Whale Watching off the Icy Straigths

Back in May I went on a cruise in Alaska. While this trip wasn’t purely for photography, I wasn’t about to leave my camera at home. This is the 6th installment of this series covering a number of photographic opportunities and how I felt they could be best exploited. The previous parts include shooting from a floatplane on Big Goat Lake in Misty Fjords National Monument, a glacier walkabout on Mendenhall Glacier, the photographic opportunities on Mount Roberts nature trails, riding and shooting from the White Pass and Yukon Route, photographing the waterfalls along the Lynn Canal, and photographing in Glacier Bay National Park. This time I’ll be talking about whale watching and photography from a small boat in the waters around Icy Straight Point and Hoonah, Alaska.

Icy Straight Point and Hoonah, Alaska

Icy Straight point, and the nearby town of Hoonah, is not a destination for most Alaskan cruises. Located off the Icy Straights in Port Frederick, an inlet more than a port as many would expect, this is as close to untouched Alaska as I think you can reasonably get on a cruise. Even Port Frederic as a “port” is tenuous at best. Cruise ships, of which I believe only one can be in “port” at a time, do not dock here. Instead they anchor in the inlet off Cannery Point. Passengers are then tendered ashore.

On shore, the old fish cannery has been converted into a visitors center, native’s craft shop, and eatery. It’s also the jumping off point for the world’s longest zip line, and all the other excursions that are available out of Icy Straight Point and Hoonah.

Broadly speaking, there are three things to do in Hoonah as far as excursions go. You can ride the zip-line, experience some traditional Alaskan performances and buy some traditional crafts, or go view wildlife (mostly bears and whales). If you’re looking for another instance of the cliché diamond and gold shops that litter the docks in every other port of call, you’re not going to find that here, and that’s just fine by me.

Since I’m writing about whale watching in this article it should be pretty obvious what I did. I would have liked to have gone on a bear watching excursion as well, however, at the time I was there, May, and with the time frame we were in port, that wasn’t really practical.

Whale Watching

Whales can make for interesting subject matter if the conditions, namely their behavior, are right. However, as interesting as they can be, more often than not they’re little more than a fin or back breaking the water. Moreover, they can also be exceptionally challenging subjects.

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Lightroom from the Field to the Desktop

Back in May I went on an Alaska cruise, and being a photographer I obviously took the opportunity to shoot as much as I possible could. I also took my laptop, with Lightroom 6 on it, so I could work on my images as I went instead of being overwhelmed by a ton of pictures when I got home.

I can’t say I learned an awful lot new in the process, even though I’ve never worked this way before, but I thought I’d at least talk about it a little and go over some of the trade offs and processes in working on a laptop in the field then bringing that back and getting it on your desktop at home.

Also, while I’m currently using the latest version of Lightroom, everything I’m going to cover applies to previous versions as well.

Importing and Previews

While my laptop is every bit as capable of rendering standard or 1:1 previews as fast as my desktop, doing so uses power and I’m not always plugged in when I’m importing images. Moreover, rendering previews at import time will render the previews for every image that is imported. This has two potential impacts on the mobile user.

First, the obvious point, every image rendered requires the CPU to compute the rendered preview, this uses more power than the alternative of not rendering the previews.

The second consideration is less obvious but can be far more of a problem. Every standard or 1:1 preview that’s rendered consumes disk space that could potentially be used or needed to store copies of images from another card.

Normally on my desktop I render 1:1 previews on every import. This is of course computational expensive, and results in a lot larger preview cache, however, I can afford both the power and disk usage for the benefit of having a more responsive environment when I start editing and developing my images.

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Glacier Bay

Back in May I went on a cruise in Alaska. While this trip wasn’t purely for photography, I wasn’t about to leave my camera at home. This is the 6th installment of this series covering a number of photographic opportunities and how I felt they could be best exploited. The previous parts include shooting from a floatplane on Big Goat Lake in Misty Fjords National Monument, a glacier walkabout on Mendenhall Glacier, the photographic opportunities on Mount Roberts nature trails, riding and shooting from the White Pass and Yukon Route, and photographing the waterfalls along the Lynn Canal. This time I’m going to talk about Glacier Bay National Park.

Glacier Bay Dawn

Chilkat Range at dawn from Glacier Bay National Park

There are places on this planet that one can visit and never be able to really express what it was like to be there. The Grand Canyon, for example, it doesn’t matter how big the picture is or how high of resolution, you can never quite convey the experience of actually being there. Glacier bay is one of these places, and unlike the Grand Canyon, Glacier Bay is far more ephemeral and fundamentally more endangered.

Typical Cruise Ship Routes in Glacier Bay (click to download NPS PDF)

Typical Cruise Ship Routes in Glacier Bay (click for NPS PDF)

Glacier bay as a whole is a quite big, it’s 63 miles from the entrance to the bay from the Icy Straight, to the furthest end of the Tarr Inlet. There are currently 50 named glaciers in the bounds of the park, of which 7 are tidewater glaciers. All of this is to say that even if you’re traveling on your own small boat, there’s quite a lot of ground to cover and quite a lot of varied scenes to see and photograph. If you, like me, are on a cruise ship, you can expect to cover even less ground and spend even less time at any given location.

Depending on the cruise line and the ships schedule, and any other mitigating circumstances the exact experience in Glacier Bay will vary. Most ships cruise up the western side of the bay to the Johns Hopkins and Tarr Inlets.

In the worst case, like the Holland America cruise that charged up the bay ahead of our ship, is that the ship heads straight to the Tarr inlet and Margerie and Grand Pacific glaciers; does it’s rotation, and heads right back out of the park.

Most ships will probably sail up the Johns Hopkins inlet which means a close pass—actually two, one in each direction—of the Lampaugh glacier (tidewater) and a distant view (~6 miles) of the Johns Hopkins glacier.

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Waterfalls, Lynn Canal, Alaska

Back in May, I went on a cruise in Alaska, this is the 4th part of my ongoing series discussing the photographic opportunities I found. In previous editions, I covered the experience of a float plane excursion to Big Goat lake, hiking on Mendenhall Glacier, hiking the Mount Roberts trails, and riding the White Pass and Yukon Route. This time we’ll be looking at something that didn’t require getting off the ship, photographing the numerous glaciers that line the fjords of Alaska.

It’s hard to throw a stone in an Alaskan fjord and not hit a waterfall, at least in the spring. Two thousand foot or higher mountains pretty much line the fjords, and their collected winter snow needs somewhere to go as it melts in the spring. Then there are the rains of summer.

Meltwater Falls

Meltwater Falls

A quick look at a USGS topographic map shows nearly a dozen recognized streams flowing into the Taiya and Chilkoot inlets at the northern end of the Lynn Canal, and those are only the permeant ones that the USGS recognizes. In practice, especially in the spring, there will be a near continuous parade of waterfalls to see and photograph.

Making good images of these waterfalls poses a number of challenges, though I think the results can be worth it.

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White Pass and Yukon Route, Skagway, Alaska

In May I made my first trip to Alaska, though not purely for photography. This is the 3rd of my on going series of posts detailing the photographic opportunities that I saw in the sites that I visited. I’ve already covered the first three experiences: a float plane trip to a remote mountain like in Misty Fjords National Mounment, a helicopter walkabout on Mendenhall Glacier, and finally hiking the Mount Roberts alpine loop trail in previous articles.

I have a long history with trains. Like many children I was fascinated by them as a kid. As I grew up I grew to appreciate their importance in the history of the development and sustainment of modern life as well as the aesthetics man made machinery in nature. As a photographer, historical railroads and the equipment that run on them provide yet another opportunity for creating interesting images. Moreover, many of these historical railroads, like the White Pass and Yukon Route, Durango and Silverton, or Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad offer an easy way to see and experience many rugged ares that have largely escaped modern development.

A Bit of History

I’m not going to talk much about the early history of the White Pass and Yukon, as there’s not a whole lot of it left, outside of the route. For a more detailed overview, I recommend reading this article on Pacific Narrow Gauge. The short form is that in their way to profit from the 1896 gold rush in the Yukon territory, the White Pass and Yukon Route drove a rail like from Skagway, Alaska, through the Canadian provinces of British Colombia and the Yukon Territories, to Fort Selkirk, Yukon Territory.

In an effort to cut construction costs, the White Pass and Yukon was built a track gauge (the distance between the rails) of three feet instead of the standard of 4 feet 8 and 1/2 inches. Three-foot gauge was also a popular gauge for building out rail lines in Colorado in the mid–19th century as well. However, for railroads in the lower 48 the importance of being connected with the rest of the American rail network quickly saw the majority of those early 3 foot gauge lines being converted to standard gauge—only those that were too costly to upgrade were maintained by their owners until the 1950s and 1960s when roads provided sufficient access to areas that the railroads could be abandoned.

Entering Tunnel Mountain northbound.

Entering Tunnel Mountain northbound.

In each case, the economics worked out differently for the railroads in the lower 48 and the White Pass in Alaska and Canada. In the lower 48, the railroads that still had 3-foot gauge routes sought to spend as little as possible on them, and as a result their steam engines from the early 20th century survived well after steam had been replaced on every other mainline railroad.

However, since there was no other railroads to connect to, and thus no major impetus to convert the route to standard gauge, the railroad still needed motive power to handle the traffic. So while it’s southern counterparts were limping along with 20 year old or older steam engines in the 1950s, the White Pass was purchasing modern diesels to pull it’s trains.

In much the same way motive power changed, the white pass also adapted it’s shipping techniques. In the lower 48, in the places where narrow gauge trains had to interconnect with standard gauge trains, the cargos needed to be trans-loaded from one train to the other. This process was almost always a manual operation that was slow and cumbersome.

Granite walls above and retaining walls below show the percarious nature of the WP&YR's highlight above Granite Station.

Granite walls above and retaining walls below show the percarious nature of the WP&YR’s highlight above Granite Station.

However, for the White Pass, most of its cargo was either ore going from mines to smelters in the lower 48, or mining supplies coming from the lower 48 to the mines. In both of these cases, the cargo had to travel by boat from Skagway to a port on the Pacific coast. The White Pass’s solution to this problem was to develop containerized cargo—a system that was the predecessor of the modern international containers used to transport virtually all manufacturers goods.

The result of the modernizations that the White Pass made, kept them around as an active freight railroad well into he 1980s. Business further diversified int eh 1970s when, cruise ships started calling on Skagway, and tourists started riding the line. Today, the line hauls tourists.

The historical setting though does create an interesting counter point to the contemporary 3-foot gauge tourist lines in the lower 48.

Photography Challenges and Opportunities

There are a number of varied photographic opportunities while riding the White Pass and Yukon route including pictures of the train and landscapes, along with a couple of major challenges.

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Mount Roberts Trails, Juneau Alaska

Back in May I went on an inside passage cruise to Alaska, I’ve already written about the first two major excursions I did Misty Fjords National Monument and Mendenhall Glacier. In this post, I’m still writing about what I did in Juneau because well, frankly the last post had gotten to be more than long enough on its own.

Morning fog fills the Glastineau Channel on approach to Juneau.

Morning fog fills the Glastineau Channel on approach to Juneau.

Mount Roberts nature area is basically right up the hill from the port where the cruise ships tie up. Actually, if your ship ties up at dock C or D then you basically can walk off the ship and board the aerial tram that takes you up to the visitor center. The tram costs $33 for a day pass, but you can ride it as much as you want, and the view over the Gastineau Channel and the port is quite nice.

The other way up to the visitor center is walking the lower half of Mount Robert’s trail. The Mount Roberts trail starts from Basin Road[1], climbs a total of 3,819 vertical feet over it’s 4.5 mile length. The Mount Roberts Tram and trail meet at the 1,760 foot level, about 2.5 miles in from the trail head. By all accounts I’ve read, though not personal experience, the trail is a difficult hike due to the nature of the terrain and steepness.

Eagle on Mount Roberts

Eagle on Mount Roberts

For those looking to hike up, when I was there, there was signage indicating that a reduced cost ticket allowing for 1 trip on the tramway back down to sea level was also available. However, I don’t see any mention of this on the Mount Roberts Tram’s website.

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Thinking about how one thinks about zooms

When I was writing up my thoughts on Nikon’s 200–500 I started thinking about the way I think about zoom lenses compared to the way I generally see most people thinking about zooms. I don’t expect, or want, to change any minds here. Instead, what I’d like to invite you to be introspective for a moment, and think about how you use your gear and how that’s influenced by the way you think about the gear.

What I’m really talking about here are mental models. Wikipedia defines a mental model as an explanation of someone’s thought process as to how something works in the real world. It’s how our minds relate the world around us and it guides how we interact with things. One way of looking at this is that we may find something intuitive if our mental model and reality match up.

One mental model for a zoom lens could be of a lens that allows you the control to adjust framing or magnification of your subject as you see fit. If you want a looser crop, you zoom out a bit; tighter, zoom in. You could maybe say, a zoom is not so much a lens made up of lots of focal lengths, but one that’s adjustable over the whole range to your needs at the moment.

Another mental model could be of a lens that is really a replacement for a distinct set of primes—sure there’s still the fine grained variability but it’s a secondary consideration. A 24–70 is useful because it replaces a 24, 28, 35, 50, and closes in on replacing an 80mm lens too. It’s not that you look at the numbers and only shoot only at those specific focal lengths, but that primarily you think about the lens as a replacement for those other lenses you’d otherwise have to carry and change between.

The distinction may be all philosophical, and it may all just be in my head. However, I’d invite you to stop for a moment and think about how you shoot with a zoom when you use one. While you’re doing that, I’m going to tell the story of a zoom that doesn’t really zoom right.

In the history of photography there have been few lenses that have provided multiple focal lengths in one package, but didn’t arrange them such that there was a continuous progression from smallest to largest. One, if perhaps the only, example of this that I know of it Leica’s Tri-Elmar 28–35–50mm f/4 ASPH (also known many as the MATE short for Medium Angle Tri-Elmar).

Though Leica would point out that the lens was intact a true optical zoom, the design of the lens, and the design of a Leica M range finder, resulted in it really only working easily at the 3 focal lengths listed. In no small part, this is because the zoom positions were arranged as 28mm, then 50mm, then 35mm as you turned the zoom ring. If you were at 35mm and wanted to zoom out to 28mm, you first zoomed in to 50mm before zooming all the way back out.

Would you find yourself massively annoyed by the behavior of the LeicaTri-Elmar 28–35–50 f/4 ASPH?

What about if the zoom positions were in order, but the lens simply didn’t produce a useable image at anything but those positions?

In many ways, I don’t really see a problem with the design of the MATE. But in much the same way, I frequently see a zoom lens as a collection of distinct primes with the continuous extra coverage being an added bonus.

Like I said, I didn’t set out to change any minds or make any great revelations. This was an exercise in thinking about how you think about things, at least that’s what I’d like to think.

Thinking about Nikon’s new AF Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

Image: Nikon USA

I don’t know what it is about Nikon, but when they decide to introduce a new zoom with a new focal range it always seems to just make sense to me. In this case, I’m talking about their new Nikkor 200–500mm f/5.6E ED VR. I’m not sure what it is about this lens that just sits right to me. Okay sure, it’s not a professional lens—no gold band—but it sure looks like one at first glance. At least in every way save the price tag.

I find the range to be fascinating in a lot of ways, and like many things Nikon does it seems to just make sense when you stop and think about it. In a lens like the 80–400, the focal range down close to 70mm makes it possible to take the 80–400 instead of, and not in addition to, a 70–200. Sure, the 70–200 is going to be faster, but if you’re shooting outdoors you might not really need the speed.

On the other hand, once you start getting into 100mm + ranges, it becomes much harder to simply use the big telephoto zoom instead and not in addition to a 70–200. I can kind of get away with it with my 100–400, but something like a 150–600—well starting at 150 means you’ve already lost the vast majority of the 70–200 range. If you’re going to do that, giving up the final 50mm to move the wide end out to 200, at least reduces the complexity involved in optimizing the lens design.

The biggest thing the Nikkor 200–500 seems to have going for it to me, is the fixed f/5.6 aperture. And here too I have to admit to being a bit baffled. Okay, I know a lot of people don’t like variable aperture lenses. I think a lot of that is a matter of perspective though. Most people seem to treat say an f/4–5.6 lens as an f/4 lens that slows down instead of an f/5.6 lens that can be faster in some cases. Sure the distinction might seem meaningless, but if you set the lens to f/5.6 in aperture priority or manual, the camera isn’t going to open up more if you zoom out.

At the same time, if this had been a variable aperture lens, it’s likely it could have been an f/2.8–5.6 given the size of the front element and the required apertures involved. It certainly could have been an f/4–5.6.

And really there’s another way to look at something like this. In my experience most people look at zooms as zooms, that is continuously variable lenses and not necessarily a package of primes. Consider though, to have an f/5.6 aperture at 500mm, you have a 90mm aperture (okay 89.28 and change mm). If you apply that to the rest of the zoom range, you end up with whats show in the table below.

Focal LengthAperture

Woah! Even rounding up a bit, you ought to be able to do a 200/2.8, 300/4, and 400/4.5 out of this kind of lens. Of course, doing the math there really might explain in party why this non-gold band lens has a fixed aperture—something that’s very much an exception to the rule. If this had a variable aperture, especially one that’s even remotely close to the values the math dictates, Nikon would have a $1200 zoom on its hands competing against several $1000 and up primes. I mean, aside from weight, why would I buy a 300mm f/4D at $1500 or 300mm f/4E PF at $2000 when I could get similar focal length and aperture performance in a hypothetical 200–500mm zoom?

Which brings me to my final thought, price. The 200–500 Nikkor is $200 more expensive than the Tamron or Sigma contemporary 150–600, and aside from being slightly faster from 388–500mm it doesn’t appear to offer all that much. And really this just raises the question. How many people buying a lens like this in the $1000–1500 range are going to care that it’s a Nikkor and not that the range is shorter and it’s heavier, has a shorter zoom range, and is more expensive than most of the alternatives?

All told, I really like the look of this lens. The zoom range seems like a real smart choice, and quite solid unless you’re looking for a one lens super telephoto wonder. The only nagging question for me is will it end up selling well given what the competition is.

Nikon USA AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Product Page

My Thoughts on Windows 10

If you’re even remotely in tune with the comings and goings of Windows, or at least visit a tech site in the last week or so, it’s hard to have missed that Microsoft has released the newest version of Windows—Windows 10. A big part of the appeal of Windows 10 is that Microsoft promises to have corrected the major issues that prevented people from adopting Windows 8 and 8.1; namely the return of the start menu.

So where does Windows 10 stand?

Well, to start with I couldn’t stand Windows 8 (or 8.1). I’ve used a number of operating systems in my life reaching back all the way to DOS and Mac OS 7, and none of them have gotten me quite as angry at a computer as Windows 8 did. Windows 10 doesn’t do this at all.

In many ways when using it, Windows 10 feels a lot like Windows 7. I don’t feel like the OS is actively trying to get in my way at least. And I haven’t had the inclination to take a hammer to my computer yet. That said, there are a whole lot of places where Windows 10 really grinds my gears, and as a Photographer there are certainly areas where the design decisions by Microsoft are less than ideal for my usage.

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Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska

Back in May I went on a 9 day cruise to Alaska up the inside passage. Though the cruise was just a regular cruise, I had my camera and that’s good enough for me. Previously, I wrote about my experiences with photography on a floatplane excursion, this time I’m going to talk about a glacier walkabout and the opportunities for photography on a glacier.

Our excursion was operated by NorthStar Trekking of Juneau, AK. As much as I’d like to recommend them—to be honest, the experience was really good—I simply don’t have enough experience with this kind of activity to make any kind of intelligent comment on the matter.

NorthStar offers 3 levels of glacier excursion in increasing difficulty. The excursion I was on was their Helicopter Glacier Walkabout, which takes about 3 hours and offers about 1 hour of time on the glacier. Stepping up from that they offer two more strenuous excursions, the Helicopter Glacier Trek (2 hours of glacier time) and the Extended Helicopter Glacier Trek (3 hours of glacier time).

I should also point out, while our excursion ended up on Mendenhall glacier, there’s no guarantee that yours will too. The operators evaluate the weather and ice conditions to determine which glacier is safest for this kind of excursion to visit. NorthStart notes in their sales material that you may end up visiting any of the following glaciers; Mendenhall, Taku, Norris, Herbert, Gilkey, Battle, or Thiel.

Topographic map of the Juneau area, Juneau Ice Field and Mendenhall Glacier.

USGS Topographic map of the Juneau area, Juneau Ice Field and Mendenhall Glacier.

If I had to guess, given equal ice conditions, they probably want to favor Mendenhall since it’s the glacier most people would recognize and want to see—in so far as you can actually see anything while on it. However, I couldn’t say for sure.

In any event, NorthStar, probably like any other operator that caters to the cruise lines, has the procedure down to a science. When we got off the ship we checked in with their representative at the dock and provided our weight and shoe size and waited for the rest of the people to show up.

Your weight is used to balance the helicopter properly, and as an educated guess to get the right size pants and jacket to get ready for you. After we were all checked in, they called ahead to the outfitters office with our info before we even got in the van for the drive over to the airport.

When we arrived at the outfitter, they’d already put together our gear along a pair of benches—I think there were 8 or 9 of us on this particular excursion. For this excursion, we were provided all the gear we “needed”. At their offices we were equipped with the following:

  • A pair of two-part mountaineering boots,
  • A pair of water proof pants
  • A water proof jacket shell,
  • A waist pouch/fanny pack/belly bag/whatever you want to call it with a snack bar, bottle of water, and tissues

And when we got to the glacier, we were then provided with crampons and a hiking pole.

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