Friday, November 18, 2011

Jon Cornforth returns from twelve weeks in Alaska this summer with a variety of wild images

When it comes to photographic adventuring, Seattle-based Jon Cornforth never seems to slow down. During the past summer, he's made four trips to Alaska for a total of twelve weeks. Enjoying the convenience and mobility of cruising the almost unlimited shorelines in his own 22-foot C-Dory, Serenity, Jon is ready for any wildlife or landscape opportunities that cross his path -- from whales and bears to wildflowers and glaciers. "I spent over 12 weeks in Alaska this past summer. While my photography is increasingly more focused on wildlife encounters, I still shoot dramatic landscape images whenever the conditions are conducive.

"One lesson that I have learned over the last decade of photographing Alaska is that the weather is almost always bad. This makes the occasional dramatic sunrise or sunset all the more special. The following images are from 3 different trips that I did around Prince William Sound, my 9-day visit to Denali National Park, and my 3 week expedition on the outer coast of Katmai National Park. I used my Canon 5D MkII with various Canon and Zeiss lenses as well as Singh-Ray filters for all these images. The resulting pictures are all single exposure RAW files that required a minimal amount of processing using Aperture 3 and Photoshop CS5.

"During my May visit to Cordova, Alaska, I was blessed with nearly a week of perfect weather. Of course, clear blue skies are never conducive to dramatic landscape images, so I kept my eye out for the occasional clouds at sunset. These mountains formed the dramatic backdrop for the prime shorebird viewing area of Hartney Bay. Since it was still early spring, they were still covered in snow almost all the way to sea level. Fortunately for my photography ambitions, high-tide corresponded with sunset which allowed the channels in Hartney Bay to fill with the incoming tide. Since there was almost no wind the night that I created this image, I was able to photograph a near perfect reflection in the calm waters. The clouds lit up with more dramatic colors as the sun set, but I find my photographic eye increasingly drawn to more fully illuminated landscapes with great light, rather than overwhelming neon colors and dark shadows. My Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZE lens was fitted with the LB Warming Polarizer and 4-stop soft-step ND Grad to create this image.

"After visiting Cordova, I used Serenity to cruise from Whittier to the Columbia Glacier. I then spent a week anchored in Jade Cove located on the southeastern side of Columbia Bay during which I used my inflatable to explore the area. I spent much of my time photographing adorable sea otters during the day and then glacier landscapes at sunrise and sunset. Over the years, I have learned to appreciate photography in cloudy conditions in Alaska. Most of the time this is ideal for wildlife, but not so desirable for dramatic landscape images. However, just because it is cloudy doesn’t mean that there aren’t any images to be created. This image of stranded glacial ice on the Columbia Glacier's old moraine bar at low tide is a perfect example of creating an image in murky light conditions. Photographing the deep blues in icebergs requires overcast light and I took advantage of the calm, shallow water at low tide for a reflection. I created this image with my Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZE lens and Singh-Ray 4-stop soft-step Graduated Neutral Density filter. I had to wait patiently for a perfect mirror reflection for more than an hour before I was eventually successful.

"I photographed this rugged view of Nellie Juan Glacier while cruising Prince William Sound with my dad in late June. I had scouted Nellie Juan Fjord several days earlier in rainy conditions and observed a few dwarf fireweed blooms high above the tideline on the granite cliffs. To get to this location, I woke up well before sunrise, navigated my inflatable boat through hazardous submerged rocks guarding the entrance to the fjord, motored through tons of floating ice, and finally tethered my inflatable to the base of a soaring rock wall. I then scrambled high above the water to get to this precarious perch. Once I was in place, I was fortunate to experience perfect landscape photography conditions with clear sky to the east and a few clouds hovering over the mountains to the west. My LB Warming Polarizer and 4-stop soft-step Graduated Neutral Density filter were used for this image.

"This is one of my images from my July visit to Denali National Park. I had been fortunate in receiving a Professional Photography Permit from the Park Service that allowed me to drive the park's 90-mile Wonder Lake Road in my own private vehicle. I had no ambitions to photograph Denali since I had already been successful in 2005 and 2006 when the weather was horrible. Since Denali is typically very cloud covered, I was mostly planning to photograph wildlife near the road. However, when the weather improved and the clouds parted, I switched back to landscape photography mode. This tundra pond is one of thousands located near Wonder Lake. This sunrise was gorgeous with the alpenglow illuminating Denali's summit at 20,000 feet while the clouds clung to the lower flanks of the mountain. There were a lot of water bugs disturbing the surface of this pond, but otherwise the reflection was as close to perfect as possible. I created this image with the LB Warming Polarizer and 4-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter mounted on my 50mm f1.4 ZE lens.

"While visiting Denali, the week started out with terrible weather, but quickly improved and kept getting better every day. With all the clear weather I experienced, I took advantage of every moment the summit was visible. I created this spectacular image on the last day of my permit. After staying up all night for several days and barely sleeping, I had lunch at the Kantishna Roadhouse. After lunch, my intention was to start driving back to Anchorage, but as I was nearing Wonder Lake the mountain was again entirely visible. So much for driving that afternoon. I had scouted several nice patches of fireweed during the week, so I decided to set up my camera for the rest of the day and see what would happen. Not only was it sunny and warm with almost no wind, but the mosquitoes disappeared entirely. This allowed me to comfortably sit at the side of the road while working on my tan with my shirt off. Anyone who has ever been back to Wonder Lake during the summer will appreciate how incredible this sounds. Over the course of 6 hours waiting for the sunset, I listened to some of my favorite music, waved at the occasional bus passing by, and waited for the clouds to part again in order reveal the summit of Denali. Everything came together perfectly about 1 hour before sunset. This image was captured with my LB Warming Polarizer and 3-stop hard-step ND Grad filter.

"Later in July, I used Serenity to return to Prince William Sound and visit Harriman Fjord. I was eager to photograph wildflowers blooming near the tidewater glaciers. My timing was perfect and the weather was spectacular. I had seen a few images of this patch of dwarf fireweed from Alaska photographers that I admire and easily located it during my first reconnaissance of the fjord in my inflatable. I returned the next morning and was rewarded with beautiful sunrise light and clouds. I created this image with my 28mm f2 ZE lens, LB Warming Polarizer, and 3-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter.

"I created this bold image of dwarf fireweed at sunset when I returned to Columbia Bay in July. I was so captivated by the dramatic and wild nature of the place in May that I had to return. It is now one of my favorite locations that I have ever visited in Alaska. I experienced much better weather during this visit and there were loads of wildflowers, especially the hearty dwarf fireweed. This plant grows in areas recently exposed by glacial retreat. This particular patch of flowers was located on the northwest tip of Heather Island along the edge of the old glacial moraine bar. Before settling on this composition, I ran around like a madman trying to find the best group of wildflowers that would complement the dramatic sunset that was unfolding. For this scene I used my 28mm f2 ZE lens, LB Warming Polarizer, and 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter. During brief but dramatic moments like this, a photographer must be comfortable with his/her equipment and methodically use the skills that have been mastered through years of practice.

"My August expedition to the outer coast of Katmai National Park was incredibly dangerous, but it allowed me to create some unique images. I took my boat on the ferry from Homer to Kodiak and then used it to cross treacherous Shelikof Strait in order to spend several weeks living with the brown bears. I spent the entire trip as close to brown bears as anyone has ever been. This probably sounds insane to most people, but brown bears are not going to just run up and eat you for no reason. However, they must be respected at all times. One of the new techniques that I employed was using PocketWizards to remotely trigger my cameras so that I could shoot wide-angle images of the bears. Guessing where to pre-position my cameras was the challenge, but I got better at it as I learned the bears' routines. While visiting Kuliak Bay, I noticed that certain bears regularly walked past this location, so I placed one of my cameras on a tripod low to the ground and waited. I remotely triggered the camera whenever a bear walked in front of it. I created this image using my 2-stop hard-step Graduated ND filter to balance the exposure for the bright sky with the foreground.

"During the past eight years, I have increasingly focused my photography ambitions on Alaska. My long-term goal is to gather enough images and experience to publish a book about Alaska. My short term goal is to continue serving the needs of the travel and calendar market with fresh wildlife and landscape images that reveal Alaska's many natural attractions. It's a big land, and a big challenge for all of us outdoor photographers."

"As I mentioned, I have been increasingly focused on wildlife photography. This past summer, I swam with wild Atlantic spotted dolphins in the Bahamas, and served as co-leader for my first Polar Bear Photography Tour with Steve Kazlowski. We will be expanding our polar bear tours in September and October of 2012. I will also be co-leading an incredibly unique tour along with underwater photographer Tony Wu in July and August 2012 when we will take clients to photograph humpback whales in both Alaska and Tonga. However, I am really looking forward to refocusing on landscape photography this December when I visit the US National Park of American Samoa and spend the holidays with my family on Maui. I look forward to photographing remote tropical beaches that I will have all to myself. There is nothing quite like the solitude of a beautiful ocean sunrise with the waves crashing against the shore."

Jon is currently realigning his entire website this winter. He is also a regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer and Popular Photography as well as being very active on social media. Please visit him on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, 500px, and YouTube where he regularly shares his most recent adventure as well as provides photography tips.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


If you don't like the weather, you probably shouldn't be here in the first place. That's what makes Alaskans, Alaskan, and outsiders... just that. There's a quote "There's much beauty in total chaos." Alaska, whether it's geological or atmospheric you have to take in that moment and tell that STORY. That's my friend, is what makes a real Alaska photographer a huge success locally and internationally!

In each trip you take to Alaska, I enjoy watching how this great State impacts you and your photography.

Scott Slone