Photographing the Puffins of Machias Seal Island

In a hypothetical contest to crown the world’s cutest animal, the Atlantic Puffin almost certainly has to be in contention. Curious, playful, colorful, and awe-inspiring, there’s something about puffins that seems to always put a smile on your face. Atlantic Puffins can be viewed in the wild throughout the North Atlantic, from Ireland to Iceland to coastal New England, and viewing them in their natural habitat is a memorable experience no matter where in the world you might be. While I admittedly have not traveled the world seeking out the best puffin viewing experiences, I think that photographers and animal lovers alike would be hard-pressed to find a more magical puffin viewing experience than what lies on a small, deserted island in disputed waters about 10 miles off the coast of Maine. After setting sail from the small coastal town of Cutler for an hour long boat ride, visitors arrive at Machias Seal Island, a haven for seabirds in the summer months. Only 20 acres in size and completely wild save for an automated lighthouse, Machias Seal Island is home to the largest puffin colony on the coast of Maine. While a variety of other seabirds (and sometimes seals!) such as Razorbills, Common Murres and Arctic Terns nest on the island in the summer and add some variety to the bird viewing, almost everyone ventures here specifically to see the puffins. Once on the island, visitors are escorted down boardwalks to small wooden observation blinds, which hold 3-4 people each.

Small observation blinds on the island allow for an intimate, one-of-a-kind bird watching experience.

The blinds are strategically placed along the rocky shore, and are what make the puffin viewing experience at Machias Seal Island so incredibly special and unique. Instead of having to carefully “stalk” the puffins to get close enough to take pictures, while possibly disturbing them and their natural habitat in the process, the blinds allow visitors to get within feet of the puffins without them even knowing that they have company. Small windows in the blinds open just enough to peer out of and stick a camera lens out, and although about two hours is spent in the blinds, the high level of excitement makes the time fly by.

Jaw Dropper: A beautiful Atlantic Puffin opens its mouth and calls out to its friends on Machias Seal Island, which possesses the largest population of puffins on the Maine coast. Prints available.

Although the vast majority of my wilderness photography focuses on landscapes, I was excited to give bird photography a try, and can now say that I am hooked! Here are some tips and suggestions for coming away with the best photos possible of these majestic creatures:

  • Bring the longest telephoto lens possible
    • I arrived at the island knowing that I wanted to focus on getting intimate portraits of the puffins in their natural habitat, which meant that I would be utilizing longer focal lengths. Unfortunately, since I spend most of the time photographing landscapes, the “weakest” lens in my arsenal at the time was my telephoto, which had a maximum focal length of 300mm on a full-frame sensor camera. When the puffins were just a couple feet from the blind, at 300mm I was able to get close-up, frame-filling shots, but I often found myself wishing that I had a longer lens, and I had to crop several of my best shots in post-production in order to get the tight composition that I truly wanted. In hindsight, having the ability to use a 400-500mm focal length with perhaps even a teleconverter as well would have been preferred, and I’ve since invested in just such a setup to utilize on future wildlife photography outings.
She Said I’m Cute: A telephoto lens is necessary to capture closeup, intimate shots of the puffins. Prints available.

  • Pay close attention to shutter speed
    • To freeze the action of a puffin in flight, a fast shutter must be used. A good rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed of 1/1000s or faster for birds in flight or on the move. If the light level is low and precludes the use of such a fast shutter speed, bump up the ISO a bit and use an intermediate to wide aperture like f/8 or wider to allow in sufficient light while still maintaining depth of field to keep the subject sharp.
Fly Away: utilizing a fast shutter speed ensures that the fast-paced action of puffins on the move is captured in sharp detail. Prints available.
  • Anticipate the action
    • While wild animals are of course unpredictable, paying close attention to the puffins and getting a feel for their behavior can aid in coming away with stellar shots, particularly of birds in flight. The playful nature of these splendid critters makes for interesting, even funny photos of birds interacting with each other or goofing around solo. Traveling with a friend or family member can also be helpful, as they can alert you to opportunities outside your immediate field of view, and a friendly poke in the ribs by my sister helped me to capture some moments that I otherwise would have missed.
Sharing Secrets: Two puffins have a chat on Machias Seal Island. The playful nature of puffins can lead to some unique and even funny photos. Prints available.

  • Don’t bother with a tripod
    • If you’re primarily a landscape photographer like me, a tripod is an essential, ever-present piece of gear. Due to the limited space of the blind, coupled with the aforementioned fast shutter speeds needed to freeze the action, a tripod is unnecessary in this situation. A monopod, however, could be useful if utilizing a bulky and heavy telephoto lens to provide support and reduce arm fatigue.
  • Utilize back-button autofocus
    • Due to the fast-paced action of bird photography, there’s typically not enough time to manually focus each shot. This is where the lens’s autofocus ability can be a life-saver. While most cameras come programmed to perform auto-focusing by pressing the shutter button down half-way, it can be more advantageous to change settings and utilize a technique called back-button focusing. As the name suggests, this technique allows autofocusing to happen via a button on the back of the camera, rather than via the shutter. This is advantageous in a fast-paced action situation such as bird photography, as it decouples focusing and shutter release. This means that rather than the camera prioritizing focus before firing the shot, which can cause just enough of a delay to miss out on capturing a pivotal moment, the shot can be continually refocused by holding down the back-button focus button while panning a moving subject and simultaneously pressing the shutter button to capture images when desired.
  • Play nice with your “roommates”
    • Unless travelling with a group of four, you’ll be sharing the tight quarters of the observation blind with some strangers. Being courteous and quiet, not lugging along excessive gear, and offering to rotate viewing positions so that everyone gets a chance to photograph from multiple angles are a few ways to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable and productive experience.
A trio of puffins play keep-away from a photographer in one of the observation blinds on Machias Seal Island.

Viewing and photographing the puffins of Machias Seal Island was, without a doubt, one of the most incredible and memorable adventures of my life thus far.  It was an experience unlike any other, and I can’t wait to make a return voyage to the island armed with the lessons learned from my first trip. This is an experience that anyone will enjoy, whether or not you’re a photographer. Travel logistics and more helpful tips can be found below, and feel free to reach out to me with any specific questions you might have.

Make it Happen

When to go:

Summer. Tours are offered daily by Bold Coast Charter Company from late May into August. Puffins can be seen throughout the summer, with late July – early August often giving the most favorable weather. I went in mid-June, and wouldn’t hesitate to go again during that time. The days were cool, but the crowds of summer had yet to arrive to the Maine coast, which was an added bonus of visiting early in the summer season.

Getting There:

Cutler, Maine is far from the beaten path, which makes getting here an adventure in itself. The closest major airports can be found in Bangor, Maine and St. John, New Brunswick, but are each still about 2-3 hours from Cutler. Rent a car to drive the rest of the way.

To actually get to the island, head out from the Cutler Harbor with Captain Andy on his 40 foot boat, the Barbara Frost. Captain Andy has many years of experience and a vast amount of local knowledge, and is one of the many reasons that this trip feels so intimate and special. Once at Machias Seal Island, passengers switch over to a smaller boat that was towed behind the Barbara Frost in order to access the landing dock on the island.

Helpful tips:

  • Prepare for variable weather and bring warm clothes and rain gear. While packing a winter hat and gloves in summer may sound silly, it’s a good idea, as it’s much colder out on the ocean than on land, especially when the boat is motoring and the wind picks up. Bringing a small blanket to put over your lap or to sit on is also something to consider. In exceptionally foul weather or rough seas, the tour may be cancelled, or the boat might not be able to land on the island.
  • Book as far in advance as possible. The booking window typically opens in January for the coming summer, and the tours completely book up for the entire summer shortly after the booking window opens. If time isn’t an issue, consider booking multiple days during your stay in the area as insurance in case poor weather cancels the trip on a given day.
  • Pack efficiently, as space on the boat and inside the observation blinds is limited
  • If prone to motion sickness, bring along some meds for the hour long boat ride to and from the island.
  • A small bathroom is available on the boat, but food and water is not provided. Bring along a lunch, snacks, and plenty to drink.
  • The island is not wheelchair accessible, and pets (including trained service dogs) are not allowed on the boat or island in order to protect the birds and their fragile habitat. In addition, while this trip doesn’t require much physical activity, visitors will need to be able to climb in and out of boats and sustain a sometimes bumpy hour long boat ride to and from the island.
  • If you need to leave the observation blind for any reason during your ~2 hour stay inside, you won’t be able to reenter. This is to limit the amount of foot traffic and disturbance to the birds. So make sure you visit the bathroom (either on the boat or at the lighthouse on the island) before you get in the blind!
  • Looking for a place to stay nearby? Hotels are rather limited in the area, but we stayed at the Eastland Motel in Lubec and would stay there again. It’s nothing fancy, but was clean, affordable, has some dog-friendly rooms, and is conveniently located to Cutler and other nearby attractions. Plus the complementary, homemade blueberry and rhubarb muffins that were offered for breakfast were divine!
All the World’s a Sunny Day: Brilliant summer sunshine lights up the coastal meadows at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, the only candy cane-striped lighthouse in Maine and the easternmost point in the United States. Prints available.

Other Nearby Attractions

If time allows, there are several worthwhile destinations in this section of Downeast Maine in addition to Machias Seal Island. Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec is home to coastal hiking trails as well as West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, which is the only candy cane-striped lighthouse in Maine and the easternmost point in the United States.

Little River Lighthouse, which is on Little River Island at the mouth of Cutler Harbor, is an attraction that the tour boat will pass by on the way to and from Machias Seal Island.  Ever wonder what it would be like to live at a remote lighthouse? Well, you’re in luck! Guests can stay overnight at the Little River Light Station and watch the most variable tides in the Lower 48 rise and fall up to 20 feet in a day.

Life of a Lightkeeper: Little River Lighthouse keeps watch from the edge of Little River Island off the coast of Cutler, Maine. Prints available.

For an altogether different experience, head to the Cutler Coast Public Reserve, where the best seaside backpacking in New England can be had along the rugged and wild Bold Coast. If you’ve brought along your passport, take a foray into Canada at Campabello Island and Grand Manan Island to extend the adventure to see the puffins of Machias Seal Island into a perfect one or two week summer vacation.

Behind the Shot: Altered Mind State

Photo Title: Altered Mind State

Photography Equipment: Canon 6D, Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM Lens, Gitzo mountaineer tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead, remote shutter release, B+W 6-stop neutral density filter, B+W circular polarizer

Exposure Data:

Exposure 1 (waterfall and foreground): 15 sec. at f/11, ISO 100, 21 mm

Exposure 2 (background): 0.3 sec. at f/11, ISO 100, 21 mm

Anyone that’s ever trekked along the Lake Road from the Ausable Club near Keene Valley knows that this gateway to the High Peaks is equal parts a blessing and a curse. While it can be a quick and easy way to cover ground en route to popular peaks such as Gothics or Indian Head, in the heat of summer it can also be a dusty, sweltering, and altogether boring jaunt, as it was for me on the day that this photo was taken. I was thrilled to finally reach the Gill Brook Trail and trade the noise and dust clouds of the Ausable Club buses for the solitude and calm of the forest. My original destination on this June day had been sunset at Indian Head, but I got so distracted by the beauty and multitude of cascades along Gill Brook that I ran out of time. Alas, sometimes the journey becomes the destination.

After cooling off in and photographing some cascades close to the start of the trail, I clambered along towards Indian Head until a small cascade and plunge pool just off of the trail caught my eye. The low-angled evening sun was casting a warm, subtle glow on the fresh spring trees, and the pretty little cascade spilled over a rock ledge into a pool filled with bubbles. The photography alarms went off in my head, as I’m always seeking out foam and bubbles while photographing waterfalls. While to the naked eye there doesn’t seem to be anything special about foam floating on the water’s surface, the subtle motion created by a current can yield whimsical results when using a long exposure. Those ordinary foam bubbles can be rendered as swirls and streaks that make perfect foregrounds if the conditions and technique are just right.

My favorite waterfall photos are often taken while standing right in the water, and this one was no exception. This helps to get the viewer closer to the action, and make them feel as if they’re about to get wet themselves. Once in the shallow water at the edge of the pool, I positioned my tripod just above the surface to further emphasize the plunge pool and the swirls that I hoped would come from a long exposure.

After taking a couple test shots, it was clear that in order to achieve the multi-second exposure that would be necessary to get the “swirl” effect that I desired, I’d need to use a neutral density (ND) filter. These filters are essentially sunglasses for a lens and serve to limit the amount of light that reaches the sensor by anywhere from 1 stop to 10+ stops. The optimal filter to use for a given photo all depends on the desired effect and the amount of light in the scene.  Since it was still day time and the scene was well lit, I tried out a 6-stop ND filter. Coupled with the circular polarizer that I already had on my lens (to reduce glare and saturate the foliage, the two filters combined reduced the amount of light that the camera was able to see by ~7 stops.This allowed a 15 second exposure to capture the subtle motion of the foam as a swirl without overexposing the photo and blowing out the highlights. After getting the camera settings dialed in, I took 10-20 shots of the scene, since subtle differences in water movement can yield drastically different photographs, and it’s nice to have a variety to choose from.

While a 15 second exposure worked great to give the swirl effect, it also rendered the trees in the background as blurry blobs due to the trees swaying from a slight breeze. I wanted the trees in the background to be sharp and in focus, so after taking multi-second exposures for the water I removed the ND filter and left just the circular polarizer on, which allowed a much shorter exposure to freeze the trees, which was combined with the longer exposure foreground shot in post-processing.

After manually combing the two shots in post, the processing of this image was relatively simple and straightforward. The main work that was done in Photoshop was some selective dodging and burning to accentuate the cascade and swirls in the foreground, as well as the vibrant green foliage in the background. After an hour or two of editing, “Altered Mind State” was a final product. I’ve found that moving water, whether a waterfall or crashing waves along the coast, is one of the most fun wilderness photography subjects, especially when using long exposures. This technique can reveal the subtlest of motions and portray moving water in a whole new light, and make you and the viewer feel as if you’ve entered an altered mind state.  

Note: this article can also be found on Pure Adirondacks.  

Photograph Waterfalls like a Pro

The sound and sight of water cascading down through a pristine forest is one of nature’s greatest gifts, and whether surrounded by lush spring foliage or the ice and snow of winter, waterfalls make for intriguing photography subjects. Coming away with unique and impactful photos can be a challenge, however, and this article will dive into several useful tips to help take your waterfall photographs to the next level.

1.       Use a Tripod

Using a tripod facilitates a technique that produces some of the most eye-catching and soothing waterfall photographs, which is utilizing a long exposure, anywhere from ¼ to multiple seconds depending on the water flow rate and the desired effect, to give the moving water a silky smooth and dreamy appearance. A tripod is essential for these longer exposures in order to achieve a sharp, in-focus image, and to possibly take multiple exposures to later blend in post-processing if the dynamic range of the scene is too broad to cover in a single exposure, as often is the case when bright white snow and water as well as dark rocks or trees are all found in the same composition.

Fragility: An iconic Pacific Northwest scene of Punchbowl Falls pouring into a rocky grotto lined with vibrant green mosses and ferns. Prints available.

2.       Use a Circular Polarizer

A circular polarizer is another critical piece of equipment when photographing waterfalls to give your photographs some extra pop. Just like the polarized sunglasses that you might wear while fishing or kayaking, a circular polarizer reduces glare. Cutting glare helps to bring out the color and saturation of reflective surfaces such as wet autumn foliage and colorful rocks, and also deepens the color of a blue sky. The effect that a circular polarizer has is dependent on the angle of the light source to the reflective surface, and can be tuned to the desired level by turning the circular polarizer.

Sol Duc Serenity: Sol Duc Falls surrounded by fresh spring greens. Olympic National Park, Washington. Prints available.

3.       Overcast days are Optimal

Cloudy days, especially after a fresh rain, are optimal for photographing waterfalls and provide a great alternative to hiking a mountain when the weather is subpar on exposed summits. The soft, even lighting on cloudy days allows for photos to be taken all day long, and the decreased amount of light as compared to a bright sunny day lends itself well to using longer exposures.

Red Raider: Douglas Falls, of West Virginia’s Blackwater River, resembles a scene more likely to be found in Utah’s red rock country than in West Virginia. The rocks in this section of the river have been stained red due to the past use of coke ovens on the bank of the river. Autumn foliage contrasting against the red rocks makes for a striking photo. Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Prints available.

4.       Know When to Use a Neutral Density Filter

Neutral density filters are filters that come in varying degrees of darkness that prevent a certain amount of light from reaching the camera sensor, thus requiring a longer exposure to be used. These filters are particularly useful in situations where a long exposure is desired but it’s too bright out to use the desired exposure time without overexposing the photo. These filters are great for turning nearly imperceptible motion, such as foam bubbles slowly turning in a river bend, into fascinating swirls that are revealed over the course of a multi-second exposure.

Spring Revelry: A long exposure captured the swirling motion of water and foam at the base of a small cascade tucked away in the forest near Lake George. Adirondack Mountains, New York. Prints available.

5.       Get Wet

One of the best ways to create dynamic photographs of waterfalls is to get right in the water, especially when using a wide-angle lens. This results in images that really draw the viewer into the photo, especially when the camera is placed close to a compelling foreground subject, such as rapids cascading over smooth rocks or rivulets acting as leading lines towards a waterfall in the background. Having an old pair of hiking boots or running shoes to wear into the water can be useful to provide better traction on slippery rocks and to protect your feet, and in colder water a pair of neoprene socks or even full-blown waders can help to keep you warm, comfortable, and focused on photography and not on how numb your feet are. It’s important to note, however, that common sense has to be used when deciding whether or not to get in the water (more on that in Tip 7), and while a shallow creek typically poses little danger, wading into a raging river swollen with spring snow-melt, for example, poses a significant risk.

Fingerprint: A long exposure revealed the gradual swirling motion of foam in an eddy in a pristine mountain brook. Adirondack Mountains, New York. Prints available.

6.       Utilize an Unlikely Accessory

An unlikely piece of gear that can come in handy when photographing waterfalls is a small travel umbrella. Depending on the size of the waterfall and how close the camera is placed to the moving water, spray from the waterfall can be nuisance, and can outright ruin a photo-shoot if it unknowingly accumulates on the front of the lens. Spray is especially a concern when using a wide-angle lens and getting close to moving water to emphasize water action as a foreground element, as described in Tip 5. After settling on a composition, if spray has accumulated on the lens front, a microfiber cloth can be used to wipe the water droplets away with one hand while shielding the camera with the umbrella, thereby preventing more spray from accumulating. The umbrella can then be lifted right before tripping the shutter (with a remote shutter release to minimize camera vibration caused by pressing the shutter button on the camera body) to ensure that the shot gets off before water droplets accumulate on the lens again.

Honey Hole: Golden autumn foliage surrounding Bash Bish Falls in the Taconic Mountains glows in the evening light after a rainstorm. Prints available.

7.       Resist “Photo Fever”

Just as the mountaineer can get “summit fever” and ignore dangerous warning signs on the push to a summit, it’s easy for the photographer to get caught up in “photo fever” in the pursuit of a desired photograph. We’ve all thought to ourselves at one point or another “if I can just get a little closer, this photo will be perfect” while chasing a photograph, but it’s important to consider the potential risk associated with any action, especially when getting “just a little closer” could mean slipping on mossy rocks and getting swept away by a raging torrent of water.

Haunting Beauty: Otherworldly ice formations adorn the boulders surrounding a waterfall on the Ausable River. Adirondacks, New York. Prints available.

8.       Experiment with Different Techniques and Conditions

Like any art form, one of the most fun aspects of photography is experimentation. Shooting under different conditions, different times of day (or even night) and using an unusual perspective are all ways to create unique photographs that will stand out from the crowd. Even though waterfalls are most commonly associated with the lush greenery and warm days of spring and summer, winter is an overlooked season for waterfall photography, and can often yield otherworldly results. Clear night skies also make for intriguing conditions where photographs can be made of stars twinkling above a cascading waterfall or winding river. These are just a few examples of atypical conditions that can yield exciting results, and I encourage you to get out there, experiment, and have fun!   

My Way is the Highway: stars twinkle over a granite dome and rapids on the Tuolumne River on a clear night in the beautiful backcountry of Yosemite National Park. Prints available.

“Sanctuary” Selected as Winner of Appalachian Mountain Club’s Earth Day 2020 Artwork Contest

Happy Earth Day everyone! On the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, I’m excited to announce that “Sanctuary” has been selected as one of 10 winning pieces for Appalachian Mountain Club’s Earth Day 2020 Artwork Contest. As part of the contest, I was asked to write a short paragraph explaining how my winning submission relates to the contest’s theme of the relationship between people and planet and what that means to me:

“Wilderness exploration and photography connects me to the natural world and makes me feel alive like nothing else. After descending from the hostile and windblown summit of Mount Marcy on a clear winter night, I entered a pristine stand of snow-covered evergreens of the utmost grandeur where the howling wind of the summit was replaced by absolute stillness. The moon illuminated the trees with soft, delicate light as the stars began to fill the inky twilight sky. The experience was made all the more profound knowing that I was the last person left out on the mountain, which made the connection between myself and the wilderness feel unbelievably deep. These are the moments that I live for. The moments that make me feel both inspired and humbled, the moments that only come while out in the wild.  Humanity has been connected to and dependent upon our planet since the beginning of time, and it’s up to all of us to ensure that our planet and the healing power of its nature sanctuaries is protected and cherished, not exploited or taken for granted.”

Sanctuary and the other winning selections can be found on the AMC website here.  

10 Tips for Solo Backpacking

There might not be a more rewarding outdoor experience than exploring the wilderness all alone while solo backpacking. The physical, mental, and emotional challenges can be immense, and are exceeded only by the feelings of accomplishment and self-reliance that come from thriving in the wilds with help from no one. Whether seeking out a challenge, looking to escape from the hectic modern world, or simply not having anyone to go with, there are many reasons to embark on a solo backpacking trip, especially in this time of uncertainty and social distancing. This article will provide useful tips for both experienced explorers and neophytes alike to have a safe and enjoyable solo backpacking experience.

Note: please follow all local and federal guidelines when getting outside during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spirit of Adventure: Stars shine above my tent on the wild coast of Olympic National Park. Prints available.

1. Ease into it

Before immediately diving into a multi-day solo trip, incrementally gain experience and knowledge by first backpacking with other, more experienced backpackers. This will instill you with the confidence and skills to venture into the wilderness solo. It’s also far better to make a rookie mistake while in the company of a seasoned vet than to learn things the hard way when you’re all alone. Once you feel comfortable enough to go solo, get a few low mileage, one or two night trips under your belt before biting off that week-long epic you’ve been dreaming about.

2. Tell a friend/family member your itinerary

If things turn bad while you’re solo, no one will be there to provide medical assistance or run out to the road or a ranger station to get help. Leaving a detailed itinerary with a loved one is always a good idea even when backpacking with others, but is imperative to your safety and well-being when going solo. 

Camping in a Dream: Two tents perched above Lake Ann take in a sunset view of Mount Shuksan. Prints available.

3. Consider using a satellite messenger

Along the same vein as Tip #2, carrying a satellite messenger such as a SPOT or DeLorme inReach can be a soothing security for you and your loved ones while you’re off the grid alone. These messengers range in capability, but some good basic requirements if you choose to carry one is a “check-in” feature that lets the people of your choice know that you’re ok and provides your GPS coordinates via text and/or email, and an SOS feature that alerts local search and rescue of your location and that you’re in danger and in need of rescue.

4. Double-check your gear

Extra care and diligence needs to be taken with gear before heading out on a solo backpacking trip, as there won’t be anyone there to lend you spare gear or help with repairs in the event of a gear failure. Opening up your tent, sleeping bag and pad before packing them to inspect for damage or mildew from storage, re-waterproofing rain gear and boots, and checking how much fuel is in fuel canisters are just a few of the things that should be done each time before hitting the trail.

King of the East: Chimney Pond, at the base of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, is lined with fragile alpine grasses that turn a beautiful shade of gold in fall. Baxter State Park is one of the best backpacking destinations on the East Coast. Prints available.

5. Lighten the load

An advantage of backpacking with a group is the ability to split up gear among multiple people, helping to keep everyone’s pack at a reasonable weight. When backpacking solo, it’s up to only you to carry all that is needed to thrive in the wilderness, and pack weight can quickly balloon to an ungodly level that prohibits efficient travel and personal enjoyment. For high mileage solo trips, the added cost of lightweight gear is worth every penny.  Another useful way to eliminate unnecessary weight is to keep track of what you pack for each trip, and what you actually end up using. This is an easy way to identify the items that have earned a place in your pack, and those that can be done without.  

6. Develop a daily rhythm

Solo backpacking involves much more work than just the act of hiking. Camp needs to be made, water gathered and purified, food cooked, perhaps firewood collected. If such tasks are procrastinated and completed haphazardly, solo backpacking can quickly feel more like a chore than an enjoyable escape. Developing a daily rhythm will ensure that tasks are efficiently completed and free up more time to hike and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

The Gift: Solo wilderness travel can be challenging, but the awards are immense. Prints available.

7. Mitigate risk

Solo backpacking is inherently more dangerous than hiking with a group, and extra care needs to be taken when solo to avoid danger and taking unnecessary risks. Pushing onward when the weather’s bad, crossing a swollen river, and venturing onto uncomfortably dangerous terrain are just a few of the high-risk scenarios that should be avoided as much as possible when backpacking solo. There’s no shame in turning back when a dangerous situation outside your comfort zone presents itself while solo.

8. Reinforce first aid and emergency kits

In the event of a medical emergency while solo backpacking, you want to be able to rest assured that you have the medication and equipment to safely get you through it. Off the shelf first aid kits are a good start, but it’s best to carefully go through them before a trip and bolster with extra supplies and meds. Items such as a signaling mirror, emergency whistle, prescription meds, and medical tape and bandages are items that can be crucial in an emergency and that often aren’t included in a run-of-the-mill first aid kit.

North of the Wall: A fresh dusting of snow graces the jagged spires of the Rockwall, which rises over 3,000 feet above Floe Lake. The larch trees seen here at Numa Pass and the valley below turn a beautiful golden color in September, and were the perfect complement to the dark mountains and skies on this moody morning. Prints available.

9. Strengthen navigation skills

Even when planning to stay on designated, well-marked hiking trails, having a strong knowledge of your planned route and bringing along a map of the area is crucial. GPS devices and phone apps such as AllTrails can be great navigation resources, but many a backpacker has needed to be rescued after the battery in their navigation device died. Bringing a map and compass, and knowing how to use them, remains a vital skill even in this digital age, especially when navigational choices are up to you alone.

10. Combat loneliness

Getting away from it all, challenging yourself physically and mentally, and connecting to the natural world are just a few of the many benefits of backpacking solo. Having some downtime on a trip can be great, but it’s in these moments that loneliness can creep up on you and threaten to sabotage a solo trip. Keeping the mind active is a great way to stave off loneliness. Writing in a journal, drawing, reading a book, and taking photos are a few activities that don’t require much energy but keep the mind engaged. Grappling with loneliness in the wilderness and overcoming it can be one of the most rewarding aspects of solo backpacking, and the more time spent out in the wilds alone, the more comfortable you’ll become and the more it will begin to feel like home.

A campfire can be a great way to combat loneliness on long nights while going solo.

Behind the Shot: Layers of Whiteface

Photo Title: Layers of Whiteface

Photography Equipment: Canon 6D DSLR camera, Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens, circular polarizer

Exposure Data: 1/200 sec. at f/11, ISO 250, 180mm

Sometimes a photograph comes to fruition at the spur of the moment, with little to no planning or previsualization. Other times, however, much preparation and just the right circumstances are required for a vision to become reality. I came away with photos that fall into both categories from a recent climb of Mount Marcy, including “Layers of Whiteface” which falls squarely into the “spur of the moment” category. The Adirondacks had just been covered with a few feet of snow, and after looking at the extended forecast, it seemed likely that the weekend of March 1st could possibly be the last opportunity this year for photography and snowshoeing in peak winter conditions. I headed out from the Adirondack Loj knowing that I had long day ahead of me, and was at Marcy Dam before I knew it. Even during the first few miles of the hike while still at a relatively low elevation, the fresh snow blanketed everything. I couldn’t wait to see what it would be like up in the alpine zone, but I still stopped often to take photos of the snowy evergreens. As a result, my ascent of the mountain took much longer than anticipated, and in my rush to get towards the summit, I almost didn’t stop to take the photo pictured here. While taking a quick break to catch my breath and drink some water, I turned to look behind me and saw Whiteface looming in the distance between two evergreens, perfectly illuminated by the low angle of the evening sun. I decided that I would snap a quick shot then be on my way, and took a few photos with the 24-105mm lens that was on my camera at the time. Even when zoomed in all the way to 105mm, I still couldn’t quite get the close-up composition that I was after, but I was in a rush to get to the summit area in time for sunset and didn’t want to take the time to switch to my longer telephoto lens. I actually packed up and shouldered my pack, telling myself that I could just crop the image in post-production to get the perspective that I really wanted. The internal battle that ensued in my mind is one that often happens, at least to me, while photographing the mountains, particularly in winter. Is a given photo worth the time and energy it takes to unload your pack, take out your gear, change lenses, compose the shot, make necessary adjustments, etcetera, especially when the wind is blowing and your hands are starting to get cold? Thankfully, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s always best to just suck it up and put in the extra time to get the shot that you want, rather than saving a few minutes in the field and then getting home only to say to yourself “man, I wish I had done this differently” when editing a photo.

Using a telephoto lens achieved a couple different purposes. First, I was able to zoom in enough between the trees to get a composition that didn’t have any tree branches poking into the frame, like when I was shooting at 105mm with my other lens. This resulted in an interesting, almost aerial perspective of Whiteface and the surrounding mountains. Second, longer focal lengths, such as the 180mm I settled on, compress the perspective of a scene, which in this case made Whiteface appear to be much closer than it actually was, and helped it to be the dominant subject of the photo.

Aside from Whiteface, I wanted to include the two other elements that drew me to this scene: the puffy clouds floating above the summit, and the snowy mountain ridges that separated Whiteface from my position on Marcy. I composed the shot so that the ridges would add interest and depth to the foreground while leading the eye towards Whiteface, which I positioned 1/3 of the way down from the top of the frame while centering the mountain horizontally. Since the landscape and sky were both lit with the afternoon sun, I was able to capture this shot without using my tripod. Bumping up the ISO, or sensitivity of the camera sensor to light, from 100 to 250 allowed a faster shutter speed to be used in order to minimize camera shake and prevent a blurry image. Zooming in at 10x magnification on the camera’s LCD screen confirmed that the shot was sharp and in focus from front to back. While I didn’t use my tripod for this shot, I did utilize a different piece of gear that is almost always on my lenses, a circular polarizer. This helped to cut some of the glare from the mountains and deepened the blue color of the sky.

Satisfied with the photos I got, and even more satisfied that I had decided to take the extra time to “work the shot” and switch to a telephoto lens, I pressed on to the summit, where I would thankfully come away with some photos that I had sought for years.

The post-processing of this image was relatively simple and straightforward, as there was no need to blend multiple exposures for depth of field or dynamic range. The main work that was done in Photoshop was some selective dodging and burning to further accentuate the snowy mountain ridges in the foreground and Whiteface in the background. After less than a half hour of work, “Layers of Whiteface” was a finished product, and will always be a reminder to me that yes, stopping and spending the extra time to work a shot to be just the way that you want it is always worth it!

Note: this post can also be viewed on Pure ADK.

“Fire on the Mountain” receives Honorable Mention in 2020 Adirondack Life Photo Contest

The good news continues! In addition to “Follow the Leader” being selected as the Second Prize winner in the Lands, Waters and Wildlife category in the 2020 Appalachian Mountain Club Photo Contest, another photo, “Fire on the Mountain,” recently received Honorable Mention in the 2020 Adirondack Life Photo Contest. This photo features frost-coated berry bushes on the summit of Mount Jo, as the first snow of the season graces the top of Algonquin Peak in the distance on a cold October dawn.

Interested in purchasing a print of this photo? Sizes ranging from 12″ x 18″ all the way up to 40″ x 60″ are available for purchase here.

“Follow the Leader” selected as Second Prize winner in 2020 Appalachian Mountain Club Photo Contest

Exciting news! One of our photos, “Follow the Leader,” was selected as the Second Prize winner in the Lands, Waters and Wildlife category in the 2020 AMC Photo Contest. This photo will be featured in the Spring issue of AMC Outdoors magazine, and can also be found online.

Taken while on a trip to Maine’s Machias Seal Island, home to the largest puffin colony on the coast of Maine, “Follow the Leader” is one of several photos of these majestic animals that I was able to capture last June. More puffin photos and images of coastal Maine can be found in the New England gallery of our website.

Interested in learning more about experiencing and photographing the puffins of Machias Seal Island? Stay tuned for a blog post on the topic in the near future!

Behind the Shot: Flamethrower

This is the first installment of what will be a recurring column on the blog, where I’ll take you “behind the shot” and dive into the the technical and creative background of a given photograph.

Photo Title: Flamethrower

Photography Equipment: Canon 6D DSLR camera, Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS lens, Gitzo GT1532 Mountaineer carbon fiber tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-40 ball head, remote shutter release

Exposure Data:

Exposure 1 (foreground): 1/200 sec. at f/11, ISO 400, 16mm

Exposure 2 (midground/background): 1/200 sec. at f/11, ISO 400, 16mm

Exposure 3 (sunstar and sky): 1/100 sec. at f/22, ISO 400, 16mm

The winter season has quickly become my favorite time of year for photography in the Adirondacks, and out of the seemingly endless array of subjects found in the mountains in winter, nothing is more captivating to me than when the hardy, stunted trees at tree line, known as krummholz, become caked with snow or rime ice. Capturing a photo that highlighted this beacon of winter was my focus this past MLK Jr. Day, when I headed out to Cascade for sunset. I arrived at the trailhead pullout around 1 PM, and whether it was the fact that the morning hikers had already gone home, not everyone got the holiday off, or most people didn’t feel like subjecting themselves to the -30 degree windchill that was forecasted, I was pleasantly surprised to find only a few other parked cars. I made haste towards the summit, wanting to allow myself some extra time to scout out the terrain before sunset, and had the trail largely to myself. One of the joys of winter climbing is watching the snow grow deeper and deeper as elevation is gained, and as the amount of snow built, so did my excitement. After stopping to change into a dry baselayer, my trusty Eddie Bauer Peak XV down jacket, a balaclava and ski goggles, I broke into the alpine zone. The wind was even stronger than I anticipated, and I was nearly knocked off my feet. Trying to scout out a creative composition while the simple act of staying warm and upright is a struggle was challenging to say the least, and after a while it felt as if the fierce wind was blowing the inspiration right out of me. As I aimlessly looped around the summit, I found myself continually returning to a particular grove of ice-coated krummholz that was on the western edge of the summit area. The brilliant orange sunset light was perfectly illuminating the krummholz, and I was particularly drawn to the way the low-angled light brought out the intricate detail and texture of the rime.  After testing out several different compositions while handholding the camera, I set up my tripod after settling on one that showcased the stunted trees in their hostile yet incredibly beautiful alpine environment, as they soaked up the evening sun and gazed out towards the Great Range on the horizon. The contrast between the warm glow of sunset and the ice-encrusted landscape was especially pleasing, and while it did little to warm my body, the bright sunshine warmed my heart and soul.

Capturing this photo presented several technical challenges that were exacerbated by the high winds. Upon zooming in at 10x after taking a test shot, my initial settings failed to freeze the motion of the krummholz swaying in the wind and was blurry. To decrease the exposure length in order to get the trees in focus, I bumped up the ISO, or sensitivity of the camera sensor to light, from 100 to 400, which allowed the exposure time to be shortened enough to freeze the krummholz without introducing excessive noise that can be an issue at higher ISO values.

Once the exposure was dialed in, the next obstacle to overcome was depth of field. I wanted the entire photo to be sharp, which wasn’t possible given the close proximity of the foreground to the lens. To overcome this, I took one frame after focusing on the krummholz closest to the lens, and another focused on the more distant layer of trees that were farther from the lens, knowing that I would blend the two photos together in Photoshop to ensure the photo was tack-sharp from front to back.

The last piece of the technical puzzle in the field was the sun. Since the sky was clear, I wanted to create a “sunstar” effect with the sun in order to add visual interest to the sky and provide balance with the sunlit krummholz in the foreground. The aperture (f/11) that I used in the previous frames wasn’t yielding the effect that I desired, so I stopped the lens all the way down to f/22 to intensify the sunstar. Shooting into the sun can often result in unwanted flare and sunspots showing up in the image, so to combat this I hovered my hand above the lens to shield it as much as possible from the sun to minimize unwanted flare. When it was all said and done, what began as a somewhat frustrating photo outing ended up being one of the most productive evenings of photography I’ve ever had, and I ended up with numerous portfolio-worthy shots in addition to “Flamethrower.”

Once back in the warm and cozy confines of my apartment, the second phase of the creative process commenced: bringing the artistic vision to fruition in the digital darkroom. After making initial adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, I loaded the three images into Photoshop, and blended the first two together to attain maximal depth of field. After blending in the sunstar from the third exposure that was taken at an aperture of f/22, global and localized adjustments to the blended image could be made. After dialing in the overall contrast to my liking, I selectively burned/dodged (darkened/lightened) particular areas of the image to put an increased emphasis on the two main subjects of the photo: the sunlit krummholz and the warm glow radiating from the sun. Before long, the image resembled what I had envisioned, and in my mind the final product perfectly captures the essence and beauty of winter in the Adirondacks.

Note: this article can also be found on Pure ADK.