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Nat Geo Experts

From Alaska, Jay Dickman Fields Common Photography Questions

While in port between two voyages through Alaska’s Inside Passage, Pulitzer-Prize-winning National Geographic photographer, author, and workshop leader Jay Dickman sends answers to the photography questions he hears most often.

By Jay Dickman

Alaska's Inside Passage (Photo by Jay Dickman)

Late afternoon found the National Geographic Sea Bird on a near-glass-smooth surface on the Inside Passage. The final sunrays were painting the mountains in the background, and a slow shutter speed emphasized the smoothness of the water surface. (Olympus E5 with 12-60mm lens, 200 ISO, 1/200th of a second, f4.0)

Sitting alongside the docks in Juneau, we just completed the first of two back-to-back National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions through Alaska’s portion of the Inside Passage.  This legendary waterway connects Seattle to points north. encompassing more than a thousand islands and spanning thousands of miles of coastline before terminating in Skagway, Alaska. “Remote” is one of the more descriptive terms that come to mind when sailing the protected waters of this saltwater highway.

This was my 23rd trip working with National Geographic Expeditions. My position aboard the ships is resident “National Geographic Expert,” here to offer advice on all things photographic, plus some of the destinations and wildlife we’ll see along the way.  Many of my trips have had a photographic focus, appealing to the serious to very serious photographer, but also to those with point-and-shoot cameras hoping to improve their photographic skills.  The Inside Passage trip invariably offers tremendous photo ops, including multiple bear sightings, bald eagles, sea birds, seals, sea lions, and otters. Put those critters (and other amazing flora and fauna) in an incredible, over-sized background, and you have the makings of many once-in-a-lifetime photos.

Travelers’ photo skills vary, ranging from expert photographer to avid amateur hoping to step up their skill sets to the next level.  Having access to the photographic team aboard National Geographic-Lindblad trips provides a wealth of knowledge in a “real-time” setting.  The aspiring photographer standing alongside a photo team member can ask questions about exposure or composition while photographing a grizzly—and apply the answers while shooting!

Looking back over all my NG Expeditions, I’ve distilled the most common questions down to the following:

What lenses should I take with me, not only on this trip, but also on daily outings?

Boreal rainforest floor (Photo by Jay Dickman)

The boreal rainforest is an amazing place to shoot. The deep greens of the moss along with the filtered light from above create an ethereal environment. I liked how the dead tree on the left seemed to be in its own spotlight. (Olympus E5 with 12-60mm lens, 400 ISO, 1/30th of a second, f5.6)

These trips offer incredible wildlife photography opportunities, and I think that minimizing what one takes maximizes the photographic possibilities, as you’re not bogged down with “stuff.”

In this environment, long lenses are invaluable: 300mm all the way out to 600mm+ are real-world relevant here.  Hand in hand with that is the “speed” of the lens:  a 500mm that has a maximum aperture of f4 can be shot at a high enough shutter speed to counter the movement of the ship and the movement of the animal.

I often see travelers who have the “latest-greatest” multi-purpose lens or camera, with a lens that zooms from 18mm all the way out to 300mm or more. It’s small and didn’t require a second mortgage to purchase.  BUT many of those who are serious about their photography express dissatisfaction at the end of the trip because their all-in-one lens combo provided more frustration than great photos.  The landscape can provide incredible images, but those images are often available early or late in heavy mist or rain.

Bartlett Cove, Alaska (Photo by Jay Dickman)

Mixed light sources can provide a really great palette. We had just returned from an outing on Bartlett Cove and coming back aboard, the Sea Bird’s lights and deck structure framed a fishing boat in the background. Between dusk and total darkness is a favorite time to shoot. As the ambient light fades toward a deeper and deeper blue, the lightbulb creates a very warm palette (Olympus E5 with 14-35mm lens, 1600 ISO, 1/80th of a second, f2.0)

An example: That bear on shore may be accessible with the lens zoomed all the way out, in the shade, late in the day.  Each of these factors reduces the light available to make an exposure, and often forces the photographer to increase the ISO (exposure speed) to “noisy” levels to be able to capture the moment.  For the casual photographer, one for whom the image is simply intended to illustrate and help the scene, this may not be an issue.  But to serious photographers, image quality can be critical.  For such photographers, a high-speed lens will be a necessity.  So not to break the bank, I suggest lens rentals for these trips.  A multitude of facilities renting photographic equipment can be found on the Internet.

Going back to the question of what equipment I bring on a trip—a telephoto lens, fixed or zoom, in the 100-400mm length with a minimum aperture of f4 or f5.6. In addition, a wide zoom always comes with me on outings, generally a 24-120mm.  (With multiple sensor sizes available in different cameras—4/3rd’s, APS, and full-frame sensors—all these lens lengths are described in 35mm equivalents, so we have a common language).  Between these two optical lengths, I can photograph nearly any situation.  I also carry a 14-28mm lens that provides that super-wide view of the world.   A total of three lenses can really cover all your photographic bases.

What do you do to get photographically ready for a trip?

Stellar sea lions (Photo by Jay Dickman)

Glacier Bay National Park is accessible by water, and the approach into the park took us by South Marble Island. This rugged, small outcropping of rock is a haul-out for Stellar sea lions. I shot this image with a long, super-telephoto lens, 1000mm in length, which allowed the animals to be “compressed,” putting them on one layer of interest. The bull lifting its head and roaring in the background really finished off this moment. (Olympus E5 with 90-250mm lens, 2x extender, 800 ISO, 1/500th of a second at f6.3)

Practice, practice, practice.  If you rent that long lens, take it to the park and photograph birds. Any birds will do: It’s the process of getting comfortable with tracking a bird in flight that will translate to greater success in capturing that bald eagle in flight in Alaska.  Try to make it more than one foray out with that lens, as the more you shoot the better ratio of sharp images with a bird in the frame will be yours.

That practice will also allow the camera to become more invisible in the process of your photography.  I see a lot of travelers on these trips reading the owner’s manuals to their new DSLRs on the plane trip to our destination.  It can be a frustrating exercise trying to capture great photographs when it becomes a “me versus the camera” scenario.  A few minutes spent daily with your camera in advance can provide a greater comfort level, allowing you to focus on the animal instead of on the equipment. That comfort level is critical as the more you know your gear, the more invisible it will become and the better your photos will become.

Do I need the latest, most expensive camera for this trip?

Bald eagle (Photo by Jay Dickman)

Inside the Tracy Arm fjord, a bald eagle launches from atop a coniferous tree. (Olympus E5, 90-250mm lens w/2x extender @ 1000mm, ISO 400, 1/1000th of a second, f5.6)

A high-frame-rate camera is nice, but more important to the process is the ability to press the shutter when the moment occurs.  This also takes practice.  If your kid is on the local soccer/baseball/football team, offer to become the photographer.  Photographing sports teaches the photographer when to hit the shutter button—critical with wildlife photography.  As mentioned above, a comfort level with your equipment also helps this dynamic.

What filters should I bring?

I carry two types of filters, which can really help out in the outdoor environment.  A “warming polarizer” is one. This filter helps not only in intensifying the sky (when the camera is pointed at a 90-degree angle to the sun) and in reducing reflections on the waters’ surface, but it can be handy as a neutral density filter.  Polarizing filters absorb almost 2 stops of light, so when photographing a waterfall and trying to emphasize the water’s motion, the artist can use a low ISO and slow shutter speed and gain two more stops of slower speed.

Photographer and cats

People like to see people in photographs, and I love to watch the interaction here between photographer and subject. Shot in Petersburg, Alaska, the cat did know how to pose (Olympus E-PL2 with 9-18mm lens, 200 ISO, 1/100th of a second, f9)

Neutral density (“ND”) graduated filters are also always in my camera bag.  4×6 inches and available in 1, 2 ,or 3 stops of neutral density, the top half of the filter is dark, the bottom is clear.  Two different types are available: hard- or soft-step. The hard step has a sharply defined zone where the filter transitions from ND to clear.  Photographing an ocean environment with a clearly defined horizon calls for the hard-step, as I want that transition to occur quickly and at the horizon line.  A mountain range or cityscape is where the more spread-out transition zone from ND to clear is required.

What about photographing people?

I really feel that if you apply a template of “visual narrative” to your trip, your body of work will be more engaging. What the photographer does is not dissimilar to what the writer does: We tell a story. Think of story components when creating your own narrative with images.  Create a sense of place for your viewers. They are not alongside you when photographing the bald eagle taking flight from atop a pine tree. The audience is not smelling the forest and ocean, nor listening to the sounds, nor enveloped in the chilly and wet (this is Southeast Alaska after all) air.  The photographer has to bring these sensory components to the photograph so the audience knows what the place looks, sounds, smells like.

Next, introduce your characters, be it the eagle or your fellow travelers—important components as they are part of the experience.  This introduces a personal aspect to your story, and people like to see people.

Tracy Arm Fjord (Photo by Jay Dickman)

Our cameras cannot capture the dynamic range of a scene as well as our eyes. We see a far great range of light to dark than the camera. So, we sometimes use filters to compress that extreme range of light. A morning spent in Tracy Arm provided this scene of the ice-scattered waters of this spectacular fjord. (Olympus E-PL2 camera with 9-18mm lens, 200 ISO, 1/500th of a second, f 13, Singh Ray 2-stop neutral density, graduated filter)

Photograph the “macro” world, tiny details in close-up. Forcing the viewer to engage with this world they are not used to seeing creates an intimacy between story and viewer.

Bring in unique or telling moments, images (be they loud or quiet) that provide power to your coverage: The brood of sea lions with the bull bellowing in the background, or the eagle lifting its wings in preparation for flight.  These moments are the energy that drives your story forward.

Close out the story. As the writer wraps everything up in the final chapter, you bring your story to a close, finishing out the process for the viewer.  Usually more simple and direct, it’s easy to read.

Book your voyage on National Geographic’s Alaska’s Inside Passage and Alaska’s Inside Passage Photography expeditions. You can also travel with Jay on National Geographic’s Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falklands and Exploring Africa’s Western Coast: South Africa to Morocco expeditions in 2012. Visit Jay’s website to learn more about his photography.







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  1. I am new to photography. I would like to ask how important light reflector is and is it significant to bring it every time you want to have a good shot?

    Posted by Sarah Bernheim | October 17, 2011, 7:12 am
  2. hey jay–
    this is a step up from the DMN. Congratualtions! (of course, you do have a pulitzer.) anyway, do you still use leica’s? doesnt seem they would fit into this world.

    congrats again

    Posted by dallas photographer les wollam | March 6, 2012, 2:30 pm

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