Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Last Great Race

First a little history of the race and some background.  The Last Great Race, the Iditarod sled dog race.  Over 1000 miles through the Alaskan wilderness in the dead of winter, just you and 16 dogs.  The race itself commemorates the 1925 serum run where 150 dogs mushed 674 mile in 5-1/2 days to bring Diphtheria antitoxin to the city of Nome stricken by an outbreak of the disease.

Today, March 3rd, 2012, 65 teams mushed down 4th Avenue in Anchorage in the ceremonial start; tomorrow they will begin their journey to Nome.  The race, begun in 1973, is considered by many one of the last great endurance races on earth.  This 1000 plus mile race covers some of the most beautiful, rugged and unforgiving country in all of north America; temperatures of 50 degrees below zero and blizzard force winds and not unusual.  Mushers cross the highest mountain range in north America, the Alaska Range, mush down the mighty Yukon River and across the frozen Bering Sea before reaching the finish line on Front Street in Nome.  The fastest teams will make the trip in just over 9 days while teams will continue to cross the finish line for weeks after.  But, as is customary, every team no matter what time or day, is met by a cheering crowd as they cross under the famed burled arch. 

The symbolic 1049 miles associated with the race is an indication of the 1000 mile race and Alaska as the 49th state not the actual distance covered.  While this years race is slightly under 1000 miles at 975 miles, the distance traveled varies on whether the northern or southern route is being run and the trail conditions.

For years while living in Alaska I was fortunate to photograph the race, first and a spectator and later as a race photographer.   Over the years I began to appreciate it was not just about the mushers but about the dogs and mushers running as a well oiled team, neither could run this marathon race without the cooperation of each other.  Often running for days without sleep, at each check point dogs must be feed and checked by vets and gear must be checked, the mushers depend on the dogs to follow the trail while they cat nap while mushing in the dark.  I was once told by one musher that he would climb into the sled and sleep while the dogs crossed large lakes, he would be awakened by the bump of the dogs going over the bank at the far side of the lake.  Mandatory breaks are factored into the race with a 4, 8 and 24 hour rest stop required.

While many associate sled dogs with the Alaskan Husky or the Malamute in fact the dogs of the Iditarod are a heinz 57 of many breeds bred for both speed and endurance.  However, that doesn't mean husky's and other breeds don't run the Iditarod, over the years a pure bred husky team and even a team of pure bred standard poodles have run in the race.  Born to run, the enthusiasm of the dogs and their eagerness to be on the trail was always exciting to watch and it was no surprise that many a musher was heavy on the break to slow the teams down at the race start. 

While the seemingly misfit dogs were off winning the race, I would often get as many shots as I could of the huskies as they fit the perception of many as what a sled dog team looked like and, in the marketing world, were easier to sell.  The dogs looked great but just like myself, ran slow. 

As you can see by the image to the left, they do make for great pictures; what beautiful dogs. When photographing the dogs I always tried to us as large a lens as possible in a effort not to interfere with the teams; the mushers will be running into enough hazards along the trail without you becoming one of them. Shots like the one on the left were usually taken from a bend in the trail which allowed me to shoot straight down the trail. 

The other half of this dynamic duo, the mushers, are dedicated to their sport and committed to the team.  They are just as much an athlete as any sports athlete.  Each musher has completely devoted themselves to the training and care of the dogs as a full time job.  All mushers must qualify in a series of long distance races before being allowed to run the Iditarod with at least one of the races being over 300 miles. 

Want to try your hand at photographing a sled dog race?  Hitting the trail for a sled dog race, whether the world famous Iditarod or a lesser know race, can be both a challenge and highly rewarding. While you can stay at the start near your warm car to really become a part of the race you've got to get out onto the trail.  Away from the crowds the race takes on a life of it's own and the strategies of the mushers start to become clear.   I like to get low, even laying in the snow if needed to see the world from the dogs eyes, the athletes perspective if you would.   Like in this shot taken with a Canon 20mm f2.8;
For equipment I normally carry 2 bodies and a variety of lenses from a wide angle zoom to mid size zooms in the 100-400mm range.  This allows me to capture many different aspects of the race from different angles and perspectives.  I always carry a tripod, remember, it's all about stability when it comes to sharp images.  During the race I don't use a flash as I don't want to frighten the dogs.  And don't forget you, if you're not warm and dry, you're not staying out long.   So dress in lose layers to stay warm.  A hat, gloves that you can work the camera with are important; especially on very cold days and warm shoes that you can stand in for long periods without getting cold.

 Sled dog races are a great way to get out and enjoy winter, especially if you live somewhere where winters are long and dark as is the case in Alaska.   So, as  the mushers head out across the Alaskan frontier on their way to Nome, wish them luck and a safe journey and check out your local area for a race near you.  Whether a sprint race or a distance race you're going to enjoy the experience and come away with images that will leave you wanting more!  And don't forget to follow the 2012 Iditarod at


Friday, January 27, 2012

Bird Photography & Birding in Costa Rica

I can't think of anywhere with more species of birds packed into a small country the size of West Virginia in the world.  While the USA boasts some 900+ species, tiny Costa Rica wins hands down with and impressive 1800+ species.  Migrants from both north and south America plus an array of endemic species unique to Costa Rica.  From tiny warblers and honey creepers to large waders, pelicans and birds of prey; more common species like thrushes and robins to exotic parrots, macaws and the magnificent Resplendent Quetzal you're sure to get your fill.  Whether you're and experienced birder, a professional photographer, a hobbyist or just enjoy the diversity of nature you'll be in seventh heaven in Costa Rica.

Our hosts for our are annual Costa Rica Photo Safari are Lookout Inn on the beautiful shore of the pacific ocean and Bosque Del Cabo Rainforest Lodge nestled in the primary rainforest.

If photographing the feathered friends is your quest I recommend at least a 400mm lens with a 500mm or 600mm preferred.  While these are on the heavy end you will need the reach to get close to the shy species.  But don't despair as there are plenty of  shots to be had with shorter lenses of 200mm to 300mm.  A good tripod is a must for working in the rainforest as dark conditions prevail under the canopy.  And I often employ the use of a flash with a flash extender, I use the Better Beamer.

Here are but a few of the thousands of bird images taken during the 2012 Costa Rica photo safari; in addition to many species we have photographed in the past we added several new species to our list.  New birds included, the White-fronted Parrot and the Masked Tityra.  The Tityra was photographed on the grounds of Bosque Del Cabo Rainforest Lodge and the White-fronted Parrots during our river cruise up the Rio Esquinas.
Masked Tityra
White-fronted Parrot
Several of my favorite images from this years safari included some of the images of waders and shorebirds taken while staying at Lookout Inn on Carate Beach.
"Walk like an Egyptian", a Tri-colored Heron &

Willet in winter plumage walking in from of a Tri-colored Heron
 While the 2012 adventure is coming to an end we'd be happy to share the beauty of the birds of Costa Rica with you in 2013.  For more information please visit and check out our dates and rates for 2013.  Or if you'd like more information, drop me an email at;

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Costa Rica Macro Style

Costa Rica and macro photography are as natural as spaghetti and meatballs; I can't imagine not taking advantage of the millions, yes millions of photo opportunities awaiting me in the small world in this biologically diverse country.  Costa Rica offers, tens of thousands of flowers, insects, reptiles and amphibians all waiting to be photographed.

One of my favorite subjects are the Leaf Cutter Ants that inhabit the rain forest.  These industrious ants work tirelessly all day carrying small pieces of leaf back to their nest where they tend them to grow fungus as a food for the colony.  Its not uncommon to find 6 inch wide trails on the forest floor left by the thousands of tiny legs as they carry their cargo back to the nest. 

My lens of choice is the Canon 100mm f2.8 macro.  I also use extension tubes; 12mm and 25mm if I need to get a little closer, as well as a 500d close focus element.  A flash, in this case a Canon 580 EX, with a small soft box to help freeze and highlight the ants as they march by.  Other equipment I find useful are a remote release, either cable of infrared, and a flash remote trigger to allow you to move the light to where its most effective.  And, most importantly, a tripod!!  You just can't hold the camera steady enough to expect much success hand holding!

If you're fortunate and they are cutting from leaves that are close to the ground, you might try your hand at capturing images of them cutting the leaf into sections.  Here's several of my successful images out of many hundreds attempted;

Leaf Cutter Ants fight over a leaf section

Leaf Cutter Ants at work

As you can see the images are worth all the time and effort in getting them; I probably shot 300 to 400  hundred images.  Working with a very small fast moving subject with a narrow depth of field (DoF) band.  The images were shot at ISO 1600 in order to increase my shutter speed while stopping down in order to maximize my DoF.  All images were taken with the Canon 1D MK IV.

So, moral of the story, get that macro gear tuned up before you head to the tropical rain forest and have the time of your life.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Carate Beach Costa Rica-Tapirs & Parrots

Well the best laid plans don't always work out, so I stay flexible.  Haven't been able to blog since arriving, just too busy.  Weather here at Lookout Inn on the shores of Carate Beach has been down right wonderful.  Sunny during the days with tropical breezes to keep things from being unbearably hot and muggy.  The photography has been simply amazing with the bountiful wildlife of the Osa Peninsula on display daily.  Wake-up for photo shoot is 4:30am daily and the early morning walk to the nearby lagoon to photograph wading and shore birds has been both productive and spiritual.

Today on the way back from our morning at the lagoon we were fortunate to see and photograph a Tapir, the largest mammal in Central America, in the surf.  I guess a dip in the ocean is not an exclusive to people.  The image was taken with a Canon 500mm f4 IS w/1.4x II teleconverter and a Canon 1D MK IV.
The Tapir spent quite some time in the waves giving everyone ample time to photograph him before disappearing into the nearby jungle.  With some luck he'll make another appearance before we head to our next destination. 

As we returned to the lodge of breakfast we were interrupted yet again.  A pair of Red-lored Amozon Parrots were nest building in a date palm at the bottom of the hill from the lodge.  Gotta love those kind of interruptions!  We'll be keeping an eye on the nest for more photo ops.  The image was taken with the same setup as the Tapir as I hadn't changed anything from the Tapir shoot.

Well daylights burning and there's plenty more images to be had today.   Just too much fun!!