The Lumix Diaries: Adventures in Alaska

Posted Jul. 31st, 2014 by Daniel J. Cox

The Lumix Diaries Adventures in Alaska post is a compilation of a recent month long shoot in our 50th state. I’ve chosen not to write a day to day description since a lot of wildlife and nature photography can be very boring and uneventful. What I have included are the highlights of my work with the Arctic Documentary Project, photographing Snowy Owls, and the two week long Invitational Photo Tours where we took two small groups to southeast Alaska to photograph humpback whales. I’m sharing some of the more exciting moments as well as offering technical details on how I produced some of the still photographs using the new Panasonic Lumix GH4, as well as my Nikon system. The GH4 was used almost exclusively for the whales, whereas the Nikon system and the GH4 were used for documenting the Owl Research Institute’s fieldwork for the Arctic Documentary Project. For those who want a quick way to see some of the technical details on settings I used and features I employed, look for the Technical Details to skip what some folks might consider the blah, blah, blah in between.

Daniel J. Cox 

Tings can get pretty boring when you spend up to twelve hours a dray in a hide. I dozed off for a short period and my remote camera set to document inside the hide fought me snoozing. Good thing I work for myself.  GoPro Hero Black edition.

Things can get pretty boring when you spend up to 12 hours a day in a blind. I dozed off for a short period and my remote camera set to document inside the hide caught me snoozing. Good thing I work for myself or I might have to fire me 🙂 GoPro Hero Black edition

Barrow, Alaska – June 27, 2014

Alaska, or the “The Last Frontier”, as it’s commonly known, is one of my favorite places on earth. Yeah ok, I know I’ve made that comment about many places I’ve written about here on the blog. It’s the upside to having the world as your backyard. If I didn’t call Montana home, it might just be Alaska. I’ve been off the road, hunkered down where I hang my hat in Bozeman, Montana, for only three days, having just returned from Italy. Our office phone rings and it’s a dear friend, Denver Holt. Denver runs an organization called the Owl Research Institute. He helped me produce my first project for National Geographic titled Snowy Owl that ran as a cover story in 2001. His request was short and simple, “Dan, you’ve got to get up here. It’s another great year for Snowy Owls.” Oh… man, I thought. I’m shot, but a photographer dreams of friends as thoughtful as Denver, and I knew I had three weeks before our whale trips in southeast Alaska. Tanya and I discussed the logistics and within a day I was on my way north.

Daniel Cox and Denver Holt, Alaska.

Denver Holt and I on the tundra in Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 12-35mm F/2.8

The next five weeks were a combination of Snowy Owls at the furthest northern tip of Alaska and whales at the opposite end of the state in the southeast. The northern part of the adventure was on my own, documenting Denver’s Snowy Owl study as part of the Arctic Documentary Project (ADP). Much of my work today is for Polar Bears International that the ADP is part of. Thankfully, the ADP provides funding for what I call my serious work. The second part of my month included two whale watching trips – taking guests to photograph humpback and killer whales as part of our Invitational Photo Tours. Five weeks in Alaska can only be described in one way; life as good as it gets.

Denver Holt in the field in the field in Alaska.

Denver Holt bundled in his heavy parka for a summer’s day in the Alaskan Arctic. Lumix GH4 with 12-35mm F/2.8

Barrow, AK, where Denver’s Snowy Owl project is located, is the furthest point north in all of the United States. It’s right at the top of the world, and summer weather is more like late fall in Montana. Along with cold temperatures in the mid to high 30s, you can have lots and lots of fog, freezing rain, and winds that can blast  your hat far into the Canadian Arctic. Working there is never easy. We travel by four wheelers on the limited road system and then trade wheels for boots to hike the mushy tundra when the graveled lanes end.

Denver Holt crossing a river on the tundra during snowy owl research. Alaska

Denver Holt crossing a river on the tundra during Snowy Owl research, Alaska. Nikon D600 with 24-70mm F/2.8

Denver meets my flight and we grab my four bags of video tripods, cameras, blinds, and warm clothing. The cab is barely large enough to stuff it all inside, but push comes to shove and everything gets crammed into a car the size of a large go-cart. He tells the cabbie our address and off we go, Denver leading the way on a white Honda four wheeler. I think to myself, a white four wheeler? Oh… ok, Mr. Snowy Owl, that explains it.

Denver Holt reviewing photos of snowy owls at the Owl Research Institute house in Barrow, Alaska.  People,

Denver Holt reviewing photos of Snowy Owls at the Owl Research Institute house in Barrow, Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 7-14mm

Like many things in nature, some years are excellent and some years are challenging. Denver and I gather around the kitchen table at his rented apartment and discuss the positive cycle that’s currently occurring for Snowy Owls. Nobody knows why one year is exceptional and the next year a bust, but it all seems to revolve around the wonderful little creature known as the lemming. Here in northern Alaska there are actually two different varieties of the lemming, one is the brown and the other the collared. Both are about the same size and equally sought after by Snowy Owls on the hunt. Denver’s 20+ year study has been nearly as much about lemmings as it’s been about Snowy Owls, for without lemmings there are no owls. Denver believes it’s the lemmings that feed the arctic. He’s convinced that when lemmings are doing well, everything does well. When lemmings are abundant, every other animal is productive, including the Sandhill Cranes, the  Tundra Swans, eiders, jaegers, Snowy Owls, and the Arctic Fox. In Denver’s mind, the lemming is the fuel for all the far north.

Brown lemming on the tundra. Alaska

Brown Lemming on the tundra, Alaska Nikkon F5 with 70-200mm F/2.8

This summer the Snowy Owls dot the landscape. Denver’s study area encompasses wide open tundra owned and managed by the local Inupiat people. They’ve put him in charge of controlling those who might want to access the nest sites of these captivating creatures. Having someone who is looking out for the owls is essential since the popularity of such a bird is hard to comprehend and disturbance could be easy. Known to the locals as Ukpik, these birds of white have been part of the local culture for hundreds and thousands of years, and even today the local people harvest some of the owl eggs as part of their accepted subsistence food gathering.

Snowy owl, male sitting on the tundra hunting. Alaska.

Male Snowy Owl hunting on the tundra, Alaska. Nikon D4 with 600mm F/4

Gaining access to the daily life of any animal is all about patience and stealth. Photographing birds of prey requires several days of placing your blind far from the nest and slowly moving it closer so the mother can get accustomed to it.

My first day with the owls was at a distance of 100 yards. Over the next three days I move it closer and closer until it finally rests at the mandatory 30 meters. The eggs have already hatched which is an unwritten rule I follow to make sure the parents are more committed and are much less likely to decide a blind is something disturbing enough to cause abandonment. Even so, when first setting up my blind, I make sure the weather is without rain or snow; the mother can’t be away from the nest for more than 15 minutes, and if she doesn’t return in this amount of time the blind comes down. I’m happy to say I’ve never had a bird abandon any nest. With time, she settled down and ignored it all together.

Snowy owl shoot, dan in the blind near nest site. Alaska.

Me in the Leonard Lee Rue lll  blind near a nest site on the vast open tundra, Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 7-14mm zoom

Technical Details

For this shoot I’ve brought all my equipment which now includes the new Panasonic Lumix GH4. The GH4 has the ability to shoot 4K video which I’m excited to try. Along with two new GH4’s I have the Lumix Vario lenses including the 100-300mm F/4-5.6, 45-175mm, 35-100mm, 12-35mm, as well as the Nocticron 42.5mm and a Novoflex Micro Four Thirds to Nikon lens adapter.

Snowy Owl, female with chicks on nest. Alaska

Female Snowy Owl with chicks in a nest. Lumix GH4 with Novoflex MFT to Nikon lens adapter on Nikon 600mm F/4

Along with my Panasonic gear I have my Nikon’s which include the Nikon D4, D800, and D600 bodies. Lenses cover all Nikkors in the ranges of 24-70mm F/2.8, 80-400mm F/4.5.6, as well as the very large but amazingly sharp 600m F/4. The 600mm will give me an effective 1200mm super telephoto when attached to the GH4. There are downsides to using a Lumix body attached to a Nikon lens, but the upsides are worth giving it a try.

Snowy owl, male brings brown lemming in to nest site. Alaska.

A male Snowy Owl brings a Brown Lemming into the nest site, Alaska.  This is the kind of image I need longer Lumix lenses for. Until then, I’m using the Nikon D4 with 600mm F/4

July 30, 2014

The arctic night comes and goes without much fan fare. In Alaska’s north you don’t get the normal indicators that it’s time to go to bed. If it wasn’t for the watch on my wrist it would be impossible to stay on a normal schedule. Then again nothing is really normal in the Alaskan arctic. Here, the sun never actually sets, so the sky is always bright. Finding a dark place to lay your head is a challenge. Two days prior, when I walked in to Denver’s one bedroom apartment, my eyes immediately began searching for a place to make a nest. The couch was offered, but I knew there wouldn’t be much privacy with the kitchen just four paces to the south. Had it been just Denver I wouldn’t be concerned, but as usual there was a field assistant who was part of the cast. Simone Welsh, a young, energetic, female teacher from the Netherlands would most certainly have no interest in greeting a crusty old photographer snoring on the couch each morning. No, I had to find my spot.

On the far end of the room was the front door. Directly across from the entrance was a small room, what most people would call the front closet. Perfect, I thought. I grabbed the knob on the accordion-like panels and the front closet filled with light. Not much there, a few items of Denver’s on the top shelf, a couple of Patagonia coats, and nothing on the carpeted floor. It was approximately three feet wide and 10 feet long. The best part is you could shut the doors. Without question this was my home for the next ten days. My Thermorest for padding was an L.L. Bean lightweight sleeping bag, and as far as I was concerned it was as good as any Hilton I’ve ever paid for.

My sleeping quarters at the Owl Research Institute house in Barrow.

My sleeping quarters at the Owl Research Institute house in Barrow. Lumix GH4 with 7-14mm zoom

The next few days are busy helping Denver scout for new nests, run the lemming research line, and moving the blind closer to a nest. Part of my reason for coming here was to shoot new images of Denver working in the field collecting data. New stills and video will go a long way in helping to explain why this research is important to the supporters who fund his projects. It’s of equal interest to the Arctic Documentary Project where the multimedia materials I produce can be distributed to zoos, aquariums, and other learning facilities for educational purposes.

Denver Holt taking measurements of a snowy owl egg. Alaska. .

Denver Holt taking measurements of a Snowy Owl egg, Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 14-45mm zoom

It’s been three days since the female owl has had a chance to accept my blind, and today I’m able to spend my first hours in the blind, looking in on the life of a Snowy Owl family. The nest we’ve chosen is home to a pair I had seen in years past, about a mile from the road where I park my four wheeler. My first outing to the nest site includes all of the camera gear I’ve mentioned, tripods, and a folding chair. The tundra is soft and mushy, so it’s similar to walking across a sandy beach which means your body is certain you’re taking two steps forward and one step back. It’s a slog and by the time I enter the blind I’m soaked with sweat.

Working with the Lumix GH4 attached to my Nikkor 600mm F/4 in the blind at the net site. Alaska.

Working with the Lumix GH4 attached to my Nikkor 600mm F/4 in the blind at the nest site, Alaska. Lumix GH3 with 7-14mm zoom

I’m excited to see what I can capture, since during my shoot for the original Snowy Owl National Geographic story, I was only able to get one or two images of the beautiful white male. This year’s male is aggressive and isn’t afraid to come to the nest. Generally males fly to within 30-50 yards of the brooding female, at which point she will fly out to meet him to take any prey back to the chicks, however, this pair is different and I’ve seen the male on the nest mound many times the past several days.

Snowy owl, male and female at nest site. Alaska.

Snowy Owl, male and female at nest site, Alaska. Nikon D4 with 600mm F/4

Technical Details

For the next full week I enter the blind somewhere around 11:00am and stay most nights until 11:00pm. To carry my gear to the blind I was using my Lowepro 400AW camera pack that contained my Nikon D800 body along with two Lumix GH4’s, one attached to a 100-300mm zoom and the other with the Novoflex Micro Four Thirds to Nikon lens adapter. Over my shoulder was my Nikkor 600mm F/4 attached to a Nikon D4. Each day I used the D4 for flight and action footage, the D800 in cropped sensor mode for  images of the female on the nest feeding chicks, and the GH4’s were along to shoot 4K video.

My blind, the Rue Ultimate Photo Blind, was made by Leonard Lee Rue lll who is the grandfather of wildlife photography and was the most prolific and published natural history photographer from about 1950 up until the mid 90s. He’s probably the most published natural history photographer of all time. His blinds are well built, well designed, and easy to transport. When I first shot the Snowy Owls back in the late 90s I used a very small, close to the ground blind that made flight images extremely difficult. For this shoot I was looking forward to using the taller, more roomy LL Rue blind with its many advantages, the biggest being the well placed and small but effective screened windows that encircle 180 degrees from side to side. These gave me the ability to see the either owl flying in with prey, allowing me to be ready when they came within range for photos.

Yeager harassing female snowy owl, Alaska.

Jaeger harassing female a Snowy Owl, Alaska. Nikon D4 and 600mm F/4

Which brings me to the most exciting of the seven days spent in the blind. I had been sitting for nearly ten hours, swatting mosquitoes and later trying to stay warm. The female owl had been perched on a high piece of tundra about 100 yards from the nest when she suddenly jumped up and flew out of sight below the horizon line several hundred yards to the north. As she dipped below my view, I saw a pair of Jaegers come flying in to attack. They continued their dive bombing maneuvers, which is typical behavior when a predator, the Snowy Owl, comes too close to their nest. At first I just figured the female owl had seen or heard them and had gone to investigate. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes went by when all of the sudden she reappears just above the tundra she had vanished behind.

Snowy owl, female flies in to nest site with spectacled eider she has killed and partially consumed. Alaska.

Female Snowy Owl flies into the nest site with a Spectacled Eider she has killed and partially consumed, Alaska.

Dangling from her talons was something huge……. and very dark. and I thought, holy mackerel what the heck has she got? She was on a beeline for the nest but her flight was labored; she was obviously struggling with the weight of whatever it was she had captured. About a hundred hards from the nest she landed and began ripping at the unidentified prey locked in her vice-like death grasp. Ten more minutes passed when she leaped in to the air determined to finish her aerial raid with what I suspected was a precious cargo of prey for the chicks. I sat forward in my portable chair and grabbed the D4 and 600mm lens attached to the Manfroto 504HD video head on a Gitzo Systematic 5 Carbon fiber tripod. I swung the monstrous setup towards her and it was then I could finally see what she was carrying. It was a Spectacled Eider, much of it shredded from her initial feed. The arctic winds were howling in the same direction she was flying so she was approaching like a missile. It was all I could do to keep her in the D4’s viewfinder as she careened towards the nest site, banking at the last minute to slow her approach. I shot ten frames with a camera that’s capable of ten frames per second. When she landed I crossed my fingers and whispered to a higher power.

Snowy owl, female flies in to nest with red phalarope. Alaska.

Female Snowy Owl flies into the nest with Red Phalarope, Alaska. Nikon D4 with 600mm F/4

It’s not enjoyable to see another animal lose its life, but when one creature dies, another can live. Just two days earlier I watched the smallest of the four chicks begging desperately for a piece of the lemming his older sibling was in the process of gobbling down whole. A mother Snowy Owl does not play favorites, but the most advanced of her young are always the first ones in line when prey is brought to the nest. If you are small and unable to compete, you are the last one to eat, and the smallest of this hungry, growing family was dead the next day. Three days earlier an even smaller chick perished and was fed to its siblings to keep them alive. Nature is not pretty nor fair, but food is food when you’re trying to raise your family in an environment that lives and breathes on survival of the fittest. This reality check is something we humans have lost.

Snowy owl chicks starting to move out on the tundra from nest. Alaska.

Snowy Owl chicks starting to move out on the tundra from the nest site, Alaska. Nikon D600 with 24-70mm F/2.8

During my week in the blind I shot nearly 10,000 frames of life on the tundra growing up as a Snowy Owl. Eventually the chicks began to move away from the nest and disperse across the tundra. The parents will be feeding them for the next several weeks and they’ll eventually fly sometime in August or early September.

Technical Details

Most of the images I shot from the blind were with my Nikon D4 and the 600mm F/4 lens. I also shot the GH4 attached to the 600mm F/4 Nikkor to capture 4K video footage. I learned some valuable lessons about quality video from this shoot. First and foremost, I need a larger, heavier tripod. With the GH4 attached to the Nikkor 600mm you effectively get a 1200mm lens since all lenses attached to a Micro Four Thirds format camera are multiplied  by two. Keeping a 1200mm lens steady, even on a relatively large tripod, is not an easy task. The wind was my number one enemy. Since the Nikkor and the Lumix are not made for each other, I lost all auto focus and image stabilization features that would have given me much more stabilized video. Shooting through the blind’s window port, the large lens made contact with the cloth material. As the wind blew it shook the blind which then shook the lens. I’ve been able to remove some of the most obvious lens motion via Apple’s Final Cut Pro X but it’s not a perfect solution

The 4K video from the Lumix GH4 is absolutely stunning! There are two ways to shoot video with the new GH4. If you are new to shooting video you may not know that all video cameras will shoot at shutter speeds similar to what a still camera can capture. Shutter speeds such as 1/250 of a second or higher. However, for quality movie footage you need to set your cameras shutter speed one stop faster than the video frame rate you’ve chosen in the cameras video menu options. For example, I was shooting Cinema 4K quality at 24 frames per second (FPS). Therefore, I chose a shutter speed of 1/50th. of a second. This is a common rule of thumb for quality moving pictures. The slower shutter speed allows the moving subjects to blur ever so slightly and the end result looks more natural than a whole series of images shot at a shutter speed that would completely stop all action. Video shot at too high a shutter speed looks choppy.

There is a wonderful reason to break this video rule of thumb, and it relates to pulling individual still frames from your video clips. The GH4 has the ability to shoot, in Cinema 4K mode, as fast a shutter speed as the light will allow. You would meter exactly as you would in a normal still capture situation, selecting a shutter speed of let’s say 1/500th of a second or higher, while capturing 24fps video clips. Like still capture, as long as there is enough light you’re fine. The camera will capture each of these frames as if you had shot every one individually at 1/500th of a second.

This is a 8 megapixel, individual frame grab from the 4K video footage I shot with the GH4. I grabbed the frame from Adobe's Lightroom which LR then drops in to the library. I then went in and sharped as usual. Simply stunning and the still photo world will never be the same. Lumix GH4 Cinematic 4k video with Nikkor 600mm F/4

This is an 8 megapixel individual frame grab from the 4K video footage I shot with the GH4. I grabbed the frame from Adobe’s Lightroom which LR then drops into the library. I then went in and sharpened as usual. Simply stunning and the still photo world will never be the same. Lumix GH4 Cinematic 4k video with Nikkor 600mm F/4

All video clips shot in the Cinema 4K mode contain individual still frames that are over 8 megapixels in size, so the file size is plenty large enough for quality still imagery. The above image is one sample. Interestingly, since I shot this with a non Lumix lens, I have no idea what shutter speed this was shot at. This image was most likely shot at 1/50th of a second, but I did shoot one clip at 1/500th of a second based on the info above. However I can’t find it since the lens and camera weren’t talking to each other and I have no EXIF info to tell me which clip to use. The point of discussing this is that video shot at 1/500th of a second would give us even sharper, more detailed results. If the above was shot at 1/50th as I think it was, it’s even more impressive.

Denver Holt rides his four wheeler across the mouth of salt water estuary along the coast of the Beaufort Sea. Individual still frame taken from video from GoPro Black Edition.

Denver Holt rides his four wheeler across the mouth of salt water estuary along the coast of the Beaufort Sea. Individual still frame taken from video from GoPro Black Edition

One part of the video puzzle I forgot to mention was the new Panasonic 32GB SD card I was using. To capture Cinema 4K you need to have a very fast card and the fastest versions being made today are labeled with a U with the letter 3 in the middle of the U. I have many SanDisk cards that write at 95mbs but only have a U-1 rating. Some photographers are reporting the U-1 rated cards are also working but to make sure my 4K video was flawless, I chose to go with what Panasonic recommends in their manual, the fast U-3 version cards. This was my first shoot with Panasonic cards and they worked flawlessly. I left one in the pocket of my Carharts that went through a wash and dry cycle. So far no issues with that card either. Admittedly, I’ve had SanDisk Extreme’s do as well, but it’s nice to know there’s another high quality option out there.

Another still frame grabbed from regular 1080HD video footage that was shot of Denver giving an interview. Lumix GH3 with 14-45mm lens.

Another still frame grabbed from regular 1080HD video footage that was shot of Denver giving an interview. Lumix GH4 with 14-45mm lens

The remainder of my time with Denver was spent shooting video and still footage of his fieldwork with the owls. I used the GH3 and GH4 exclusively, mostly with the 12-35mm F/2.8 for documenting his time banding the chicks, running the lemming research project, and capturing images of him in his mobile office. I also used the GH4 to create several interviews where Denver discusses what his 20+ year study is all about, why it’s important, and the future of his work in the north. Overall the GH4 performed flawlessly, taking the abuse of cold weather, getting drenched in rain, banged against other cameras as I hiked the tundra, and just general overall hard use. The GH4’s ability to take serious maltreatment, professional use demands, has become more obvious on every shoot. I treat these cameras exactly as I have my Nikons and the Lumix gear hasn’t skipped a beat. It’s impressive.

July 10, 2014 – Juneau, Alaska

Changing gears, Barrow to Juneau in southeast Alaska. My time in the arctic was short but productive. It was a banner year for Snowy Owl nests, but it’s now time to get back to the teaching side of our business, helping others become competent photographers. My wife Tanya and my godson Colter are meeting me in Juneau where we’ll be collecting a small group of enthusiastic Explorers who’ve signed up to photograph whales in southeast Alaska. Our goal is mainly humpbacks but we’re hopeful we’ll have opportunities for Orcas as well. Orcas are never guaranteed, but I’ve almost always been lucky enough to photograph killer whales on this trip to the glacial fed waters of southern Alaska. If we’re lucky we’ll have opportunities for glaciers, stellar sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals, and bald eagles too.

Glacial ice at low tide on the beach in SE Alaska.

Glacial ice at low tide on the beach in near Ford’s Terror in southeast Alaska. Lumix GH4 12-35mm F/2.8

I arrive in Juneau and get off the plane feeling hot in the warmer southern temps. It’s not hot compared to let’s say California, but compared to Barrow it feels like summer. Tanya and Colter give me a hug as we gather my four bags of luggage, pile it in the little Toyota RAV, and head for the Aspen Suites. It’s a nice enough hotel, the walls decorated with beautiful scenes from the Alaska wilderness. Local photography is very common in the hotels of Alaska. The king-sized bed is a luxurious bonus compared to my ten days sleeping in the closet at the ORI house in Barrow.

Guests begin arriving at the airport where Colter greets them. While he’s off collecting our Explorers, Tanya and I sit down to discuss a serious change of plans that has arisen since I’ve arrived. It seems Marc, our boat captain, has ripped his Achilles tendon the day before we’re to leave and he’s in serious pain. He’s unable to get in for an MRI for at least a week so he sucks it up, puts on a boot cast, and makes a few calls to put together a spur of the moment crew.

We had never met Marc, but we had heard all positive things about his abilities to find whales and other creatures in southeast Alaska as well as run a safe, clean ship. His accident was unexpected and unfortunate, but as I regularly remind our guests, things like this happen in the Adventure Travel business and you have to be able to roll with the punches.

Captain Marc puts his badly injured foot up for a rest. Lumix GM1 with 12-32mm lens

Captain Marc puts his badly injured foot up for a rest. Lumix GM1 with 12-32mm lens

After spending the morning with Marc I was convinced as one can be in such a short period of time that he was a good guy, a man with integrity who planned to keep his end of the bargain one way or the other. He wasn’t about to let us down, so he found another certified skipper and deckhand that he spent the next week training during our first one week trip photographing whales. He was in a lot of pain the entire time, the new captain was a bit of a challenge, and the deckhand seemed to be in another world the first few days. It wasn’t a perfect situation but we all took a deep breath and made the trip work.

A boat looks on as a group of Humpback Whales finish a bubble net feed. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm lens

A boat looks on as a group of Humpback Whales finish a bubble net feed. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm lens

Our first week out we headed south of Juneau. We were cruising to the same area I had visited numerous times throughout the 90s and it had always been productive. While traveling the inner waterways we began to see numerous individuals. Separate whales are easy to find but we were hoping to see the group that is known to practice a behavior described as bubble net feeding.

Bubble net feeding is a cooperative effort between as many as 12-18 whales where they corral a ball of herring by circling them and blowing bubbles to produce a visual barrier that the herring won’t penetrate. The humpbacks start deep, spiraling upwards in unison, establishing a 40 foot circle, exhaling in large bursts creating their ring of bubbles that confuse the herring. At the end of the spiral, just below the ocean’s surface, their mouths open wide as they thrust themselves up, breaching the water’s surfaces, swallowing as many confused and bewildered herring as they can gulp down. All of this happens at the same time so the show is hard to believe, a dozen or more whales coming to the surface in mass, bellowing, honking, and blowing air through their pipes that sound like fog horns. It is impressive to say the least. This is the show we were looking for but unfortunately during our first week it never happened.

A beautiful sunset ends the day on Fredric's Sound in SE Alaska.

A beautiful sunset ends the day on Frederick Sound in southeast Alaska.

When photographing Humpback Whales there are three things a photographer is hoping to see. The first and most uncommon is bubble net feeding, the second is breaching, and the third is best described as whale tails. Whale tails is where a humpback makes a deep dive, and  their huge tail thrusts towards the sky as the rest of their hug body dives into the abyss. They don’t do this every time they go beneath the surface, but it does happen quite regularly and it can be beautiful to watch as the water comes streaming off their airplane like winged appendage.

A massive adult Humpback whale comes nearly completely out of the water in a spectacular breach. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm zoom.

A massive adult Humpback Whale comes nearly completely out of the water in a spectacular breach. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm zoom

We shoot lots of whales tail our first week. There were a few opportunities with a small group of Orcas, and we saw a wonderful group of sea otters and Stellar Sea Lions hauled out on beaches, a few Harbor Seals, some Bald Eagles and lots beautiful scenery.

A very young Orca whale surfaces briefly with as it follows it's mother. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm zoom.

A very young Orca whale surfaces briefly with as it follows its mother. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm zoom

For the whale trips I brought all the cameras I had in Barrow but the Nikons saw little action. My GH4’s with the 100-300mm zoom were a perfect tool for capturing the varied wildlife we were seeing. Zooms can’t be beat when on a boat, in a blind, a vehicle, or any other situation where you just can’t move forward or move backward. I’ve been using zooms almost exclusively since 1987 and they’ve produced well over a million images that I’ve earned a living from over my 30 years as a photographer.

Dan photographing humpback whales in SE Alaska using the Lumix GH4 with the 100-300mm lens. Lumix GM1 with 12-32mm zoom

Dan photographing Humpback whales in southeast Alaska using the Lumix GH4 with the 100-300mm lens. Lumix GM1 with 12-32mm zoom

Technical Details

I came to appreciate another superb feature the GH4 has. That is its ability to shoot 12 frames per second when it’s not in AFC mode. Here’s how I used it. First I set the camera’s Burst Mode to high via menu system, which changes the maximum frame rate to 12 FPS. Next, I switched the Focus Mode Lever to AFS/AFF. The lever needs to be set in this position to be able to shoot at 12fps. AFS/AFF puts the camera in Single AF mode which means it won’t try to focus while the camera is firing at the high frame rate. I would focus on the tail as the whale began to dive, let up on the back AF button, hit the shutter button, and let the camera fire at its optimum 12fps. Having so many frames to choose from is a major benefit when water droplets and running water come pouring off the tail.

As I write this I realize I should explain the Back Button AF on the GH4. Quite simply, the idea is to take the AF activation off the front shutter button and move it to the button on the back of the GH4 labeled AF/AE Lock. This is generally a superior way to focus the camera and it’s an option on all Nikon and most Canons. Canon invented the idea, Nikon perfected it, and now we have it in the Lumix system as well. Just another small but important detail that proves the GH4 is target towards serious photographers.

The golden light of late evening catches an unidentified bird feather that lodged itself in the anchor chain. Lumix GH4 with 35-100mm F/2.8

The golden light of late evening catches an unidentified bird feather that lodged itself in the anchor chain. The Back Button AF was used to focus on the feather.  Lumix GH4 with 35-100mm F/2.8

The idea for Back Button AF is to activate focus by pushing the AF/AE Lock button. This is a Custom Settings option you need to initiate. The first thing you want to do is open the Custom Settings menu. Next, navigate to the 1/9 screen and at the bottom of that screen is the option Shutter AF/On. You want to turn this OFF. Now look two options above the Shutter AF/Off and you will see AF/AE set to AF/AE Lock position. Open this menu option and select the fourth/last option at the bottom, AF/On. You now have removed AF from the shutter button and moved it to the back AF/AE Lock button. To activate focus you simply push the AF/AE Lock button and the camera focuses. Let up and it locks focus.

How this now works is hard to explain but I’m going to give it a shot. The idea behind this customization is to remove AF from the same button you fire the camera with. This allows for better composition, allowing you to focus on a specific part of the image, by placing the AF sensor where you want critical focus. It’s also generally best to use a single AF sensor point with this procedure.

Here are the exact steps in a fast moving situation. First, select the AF sensor you want to use in your camera’s viewfinder. Next, point that AF sensor at your subject and push the AF/AE Lock button to initiate focus. When the focus locks on, release the AF/AE Lock button. Now, recompose the image by moving the the camera to place your subject in whatever part of the frame you choose. Finally, press the shutter release button to take the picture.

Back Button AF is often much faster than moving the AF sensor around to the exact point where you want critical focus, at least it was with my Nikons. The GH4 is a bit of a different story since it has the ability to move the AF sensor anywhere in the frame. The Touch LCD allows you to move the AF spot with the camera to your eye by touching your thumb to the back LCD and moving the AF point. Even so, I still use the Back Button AF nearly 100% of the time. It’s by far the most efficient way to focus a camera if your concerned about composition. It’s often much quicker than the commonly known procedure of holding the front shutter button half way down to lock AF, recomposing and shooting.

July 11, 2014 – Juneau, Alaska

We arrive at the Juneau harbor. It’s a cool morning somewhere in the mid 50s I’m guessing. Southeast Alaska is almost always wet and this morning is no exception. Rain water lies in shallow puddles on the pier glistening like a thin sheet of patchy ice. Above and somewhere beyond is a pair of crows cawing. A Bald Eagle passes 30 feet above the parking lot, banks its wings, and glides out over the water chittering its high pitched call as it disappears down the coast.

It’s a new week, a new day, and a new trip.

July 20, 2014

It’s a quiet morning in Tea Harbor. No rain but heavy overcast blankets the pine forest a few hundred yards on shore from where we’re anchored. We’d pulled into this little cove on the backside of Douglas Island late last evening. There are number of houses along the shore, boats lie aground from a low tide, and high in the timber sits a beautiful Bald Eagle.

A salmon berry glows bright orange indicating it's ripe and ready to be eaten, most likely by an animal. Lumix GH4 with and 45mm Leica Macro-Elimart with Kenko extension tubes.

A salmon berry glows bright orange indicating it’s ripe and ready to be eaten, most likely by an animal. Lumix GH4 with a 45mm Leica Macro-Elimart with Kenko extension tubes

Tea Harbor is not far from Auke Bay, and I’m told Auke Bay is considered a “suburb” of Juneau an hour to the south. Hard to believe a place so wild looking could be considered a suburb. I sip the hot coffee that’s creating a shaft of steam rising from a cup decorated with an Inuit lady picking berries and the words ALASKA along the spine of the white handle. Collette’s singing in the galley working on breakfast.

Technical Details

Barbara joins me on the bow of the boat and we discuss the verdant green forest with the wonderful white headed eagle. “I’ll be right back”, I whisper as I slip into the boat’s cabin to retrieve my camera. I make my way back with the GH4 and the 100-300mm lens attached. Barbara asks, “Isn’t he too far for a good picture?” “No”, I say. “Not if we make this a  landscape with an animal in it.” I pull the lens to my eye and explain to Barbara that there are a couple of things I’ll be doing. One is I will adjust my ISO to 640 since the light is low due to heavy clouds and early morning, and we need a fast enough shutter speed to stop any motion. I also describe that the compression of the 100-300mm, at its longest setting is equal to a 600mm, and it’s going to create a wonderful compression effect. Finally, I mention I’m going to be shooting in Program Mode and I’ll be subtracting one stop of light with the +/- EV compensation button on the front of the camera to make sure the dark pine forest remains a dark, lush green. I check my histogram and shoot the first frame. I collect another 15 or so images and then step back inside as a mist begins to fall. Southeast Alaska is wet, lush, and full of wild creatures.

A beautiful bald eagle hangs out in the trees on the shores of Stephen's Passage waiting for salmon. SE Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm lens.

A beautiful Bald Eagle hangs out in the trees on the shores of Stephens Passage waiting for salmon, southeast Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm lens

Collette serves a delicious breakfast of eggs with cheese and veggies. We all fill our plates and as we begin to eat, the captain fires up the engines, cranks up the anchor, and we motor slowly out to Stephens Passage for another day of photography with the whales.

The next couple of days are a bit chaotic to say the least. The bubble net feeders we searched for the week prior were found just outside of Auke Bay. There are dozens of day tripper whale watching companies running out of Auke Bay that bring tourists out to see the whales. With such a great show taking place the waters were congested with lots of vendors wanting to show their guests the whales.

One of the huge whale watching boats that are based in Auke Bay, Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm lens

One of the huge whale watching boats based in Auke Bay, Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm lens

Thankfully there are regulations that dictate a 100 yard barrier between a boat and the whales. Even so, the whales don’t always obey the rules and I shot many an image of them coming up directly under a boat as they came to the surface to feed. Everybody was basically considerate of the 100 yard rule, but it was without a doubt a circus trying to photograph these amazing animals with so many humans try to get in on the show. For me it wasn’t the wild experience I look for but I felt our guests deserved a chance to see such amazing action. We stayed for two mornings and then began our voyage back down south to a more serene location. We didn’t have the bubble net feeders but there were plenty of whales of a chance to see breaching and most assuredly whale tails.

A pod of Humpback Whales  rise above the water after bubble net feeding. SE Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm lens.

A pod of Humpback Whales rise above the water after bubble net feeding, southeast Alaska. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm lens

For the next several days, we scouted the waters of Frederick Sound searching for individuals who might cooperate for pictures. With no bubble net feeding going on, our next best hope for exciting pictures would be an individual breaching. Breaching is when a humpback whale jumps up and out of the water, falling back to the ocean’s surface with a huge splash. It’s hard to catch since you have no idea when the first breach may happen and often there is only one breach.

Scientists really have no idea why Humpbacks breach. Some speculate it’s to pack the food further into their huge whale bellies. Others say it’s a form of communication that other whales understand and can hear from very long distances. Still others say it’s nothing more than a whale having a good time. I have to say my vote is for the whale having a good time. We had three whales breach behind the boat as we were passing by, no warning, just a huge whale coming straight out of the water about 30 yards behind the stern. Anyone who’s traveled the oceans know that dolphins and porpoise love to ride the wakes of ships and for whatever reason, Humpbacks get inspired by a boat wake as well. Their inspiration is often exhibited by blasting straight out of the water with no warning.

During our time in Frederick Sound we had one evening where we all had several chances at a breaching Humpback. It started with the typical fin flopping and rolling around just beneath the ocean’s surface. That’s often an indication of that particular whale feeling frisky you might say. Whatever he’s feeling it’s always been a sign that the particular individual may start breaching. We motored closer to the whale, staying well back of the minimum 100 yards required by law, and the whale slipped beneath the surface. Fin flopping, rolling around, and then disappearing below the surface are all indicators a breach may be coming. We waited for five minutes, then ten minutes. Suddenly the water exploded with what looked like a medium sized adult ejecting itself above the water. I yelled out, “Breach!”, and tried my best to get my GH4 with the 100-300mm lens up to my eye and firing. I pushed the button, but we were too close, and I had too much lens. Crap, I thought. It didn’t help that I had turned the camera to vertical position, always looking for that cover image. Had I kept it horizontal, I may have had a chance.

Well, at least my horizon line is nearly perfect:) Oh and yes I even register the copyright on my junk. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm F/4

Well, at least my horizon line is nearly perfect:) Oh, and yes I even register the copyright on my junk. Lumix GH4 with 100-300mm F/4. Next time for Mr. Cox. As I like to say, “Sorry about my luck”.

It was an amazing show where many of our guests captured the excitement I missed. Below are two images. One is mine and the next one is NE Explorer Christina Crosby’s version. Christina nailed it and I’m happy to share her beautiful image with all of you.

Natural Exposures Explorer Christina Crosby nails the shot using her Nikon D610 and the new 80-400mm zoom. Nice job Chrisina. You should be very proud. I know I am and amazingly virtually everybody else on the boat got the same picture. I honestly couldn't be happier. I love it when others are able to make it all come together when that exact moment present itself.

Natural Exposures Explorer Christina Crosby nails the shot using her Nikon D610 and the new 80-400mm zoom. Nice job Chrisina. You should be very proud. I’m proud of you, and amazingly virtually every other Explorer on the boat got the same picture. I honestly couldn’t be happier. I love it when the folks we’re helping learn photography are able to put it all together when that exact moment presents itself.

Well that’s it for this edition of the Lumix Diaries. I’m finishing this up in my hotel room in Cuiaba, Brazil. Once again, we’re on our way to the Pantanal to photograph the bird life and hopefully jaguars on our 2014 Pantanal Jaguar Wildlife Adventure.. I want to close since it’s about midnight the day before we catch a bus to head for the remote countryside in the Pantanal. Hope you enjoyed this. I haven’t had a chance to edit all the Alaska images I shot but will do that in a week or two. Come back to see a larger collection of all I captured using the new GH4. Also, stay tuned for what we’ll be capturing this next couple of weeks in Brazil. I’ll be giving the Panasonic’s another hard workout here in the tropics.

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There are 3 comments on this post…
  1. Portrait of Jane Scott Norris

    Jane NorrisOn Aug. 29th, 2014

    Dan, you’ve about sold me on the Lumix GH-4 system. I’m impressed with the G X lenses and really hope Panasonic make an X version 100-300. Then, I’ll jump.

  2. Tom GrossOn Jul. 31st, 2014

    Dan, are you concerned that Panasonic seems to be dropping plans for longer, faster zooms and primes? They have a great professional camera that begs for a professional long lens.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Aug. 1st, 2014

      Tom, I’m confident we’re going to see longer zooms and primes. So far their supposed decision to not produce a better 100-300 is just a rumor as far as I’ concerned. Lets cross our fingers. I think Photokina will shed some light.

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