Lens Guides

Top Five Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Alaska Photo Tour

Timing

Getting the best experience out of a wildlife photo tour in Alaska means choosing the optimal month to visit to get the best balance of daylight, temperature, and weather. Learn what animals, mammals, and plants / flowers to look out for on your tour. Learn what to do and what not to do around wildlife. Get advice from an expert guide or tour leader, ask locals or join an experienced photo tour leader. My favorite month for photographing brown bear is July to late August, for bald eagles, March is my favorite time of the year.

Bring the Perfect Lens

When I first starting traveling to Alaska 10 years ago to photograph wildlife the best equipment at that time was a 600mm lens on a tripod and 300mm prime as a secondary lens. The problem with a system like that was the limited flexibility when it came to framing as there were times where you would too tight or too loose when the action broke out. With modern zoom lenses that problem is long gone, now you can just relax and wait for the action with the confidence that you will be able to frame and capture the action perfectly whatever happens, even if the subject heads straight at you. Once you use a modern lens like the 150-600 sports lens, the image quality and high coverage zoom ratio will make it very hard to justify going back to a long prime lens.
This is my current lens arsenal that I will taking to Alaska in July and August this year.

 

Lenses
This four lens set-up has me perfect coverage from 12mm up to 600mm (up to 900mm equivalent with a crop sensor) with professional image quality. The 120-300 F2.8 DG OS HSM | Sports lens with and without the 1.4X or 2X has me covered in low light situations.

Choose the Right Gear to Transport Your Equipment in Alaska

Over the years I have found the safest and easiest way to transport gear is a hybrid system that uses an internal compartment unit that will fit inside a roller and backpack. This way the gear is easy on your back as you coast through town and the airport on wheels but once you arrive at the location you just pull out the compartment unit and slip it into a backpack. This system really is the best of both worlds and is a lot more economical than a separate photo roller and backpack.

gear

This is my internal compartment unit in my roller. This internal unit can be removed and slipped into a backpack once you arrive on location. The backpack folds flat in your check-in luggage. One of the best things about a hybrid system like this is ability to help you avoid a check-in issue at the gate since you can slip out the internal compartment unit and carry with you to board a plane leaving the empty roller (or backpack) to be gate-checked.

Unless you plan on swimming with your gear forget about waterproof plastic cases, these types of cases are just way too heavy.

Bring the Right Outerwear

The most consistent wildlife in Alaska is found near water so you will most likely be close to water, in the water, or about to cross a body of water when you are out on a photo tour so waders are one of the most important pieces of gear you can bring. I use three types of wader depending on the temperature range and expected water depth; convertible chest wader, wading pants, and convertible thigh wader.

L to R, convertible chest wader, chest wader folded down, wading pants, convertible thigh wader, convertible thigh waders folded down.
L to R, convertible chest wader, chest wader folded down, wading pants, convertible thigh wader, convertible thigh waders folded down.

For coastal southwest Alaska in summer be prepared for temperatures in the 48-60 degree range, with the possibility of a rain and wind at anytime. Your best bet is always to dress in layers to stay warm and dry when it’s chilly or wet, and you can peel off layers and stow them as the weather warms up. Synthetic materials are always better than wool or cotton because of their quick drying, weight and warmth characteristics.

Proper Technique

Never compromise your photography technique like a proper shutter speed. Always move quietly and slowly around wildlife. Be patient and put yourself in the best location possible and wait for the action to come to you and never chase a shot in Alaska. Always be aware and courteous to others while in the field, don’t block another photographer to get a shot. Never miss a chance to shoot and for best results get out there early and always stay late.

© 2015 Robert OToole | Brown bear with chase. Sigma 120-300 F2.8 DG OS HSM | Sports lens + Sigma 1.4X TC and Nikon D4, 1/1250s, f/4, 420mm, ISO 1250, EV + .7, Manual mode, handheld.
© 2015 Robert OToole | Brown bear with chase. Sigma 120-300 F2.8 DG OS HSM | Sports lens + Sigma 1.4X TC and Nikon D4, 1/1250s, f/4, 420mm, ISO 1250, EV + .7, Manual mode, handheld.

If you have any questions or comments be sure to share ’em in the comments section below.

About the Author

Robert O’Toole is a Sigma Pro and has been a professional photographer for more than 20 years. As an accomplished instructor, Robert leads photography workshop tours across the US and internationally. For more info, visit Robert’s website.

Comments (2)
  1. Noah Reiter says:

    I don’t have immediate plans to return to Alaska, but this is a great article, with some great tips not only for Alaska but other locations as well. Thanks for sharing them!

  2. Robert,
    Thanks very much for this. Could you provide details for the hybrid system you use for transporting your gear? Clearly its something that you have found through experimentation. I’d love to check it out. Thank you!

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