Tag Archives: Alaska

2015 in Retrospect

It’s that time of year again to reflect on the year that was as a photographer: the lucky breaks, the missed opportunities, the long stretches of pulverizing boredom, the fleeting moments of ephemeral magic. That’s 2015, which is a pretty standard example of most years as a wildlife, travel, and nature photographer.

Looking over the choices of my personal favorites, I was somewhat surprised to see no verticals. I hope that’s not a trend and maybe it’s something to conciously consider as the calendar turns over to 2016. Aside from that, there are some very pleasant memories represented in these images. Good times. Good year. Enjoy.

 

Caption

“Cosmic Number 9” February 17, 2015. Inyo National Forest, California USA.

14 degrees Fahrenheit on a cold, still February night in the Eastern Sierra mountain range of California. The 4.5-hour exposure was almost worth being sick the following 3 days. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF16-35 f/2.8L II USM @ 28mm, about 4 1/2 hours (15,861 seconds) @ f/3.2, ISO 100. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

 

Giraffes reflected in sunset light, Etosha National Park, Namibia

“Mirage” May 25, 2015. Giraffes reflected in sunset light, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The group of giraffes approached the water hole with great deliberation and caution – as they usually do – but this time with perfect sunset light reflected in the water. The symmetry, balance, and separation between each of the animals is what elevated this frame over the others, especially the giraffe on the right with its head and neck arched in the opposite direction from the group. I then flipped the image upside-down to give viewer a bit of a visual puzzle to work out. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM @ 64mm, 1/800 second @ f/4, ISO 2000. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

 

Polar bears, Barter Island, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA

“Faraway Eyes” October 8, 2015. Polar bears on Barter Island, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA.

I knew that one of my polar bear images would make the favorites list for 2015, I just didn’t know which it would be. I suppose I eventually picked this one over the others because of the cub’s quizzical head posture and expression as our boat slowly backed away from the shoreline. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 371mm, 1/800 second @ f/4, ISO 1000. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

 

Gondolas parked for the night, Venice, Italy

“Venice Blues” July 26, 2015. Gondolas parked for the night, Venice, Italy.

Piazza San Marco in Venice is usually a raucous, crowded, noisy place. In the morning’s pre-dawn stillness, the only sound to be heard was the gentle rocking of the idle gondolas to the waves, which is captured as soft blurs in the long exposure. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF EF16-35 f/4L USM @ 30mm, 13 seconds @ f/14, ISO 100. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

 

Light Break

“Light Break” June 14, 2015. A lone oryx crests the ridge of a dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

This image is all about fortuitous timing and LIGHT! Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM w/1.4x extender @ 448mm, 1/160 second @ f/6.3, ISO 500. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

 

Sea stacks along Iceland's southern coast.

“Njord’s Temple” September 25, 2014. Sea stacks along Iceland’s southern coast.

Iceland’s Reynisdranger basalt sea stacks are formidable and impressive from almost any angle you view them, but from the side – the angle you see here – they appear other-worldly if not dangerous. Still, without the rim light on the foreground rocks, I would have never even bothered to lift the camera to the tripod. This is one of those rare images where I knew it would be a black and white interpretation at the time I captured it. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM @ 55mm, 1/80 second @ f/16, ISO 500. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

 

Last Stand

“Last Stand” November 14, 2015. Arches National Park, Utah USA.

The warm light on the dead juniper tree was so visually striking, especially against the shadow which was cast along the wall of Skyline Arch. I simply used the shadow’s edge as a frame to the tree while leaving out any of the sky, which is just out of the image frame along the top. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF24-70mm f/4L IS USM @ 70mm, 1/80 second @ f/11, ISO 500. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

 

A family of African elephants takes a drink at the water hole is late afternoon. Etosha National Park, Namibia

“Generations” May 25, 2015. A family of African elephants takes a drink at the water hole is late afternoon. Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The title I gave this image, Generations, refers to the relative size and position of each elephant in the frame. Of course these elephants may not represent distinct “generations” but it’s a nice thought anyway. The light comes from a soft glow on the western horizon just after sunset. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM @ 316mm, 1/500 second @ f/4, ISO 800. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

 

A shapely tree and spring reflections in the Little River, Great Smoky Mountians National Park, Tennessee USA

“Sang-froid” April 21, 2015. A shapely tree and spring reflections in the Little River, Great Smoky Mountians National Park, Tennessee USA.

While the tree was shaded by the mountain behind me, the river was getting some beautiful reflections from the illuminated forest on the other bank, giving the background a soft, lemony color wash. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF70-200mm f/4L USM @ 126mm, 2 seconds @ f/20, ISO 100. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

 

The surreal landscape of Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

“Dry Bones” June 14, 2015. The alien landscape of Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

A stark and surreal landscape, Deadvlei never fails to inspire with an amazing array of compositional options. The best time is just after the pan falls to shadow and the surrounding dunes are lit from the low-angled sun. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF70-200mm f/4L USM @ 168mm, 1/8 second @ f/18, ISO 250. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

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Ten Fascinating Facts About Polar Bears

Polar bears are among the most fascinating animals on Earth. They’re some of the biggest and baddest apex predators known to man, yet fragile and vulnerable as a species. They’re ruthless Arctic killers as well as lovable darlings of Madison Avenue. Still, there are many things about these creatures that are still a mystery to the scientists who study them. Here, however, are ten fascinating facts about polar bears we do happen to know. Enjoy.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT w/1.4x @ 420mm, 1/500 second @ f/5.6, ISO 1000. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

Polar bears have no fear of humans. They can take over towns and villages, raiding the garbage and dumps in search of food, with supreme confidence and a dose a swagger to boot. This makes them extremely dangerous animals.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT w/1.4x @ 560mm, 1/800 second @ f/5.6, ISO 1250. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

The scientific name for polar bear is Ursus maritimus, which literally means “marine bear.” They are very strong swimmers and are sometimes found as far as 100 miles from land.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT w/1.4x @ 560mm, 1/800 second @ f/6.3, ISO 1000. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

Beneath their snowy white fur – which acts as natural camouflage in their Arctic environments – polar bears have black skin. This enables the bears to better absorb the sun’s warming rays.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT @ 400mm, 1/640 second @ f/4, ISO 1600. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

Polar bears live in the circumpolar north where they can be found in the countries of Norway, Russia, Canada, Greenland, and the United States. Scientists have designated 19 populations of polar bears in the Arctic over four different sea ice regions.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT @ 400mm, 1/1000 second @ f/4, ISO 160. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

Polar bears feed mainly on ringed and bearded seals, when available. They can also scavenge on whale carcasses, walruses, narwhals, and bowhead whales if seals aren’t present. Polar bears need an average of 5 pounds of fat per day just to survive.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT @ 335mm, 1/1000 second @ f/5.6, ISO 1000. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

A polar bear’s sense of smell is its most powerful and important tool for detecting prey on land or at sea. It is believed that a polar bear can detect a seal, with its nose, from a distance of more than a half mile away (about a km.) and 3 ft. (1 meter) below snow or ice.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT w/1.4x @ 560mm, 1/1000 second @ f/5.6, ISO 2000. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

The largest polar bear ever officially recorded was an old boar weighing over 2200 lbs. (1000 kg.) and measuring 12 ft. (3.7 m) long. The average male is about half the size of that behemoth and the average sow is about half that of the male. Polar bears rarely live beyond 25 years.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT w/1.4x @ 560mm, 1/1000 second @ f/5.6, ISO 1600. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

Fur grows on the bottom of polar bears’ paws, which protects the feet against cold surfaces while providing a firm, solid grip on the ice.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT @ 316mm, 1/1000 second @ f/4, ISO 200. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

Female polar bears give birth during the winter, usually to twins. The cubs will stay with their mother for about two years as they learn the skills of hunting and basic survival.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska USA. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXT w/1.4x @ 560mm, 1/500 second @ f/5.6, ISO 2000. © Richard Bernabe/Earth and Light

Polar bears are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act primarily due to the melting of Arctic sea ice.

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Want to see and photograph polar bears in the wild? Epic Destinations has a Polar Bear Photography Tour planned for Barter Island and the Arctic National Wildlife Area in 2016.

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Packing for a month in Alaska and Iceland

In a just over a week, I’ll be headed out on a month-long photography journey to Alaska (Katmai National Park and Preserve for brown bears chasing the final salmon run of the year and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for polar bears) and Iceland. Considering everything that needs to get done before departing on a trip like this, I got ahead of the curve by packing all my photo gear first. But before putting it all away for good, I thought some of you might be interested to see what I take on a trip like this. So here it is…in all it’s unglamorous glory.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III body
Canon EOS 7D Mark II body
Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens
Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens
Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens
Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT
Really Right Stuff TVC-34L tripod
Really Right Stuff BH-40 ball head
WH-200 Wimberley Head Version II
Kinesis F169 Large Grad Filter Pouch
Lee Filters: Big Stopper, Little Stopper, 3-stop ND, polarizer
Giotto Rocket Blower
CF and SD digital media
Extra batteries and charger
Lens clothes and small dry bags
Gura Gear Bataflae 32L Backpack

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A Bear is Eating My Camera

No marshmallow filling?

It was a brilliant Indian summer afternoon in Elk Lakes Provincial Park in Canada’s eastern British Columbia. Blue skies reigned over pale grey granite mountains and the mercury reached an unseasonable eighty degrees Fahrenheit. There were no deciduous trees in sight to offer any clues that it was, in fact, mid September yet the subtle yellow, orange, and red hues in the meadow grasses and huckleberry bushes betrayed the undeniable and irresistible approach of autumn. Bull moose wading the far shores of the marsh ponds had long disposed of their antler velvet and a fresh dusting of snow from the last passing front adorned the serrated peaks of the Continental Divide, the conspicuous border separating the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.

Elkford’s Chamber of Commerce might have billed this afternoon as “idyllic” but the bright sunlight and robin-egg blue skies reduced this photographer to just another tourist, squinting through the windshield to admire the stunning scenery while stopping every so often to unfold and refold the map before driving yet again with no particular destination in mind. Everyone plays the clueless tourist at some point in their life whether any of us wants to admit it or not.

I didn’t really mind that I was unlikely to do any meaningful photography on this day. I was too busy processing a flood of pleasant memories from a previous trip fourteen years ago when I visited here first time with just a film camera and fly rod. Through the middle of the park flows the Elk River that just happens to host the prettiest, most naive cutthroat trout whose acquaintance I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Toward no dry fly did these fish seem to pass any judgment or discrimination. Rising through milky, glacier-fed currents from the river bottom’s cobbles they would inhale a dry fly from the surface with such dumb innocence, it would almost break your heart.

It’s during the same trip that I also saw my first honest to goodness wild grizzly bear. It was at a safe enough distance, at least 100 yards, and we were separated by a particularly deep and broad section of the Elk River. It stalked the meadow’s edge with the purposeful gait and confidence that only an apex predator of the wild could get away with. When its head spun around on those massive shoulders and our eyes met, the coldest shiver ran down my spine and my toes tingled. I was flying.

If you do enough traveling to North America’s great wilderness areas, you will eventually have to deal with bears – either real ones or the phantom bears of your all too vivid imagination. A good piece of advice to follow when walking or hiking in bear country is to make as much noise as possible, not necessarily to scare any of them away, but to at least make your presence known since startling or surprising a bear at close range would spell certain disaster. Some examples would be wearing bear bells, intermittent clapping or yelling, and talking loudly – either within a group or just to yourself.

I’ve always preferred talking to myself since I tend to do it anyway: politics, religion, the use or overuse of HDR – you know, the usual topics to avoid in polite company. In fact, hiking through bear country is one of the few occasions when talking to oneself is a perfectly sane and reasonable thing to do.

Despite the lousy photography weather (photographers hate bright sunshine and clear, blue skies, unlike your typical tourist) I decided to take an afternoon hike to a small alpine lake for sunset. It was likely to be an exercise in futility – if not merely good old fashioned exercise period – but I was in a particularly beautiful part of the Canadian Rockies on an otherwise glorious September afternoon, so what the hell, right? At the very least, I will have had an invigorating hike through some incredibly scenic country and maybe I’d even take a photo or two.

The trail started out by winding through a fragrant forest of firs, Engelmann spruce, and lodge pole pine and quickly started gaining elevation. The hot sun and thin air conspired to make the hiking slow and burdensome but I was in no particular hurry after all. At each stop I made to catch my breath, small animals and birds would emerge from the forest once I settled down and sat quiet: a few chipmunks, a pika, and one brazen blue grouse that nearly came within an arm’s length of the rock on which I was resting. I’d attempt a few photos of the critters, glance at the results on the LCD display, shrug, and start walking again.

After an hour or so on the trail, I stopped yet again for a breather and an opportunity to answer the call of nature, once I found an appropriate powder room. I set my tripod firmly on the ground, with camera and lens attached, and ducked into a dense labyrinth of scrub birch and willows for a veil of privacy, as if I really needed it. Almost immediately, I heard a loud crash, breaking branches, and a grunting and growling that seemed to be getting alarmingly close. I made a hasty, ungraceful retreat back to the meadow and was closely tailed – a bit too close – by a visibly agitated black bear. I kept a respectable distance and did my best to calm it down by talking in a soft, reassuring voice.

Eeeeasy there big fella. You’re a good bear, aren’t you? We don’t want any trouble now, do we?

That didn’t work. Maybe it was my patronizing tone of voice. Maybe I was trespassing and about to use the loo in its personal living space. Or maybe it had something to do with the undignified visage of me standing in the middle of a lovely alpine meadow with pants dangling around my hiking boots. Whatever the reason, my amateur bear psychology and I were not being taken seriously, if at all. The bear then projected its displeasure on my tripod and camera, with admirable style and flair had it been any other circumstance, by spiking it to the ground like a post-touchdown celebration.

After performing an inspection and concluding that the combination of applied force and gravity didn’t do enough damage to be satisfied, the bear took the camera in its considerable jaws and began doing its best great white shark impersonation. I watched helplessly as shards of black plastic exploded from the exquisite piece of digital technology formerly known as my Canon DSLR. It occurred to me at some point that if the bear was desperate enough to try and extract nutrition from a digital camera, who’s to say that it wouldn’t be as equally desperate to try to take a pound or two of flesh from me? Black bear attacks on humans are rare but nearly always fatal since the motivation is usually food, instead of temporarily immobilizing a perceived threat.

I’ve actually had the unnerving experience of being charged by an brown bear – a coastal variation of Ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly – a few years ago in Alaska. The bear changed its mind in mid-charge (or felt sorry for me) and stopped a mere ten yards before hello darkness my old friend I could now only presume. Time sped up – or maybe it slowed down – I can’t really be sure since most of the details were lost to the fog of fear and surge of adrenaline. It was only a convincing bluff, but I’m proud to say I did everything right as this apparent attack was actually taking place. For one thing, I didn’t run, which is the cowardly half of the primal flight-or-fight response and an impulse that’s difficult to resist. I stood my ground with arms held over my head, avoiding any eye contact while waiting for the fatal impact. I also resisted screaming like an eight-year-old girl, which is another impulse that seemed all too appropriate at the time.

But no amount of screaming, pleading, or outright begging was going dissuade this clearly psychotic black bear from performing a crude camera lobotomy right before my eyes. For obvious reasons, no part of this episode was captured on camera since, short of whipping out my smartphone and snapping the most epic of selfies (which only occurred to me in hindsight), all I could do was stand empty-handed feeling dumb and helpless, which is probably how I looked as well. The humiliation only added insult to the injury.

When the bear finally discovered that my camera did not contain any marshmallow filling, it casually ambled back into the thickets, presumably to find some real food. While my zoom lens and tripod survived the encounter pretty much unscathed, the same couldn’t be said of the camera body. While taking inventory of the damage, I found that I wasn’t angry or upset. I didn’t harbor any feelings of vengeance or retribution. Violence, real or imagined, never even crossed my mind. Instead, I was dumbstruck. It was bizarre. It was surreal. It might have actually been funny had it been someone else’s camera.

And I did try to laugh about it, I really did. But like most attempted humor involving real bears, I just couldn’t find anything funny about it. Bear jokes told by those not accustomed to spending time in bear country usually fail with those of us who do since it either contains too little truth or too much. Punch lines involving bells in bear scat might provoke some nervous laughter from the fervent backpacker or hiker because of the implied irony, but it still overreaches and ultimately misses the mark.

Then there’s the one about not needing to actually outrun the bear, just the luckless partner of the joke’s narrator. Despite the ridiculous notion of running from a bear to begin with, I thought it was funny enough the first time, yet had quickly begun to pall after subsequent recitations. At Brooks Lodge in Alaska during a recent visit to this bear sanctuary, five or six of us guys were talking and loitering in the dining hall after supper one evening when one of the older sports needed to regale us with this particularly stale one-liner. The response, not surprisingly, was almost no response at all, save for the feeblest of laughs I feigned out of face-saving politeness. The gesture apparently went unnoticed since he insisted on repeating it all over again – this time even louder and with more enthusiasm, in case we all missed the point the first time. I excused myself from the table to get another beer.

The remaining daylight soon evaporated and the meadow fell into deep shadow. A cold wind barreled down the valley from the high mountains as a stern reminder that summer really was over after all. I threw on a light jacket I had kept stowed in my pack, gathered my broken gear, and started down the winding trail to the car, talking to myself once again.

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The preceding essay is part of an upcoming book, A Bear is Eating My Camera: Misadventures of a Travel Photographer, which will be released later in 2015. In the meantime, my collection of essays from the Great Smoky Mountains, The Great Smoky Mountains: Behind the Lens, is now available for download.

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Five Unconventional Pro Wildlife Photography Tips

A significant portion of the work I did during my recent trip to Namibia was wildlife photography, a favorite genre of mine. While doing some research on the wildlife of Africa, and Namibia in particular, I was struck by how boring most of images really were – apathetic, dumb-looking animal staring blankly into the camera, bird on a stick, etc.  As a result, I strived to come up with unique interpretations of these species we’ve all seen so many times and know so well. I came up with five unconventional tips – some less conventional than others but still concepts to keep my images from being boring like the others. Now I’m sharing them with you.

The examples here are not all African wildlife, obviously. I’m still trying to wrap up some writing and administrative duties before I can really begin processing most of the images from that trip. In the meantime, enjoy.

Coastal Brown Bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska, USA

1. Use Back and Side lighting

Most wildlife shooters and photography instructors opt for front lighting when encountering wildlife. “Point your shadow at the subject” is their mantra since they can be sure that in this way, the bird or animal will be evenly illuminated. In other words, it’s easy. I’m not saying that shooting with the sun at your back is a bad thing; I do it all the time. But limiting yourself to only this option certainly is a bad habit.

Side lighting can reveal texture and add depth to an image while backlighting is incredibly dramatic, if not conventional.

Snow Geese, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina, USA

2. Long Exposures

Animals on the move and birds in flight present great opportunities for slow shutter speeds and camera panning. Freezing action shots with fast shutter speeds has its place, but sometimes its better to just go with the flow! Start with 1/15 second and experiment from there.

Elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia

3. Go wide. Show the environment

When shooting wildlife, the photographer’s initial impulse is to use the longest lens in the bag and go in as tight on the subject as possible. Resist this urge and try a wider perspective instead. Show some of the animal’s environment and surroundings, which helps tell more of a story about the place and species you’re photographing.

Coastal Brown Bear and Sockeye Salmon, Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA

4. Show behavior and interaction

Too many wildlife images show a static image of an animal or bird looking directly into the camera. Boring, boring, boring. Showing how these animals interact with one another, play, mate, or hunt for food is much more interesting. That instant is akin to Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment. Don’t be content with a boring wildlife portrait. Wait for something special to happen and then be ready!

Zebras in Etosha National Park, Namibia

5. Use elements of visual design

Employ the same compositional tools for wildlife as you do for other genres of photography. Wildlife photography is sometimes fast-paced and you don’t have time to think things through completely but still try to think abstractly about shapes, lines, balance, and flow and let go of the literal. Your wildlife images will have a much greater visual impact as a result.

Next week I’ll begin sharing many other images from Namibia so stay tuned.

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