Thursday, October 24, 2013

Alaska: Breaching Humbpack Whales

Before my most recent trip to Alaska, I had been out on two previous all-day whale watching tours.  Both times we saw a few whales.  But we never saw more than a few of them swimming on the surface and I never managed to get any images I felt good about showing to anyone else. I had never even managed to get a decent water-dripping tail shot, or a photo of a whale exhaling through its blowhole.  In short, whale photography has been a complete bust for me until now.  It has always been my dream to see a breaching whale, and if it ever actually happened, I hoped to be quick enough to get a decent photo.   I always figured it would probably be a 'one-and-done' opportunity that would likely never repeat itself.

This trip out of Seward Alaska started out like the other two.  After a while we found some whales but I was not getting opportunities that were any better than I had seen in the past.  It seemed likely that this day would bring more of the same.  We did see some puffins and other birds but found it very challenging to photograph them in flight.  One person likened it to attempting to photograph a bullet, and it's not as much an exaggeration as you'd think until the first time you actually try it.  It's would be difficult enough if you were standing on stable ground, but trying to do it from a boat bobbing up and down in the water adds that much more difficulty to the task.

We also saw sea lions on rocks near an island, but nothing very exciting when one thinks of an image worth showing anyone else.

At one point our boat captain got a call on the radio and told us we were leaving.  He didn't tell us where we were going or what had been seen, but told us if nothing changed this was going to be worth it.

After about a 15 minute ride we came upon some whales and they were continuously beaching.   I don't know how many there were but there must have been a lot because everywhere we looked, they were breaching.  Sometimes they were breaching more than one at a time and we had to choose which direction to point our lenses. 

It happens very quickly and you need capable equipment in order to point in the right direction and focus in time to get a good shot before the whale falls back into the water with a huge splash.  To add to the challenge, most of the time our 35-foot boat was bobbing up and down in the seas.  It would have been easily to slip and drop my gear if I had not been extremely careful. 

Our group of six photographed the humpback whales continuously for what seemed like close to an hour.  Looking at the time stamp on my images, I later determined that I had been photographing breaching whales for 48 minutes straight.  At one point during this time, I turned to my cousin, David  and told him I was seriously wondering if we were about to wake up and learn that this was all just a dream.  It certainly seemed like it.  I would have never believed this could happen if I had not actually experienced it myself.   

I have already written a lot more than I had planned as I attempted to explain what we witnessed that day.  So I'll stop here and get to some photos.  I photographed 47 separate breaches, and most were multiple image bursts that look like a video when I look at them in secession.  Most were pretty sharp or at least usable, so I was able to choose a few favorites to post.  If you have have half as much fun viewing these as I did shooting them I will have accomplished my task.  This day was nothing short of  indescribable.  It is a day I will never forget.

You can see more images from this trip on my website at





Saturday, October 19, 2013

Alaska: Bald Eagle in Flight


On my recent trip to Alaska, I finally had a decent opportunity to photograph a bald eagle in flight. This was my 4th trip to Alaska but ironically I had never had this  opportunity before.  This is mainly because I had not spent much time in the coastal areas of Alaska.   As we all know, if you want to see a specific bird or other animal, the best plan is traveling to where its food supply is.  Since eagles mainly feed on fish, your best chances are in coastal areas. 

On this occasion I was in Homer Alaska, which bills itself as the halibut capital of the world.   One evening I saw an eagle up on a perch in a light falling drizzle in less than perfect light.  The daylight was also waning as I waited nearly an hour to see if the eagle would leave its perch.  Every few minutes I would take a test shot to meter the light and ensure that I would nail the exposure in the event the eagle would take flight and gave me the opportunity that so far had evaded me.   I was about ready to give up when the eagle started to move and raise some optimism that it would soon fly.

I was shooting in manual exposure mode to ensure that the camera would not try to adjust the exposure as the color of the background changed.  Having the camera automatically adjust the exposure when using aperture priority or shutter priority modes will result in incorrect exposures and lost shots if the color of the background changes.  As long as the general level of light is not getting brighter or darker, manual exposure is the best approach to this type situation.  While I waited, the correct exposure ranged from +1EV to about +1.67 or +2EV by the time the eagle flew.  To get the correct exposure I had to overexpose the shots about 2-stops compared to what the camera metering system thought was the correct exposure.  The white background filling at least 3/4 of the frame compared to the dark colored bird was fooling the metering system.  So the photographer must trust the histogram if he intends to get the true, correct exposure.

For this entire series of images, the settings were 1/1600 @f4, iso 1600, (+2EV) with Canon 1DX camera and 500L f4 IS lens.

The eagle finally launched itself and I was firing immediately from the start.  I seldom if ever shoot long bursts, but this was an occasion where such action was warranted.  I knew it might be difficult to keep my focus sensor pattern trained on the eagle as it flew, so I used settings that caused the camera to delay searching for the subject in the event the focus sensors were not on the bird the entire time as I attempted to track its flight.

I ended up firing a burst of 37 consecutive shots in a period of just over 3 seconds.  I managed to track the eagle relatively well through the flight and only lost focus as the bird banked and flew over my head.  Upon reviewing the images on the rear LCD of my Canon 1DX, I found that about 32 of the 37 shots were tack sharp, and 2 or 3 more were acceptably sharp.  The 2 shots that were unusable were the last 2 in the sequence where I no longer had the focus sensor pattern on the bird as it flew past me.  (in other words, the 2 unusable shots were my fault, not the camera's).

With birds in flight, it's always good to have lots of in-focus shots so one can pick out the most flattering images with the most appealing wing positions.   I chose several from this sequence and posted them below.  

You can see more images from this trip on my website here:

Please feel free to click on the link above and take a look.