Photographing in the Light of Alaska & the Far North
The Good, Bad and the Ugly of the “Sombrero Effect”
by Ron Levy, 2020
Iditarod musher and dogteam, Bering sea, Alaska
The Highlights of Low Light
One of the great joys of summer photography in Alaska is the quantity and quality of light we live with. We get a ton of it, right when the animals are feeding, playing, rolling in flowers people are hiking, moose and the glaciers are both calving, and the bounty of life seems boundless.
But just because the quantity of light is seemingly boundless doesn’t mean it’s always the best time to snap the shutter. The light still changes throughout the day, and can make or break a great photo. Here are some things to consider when photographing in the far North.
Reflections can be a great thing. I’m not talking about mirrored reflections in ice or water, but just reflected light in general. Especially in winter, snow can be one giant diffuse reflector, which helps bring out darker vegetation, dark animals, shaded faces, etc. If you’re shooting people or animals, or anything that is darker than the surroundings, think about changing your angle, if possible, or the angle of your subject, if possible, to take advantage of the reflective properties of the landscape. More than any other location, move around and see how the snow and light can help you out by giving a little punch to those flat or darker areas.
Along with this lighting advantage comes one BIG caution. As with any photo in any location, camera sensors and light measuring algorithms will try to average the amount of light in the scene to roughly 18% gray. This means that areas of bright light and dark light will be adjusted by the meter and “reported” to you as a scene with normal or “acceptable” light ranges. The exposure recommended by the meter, or taken automatically depending on your camera setting, will try to fix overly bright or dark areas by slightly overexposing or underexposing the shot in general. This may be OK for many scenes, but what if your main subject is one of those bright or dark scenes? You may end up with a nicely exposed landscape and completely dark face in front of it. Adding a flash can help, but not if the front subject is too big.
The general fix in the north is to overexpose 1/2 to 1 stop minimum to bring back the accurate, natural snowy expanses or, in many cases, the inclusion of the sun in the shot. The snow can help illuminate faces (or dogteams) while the general overexposure will help with the larger parts of the image.
Contrast may be sacrificed a bit when you overexpose, but that can be adjusted at the computer in post processing.
“Watch Yer Tails”
Below is a standard bell curve, representing light at middle Earth latitudes throughout the continental US. The vertical axis of the graph measures quantity of light, while the horizontal axis measures time of day.
The top of the curve is “high noon”, or the time of day when the sun is the highest in the sky that it’s going to get at your location. In Alaska, it’s rarely at noon, but the curve does tell you that half the day is over by “high noon.
Notice that the tails of the curve on both sides go all the way down to the bottom, which represents darkness. Just before they touch bottom is when we have our “golden” sunrises and sunsets.
As the second graph below shows, though the shape is basically the same, the tails don’t disappear so fast or so low. So those golden times of day last longer in Alaska, and the bell curve looks a little more like a sombrero that doesn’t quite cover your eyes:
High noon is still in the middle of the curve, and still represents the zenith of the sun at its peak in the sky. However, the tails ends of the curve are higher for two main reasons:
1) Size — Alaska is a huge state covering THOUSANDS of miles north, south, east and west. In terms of light, we don’t really care about the east-west component, but the north-south means everything. Depending on where you are in the state, you may have several hours more (or less) light in the day.
Below are the two extremes of the year – summer and winter solstice – with the longest and shortest days of the year. Keep in mind that, except for far north (e.g. Barrow), the actual sunrise and sunset times do not tell you the amount of light, exactly because of the graphs above. Even before the sun rises and after it sets, there is at least 1-2 hours of “shoot-able” light, especially with the sensitive camera sensors we have today.
Sunrise/Sunset in southeast Alaska in mid-June is around 3:50AM / 10:07PM Sunrise/Sunset in southeast Alaska in mid-December is around 8:45AM / 3:07PM Sunrise/Sunset in Barrow in mid-June is: never (light all night) Sunrise/Sunset in Barrow in mid-December is around never (dark all day)
2) Angle — As you may know, the declination (tilt or angle) of Earth to the sun makes the poles closer or farther to the sun, depending on the time of year. The trajectory of the sun’s path across northern/southern latitudes is off to the side, not overhead like at the Equator. So the sun travels farther across the sky in summer, and shorter in the winter.
So the sun stays up longer, follows a longer line across the land, and gives us light that is slightly off to the side all day, rather than directly above our heads. That is why “high noon” will be at different times of the day (the length of daylight changes an average of 5 minutes per day here, averaged annually), and not directly overhead. Golden light can last hours!
Sandbergs (sand, salt, ice) along Turnagain Arm at about 10PM near Anchorage, Alaska
Although the North brings more daylight to your days, and avoids the need to get to your lodging or tent before dark, the days are not always warm. You still need a good wind/rain shell at all times, plus enough food to last 10-12+ hours outside, mosquito repellant and other comforts or necessities. See our page on What to Bring on a Photo Tour for more ideas, whether you’re shooting on a tour or your own day trip.
The benefits of light and its effects – warmth, visibility, animal activity, security – bring a little magic to the north that makes up for a lot of the logistics in getting here.
The Good, Bad and the Ugly of shooting in the Far North
The Good: You can wake up later in the day to catch great morning light, because it’s still there.
The Bad: “Later in the day” still means 6:00AM
The Ugly: The guilt you feel staying in bed past 6:00AM on a gorgeous summer day
The Good: Near solstice (mid-June), you can shoot in daylight 24 hours/day.
The Bad: The guilt you feel going to sleep every summer night
The Ugly: We don’t sleep till late September
The Good: You don’t need an f 2.8 lens
The Bad: If you have a large super-zoom lens, animals will avoid you or walk right up to you.
The Ugly: You’ll still need the lens you decided not to bring
The Good: Animals are visible longer, so WAY more opportunities for great photos
The Bad: WAY too long sitting in a blind on your “half-butt-cheek-size” stool
The Ugly: Mama bear and 3 cubs stare right at you just after your camera battery dies.
The Good: You don’t need flashlights here
The Bad: You need eyeshades
The Ugly: If you take a nap mid-day, you won’t know whether it’s 4 PM or 4 AM when you wake up.
The Good: You’re active longer and getting in better shape
The Bad: Your activity consists of hiking with clumsy photo gear banging into your back and stomach
The Ugly: You’re getting emaciated from not bringing breakfast, lunch and dinner with you every day
The Good: Practicing yoga every day as you stoop behind your camera for that primo shot
The Bad: The best shots happen when you’re in the crab position
The Ugly: You learn new “asanas” as you frantically grasp for the lens that just fell in a crevice.
The Good: Bears and large mammals love the sun
The Bad: Big animals are often dark and force you to adjust lighting carefully
The Ugly: Mosquitoes love the sun too
The Good: You can see bears and other animals from a greater distance and adjust your plans
The Bad: Waving at the bear to turn around after it violates your fight-or-flight space
The Ugly: Bears love the smell of SIM cards — they taste like Wheat Thins.
Moral of the story
All that great, long light gives you more time to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot. But it can also illuminate the darker frustrations of outdoor photography. Pack a good lunch (and water!), take your siesta AFTER the “sombrero” has closed, and enjoy the magic of the north light.
May the light be with you, a breeze keep the bugs away, and the colors of the North saturate your heart.
Ron Levy has photographed for commercial and editorial clients worldwide for over 35 years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and elsewhere throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska, and currently leads photography tours to popular wildlife and scenic destinations in Alaska. Ron also enjoys working with companies, agencies and NGOs involved in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects anywhere in the world.