Alaska is truly one of the last wild places in the world. It's sheer size and diversity of environments makes it a popular place for adventurers and photographers alike to come and explore. The problem is that because Alaska is SO wild, it's often hard to get around, and really take in all that it has to offer without some complications. That's where we come in. The Aperture Academy Alaska Cruise is a perfect way to explore some of Alaska's wild places, and photograph a variety of subjects, all while interacting with a fun group of professional instructors and like-minded participants...and did we mention it all takes place aboard a luxury cruise liner?
Our Alaskan adventure actually starts in the lovely city of Seattle. On this Saturday morning, our team of Aperture Academy instructors, Brian Rueb, Scott Davis, Scott Donschikowski, and Ellie Stone arrived early to board the ship and turn the "Board Room" into our home base for the week, making it into a fully functioning Photoshop and print lab for the students to use during the week. Throughout the morning the rest of the class arrived on the boat and spent the first few hours taking in the beauty of the MS Westerdam while getting acclimated with their rooms, the layout of the ship, and of course, finding the food!
Our first day with the students and workshop attendees began with an introductory meeting and cocktail hour in the observation deck bar, also known as "The Crow's Nest." This orientation meeting allows the instructors to get to know the class, their gear, experience levels, and give them an idea of what to expect during their time on the workshop.
This class was a great mix of newer and experienced shooters from all over the country. Everyone was excited and ready to spend some quality time in Alaska shooting landscapes, icebergs, and of course, the famous wildlife!
That night at dinner, the group continued to get acquainted and the instructors got to know the class members better while enjoying a 4-course meal (and in the case of some instructors, a 7 or 8-course meal). The first day on the ship was all about getting to know one another, and what better way to do that than over a great meal? After dinner ended, it was time for everyone to get a good night's rest before our first full day of activities began the next morning.
During the evening, our ship left the calm waters of Seattle and Pugent Sound for the rougher seas of the open ocean. Many passengers felt the increase in wave action during the night, and others didn't feel the increased ship movement until they woke in the morning. Walking around the lido deck, it was clear to see that many people were a bit seasick...although most of our group was still all smiles as they began the day of lecture and presentations by the Aperture Academy staff.
Presentations for the day began with an exciting and interesting talk on wildlife photography by Scott Davis. Scott shared not only some tips on creating better wildlife images, but also many of his truly outstanding images. Everything from birds to bears was in his slideshow.
Brian Rueb took the second slot, sharing some of his landscape images and talking about ways to improve composition. He offered many tips on different ways to tell a story with an image. Scott Donschikowski followed with a presentation on photo processing and why what you see on your view screen isn't always indicative of what you can get through processing. Scott left everyone with the message, "Don't delete files from your camera in the field!"
When the presentations were done, Ellie Stone presented the class with a challenge for the week: a photo scavenger hunt that would give them a variety of topics and allow them to use technique and creativity to deal with the topics. The winners would each receive a $100 Aperture Academy gift card!
The remainder of the first day was free for students to explore the ship and relax as the ship began to make its way into the inside passage and our first port of call, Juneau.
Juneau is located on a calm inlet near the winter-feeding grounds for a large number of humpback whales. No trip to Alaska is complete without a trip to the calm waters in search of these massive mammals and a shot at photographing some of their majestic beauty.
Before getting off the Westerdam, we met as a group so Scott Davis could give a brief talk on the settings and situations we might encounter during our time with the whales. This was to help everyone get a jump on preparation for shooting the whales, whatever behaviors they decided to show us.
The class disembarked, then boarded a bus and set off towards our large purple boat, which was our whale-watching vessel for the day. Captain Larry, a budding stand-up comedian naturalist, took us on a scenic ride through the inlet to the spot where the whales were currently feeding. The group scattered on top and throughout the decks of the boat to capture images of the massive creatures as they dove deep, revealing their massive tails. The instructors worked with the group to help everyone get the best exposure and proper settings so they could take home some wonderful tail shots of these migratory whales during their feeding buffet.
Watching whales eat was making everyone hungry for our own endless bounty of food, so we made our way back to the Westerdam for an afternoon snack, and the first open lab of the trip. During lab times all of our instructors are available to help students process their shots and show them different techniques to bring out the best in their images.
Once our ship had crossed into the calm waters of Alaska's inside passage, everyone slept well as the very slight movement of the ship rocked him or her into dreamland.
The next morning was our approach and shoot in one of Alaska's more remote National Parks, Glacier Bay. But before Glacier Bay photography officially began, our group met to coordinate and break into smaller groups so instructors could work with students on getting the best of the location we were about to visit. Our groups broke up and headed to the decks throughout the boat so they could get the best vantage points of the massive glacier as it shifted and moved, sending huge chunks of ice calving into the sea.
Glacier Bay is amazing. The tranquil ice blue waters are stunning and reflect the beautiful mountains that surround it on all sides. The sun was out and the conditions were as good as it can ever get in Alaska. As we made our approach to our first and major stop in the bay (Marjorie Glacier) even the ship's crew were on deck snapping photos of this glorious day.
Our boat spent an hour near the Marjorie, so our class could shoot and watch the action. Several times HUGE chunks of ice broke free and crashed into the sea below us. In addition to the chunks of falling ice, there were amazing vistas of the icy, jagged peaks behind the glacier, seldom visible on trips to the bay. Our class was ready to capture it all, and everyone came away with some terrific action shots of those huge icefalls and amazing scenery. Our class took full advantage of the opportunity to make some truly remarkable imagery.
The evening was again spent in the lab processing and working on making the most of the images taken in the cameras. It was a long night of fun and laughs in the computer lab, and the efforts were well rewarded, as some very nice images were beginning to take shape...the only question remaining was, which ones would they decide to print!
The next day we woke to see we were docked in Sitka, Alaska. Sitka is a quaint and beautiful fishing village, accessible by plane or boat only...as is typical of much of Alaska. Our plan for the day was to explore a section of the Tongas rainforest and then take in some time viewing birds of prey at the raptor center, and grizzly bears from the bear rehabilitation center known as, "The Fortress of the Bear."
Our day in Sitka began with a stop in the wonderful Sitka National Historic Park, and a chance to visit their great collection of native totem poles. The park has a wide variety of these wonderful relics, both old and new. It was great for the class to walk amongst those pieces of history and grab some great shots of the craftsmanship and detail carved into each piece.
From the totem center, it's a 1/2 mile walk through the rainforest to the raptor center. We photographed the whole way, in grand fashion. The lush green of the rainforest provides so many opportunities to shoot nature's little details, and use a shallow depth of field. While shallow depth of field shooting is a really great way to place emphasis on parts of an image, it also happens to be one of the topics on our photography scavenger hunt...and the class made the most of trying to nail down that category during the walk through the forest.
When we finally reached the raptor center, it was time to shoot some lovely birds of prey. The staff members at this facility were amazing, and even brought out a few birds to place on a stump in the forest to provide our class with natural looking photography locations! It was bird paparazzi photography at its best. The birds did their finest poses and the frames fired off fast and furious, many photographers finally getting to see what kind of buffer system their cameras had as they fired through frame after continuous frame.
Snowy Owl, Bald Eagle, and even a tiny Saw-Whet Owl, were all on the schedule for our photographers and they seized the day shooting frame after frame of these wonderful looking birds, that for one reason or another had become too injured to maintain life in the wild. While the class took photos, the staff provided information and answered questions on the birds we shot, as well as all of those at the center.
I think it was safe to say we could've stayed and photographed birds all day. The lighting and situations were that great, but our shuttle showed up and was ready to deliver us to the Fortress of the Bear, a sanctuary that takes orphaned or problem grizzly bears and prepares them for a more positive future.
The bears were HUGE and the class really enjoyed watching them frolic and pose in their very large and natural-looking enclosures. During our shoot, the staff answered our questions and had the bears move into places to make photography easier. They even placed some meat on poles so that the nearby eagles could have a chance to fly and give our cameras an opportunity to capture these magnificent hunters in flight. It was a great experience, and the class burned through their memory cards like mad.
Once back on the ship, everyone was thrilled to get into the lab and begin working on their new collections of shots. We had a full house in the lab for the duration of its hours, and once again the only really tough part was deciding what shots to process, and which ones to print! The Aperture Academy staff was on hand to help with all the processing needs the students had and any questions that might come up about Photoshop and Lightroom.
Thus far into our trip, the weather had been ideal in each and every location. However, Alaska is known for its severe weather, and while we hoped we could outrun or outlast the bad weather, eventually it found us in the tiny town of Ketchikan. Ketchikan is located in the rainforest and gets over a hundred inches of rain or more each year. Our class woke in the morning to find Ketchikan was in the midst of adding to their yearly total as a small drizzle of water fell from the overcast sky.
The photography goal for the day was a harbor walk in the city and a focus on documentary, story-telling photography. Believe it or not, photo-journalists don't get to pick the weather they have to work in...and sometimes they have to shoot in the rain. The instructors took this wet opportunity to teach the class how to work in the rain, and how to still find and execute effective images even in less than desirable weather. The class broke apart and searched the tiny village high and low for shots they could use to convey the story of this tiny fishing town, through the frames captured in their cameras.
Despite the rain, the class made good use of a few hours of shooting in Ketchikan, and many students got some really nice shots around the river area and the famous old brothel part of town known as, Creek Street. Despite the grey skies, Ketchikan was a colorful place to take our cameras.
The rest of the day was spent onboard the Westerdam. The computer lab was kept open until our 4:30pm farewell cocktail party. It was great to see how much camaraderie was built during our workshop. In the beginning, there was some small talk as participants began to get to know each other, and wondered what the week together would hold. Now, after several stops, many hours of photography and lab, and numerous dinners together in the restaurant, the class had gotten close, and the farewell party was a great way to laugh and talk about the fun we'd had on our very memorable Alaskan adventure.
The next day was our final day at sea, and the class began to finalize their processing, and turn in their images to be printed. Such quality shots! Scott Donschikowski stayed busy all day in the lab printing out shots of glaciers, birds, bears, and even some nice shots of rainy Ketchikan! Even though the lab was busy and prints were flying out of the printer, there was still a final stop left--Victoria, B.C., our only international stop on the trip!
The shooting in Victoria focused on night photography, and while some of our class opted to explore this European-flavored city on their own, a sizable group went with Scott Davis and Ellie Stone for a night of shooting the colors and lights in the wonderful harbor area of town. From the iconic Parliament building to the colorful hotels along the waterfront, this town is ideal for spectacular night shooting.
While the class was exploring the wonder of Victoria on our last day, Scott and Brian stayed aboard to answer last minute Photoshop questions and finish up printing everyone's lovely images!
Alaska is a wild place, and we were treated to some of the best it had to offer. Glaciers, whales, bears and birds of prey...we saw a bit of it all. Everyone arrived with empty memory cards and a desire to explore and grow as a photographer, and the Aperture Academy crew helped them fill up those cards and gave the class enough information and techniques to keep them busy... until we see them again!
Until next time,
Brian, Scott, Scott, Ellie, and the entire Aperture Academy crew
If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.