Sunrise over Regal Mountain, Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

November 28th, 2007 by Carl D

Sunrise over Regal Mountain, Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

Hey Folks,

Recently someone asked me about some photography tips, and I thought that might make a good post for a blog. There’s obviously way too much stuff to talk about in one post, so I’ll just make this one specific to shooting landscapes on backpacking trips. Hopefully this will help you bring home some better images from your trips. The image I’ve posted here is of Regal Mountain, a 13 845′ high shield volcano, or stratovolcano, in the Wrangell Mountains, seen from Skolai Pass, Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Regal Mountain is most commonly seen from the west, from the Root Glacier near McCarthy. Because the mountain is so covered with glaciers, it’s hardly been studied at all by geologists. It’s a WAY cool mountain!

First thing is suck it up and bring your tripod. Even a little lightweight tripod is WAY better than no tripod at all. These days you can buy an ultralight tripod that’ll really help you out. Like everything else, it seems, you pay more dollars for every ounce you lose. Something like the Gitzo GT-0530 Mountaineer 6X Carbon Fiber Tripod or the Gitzo GT-0540 Mountaineer 6X Carbon Fiber Tripod or even the Gitzo G-0057 Table Top 6X Carbon Fiber Tripod is worth considering. I sometimes carry a larger Gitzo 1325 with me, particularly when I’m going to be doing some wildlife shooting as well. But for strictly landscapes, the lightweight models are generally fine. Everything’s a compromise, and you lose some height, some stability, some functionality (generally they won’t go as low to the ground), but a few pounds lighter is REALLY nice when you’re backpacking. If you’re basecamping and dayhiking, it’s not as big a deal, and by all means, bring a better tripod if you can.

I can’t stress the importance of a tripod enough. A tripod allows you to compose more carefully (IMO) and especially to shoot in lower light, such as when I made this photo. I forget the shutter speed I ended up with, but it was WAY too low to handhold and expect a sharp image. If I’m shooting mid-day snapshots, I might not set up a tripod, but probably 90% of my photography, and probably 99% of my better photography, is from a tripod. I feel like I’m shooting naked without one.

Get up early and stay up late. I think one of the biggest things that helps is really making the effort to get out of a warm sleeping bag, and get out before dawn, regardless of what the potential looks like, and hoping for the best. I spend a lot of mornings where I don’t get anything, where I don’t even shoot any photos, simply because the weather isn’t what I had hoped for – but occasionally it works out and I get a nice sunrise or some nice light like this. The same thing with going out in the evening, after dinner. It depends on the conditions of course; often in Alaska, when the weather’s bad, it’s simply flat grey clouds, and there’s not much hope for dramatic light to poke through. Often in the Lower 48, though, cloudy weather can bring some amazing scenes. ya just gotta be out in it, and hope for the best. be prepared to spend a lot of time coming home with nothing, and you’ll eventually start to collect a portfolio of dramatic images that you’d never have managed to shoot had you not been in the habit of making that effort.

Composition. This is a difficult one to write about, because it’s SO personal. No 2 people “see” the same way, so there’s not too many ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ of composition. My rule is shoot what grabs your attention, and keep shooting it. Look at it closely, whether it’s a grand landscape or a waterfall or a flower or a bear, and discern what it is that grabs your attention. Try to isolate that, and you’ll generally find your images you return with are a better reflection of your experience.

Learn some basic stuff, such as an understanding of depth of field, exposure, light, and also of image processing (usually digital these days, such as Photoshop). Often a little processing can make a BIG difference in the impact your image can have. This is the one I struggle most with, as I’m by no means as proficient as I should be – me and computers don’t seem to gel too closely. I’m learning, though, and as I continue to learn, so do I see an improvement in my images. Similarly, understanding depth of field, exposure and light all help me improve my photography. I come home with less and less images that are flawed because of some stupid thing on my part that I could’ve done differently to better control the image. If you have any questions on any of this stuff, visit a few photo forums, or post a question here, and I’ll try to answer if I’m able, or at least point you in a better direction.

Spend more than one day in a place. This is a big one, I think. I’ve spent many, many nights in Skolai Pass (where I shot this image from), and it’s the reason I have a nice array of images from there. I’ve visited many places that are very impressive in their grandeur, but I’ve only had a night to explore them. Spending a couple of days in one place allows me to find a composition or scene that I like and set up a couple of times, hoping for good light. Nature photography is largely about time in the field, and the more time I get to spend in a place, the more often my images stand out, to me.

So don’t just give yourself time to get to camp, eat, go to bed, wake up, eat, break camp, and hit the trail. Often, if I think I can do a hike in 5 days, I’ll allow 7 or 8, or 10, and take my time, spending a couple of nights in one place. It really makes a big difference. If you only have 5 days to spare, don’t try such a long hike, cut the distance down, or do a basecamp trip, and really explore the area. I guarantee your photos will be way, WAY better!

Any other ideas or tips, feel free to post them here.




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4 Responses to “Sunrise over Regal Mountain, Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Alaska.”

  1. Carl,

    This is a good collection of some of the basic tasks that people should do when they are outdoors! I wish I had known about your hiking trips when I visited Denali in 2006 August-September. It was truly an amazing experience and Denali was visible, head to toe, from Anchorage for 2 straight days! However, when we took the bus ride into the park, it was all cloudy and murky. But I guess that brought the wildlife out and we pretty much saw everything possible in terms of wildlife, moose, grizzlies, wolves, ptarmigans, caribou and dall sheep.

    Like you mention, since we did not spend anytime other than the bus ride inside the park, we missed seeing Denali in all its glory and splendor and up close and personal. Its a decision I will rue for I can’t think of anything more magnificent than getting a good picture of the mountain with the alpine glow. Next time I make a trip to Alaska I am definitely going to factor in a hiking trip and hope you will continue to offer these trips in future. I’m sure that will be an experience which will last a lifetime!

    Thanks for sharing your experience and adventures. I hope you will continue to post regularly on here.


  2. Hey Sai,

    Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to post.

    That’s a bummer you didn’t get to see the mountain when you were in the park, but wow, sure sounds like you saw a lot of wildlife. Very cool.

    Yeah, I think anyone visiting a place like Denali should factor in at least a few days for their time there. I took my parents up this this past fall, and we spent 3 days in the park, in all. They got to see the mountain, which they loved, but they didn’t get to see any wolves, which I know they would have also would’ve loved. Maybe next time.

    I sure hope to be running these trips for quite some time, and would be glad to show you around a place like Denali or Wrangell-St. Elias. It’s a treat indeed to get to spend time in these places! And I’l try to heep posts on here a little more frequently than I have over the last 3 months, it’s just been one thing after another!

    Thanks again.



  3. Hello Carl,

    Thanks for posting a reply in spite of your travel schedule :)…Always good to see a response. Just out of curiosity, what equipment do you use when you are leading one of these trips?

    When I visited Alaska I had just got my Nikon D200 with a 18-70mm lens. I sorely missed a telephoto lens as I did not have enough time to go through the reviews and order one. Since my visit however I have started shooting with a 70-300mm VR in tandem with the 18-70mm Nikkor.

    I hope to read more of your blog posts on here. I’m just getting started at the moment :). I came across your site recently from a link on Guy Tal’s website and it sure looks like you have a lot of information here.


  4. Hey Sai,

    Oh, as for equipment everything and anything! I think the setup you describe their is ideal for backpacking .. it covers everything from reasonably wide to a good telephoto. You definitely can use a lens out to 300mm, for sure, for both landscapes and wildlife. Personally, I’d want something a little wider than 18mm on a D200. I use a D2x, so we have the same size sensor. An 18mm on a Dx body is a 26mm lens in 35mm format, and I think in a grand landscape like the Alaskan alpine, you can go wider quite easily. I’d suggest something like the Tokina 12-24mm, which is what I bring. Nikon just released a 14-24mm, which is supposed to be an incredibly sharp lens, but I haven’t tested it myself. The Tokina works fine for me, is well built, and not too pricey.

    In general, since switching to adigital set up, I bring:

    A D2x
    12-24mmDX lens
    18-70mm or a Tamron 28-85mm f2.8 (I think thats what it is .. Id have to look it up .. something in that range, anyway.
    70-200mm f2.8 (I SO wish Nikon made this lens in an f4 version as well. I might look into getting the 70-300mm you have)
    1.4 teleconverter.

    Sometimes I’ll bring my 500mm if I think wildlife will be around. That affects which tripod and ballhead I bring too. I’m trying to get the weight down as much as possible, so I bring a real lightweight tripod when possible – though that reminds me I need to get it fixed! πŸ™‚

    I’m not a real “gear” type of photographer, which sometimes hinders my shooting – I wish I knew more about all that stuff.

    Great that you came here from Guy’s site. Guy Tal is someone I have utmost respect and admiration for: his images are consistently ridiculous. He’s a huge inspiration, and one of my favorite people on the planet!

    Thanks again.



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