Year in Review - 2019

January 6, 2020

It is a common practice for photographers, to look back on the previous year and consider where they have come. Everyone has their different approach and motivation, from highlighting trips to expounding on the artistic process of being a photographer. I like to blend a bit of both. For me, my top images are not necessarily those with the most social media following or best marketability. I simply like to highlight images that I liked the most. In the narrative below, I hope to help you understand why.

Mid-day sun shines through frost on trees

January is the coldest month in Anchorage. When we are lucky, we get this stretch of calm and cold conditions, with the occasional ice fog, that leaves the city and its flora decorated with crystals of hoar frost. With this image, I capture that beauty along the coast in Kincaid Park, choosing an unusual composition to use a sloping tree to block the intensity of the afternoon sun.

Moon Over City
A full moon rises over the Chugach Mountains and the Anchorage downtown skyline shortly after sunset in February.

There is a period of three months in the winter where you have a chance to capture the full moon rising over the Anchorage downtown skyline – December, January, and February. The timing is crucial not only for the position of the moon during those months, but the timing of the moonrise coinciding with sunset. This is key to allow to balance the exposure to capture both the landscape and the moon and render detail. Captured in February, this was perhaps my favorite effort so far.

Stormy Beach
A winter storm sends green surf pounding on the shores of Haukland Beach in the Lofoten Islands, Norway.

We headed to Norway in early March for a bit of a photography vacation. For the first part of the trip, we spent a few days out in the Lofoten Islands. We started at the farthest village in the archipelago, Å. We visited several of the hot spots, enjoyed the food, and enjoyed exploring the stunning scenery. My favorite image came on a stormy day, proving that crappy weather can sometimes make for great landscape images.

Northern lights and church
Aurora borealis over the Cathedral of the Northern Lights, Alta, Norway

After the Lofoten Islands, we headed farther north to photograph the longest dog mushing race in Europe, the Finnmarksløpet. It is a 1200-kilometer round-trip route that starts and ends in Alta, the regional capital for the Finnmark. On the night of the opening ceremonies, the aurora borealis danced over the city. I positioned myself to capture them over the Cathedral of the Northern Lights, the parish church for the Church of Norway. It was a challenging exposure due to the brightness of the church lights, but fortunately the aurora was rather bright, too.

Morning Check
Thomas Wærner checks his team while resting at the Neiden 2 checkpoint during the 2019 Finnmarksløpet.

I captured many satisfying images during my coverage of the week-long Finnmarksløpet race. On the return leg of the trip we encountered the coldest conditions. By the time of the Neiden 2 checkpoint, the leaders of the pack were starting to get farther apart. Thomas Wærner, who would eventually win the race, was busy feeding his team as the morning sun started to add some warmth to the day. The backlighting and the steam rising made this my favorite image of the race.

Twilight Skyline
Long reflections of city lights add color to a perfect Cook Inlet reflection at twilight in late winter.

There is a particularly rare set of conditions that allows for perfect reflection of the city lights on Cook Inlet. With our extreme tides and the occasional wind, it is rare that the surface is calm enough. And in the winter, the challenge is increased by the presence of sea ice. I have tried for years to capture this image successfully, with my goal being winter so to provide for some snow on the Chugach Mountains behind the city. This March, I finally captured it the way I had envisioned.

Double Band in the Sky
The Milky Way and a mild aurora over Twenty Mile River, Chugach National Forest.

Over the years, I have had a few occasions to photograph the aurora borealis with the Milky Way. While summer is generally the best time to photograph the Milky Way in North America, it is not a good time in Alaska. Our daylight hours last too long to allow for seeing any stars other than the sun. So April and August tend to be the best times to capture the disk of our galaxy (although I have had good luck in October, too). In April, I was with some guests on my Anchorage Aurora Quest tour, and the aurora was rather mellow. This allowed for a long-enough exposure to provide for clarity and brightness of the Milky Way.

Tree Swallow Mating
A pair of tree swallows mate in the alder in Potter Marsh in Anchorage.

I am not a bird photographer, let’s make this clear. I am mostly a landscape photographer, but I like to keep open to all nature photography opportunities that are occurring at a particular location. For our Sunset Photo Safari tour, we frequent the Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary in the summer and autumn. In early summer, I was noticing a lot of tree swallow activity along the boardwalk area. I returned on my own one morning to give ample time to watch, wait, and take advantage of what opportunities presented themselves. I saw a lone tree swallow perched on an alder branch, and framed her in quickly. Suddenly, a second tree swallow appeared and they proceeded to mate. Their extended mating provided me plenty of chances to capture a sharp image of these beautiful birds. It is one of my favorite wildlife images to date.

Summer Compass
The sun sets behind the nautical compass at the Glen Alps overlook in early summer.

For most of the time I have lived in Anchorage, my visits to the Glen Alps overlook came in winter when I was looking to photograph the sunset or the northern lights. With our Sunset Photo Safari, I am there every evening in the summer and autumn. It was that exposure to a snow and ice-free time of year that allowed me to see for the first time this nautical compass set in the ground at the overlook. I selected my 14-24mm lens to get close and provide a wide composition to capture the compass and the setting sun.

Plane and Colors
A float plane rests on the shores of the Lake Hood Seaplane Base as colors linger in the sky a half hour after sunset.

Aircraft are a key component of the Alaskan way of life. We have more privately-owned planes and pilots per capita than any other state. A simple reason is that most of the communities of the state are disconnected from the road system – the only way in or out is by plane or boat. So, I am always trying to capture images of small planes. In Anchorage, one of the best places to do that is the Lake Hood Seaplane Base, the busiest sea plane base in the world (some 500 daily landings and take offs in the summer). In early summer, I was passing by about a half hour after sunset and the sky lit up with pinks and reds.

Flowers and mountains
Mountain avens and O’Malley Peak

We have an incredible amount of scenic beauty here in Anchorage. As much as jealous Fairbanks residents may chide us, calling us “Los Anchorage” or how we are “only a half hour away from Alaska,” our scenery is stunning. Our untamed spaces have even earned us the status as the Wildest City in the World. I am always searching for images that celebrate the natural beauty within what we call the “Anchorage Bowl,” the part of the city that is the main core to the west of the Chugach front range. During this June evening, I was walking around near the Glen Alps overlooks and found this patch of Mountain Avens perfectly situated to provide a foreground to the mountains of that front range.

Rainbow and Alpine
Dwarf birch and lowbush blueberries in autumn with rainbow and Flattop Mountain, Chugach State Park.

Flattop Mountain, situated in the Chugach front range above the city of Anchorage, is Alaska’s most-climbed mountain. It is such a prominent feature of our mountain backdrop that I was shocked to hear from a couple married on the mountain that they couldn’t find any photographers with any pictures of it. I was at my booth at the Fiddlehead Festival at Alyeska Resort, and they had been visiting other photographers’ booths at Saturday Market, searching for a print to no avail. Then it occurred to me … I didn’t think I did, either. Could it be that we all just take it for granted? So I made it a mission this year to capture stunning images of our most famous mountain, and this image in late August, featuring the fall colors of the alpine, was my favorite.

Cow Magnet
Large bull moose attempting to woo a cow moose, Chugach State Park

There is a patch of land in the Chugach State Park, amidst the Chugach front range behind Anchorage, that provides some of the best moose viewing in the state. I was introduced to the area by Nick Fucci back in around 2001 or so, and have been going up there since to observe and photograph moose as their hormones run amok. A moose pon farr, if you will. While I have had many close calls with bulls and cows who really seemed into one another, I have never witnessed a mating. And this year was no different. But, I did come across a magnificent bull that was starting to build his harem while guiding clients on our Moose Photo Safari. A cow wandered into the group, and he immediately moved toward her. She settled down into a resting position, made low grunting noises, and he flicked his tongue in an attempt to woo her. The tension and the slow action of the scene made for great photography, and a memorable moment close among these amazing animals.

Aurora borealis and lone tree, Cove Creek, Whittier

After photographing the aurora borealis for several years, I find myself taking fewer photos of them. It is not that they are losing interest; far from it. Rather, I am becoming more choosy, seeking more creative compositions. While out with clients on a photo workshop in Whittier, we experienced a mild aurora display. Seeking to make the best of it, we changed to a different location I suspected may produce some good compositions – a stream flowing in a narrow gap amidst the trees on its way to Prince William Sound. We captured some great graphic images of the stream reflecting the light of the aurora, but I wanted to go down to the stream’s level and see how different it could be. As we approached, I realized that the ground was littered with hundreds of pink salmon carcasses, and I could hear live ones still splashing about in the stream. This is black bear country, I thought, and we are surrounded by salmon. At night. And it’s really dark. So, we went back to higher ground, and I managed to pause and see this lone spruce tree silhouetted against the glow of the green aurora. It was my favorite aurora image of the year, and has already proven to be a good seller.

Inside Ice
A stream flows out through the opening of an ice cave at the toe of a glacier in Chugach National Forest.

After living here for twenty years, my Alaska photography bucket list has simply grown longer. That’s the problem with exposure – it makes you realize even more what you don’t have. Among the items on my list is ice cave photography. I knew that there was one associated with Byron Glacier, so I made time one day to hike out to the glacier and scout it. I discovered what most people consider the ice cave – a cave formed inside a patch of avalanche remains. But, on this particularly warm day, it was a bit sketchy and had collapsed in its center. I continued upstream to the toe of the glacier and found the true ice cave. Unnerved a bit by the warm temperatures and the danger they represented, I made a quick journey into the ice cave to capture a few pictures. I also had to go into the ice cave in order to find a way to cross the stream to get back to the other side where I had to go in order to connect with the trail. As it goes with bucket lists, my being able to go inside the cave has now only confirmed that I need to go back under safer conditions and capture some more images.

A stream flows out through the opening of an ice cave at the toe of a glacier in Chugach National Forest.
Inside Ice

A stream flows out through the opening of an ice cave at the toe of a glacier in Chugach National Forest.