I am getting a little nervous writing articles, seems like it puts a target on your forehead for criticism, some just, some un-warranted. So let me start this article by telling you what I am intending to convey in this article and that is the following: I took a 12 day wildlife trip (self-organized) to Alaska to photograph moose, I have done many self-organized wildlife trips before to other places. When I do these trips, what do I bring and why do I bring it? This is what I bring and what I do, and it works well for me, take from it what might be useful to you and leave behind whatever you find non-informative. After many small trips to shoot wildlife, we have developed a bit of a standard packing and gear list we bring. It changes slightly depending on the trip, but generally we bring three bags, two are camera gear, one is clothes 🙂
I called it part one, because I thought a second useful part would be covering the cost and places we went and what we learnt from each of those places. If this interests you, read on, if not, I will catch you next article.
Let’s Get Started
Missing from the photos is the RRS carbon fiber tripod we bring and the Gimbal head, these both end up going in our clothes bag, but the two photos show our general travel arrangement or what we generally pack for a trip.
Photo showing our travel camera bags
And here is a photo of the stuff from the bags spread out on the floor:
Photo showing what we pack and use during a wildlife photo trip
That Darn Plane Thing
Airlines just suck, they really do, they try every trick in the book to charge you to bring stuff on the plane and the amount you can bring is really limited. Our carry on, is our two camera bags, one allowed per person, so technically one belongs to my wife and the second belongs to me. I carry both on board and off, they are heavy and cumbersome and suck too, but what do I want to leave at home, the truth is nothing. This stuff is tiresome to carry and run around with, until you need it for some shoot, and then you are so glad you brought it. We bring the 600mm (just in case) and we have used it plenty for wildlife photography, but finding a bag that can carry it and also qualify for the carry on size limits is tough. This particular bag is no longer being sold So to make travel fairly painless, we have two carry on bags (camera gear), one checked bag (20% camera gear) with clothes and personal stuff. We used to carry more , but have found that if we limit our clothes to one bag, that’s all the clothes we really use in one week to 12 days anyways 🙂 Try to limit what you bring with you to absolutely basics and find ways that allow you to bring this stuff on a plane without costing you additional money.
So Why Travel To Get Wildlife Photography?
Not all of us live near a beautiful wildlife sanctuary and need to travel if we want to increase our chances of getting great wildlife shots.
Two large bull moose fighting near Anchorage Alaska – Very early morning, extremely low light – Fog steaming from their breaths
I have been trying for many years to photograph a moose fight (sparring session) here in New Hampshire with no luck for over tens years. I go to Alaska and I got to photograph 3 fights over a 12 day period, all I can say is Wow!!. Now I am not going to say that is going to happen to everyone if they travel, but the difference between NH moose photography and Alaskan moose photography is the level at which the wildlife tolerate your presence. We could never spend several hours with a moose in NH, but in Alaska we did that several times and because of it, we increased our photo opportunities. Travelling to certain places will allow you to get photos you might not get easily any other way.
ITEM: Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 Lens
This lens has been our prime wildlife lens for many years and many photo trips. What we love about it, is that the 200-400mm focal length seems to be a great range that suits many different wildlife situations. Sometimes the 400mm is not long enough for certain situations which is why we could recommend a 1.4TC or 600mm equivalent lens to be part of the kit.
The 200 to 400 mm has got excellent quality glass, it is light enough to carry all day and its versatility in different situations really make it a remarkable wildlife lens. Lets just say, that where we photographed it was not always necessary to have that reach, a lot of what we saw we could have photographed with a 70-200mm lens, but I am vary of short focal lengths, they can make wildlife look distorted (that wide angle look, thing), we find that while the 200-400mm can be a high risk, high reward lens in tight situations like amongst trees, if you get the shot, it can be more intense and perspectively pleasing, it can make the moose, for example look as large as it really should look. This is a hard concept for me to explain, except I have seen enough of my photos at different focal lengths to understand I can get more powerful shots at longer lengths.
Big bull moose being kissed by one of his 6 cows Chugach State Park – Alaska 2015
Now this photo above shows the versatility of a zoom lens, you can adjust the focal length on the spot to suit your framing needs. For most people this shot probably would have needed 600mm focal length, it would have kept you at a safer more respectable distance. I used the trees and other landscape features to creep my way closer without being too intrusive to their normal behavior. The 600mm focal length would have been a tougher focal length to get multiple eyes sharp, this is where the 200-400 shined for me. For me a wildlife trip would always have a lens similar to the 200-400mm in the camera bag, its the most useful lens in my wildlife camera bag (for me).
ITEM: Nikon D4s Camera
So I started by listing my most favorite wildlife lens, which I will now follow up with my favorite camera. Nikon has come a long way with offering alternative cameras since I bought my (D4 / D4s) and there are cheaper alternatives that offer exceptional results similar to the D4s. Why do I love this damn camera so much? The simplest and most honest answer, it gets me my shots in many unfavorable situations, it handles the worst of conditions in the best of ways. It produces pretty good photos even when I think the conditions are not photographable, it increases my chances of success. OK I get it, its expensive and I agree 100%. but boy, its has speed, great low noise, endless buffer, the batteries nearly last a week for me in the field, its a dream to use with quality lenses, it just is a dream wildlife camera for me.
The three most important attributes of this camera for me are:
- The quality of the images, the quality of the pixels are amazing
- 11 frames per second with endless buffer
- The low noise High ISO ability
The D4s camera is not for everybody, I think its the price that makes that statement true, because if the D4s was $500-$1000 I would want to recommend it to every wildlife photographer. The first photo in the article is a sample of this cameras ability, its 7 am in the morning, the sun has only just risen, we are in a forest that makes it darker, the weather is cold, so cold, every time the moose breathe they produce a cloud of fog around them, low light with reasonable fast moving subjects because they are fighting. In previous years, with previous cameras, a digital photo of this quality in these conditions would not have been possible.
Very large 40 point bull moose in the backwoods of Anchorage, Alaska
The above photo shows the combination of the D4s and 200-400mm combination at work. The environment is dark, it is overcast (best for moose) and we are in a forest, amongst the trees and overhead coverage that makes the environment even darker. This is a non typical bull moose, 40 points is just a spectacular moose to photograph, he is a beauty in the terms of moose and I only found him one day I was there, which means I had one chance to get these photos. That is why I am willing to spend the money on this camera, sometimes you only get one chance to get your shots.
ITEM: Nikon D800 Camera
The Nikon D800 is my backup camera in case something goes wrong with my prime camera (D4s), and yes I have had issues with a prime camera before, that I just wouldn’t go on a wildlife trip without some form of secondary camera. I don’t want to open a can of worms again and have a ton of outrageous comments, but the D800 is not the best wildlife camera choice in my opinion, or at least that is my experience with this camera and I have met many wildlife photographers who agree. Now that I said it I am sure there are going to be people whom don’t agree with me and voice their opinions, but of all the Nikon cameras I have owned, the D800 has been the least effective for me and wildlife photography. It still serves a purpose and I love it for landscape photography, and video. We took a lot of video this trip (my wife was in charge of the D800 and taking wildlife videos), while I was photographing. We also got some great scenery photos and it handled the Aurora at night extremely well. The larger file sizes can make processing images a slow and tedious process.
Now we didn’t set out to photograph the Aurora, otherwise we would have brought a wide angle lens, we were on a wildlife excursion, but the Aurora happened and the D800 and the 24-70mm was our only option. I didn’t even quite know what settings I should put the camera on to photograph at night, but my wife and I figured it out and the D800 took great photos at night, it was awesome and it captured the memories for us of an event that was both surprising (it was the only day with clear sky) and extremely beautiful.
Northern lights – Aurora – in mid September 2015 – Alaska
The D800 is in my camera bag, because it is my backup / scenery camera.
ITEM: Nikkor 600mm f/4 VR FL Prime Lens
This lens is a pain in the butt to carry in luggage and its big and cumbersome, it can also be cumbersome and difficult to carry on a field trip. Having said that, there are times when 600mm focal length is needed, you don’t need to have an expensive prime, just combine a 1.4 tele-converter with some other lens you love to get you close enough eg: 400mm. One of the things that is nice about 600mm focal length is it keeps you at a safe distance from wildlife, the second is I love the photos that focal length produces, it can really make a moose and its antlers look impressive. We originally chose to bring this lens to Alaska because we hoped to photograph some bald eagles and thought we would need that focal length for bird photography. As it turns out we didn’t find any eagles to photograph during our trip, and we only ended up using this lens once. That was to photograph a HUGE bull moose approaching in Denali NP. In Denali 600mm focal length can definitely increase your chances of getting a shot because of the limits the park places on you, as in how they allow you to photograph only from the road. We choose to bring the 600mm, because there are times we have regretted not having the 600mm reach. Because we own a 600mm, we choose not to use the 1.4tc with our 200-400mm, we choose to accept the extra challenges of carrying this lens around because of the end quality it produces when we do decide to use it. This is a personal choice we make.
Large bull moose walking fields of Denali NP – Alaska
Now I am glad we brought the lens, even if the only time we used it was for this moose sequence. It turns out Denali can be a tough place to get moose photos, so being able to bring the moose closer was great on the one opportunity we got.
ITEM: Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens
This lens might be too short for some wildlife opportunities, but it is a great lens. We bring it because it is a valuable part of our kit, there are many times we will use it trying to frame wildlife with scenic as a backdrop, like moose in front of mountains etc. Also when you have the ability to get close enough to suit the framing you are looking for, this lens is exceptional and fast, it has served us well for wildlife running towards us a high speed. Its also a lens we will use often for general photography and landscape photography. Sometimes I don’t like the results with wildlife, it can occasionally make wildlife look less impressive and smaller than it actually is, almost that wide lens look certain angles of wildlife can have. So I am cautious when using it, sometimes I will choose the 200-400 over it. Anyways the 70-200 mm focal length is such a useful length it deserves a spot in every camera bag.
Here is a photo of a moose fight that was in an extremely tight spot, ie: there were so many trees around where the moose were fighting, that a longer focal length was not possible without introducing trees or grass or objects into the frame between me and the moose. Now there was a danger of getting that wide angle look but I overcame that by being fairly close. This photo would not have been possible without the 70-200mm in this situation.
Two very large bull moose, one is 40pts, fighting in the backwoods of Anchorage, Alaska
Obviously this is not normal use for a 70-200mm, but its the lens that was required for this situation. I was close to get this fight, it was an intense fight in a tight spot. If we dis-regard how close I was for this action shot, the 70-200mm would be great for composing multiple animals in a reasonably confined space.
ITEM: Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 Lens
Well, not much to say here, this type of lens is our general purpose lens and used for wider shots like scenic or landscape photos. I never get close enough (yet) to use this lens for tight wildlife photos 🙂 This type of lens is just one of those lenses needed in every trip, we ended up using it for mountain scenes, landscape photos and the Aurora. We should have had the wide angle for the Aurora, but we didn’t bring it, so this lens had to do that job for us.
Northern lights – Aurora – in mid September 2015 – Alaska
Like I said earlier, the Aurora was not in our plans, but it happened, hence why it is necessary to carry a range of lenses to allow you to photograph a range of opportunities presented to you on your trips.
ITEM: Raincoat for Camera and Lens and Also Personal Wet Weather Gear
Don’t be scared to go out in the rain, it rained for the first four days of our twelve day trip to Alaska, if we hadn’t brought wet weather gear for the camera those days would have been lost. Not only that, rain enhances colors, adds detail to wildlife, can make photos prettier, just get used to and be ready to shoot in any conditions.
Wet Weather gear for camera and personal
As important as the wet weather gear is for the camera (ours is by AquaTech), you also need quality hiking boots and at the very least waterproof pants. The hiking boots are worn throughout the trip, so as not to take up baggage space. We pack rain pants and jackets in the clothes bag, we have found some lightweight raincoats that pack very small. The rain pants and a pair or two of normal pants make for great packing protection of the tripods.
Wet pants are essential in three types of situation:
- Rainy weather
- Walking through wet grass or wet fields
- Snow or snow covered grass
Wet weather pants will protect your boots and keep them mostly dry and keep your socks dry. The pants can become hot if its a not breathable type of material, so choose breathable wet pants or good quality ones.
Last but not least, a lot of wildlife will be more active when it rains. All of our fighting or moose action photos happened in either wet weather, snowy conditions or wet grass. You might like horrible shriveled feet, and if you do, don’t bring wet pants and good boots.
ITEM: Laptop and Card Readers
We bring a laptop on our trip for several reasons. Its too small to review photos on the back of the camera, so at the end of each shooting day when we get back to the hotel, we sit down and rate each photo on the laptop. We give each keeper photo a five star rating and any photo we love or think is a print we will give an extra rating of 3 on a numeric rating scale. We then know the outstanding photos or possible print photos are the 5star plus 3 rating, all sharp and quality photos are given a 5 star rating. We will then delete all non rated photos from the memory card to free up space. The laptop also has Photoshop on it and we will load and start prepping keeper photos for posts to Facebook or emailing and the laptop is also used to kill time on the plane. We will review memory cards on the plane and find the best 5 star photos. The laptop also serves as our internet access while in hotel rooms for email or research moments, like looking up stuff we didn’t think of before leaving on our trip.
ITEM: Batteries and Battery Charger and Charger Cables
I wish Nikon would refine their battery system, every camera has a different battery style and size and requires a multitude of chargers to charge them. Some of these chargers like the D4s are large to carry with the limited space in a camera bag for carry on bags. Anyway, don’t make the mistake of not bringing the charger, we did that once and it was the only time we ran out of batteries, requiring us to travel 70 miles to the nearest photo store and have it overnighted to us at high financial cost. We normally have three or four spare batteries for each camera we carry and bring them fully charged with us at the beginning of the trip.
Rainbow over stump in Homer Alaska – in mid September 2015
ITEM: Filters and Remote Cable Trigger
Well, even though we were on a wildlife trip, moments of natural beauty can happen like this rainbow over Homer Alaska. Because we had brought the tripod and ball head and polarizing filter, we were able to capture the rainbow at its most intense level. The filter and cable trigger hardly take any space in the camera bag and its a no brainer for us to bring them. We carry three filters with us, the polarizer, night day filter (adjustable neutral density) and color enhancer filter. The remote trigger was also used for the Aurora photography.
ITEM: Carbon fiber tripod and ball head
We always carry a tripod and ball head with us on our travels, sometimes we carry two tripods. A larger tripod to handle larger lenses we can attach the Gimbal to, a smaller tripod that is suitable for hiking back country and attaching to our backpack. We never used to invest in a carbon fiber tripod, but after getting frustrated with carrying heavy tripods on back country treks, we realized the weight savings of a carbon fiber tripod makes us a lot more likely to bring it on a long hike. Scenic and long exposures or trying to do panoramic shots are great reasons to bring a tripod. We have ARCA connectors on all of our lenses and ball heads, it makes for an easy universal quick connect system. We also have ARCA L plates on our cameras for use with tripods. The tripods and Gimbal pack with our clothes bag, we lay them between layers of Jeans or Shirts and they go in checked baggage.
ITEM: Camera Microphone
We are trying to do more video stuff, so we carry this microphone to better get the sounds of the animals in their environment when recording video with audio.
ITEM: Car GPS and Hiking GPS
The car GPS is an invaluable travel tool, it makes driving from spot A to spot B so easy and these days the Garmin GPS are very cheap for a good quality GPS. If you hire a car, they can and will charge you at crazy rates to add a GPS to your hire car, you will pay for the GPS on your first trip versus getting one from the hire car company. Don’t forget to bring the window clamps and charging cable. The GPS take the worry out of finding your shooting locations, can also be used to mark good spots you find or restaurants you might want to eat at or hotels if you haven’t planned them in advance.
The hiking GPS has become an essential wildlife photographic tool for us. It gives us the freedom to hike anywhere, without worrying how to find our way back to the car, and the freedom to go into the woods and track or follow an animal without worrying about finding our way back. We mark the location of our car at the beginning of each hike, we also us the “current track” tool to mark the exact route we hike, if we make many turns while in the woods, we can just look at the GPS and follow the track right back to our car. Most GPS also come with tools like weather and compass or details of your hike like distance, elevation and time travelled. My wife once got lost in the desert of MOAB and ever since that day, we have never hiked without a personal GPS. It is also great for marking hot wildlife spots and you can bring the GPS home and look on Google earth where you have hiked and the spots you were in. We bring extra batteries in our back pack should something go wrong, or if we are out too long and batteries running low.
Wolf walking fields of Denali NP – Alaska
We carry 10x binoculars on our trips, we have found them very helpful in locating certain wildlife or when out hiking. They are more useful than you think when scouting and they come in fairly small sizes and are easy to pack in with the camera bag.
ITEM: Gomadic USB Power supply or Similar
This is an external power supply in USB format, so it becomes an emergency power source for our IPhone or GPS or any USB driven device, it hold its charge for months and will charge the IPhone several times on one charge or give you several days worth of power for your personal GPS.
ITEM: Arca Carry Handle
I have Arca connectors on all my lenses and use Arca ball heads and L plates. This small compact Arca handle by Kirk, makes it easy to clamp on your lens foot and carry your lens and camera on long day hikes. Its not un-common for us to be out all day tracking or trying to find wildlife, this handle just makes it that much easier to carry the camera with a lens connected.
ITEM: Lens Cloth, Lens Pen and Wipes
Occasionally when in the field, crap like rain or dirt or spots will get on your lens. We carry Zeiss one use wipes and lens cloths to clean the lenses in the field. I am always reluctant to touch the glass of my lenses and keep it to a minimum, but sometimes stuff happens in the moment and having these with you could save the day.
ITEM: Business Cards
Look, even if you are not a pro, you should design and print yourself some business cards. You never know when you are going to bump into a National geographic representative whom loves your work and wants to hire you on the spot. If you haven’t got them, get yourself some business cards and remember to carry them.
This isn’t an all inclusive list, but its most of what we take on our trips. I hope there is some useful tips in this article for our upcoming travel photographers. Going to different places than your home turf can open up all sorts of opportunities or life experiences you never thought of. Travel doesn’t have to be expensive, so don’t eliminate it from your thoughts, it can be as cheap or expensive as you want to make it within reason.
Look in twelve days of Alaska, we saw amazing moose, wolves, birds, whales, scenic, Aurora and more – it’s as much about the experience as it is about the photography.
As always get out there and get into it.
I don’t like disclaimers or fine print, but here is mine: “What I do, works for me, the information here is designed to be honest from my perspective and maybe useful to some readers. Take from it what you can and find your own path along the way…”
I have tried for 12 years to see (experience) a moose fight locally in NH where I live, within 3 days in Alaska I had seen and photographed 4 different moose fights – how awesome is that?
NIKON D4S @ 220mm, ISO 3200, 1/250, f/4.0
It Starts With an Idea
So how do I end up in Alaska or Yellowstone or wherever on a photographic vacation?
For me, it starts with an idea or a wish to see something in particular, or to have a certain experience. My wife and I love wildlife, we also love the beautiful scenic landscapes that are in some of these wonderful locations. The first time I went to Alaska was in 2010 and at that time we had a lifelong dream to visit Alaska, but more particularly to photograph the huge grizzly bear without fear of getting eaten alive. With that concept in mind I did my research and found someone whom could fulfill that dream at a cost I could afford. The second time we went to Alaska in 2015 was to photograph moose, I love moose and I have always wanted to experience the big Alaskan moose up close and personal. Again, the idea was to see some of the biggest moose there is and research led me to Alaska.
What I saw and experienced in Alaska (as far as moosing is concerned) was a far greater experience than what I had hoped for, these moose were just stunning.
NIKON D4S @ 220mm, ISO 4000, 1/160, f/4.0
Then the Research Begins
I hinted above that research plays a big role and it really is a necessary evil that must be done if you wish to have a successful trip. There are two main ways of doing a trip like this for photography or enjoyment purposes, “you plan it” or “have someone else plan it“, if you choose the second option, you still need to do a little research in finding the best tour or photography guide and of course having someone else do it for you costs you more money.
I only have vacation at certain times of the year, so my planning starts with researching what topics / wildlife or locations are best during the times I have available. You also have to think about what season you want to photograph this animal or subject in, for example:
- You could choose to go to Katmai to see the grizzly bears during the baby / wildflower season around June / July
- You could choose to go to Katmai to see the grizzly bears during the salmon season for a completely different experience.
These kind of seasons and choices present themselves for other animals or even scenic trips, using moose as a second example:
- You have the baby season
- The bulls in velvet season
- The bulls in rut or after velvet season
So your idea has to be a little more specific, or at least you need to get more specific about your idea as your research takes shape.
This is from our 2010 trip to see the bears in Katmai, if you don’t think experiencing two 6mth old cubs (free and wild) running around your legs will change your life forever, think again!
NIKON D3X @ 600mm, ISO 400, 1/640, f/5.6
Lets take my September 2015 trip to Alaska as an example, I wanted to see the biggest bulls and I wanted them out of velvet with their final antlers on display.
Google is my research tool of choice, I usually research for a couple weeks on and off finding and fine tuning my searches. Some of the most important topics I search for are:
- Best place to see xxx, where xxx equals the subject you are researching.
- Best time to see xxx in the season you want to see it in.
- Photos to verify the research and also verify what kind of photos you might get.
- Forums or travel blogs to verify information obtained or to ask more specific questions.
- If I need a 3rd party involved eg: tour operator, which one is best and some supporting photos from those vendors
- Pricing of going to see what it is I want to see
- Weather during the time of the visit for clothing needs etc.
- Hotels and food etc.
Sometimes your plan has to include limitations applied to you by external forces like size, quantity, weight of what you are carrying
NIKON D3X @ 200mm, ISO 400, 1/2500, f/4.0
We Have Done the Research, Now We Start to Plan
Once we have completed the research stage, we now have an idea of what we are going to see, when and where we are going to see it, and possibly whom we might need to see it with. Lets continue to use my September Moose trip as an example. Through research I found out I wanted to be there in September, I found a couple of possible locations, I found video and photos online to support my quest, I started the planning phase.
The planning phase includes setting final dates, vendors or guides, hotel, travel, car and other stuff needed for the trip.
I usually follow the planning routine below:
- Which travel dates give me the best bang for my buck with the airline, eg: if I leave Friday is it cheaper than leaving Saturday?
- I need to check these dates and find the date range I am attempting to book my trip in, I usually don’t book my airline ticket until I have at least checked hotel availability and or car availability if a hire car is needed.
- Once I have the travel dates, I find hotels close to where I am visiting or photographing and verify they have rooms available
- I also check hire car company and car availability before booking anything.
- I always find out what their cancellation policies are, because it can greatly matter if you decide to change your plans slightly.
The Bear experience in Katmai NP was way beyond what we had hoped for – it far exceeded what we expected a hundred times over
NIKON D3X @ 600mm, ISO 200, 1/250, f/4.0
OK, everything is good to go, so I book the airline tickets, book the hotel room and hire car. These three items are usually the most expensive items on you planning list and will be a big part of your travel budget. Food and Custom tours or Guide services are also major costs to be considered, when we did the Katmai Bear trip our major cost was the custom bear viewing package, at that time in 2010, it cost about $3500 per person for a week of bear viewing (but everything was included – food – accommodation – float plane – guide – permits etc).
During the planning phase I will also check if passes or permits are required, or do I need to buy some maps to help me out. I want to do as much of this before I go, the last thing I want to be doing is using my precious vacation time driving around finding stuff I could have pre-organized. Some examples of these items might be:
- Parking permits or park passes – is a season pass a better (cheaper) option if going for multiple days
- Hiking or travel maps – do I need them? – I usually have national geographic park maps of major national parks
- GPS – I have a hiking one and also a road version. I check and set my destinations before I go, I check for map updates and load the latest.
- I usually create an excel spreadsheet with each location, address, contact number, confirmation number etc. just in case!
Example planning spreadsheet I create before each trip, this one was simplier than most because we originally planned to stay in one hotel for the duration
My starting goal:
“See up close and personal large amazing moose, hope to get some keeper photos, hope to have a wonderful experience.”
- 10 days available (my vacation time) – I have decided Chugach NP in Alaska is the place to try and fulfill my goal of photographing big moose
- Fly Boston to Anchorage, Pick up hire car in Anchorage Airport, drive to hotel and start the photographic journey the very next morning
- Bring photographic equipment for both short focal lengths and at max 600mm reach
- Bring clothing to suit possibly; cold weather, wet weather, but not too much – travel as light as possible
- Booked 9 night stay in Anchorage (initially)
- Drop off hire car on way back to airport, Fly Anchorage to Boston – Work next day
So the plan in this instance was a simple as that, I think where a lot of people fail to take it from a dream to reality is coming up with excuses or I will do it later, or its too expensive or, or, or. Don’t get me wrong, these trips cost money, but there are ways to limit the cost of such trips, there are ways to make them affordable. Its the execution and not the planning that becomes your life altering experience, if you don’t execute, you can plan every dream trip you can possibly imagine, but you’ll never have those magical forever moments. We make sacrifices to go on trips, we find cheaper hotels, we sometimes eat out of the car, we have learned that first we must go then we worry about the bill later (not 100% true, but you get my drift).
Mount Denali wasn’t in our plans, but because we had such success in our first few days, we were able to change our plans on the fly and experience even more stuff
NIKON D800 @ 135mm, ISO 200, 1/1250, f/7.1
One of the first things we do when we arrive at our destination is to find a Walmart or small country store where we can buy a drink cooler, we used to buy the cheap foam ones ($5), but soon realized keeping the lid on those is a pain in the butt. Now we just buy a proper cooler (about $20), fill it full of water bottles, soda, milk and ice. It stays in the hire car for the duration, the better cooler keeps the ice for much longer and is easier to manage, if we are going in the woods or after bear or moose, I always buy two canisters of bear spray (one for me and one for my wife). Bear spray is expensive ($30-$40) per canister, but I have resigned myself to the fact they are an evil necessity for what I do, better safe than sorry, I don’t carry a firearm and never will when I do photography. Its very handy to have drinks available at anytime during the drive, lots of places don’t have easily available small stores or gas stations, also it’s a lot cheaper to do it this way. We always find someone at the end of the trip who wants the bear spray and cooler. Not always, but quite often we also have a spoon and plastic bowls carried in the car we can put cereal in, this often serves as a mobile meal. When you are out photographing (especially wildlife), you are often out before dawn, to get to your shooting location on sunrise, that usually means breakfast never happens, or happens three to four hours after you got up, this is where carrying a box of cereal and milk from the cooler really comes in handy. We will also bulk buy some energy bars and snacks like jerky, we keep in the car and use in those moments, and for us there are many times, when we forget to eat a proper meal. Photography seems to have that effect on us, it’s the only time we regularly wake up before dawn and go to bed at midnight – lol. It shouldn’t be needed to be said here, but you have to be out early (at or before sunrise) for wildlife photography, the old saying “the early bird gets the worm” couldn’t be any truer in this instance.
The Aurora happened at 11 pm at night, on the drive back from Homer – it was a totally unplanned event for us – but one of the most amazing things we have ever experienced
When you go to these amazing locations and photograph, don’t forget to occasionally stop and see the beauty though your own eyes and not just through your lens. I often get so caught up in trying to get “the photos”, that sometimes I forget to do that.
NIKON D800 @ 29mm, ISO 200, 15/1, f/2.8
The Plan Might Change
So I chose Chugach after my research (Google) revealed the kind of moose experience I wanted could be had at that state park. We went, and using our Garmin mobile GPS to direct us to the park, we were photographing moose on day one and two in Alaska. Then we met some locals and asked them questions about other possible places to see moose, they guided us to other local areas and we got to see and photograph even more moose in a more woodsy environment. It got to be that by day 4 we had gotten many awesome moose photographs and experienced the most amazing moose encounter we could possibly have hoped for. Because we felt good about where we currently were as far as getting good moose photos, we decided to change our plans and include a 3 day trip to Denali NP.
One of the things you have to watch out for when planning is limitations in the way you book. For example: we couldn’t have changed our hotel booking if we had booked through a travel site like ‘Expedia’, but because we had phoned and booked everything ourselves, the hotel allowed us to cancel three nights, which allowed us to go to Denali.
In my previous Part 1 article I mentioned items we always carry, two of those items are a Garmin GPS for the hire Car and a laptop for reviewing photos taken and looking up stuff on the internet in our hotel room. We used the laptop to research Denali from our hotel room, we used the GPS to plot a route from Anchorage to Denali NP. Now, let me just tell you there are not a lot of roads in Alaska and there was only three turns involved in getting from Anchorage to Denali, but a GPS still was invaluable in driving distance and time, comfort in going to the right place, helping us bookmark important “points of interest”, helping us get to our hotel in Denali.
Because of this change in plans, we got to see much more of Alaska, it was a 5.5hr drive from Anchorage to Denali NP and the drive is so beautiful, its eye candy all the way. The new drive to Denali now became part of our lifelong experience and memory of Alaska, we are so glad our plans changed and allowed us to do this.
We changed our plans, went to Denali NP to see even bigger moose, got lucky to see and photograph a wolf pack – friggin awesome!
NIKON D4S @ 380mm, ISO 2800, 1/640, f/4.5
Changing plans midstream can be good or bad, the results might not work or you might end up having additional amazing experiences to bring home with you. In this case the plan worked out, but I can easily see how it might not, we got lucky in Denali NP, we could easily have ended up with no keeper photos from that 3-day trip.
Don’t be Afraid to Experiment or Alter Plans
Our plans actually changed twice, but only because we chose to do that and because we had gotten great moose stuff and awesome moose experiences early in our trip. If we had it our way, we would have added more time in our plans, but our time is limited both by budget and by real day jobs that pay the bills. In the future we would like to do a month or two in Alaska, as Alaska is so big and there is so much to see and experience. We only got a small taste of what is there, we didn’t get to photograph the famous Alaskan bald eagle because of timing, we got to see wolves because of changing plans, we got to see the aurora because we changed our plans a second time and also drove to Homer. These changes and what we saw during those travels opened our eyes to better planning in the future and also opened our eyes to other photographic trips to Alaska. During our time there we spoke to lots of locals and learned information only locals know, this information will also be used to fine tune future trips. We already are thinking of going back in 2016, we are almost certain we will do it again later this year.
This is the Denali Moose – One Word ‘HUGE’ – this guy is approx. 69.5 inches and is the biggest moose I have ever photographed
NIKON D4S @ 400mm, ISO 250, 1/640, f/4.5
As I said, the change in planning allowed us to see Denali and more importantly we got to see four big Denali moose in that short three day visit, and we got very lucky, the moose shown in the above photograph crossed the road right in front of us. What an amazing sight to see – absolutely unbelievable.
Lets Talk a Little About Alaska
We don’t have a huge experience in Alaska, two visits totaling approximately twenty days do experts us not, make (Yoda speak).
This place is an experience of a lifetime, the memories will last for life. Me and my wife photographing a large moose in Chugach SP, he was a real beauty.
NIKON D4S @ 240mm, ISO 2200, 1/500, f/5.6
What we can say is this, Alaska is an experience, its full of beautiful and magical places, some of which I have researched like McNeil River, Katmai NP, Brooks Falls, Homer, Denali NP, Chugach NP, Seward and the Glaciers.
There are many places to see, but we have also heard from many of my wife’s patients that have been to Denali NP and didn’t see that much, and I would suspect Chugach State park could also be the same at various times.
This is where planning and timing matters, it matters when you go, it matters how much effort you put into the destination and your persistence at getting the shots.
When we went to Denali, there were two ways to see it – the fall season allows all cars to drive only the 1st 30 miles and you will need the shuttle bus service to access the park beyond, there is a third “hiking”, but that is not realistic carrying lots of photo gear. Denali is Big, and you could easily fail to see wildlife if you don’t time it right or give it enough effort. You can hike anywhere, but most see what they see from the road, via shuttle bus or car, which when you think of it is very limiting. When we were there, we chose not to do the shuttle bus as the moose rut happened in the beginning section of the road that we were allowed to drive, in that three days we probably zigged back and forth a 8mile stretch over 60 times hoping a moose would come near the road. During the rut you are not allowed to walk off road in that section of road, so you are absolutely limited to photograph from the road. In other times of the season, you can hike and wonder anywhere. This limitation during the rut, can get very frustrating, long days spent in the car, with very little photographic opportunities, on the upside, if and when you get lucky, the moose are huge, they don’t care, they walk right out in front of you, they are amazing – but you must do the time in Denali to get the shots, its part of how that park is. Travelling and shooting from the shuttle bus can also be very limiting, you really need to research this aspect of Denali NP before you go. We will be going back, because we have never seen moose like that before and we just love moose, next time we go, we will be better prepared to spend the time going back and forth and we will allow a longer time slot.
In Alaska the highway roads can be dangerous, lots of tourists and sightseers whom sometimes pay attention to everything but driving, but the roads are great, the scenery is amazing and there are lots of things to photograph everywhere.
We spent two days in Katmai following this Bear and her 2nd year cub, we also followed another Sow with 2 six month old cubs – unbelievable experience!!!
NIKON D3X @ 600mm, ISO 640, 1/500, f/4.5
Katmai and McNeil river are two amazing places to see the big bears reasonably un-inhibited and up close and personal, this experience cannot be explained in words alone. To see a grizzly bear up close with cubs and it has no interest in you was a life altering experience.
Maybe you can see from our photos (wet), it rains a lot in Alaska, come prepared. If we had not brought wet weather gear for us personally and for the camera and lenses, we would have been in bad shape when we went to Katmai, it rained mostly every day we were there, some days harder than others. On our last September 2015 trip to Anchorage and Denali, it rained for 6 days out of 11, we only had a clear night two nights of the trip (for Aurora) and we only had one fully sunny day. Now normally we don’t want sunny days so much, you can photograph (especially animals like moose) for much longer on overcast days, light rain is also awesome, heavy rain can get overwhelming and wet, sun is good for certain things, but also brings out the bugs by the bucket load.
Be prepared, it snowed one day we were there, it was beautiful, but we needed good boots and wet weather gear to walk around all day in snow – Chugach SP Alaska
NIKON D4S @ 400mm, ISO 1600, 1/400, f/6.3
Trips to what my friend would call “exotic locations” can be very rewarding, both in experience and wonder and the number of keeper photos one might come home with. At the end of the day, we don’t plan and go on a trip with the view, that, the photos we will get there are somehow going to make lots of money and pay for our trip, or that we are going to get all these amazing photos without effort. We go for the opportunity these places provide and the hope that we come home with some awesome keeper photos, the combination of this and the experience is what drives us to go.
We go on these trips for several reasons:
- 1st and foremost to experience wildlife and nature in its most natural state – we want to see these places and come home with wonderful memories
- To try and photograph in these locations, and hope to come home with shots we feel are the best we could manage in the opportunity given
- The act of trying to get these photos is what drives me and my wife. When we get a photo we love or video, we feel great, we feel the same as being on drugs.
- What we remember most about the trips, is how beautiful nature can be, when man hasn’t totally screwed it up.
- A trip like this is an experience, a memory, sometimes a life altering event – worth considering for everybody.
- Places like I have talked about offer the opportunity to photograph wildlife without it running away, this might not be possible in many other places
This is one on the scenes as seen from the 1st 10 miles on road in Denali NP – Mount Denali actually never showed itself while we were there, only on the way back to Anchorage
NIKON D4S @ 400mm, ISO 200, 1/1250, f/5.0
Big Bull Moose in Denali NP, they are just big there, they really are – this guy put on a show for us
NIKON D4S @ 330mm, ISO 3200, 1/200, f/4.5
I hope everybody who has wanted to go somewhere special, takes the opportunity and actually goes, if its been a dream of yours, do it, find a way to do it. It took us many years to go to Katmai, it was always “next year” or “too expensive”, we procrastinated about it for five years, finally we went and it was worth every penny, it literally changed our lives and our view of nature. Our only problem, we really want to go back now, but will have to wait until we can get the funds again.
On a serious final note, learn your animals, learn their danger signs, learn how to act when you see the danger signs, carry and know how to use pepper spray, keep it in on your belt, not in your back pack. Be prepared, don’t go into the woods without researching or know something about the animals you are going to photograph, a photo is not worth a trip to the ER or worse the morgue through stupidity.
Get out there, get into it, enjoy your photographic journey and where it takes you.
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