and the angle of the sun plays a role, along with the aspect of the mountain your photographing. Often, especially with big mountains, the light never reveals a mountain’s secrets, they hide in the shadows (cold and in the shadows is one of a mountain’s many moods).

Below is an example of trying to capture a mountain’s character. The mountain is Thunder Mountain in Denali National Park and Preserve.

The light is not illuminating the face, creating a cold, moody image, but not capturing the mountain's character.

The light is not illuminating the face, creating a cold, moody image, but not capturing the mountain’s character.

The light is at the right angle to reveal the mountain's fractured surface and to reveal the warm color of the rock.

The light is at an angle that reveals the mountain’s fractured surface and highlights the warm color of the rock.

The sun is low and directly facing the mountain. It is a dramatic look, especially with the dark blue sky, but many of the features of the mountain are lost due to the flat light.

The sun is low and directly facing the mountain. It is a dramatic look, especially with the dark blue sky. There is some nice texture, but some features of the mountain (like the fluted ridge) are lost due to the direct, flat light. The color of the ice and mountain is less obvious.

This is the type of light most photographers are after. It doesn't really work on such a tight shot of the mountain. A wider angle image with a interesting foreground might have worked well with this light, which could have been a nice moody shot, but not a great one for revealing character.

This is the type of light most photographers are after. It doesn’t really work on such a tight shot of the mountain. A wider angle image with an interesting foreground might have worked well with this light, which could have been a nice moody shot, but not a great one for revealing character.

Which is your favorite? I prefer the second one. It does the best job a revealing the mountain’s unique texture and form. Many people prefer the more colorful images but that is not necessarily the best way to share a mountain with people.

It is true that I have a climbing background and that this way of looking at a mountain and trying to discover its character is influenced by a mountaineer’s perspective, who is always looking for lines in the mountain’s surface. Even so, I still think if you can reveal a mountains secrets, even non-climbers will fall under the mountain’s magical spell, which is a spell most people enjoy being under.

Kahiltna Trip: Part Three

The Price of Solitude

More Whiteout

More Whiteout, but getting better.

We packed up camp quickly, trying to get motivated for the icefall. It was still whiteout conditions, but the wind was gone. As we slowly descended more and more of the landscape was revealed and by the time we reached the top of the icefall, it had mostly cleared.

We used my camera and checked the aerial photographs I had taken.

“We need to right next to Hunter.” I said and led us around a few crevasses and into the fine gully between the mountain and the icefall. It was a perfect path. We descended down a steep slope to the Thunder Valley branch of the Kahiltna.

The beautiful Thunder Fork of the Kahiltna.

The beautiful Thunder Fork of the Kahiltna.

Very few people ever get a chance to visit Thunder Valley and that is a shame because it was nothing less than spectacular. The sun was hot, though ambient temp was still only 0F.

“We need to stop here, I need some time to photograph” I pleaded. We had only been travelling a few hours, the weather was great, a perfect day to get lots of miles of skiing in. But after two days of nothing but whiteout, I needed to get some photographs.

I pulled out my camera and began photographing. The next thing I knew the lens was fogged, not on the surface, but inside. I pulled out my other lens, within a few minutes it was fogged too. I was pissed.

“I need time to dry out the lenses, why don’t you guys ski down and find that smooth path through crevasses.” I knew they were antsy, and I figured this would keep them occupied while I figured out what to do.

I stuck both lenses on my pack and pointed them directly at the sun. Slowly the condensation on the inside faded except for a nickel sized circle in the middle. I realized that we needed to camp in order for the lenses to dry and for me to have time to photograph. I started digging a camp, checking the lenses every few minutes, but the small circle of moisture wouldn’t go away. I did everything right, kept the cameras cold, batteries warm. I couldn’t believe that the sun and probably the heat from my gloved hands had created enough warmth to cause condensation on the inside of the lens.

“Okay, I need to dry them out fast, but how?” I thought to myself. I kept digging, watching the beautiful light change, watching photographs vanish. After a few hours, they were still fogged. It was time for an experiment.

“Here goes nothing.” I put one of my lenses inside of my jacket, next to my body and zipped it up. I figured there was already condensation, so maybe my trapped body heat would dry them out. It would either work or make things worse. After twenty minutes I pulled it out, dry. I switched lenses, twenty minutes later, both were dry.

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background.

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background.

Sy and Chris were just coming back and I yelled at them to take a different route so I could take their pictures. With the camera on the tripod I shot a series of images of them in front and travelling through the icefall. Their tiny shapes were a perfect way to add some needed scale to the enormous scene.

I was photographing quickly, when Err.

“No, not again!” I screamed. I let the camera sit.

“Okay, maybe it just moving slow and needs extra time to process each image.”

So I waited thirty seconds or so before taking another image or before turning off the camera. That seemed to work.

The beautiful Thunder Mountain

The beautiful Thunder Mountain

“So we are camping here for sure.” Sy said, looking at my snow walls and the half set up tent.

“Sorry, yes.” I replied. They both began working on my half-ass site building job. Even though it was clear, a wind was starting to come down the glacier, right through our secret path.

I was having trouble taking images, my hands were cold and each time I touched the camera or tripod, the life was sucked out of them. Even wearing my warmest mittens didn’t work. My cable release was frozen stiff and was cracking, so it was not useable. So each shot I would use the self timer to reduce vibration.

Chris started up the stove and began brewing hot water for dinner. I was unable to keep warm, I needed to eat something, I had all my clothes on. The breeze was getting ugly, we all huddled in our little cook area, hiding from the wind.

“It’s -25F!” Chris said after checking his thermometer.

“What? it is not even dark yet!” I complained, we all knew that the night was going to be cold, really cold. The wind was eating us up. But without those hot water bottles, it would be a cold sleepless night.

When the last bottle was filled we charged into our bags. Chris, checked the thermometer one last time, -35F, add the wind and it was really cold, possibly -64F.

windchill

“I can’t read my book, the pages are too cold.” Chris said. Over the night huge crystals form around the tent. If anyone touched the side of the tent, it became a snow storm inside. Not being the type that uses a pee bottle, I got up once to take a leak. It was clear and beautiful, it took two hours for me to warm back up from being outside for less than a minute.

We all vowed to not return to the Alaska Range in March!

Next: Part Four: The Games Mountains Play