Eco-friendly Photo Safaris Capture Wild Alaska
by Melissa DeVaughn
Raucous shorebirds, animated brown bears, calving glaciers and shimmering northern lights — these images capture the heart of Alaska. It is no wonder that world-class professionals, photography buffs and even those who have a point-and-shoot camera with lots of film to burn are lured to the Last Frontier.
Bear being photographed in McNeil River Bear Sanctuary
In Alaska, there are a few guides that cater to photographers interested in taking photographic tours of various parts of the state. In Southeast Alaska, Haines photographer Bob Adkins is the person to contact. In Fairbanks and Prince William Sound, travel with photographer Patrick Endres. Statewide, Alaska Photo Tours or Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris are also options for photo tours.
What all of these companies have in common is that each trip is guided by a professional photographer who can help set up shots, give lighting and lens advice, offer suggestions on filter use and, in general, lend expertise gained after years in the field.
“Alaska does have some challenges,” said Endres of Alaska Photo Graphics in Fairbanks. “You get a lot of white mountains, and that requires some attention with filters, so some of the nuances that are not solely peculiar to Alaska but do occur here is certainly something we help clients with.”
Endres offers two trips yearly, a July outing in Prince William Sound on a chartered boat for up to 10 clients and a northern lights tour that takes place in October and teaches photographers the nuances of shooting truly ethereal aurora photographs.
“The Northern Lights is the favorite trip, for sure, but it’s a trip not for everybody because you’re accessing a very remote part of Alaska in a potentially very cold time of year,” Endres said. “So it begs the hardy photographer who is totally psyched about the northern lights.”
The weeklong trip takes place along the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay, where lodging and gas refills can be hundreds of miles apart. Endres works with a small bed and breakfast in Wiseman, a tiny roadside community on the highway. Clients come away from the trip sleep-deprived because the best aurora shots come at night, but also exhilarated at their results. Endres has had several of his clients win national awards for photos that were taken on his trips.
The Northern Lights Trip is limited to six people to ensure that with two vehicles and one guide per vehicle, every participant is seated at a window with easy access to photos.
“It sounds like a minor point, but there is nothing worse than trying to climb over someone to shoot a photo,” he said. Also, the small group size allows for carrying the loads of camera gear that most photographers lug with them.
The other end of the spectrum is Endres’ July outing on a boat in Prince William Sound. That is a great tour for taking advantage of round-the-clock daylight and maritime wildlife photography.
Many award-winning photos have been taken during tours
“From a photography perspective, if you’re trying to maximize time, you don’t spend any time hauling your gear around,” Endres said. “You’re on this boat and you can walk out any time of day and you can shoot any time of the day. We also make shore excursions every day, and we’ll take smaller boats, little inflatable Zodiacs, so we can get photos further inland.”
Anchorage-based Alaska Photo Tours also offers uniquely Alaskan photography adventures in many areas of Alaska.
“We offer photo tours for people who are pretty serious about photography and want to experience nature and wildlife, and we go to places where the wildlife is agreeable to being around them,” said John Toppenberg, one of three owners of Alaska Photo Tours.
“The operators we work with in planning our trips are used to working with photographers, and they know that we’re a different breed,” Toppenberg said. “The normal visitor will see something, take a picture and want to move on, whereas photographers want to get just the right light. And they want to burn up two or three rolls of film on one aspect of the animals they are watching. Our trips give everyone a chance to work at that slower pace.”
As with all true photo safaris, a professional photographer is the trip leader and will offer advice on different aspects of photography. Beyond the obvious technical advice, Toppenberg also likes to emphasize the relationship to the animal or image photographers are looking to photograph.
“I call it ‘having a rapport with wildlife’,” he said. “We spend time with wildlife and let them get used to us, and it allows the wildlife to let us into their world. That’s an important aspect of our trips and why we get so many spectacular photos. When they’ve let you into their world you can get some wonderful shots of the animals as they truly are.”
Alaska Photo Tours is offering a glacier tour to Kenai Fjords National Park out of Seward, a wildly popular brown bear safari, which takes photographers within 50 feet of these magnificent bruins, a fall tour of Denali National Park and a remote Pribilof
Islands trek that offers a chance to photograph some of the more unusual-looking and rare birds and sea mammals in the world.
Washington state photo safari experts Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, offers summer and fall tours of Katmai National Park, a summer tour to the Pribilof Islands to photograph seabirds, a fall tour of Denali Park and another tour called “Humpback Whales of the Inside Passage.”
“Our whole tour is designed for photography and trying to get the best images,” said Rick Vanselow, a photographer and marketer for the company. “We might stay clear of places that are on the beaten path, and we’re going to go to places that are just really great for photography.”
A place like Katmai National Park and Preserve is an excellent destination for up-close photographs, Vanselow said, because the brown bears feeding on salmon are predictable and photographers are guaranteed photos from close range.
All of the company’s trips are designed for the photographer’s needs. “We look at everything from the photographer’s standpoint and go from there,” Vanselow said.
For instance, travelers aren’t limited in the amount or weight of gear they carry, and are not rushed from place to place. Photography is a science for those who truly love it, and getting the perfect image may take rolls of film.
“Our trips are really not like workshops, although clients have full access to photographers who can answer their questions,” said Vanselow. “It’s not a real formal environment, which keeps it personal.”
Toppenberg, of Alaska Photo Tours, said an informal atmosphere really appeals to photographers. As like-minded individuals, they spend lots of time discussing their hobbies among themselves and bouncing ideas off one another.
“There is a lot of talk about Nikon or Canon or what lens is best,” he said. “There’s a lot of pleasant banter that they enjoy while sharing their time with people who love to do what they do.”
Perhaps one of the most intimate photo safaris in Alaska is in the Southeast Alaska community of Haines. Retired school principal and professional photographer Bob Adkins leads clients on photo tours focused on wildlife, particularly Dall sheep, bears and the bald eagles for which Haines is famous.
“I do very small tours with a maximum of four people,” Adkins said. “I will provide as little or as much instruction as you need. For those who are already photographers, I tell them, ‘I will get you close enough to get a publishable image of this particular animal.’”
Adkins currently offers three options —a spring tour for Dall sheep in the Yukon, an August outing for black and brown bears and humpback whales and, in November, another chance to capture Dall sheep and eagles.
Scenic surroundings provide
Photo safaris are not cheap, and can range from $1,800 to $5,000, depending upon the duration of the trip and the destination. But for serious photographers, or those who hope to become serious about it, it’s often a wise investment. An independent trip to
Alaska can reach into the thousands by itself, but pair it with a group of photo enthusiasts who can spend all their time discussing the profession, add in the instructional expertise of Alaska photographers who know the area well, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
“I made it as a shoestring photographer, so I know how hard it is to start,” Endres said. “As a guide, it’s really fun to see clients get so excited about their dream to come up, and they get really cool photos and some of them go on to win awards. For us to see them score, it makes us feel like, ‘Great, we’re doing something good for them.’”
IF YOU GO…
Bob Adkins Photography and Photo Tours
P.O. Box 455, Haines, AK 99827
Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc.
P.O. Box 655, Vashon Island, WA, 98070
Alaska Photo Graphics
Shipping Address: 2923 Moose Mountain Road, Fairbanks, AK 99708
Billing Address: P.O. Box 81312, Fairbanks, AK 99708
Source: Alaska Travel Industry Association