In this interview, I talk about my experience with shooting wildlife photography. I discuss my gear and favorite lenses, my creative and technical approach to photographing this kind of subject matter and I touch on tips and advice for other aspiring wildlife shooters.
This was a fun interview for me to do and I’m honored to be included in a publication that features such prominent wildlife shooters, especially since I consider myself to be much more of an action shooter than a seasoned wildlife photographer.
I love “flying to hike” with my little Cessna bush plane, and one of my favorite types adventure is when I land near a glacier and actually hike up on to the ice. I’ve done this on the Knik Glacier and the Lake George Glacier, and a couple weeks ago, I hiked all the way up onto the Triumvirate Glacier, which lies along the eastern edge of the Tordrillo Mountains, about 60 miles west of Anchorage.
The trick is to find a gravel bar that’s relatively close to the glacier, and that’s smooth enough to land on. However, even if you nail that part, it’s never a given that you’ll actually be able to get onto the ice.
Even if you’re able to land close enough for day-hiking striking distance, you can easily be shut down by a wide and swiftly running braided river or glacial lake. Or any number of other impassible features in the accompanying landscape.
I’d been eyeing the Triumvirate Glacier for a few years as a potential day hike. Up until recently, I could never find a suitable landing spot that was close enough and that gave me potential hiking access without being cut off by water. Until last week.
Flying out there on an exploratory mission one evening, I spotted a sandbar that was long enough for the Cessna, (I need about 350-feet to land and about 600-feet to take off). It was also way closer than the sandy strip located about two miles west and on the other side of the river.
I landed on that white alluvial fan near the bottom right, and hiked around the left side of the glacier lake to access the moraine. From there, it was a long, dirty, muddy slog to reach the ice.
My landing went quite well, I had a brisk, 10kt headwind that aided me with a nice, slow approach. After making two test passes, I skimmed in right over the water and set the plane down on the relatively soft sand.
Once I shut her down, I got out and paced out the landing area so I could get an accurate measurement of how much room I’d have during takeoff. From water to the place where it starts getting bumpy, I walked out about 900 feet. That’s plenty of room, even with a softer surface. Even without a headwind, I should have no problem.
Returning to the plane, I grabbed my pack, noted the time and set off on my hike, having no real idea how far I’d make it or if would even be possible to get up onto the ice.
Looking toward the moraine. It looks a lot different and much further away from ground level!
The first of the hike was flat, but it went from sand to talus pretty quickly. I had to navigate a couple of small water crossings, but they weren’t bad at all; I didn’t even get my feet wet. The ground got a little muddy as I reached the other side of the lake and made my way to the base of the moraine, but I was able to hop from rock to rock to keep my feet dry.
Then the slog began.
A glacial moraine is essentially an enormous, messy debris pile. As the glacier moves down the mountain, it pushes an immeasurable amount of rock and dirt in front of it as it grinds down the landscape. The result is a huge conglomeration of rock, mud, sand, and even huge chucks of ice. We’re talking ice blocks that can be as large as a cruise ship, or at least the size of a Beverly Hills mansion.
Walking on a moraine is an activity not for the faint-footed. The terrain moves with nearly every single step, so you have to move constantly, at least through certain sections until you find a small patch of stable ground. The really tricky parts are the slopes that are really just chucks of black ice covered in sand. Trying to walk up is impossible in regular shoes, so you often find yourself constantly weaving and re-navigating.
It’s non-stop up and down, weaving through small troughs, over scree hills and talus slopes and following sandy ridges as you try to make your way to a specific point you might have spotted below. Then when you get there, you make another spot and continue on. Hiking chaos that goes on and on.
Moving quickly, I pushed on, with my trusty Fuji X-T2 slung around my shoulder. The higher I got, the more expansive the moraine seemed to be as it revealed more of its massive self to me. Eventually, got my first glimpse of the ice, but it still seemed so far away. I began to doubt whether I’d be able to reach the ice, but I keep pushing those seeds out of my mind and set my sights on the next hill.
Although routefinding was a challenge, what concerned me more was finding my way back, especially since there is no trail of any kind on this huge disaster pile. Fortunately, as you can see in the picture above, there were definitely some identifiable and rather unforgettable landmarks. Lower down, I even built two cairns that would hopefully keep me on track.
Finally, after a long, two-hour slog I got within striking distance to the actual glacier. From there, it was only a short stretch, although the final bit in front of the ice was about 50-yards of mucky, ankle-deep mud that resembled quicksand. It took careful and rather adept rock-hopping to clear this final barrier, and eventually, I stepped foot onto the Triumvirate Glacier.
Fortunately, the lower section of the glacier was relatively flat featureless ice that gradually sloped up towards the first folds and jumbles. I was able to walk a few hundred feet before it got too steep.
By now, it was 9:00PM, so I didn’t have long before I had to turn around. Unslinging my X-T2, I shot a series of photos, alternating between color and black and white. I mostly shot with the XF14mm f/2.8 wide angle lens. As I started my hike back, I turned around and captured some compressed telephoto shots with the XF90mm f/2 lens, even shooting a couple of in-camera panoramas.
The hike back went smoothly, or so to speak. Tromping, running, sliding, skidding, hopping, and mashing your way down a glacial moraine is hardly a smooth process. However, I successfully retraced my path and even passed by my two cairns again before defending the final hill down to the base and beginning the mostly flat walk back to the plane.
Arriving at my little yellow Cessna just over an hour after I left the ice, I started her up, taxied back across the sandbar, waited for the dust from my prop wash to settle, then took off with room to spare. After making a quick circle over the toe of the glacier, to mentally retrace my steps, I turned and began my 40 minute flight back to Anchorage under the color of the setting sun.
Earlier this summer, I had the chance to try out the Actus Mini View Camera For Fujfilm X Series, manufactured by Cambo Photo. This innovative and well-crafted device turns your mirrorless Fuji into a high quality, and highly portable view camera, and allows you to shoot highly stylized photos that would otherwise be impossible to capture.
Consisting of a monorail base, a camera mount plate and a flexible bellow, and an add-on lens mount and lens, the Actus Mini allows you attach any X Series camera as a digital back. This lets you perform traditional tilt, shift and swing motions and add an enormous amount of creative and professional quality options to your photography.
Exact configurations vary depending on which lens you use. At this point, you cannot use your own Fuji lenses with the Actus, however you can order optional lens plates which allow you to use the Actus with Hassleblad, Mamiya, Pentax 645, Leica R, Nikon-F and Canon-EOS lenses. So, for example you could use your X-T2 or X-E1 on the Actus with a Hassleblad or Nikon lens if you so choose.
Currently, Cambo has three of their own lenses designed for their Actus mirrorless camera system, a 24mm, a 60mm lens and an 80mm. The unit I used shipped with the German made ACTAR 24mm f/3.5 lens. It’s bigger than any Fujinon lens, but it’s an incredible piece of glass.
Before we get into all that, though I need to tell you how it works.
Setup and Operation
The Actus rig came packed into small Pelican Case as three pieces: the monorail, the lens and the bellows. Don’t tell the Cambo guys this, but I didn’t use the Peli case all week, I just stuffed the gear into one of my LowePro packs. It actually fit perfectly, which illustrates just how portable is rig really is.
Once on location, it’s extremely easy to assemble. You place the monorail onto your tripod, remove rear lens cap and slide the lens onto the lens mounting plate, attach your camera to the rear camera mounting plate and slip the bellows in between. The bellows have magnetic plates on both sides, so they simply snap right to both sides and create your light seal.
From start to finish, we’re talking less than five minutes. Probably three if you’re methodical and careful. Once its all put together, the fun begins.
The all-metal monorail is extremely well crafted with a high level of precision engineering. It feels very substantial, like you’re using a truly professional piece of equipment. The four large knobs control your tilt, shift, swing and focus controls. There’s also a small knob that locks your focus so it doesn’t accidentally drift or get bumped.
It’s also highly modular. You can order different lens plates, different lenses and a variety of bayonet plates for using the Actus Mini with other camera brands as well, including Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax.
Tilt, Shift and Swing
If you’ve never used a real view camera before, (I hadn’t) it can be a little intimidating at first. However, it’s a simple matter of trial and error to figure out how it all works.
Basically, with a view camera you can tilt the lens up and down, swing it from side to side, and shift the body up and down behind the lens, or side to side. This allows you to get those special “tilt shift” effects, where your plane of sharp focus can vary from very wide through entire picture, to narrow slices of focus that run up and down, across, or even diagonally through your frame.
If you’re familiar with the ADV Miniature Mode on the Fuji cameras, it’s like that, only with way more control. Depending on your lens aperture, camera orientation and how you control the knobs you can create a wide or very narrow focus slice anywhere in the frame. You can make it run vertically or horizontally across the frame, and you can fine tune exactly where your point of sharp focus will be.
Focus control is accomplished by turning the focus dial on the back of the ACTUS. As with a traditional view camera, you gauge your focus by looking at the camera’s LCD screen, or through the viewfinder. Only you don’t need a big piece of cloth over your head to gauge your precision, you have a much more powerful tool.
Setting your X Series camera’s Manual Focus Assist setting to Focus Peaking (I use red peaking) allows you to easily see exactly what’s in focus. This is perhaps the most beneficial aspect of having a mirrorless view camera. You can turn the focus knob and watch the field of red highlights move back and forth or side to side across your frame, which allows exceptionally quick fine tuning of your focus.
Tilting the lens up and down creates differences in focus from top to bottom in your frame. This allows you to create those miniature effects, and the amount of blur is controlled by how much you tilt he lens and by your aperture setting.
Swinging the lens side by side give you the same kind of effect, but on the vertical axis. So instead of having top and bottom blur, you can have strips of blur on either side of the frame, or vary focus left and right across the frame.
Shifting the camera up and down keeps vertical lines parallel to your film (sensor) plane and controls parallax error when shooting architecture. It also helps you control and fine tune your framing since tilting the lens up and down can affect what is shown in your viewfinder.
Shifting the camera back and forth does the same thing as shifting up and down, but on the vertical axis. It also helps when shooting shoot images you plan to stitch together as panoramas. Shifting the camera on a tripod like this instead of moving the whole camera, like most people do, allows you to dramatically reduce distortion effects when shooting multiple frames across you field of view.
Selective Focus Fun!!
The creative options with a view camera are huge and so the ACTUS greatly expands the photographic possibilities you can achieve with your Fuji. Since they all have the same mount, the Actus Mini will work with any APS-C sensor X Series camera, and will open up your creative boundaries in ways you never would have imagined.
I had a blast shooting with the ACTUS Mini for Fuji and after I got the hang of how the focus and all the knobs work, I felt pretty adept at getting the effects I wanted. The focus peaking setting on the Fuji REALLY helped and made an enormous difference in my experience with the ACTUS Mini.
The best part about the Actus Mini is that it perfectly compliments the compact, lightweight nature of the Fuji cameras. Although the Actus rig itself isn’t exceptionally small, it’s certainly compact and light enough to carry easily into the backcountry. During my week with the Actus, I did a couple of 3-4 hour hikes with it and felt no noticeable burden and even carried it up onto a glacier.
The Actus Mini isn’t cheap by any means. After you buy the camera, whichever lens you choose and the corresponding lens mount, you’ve spent more than what any X Series camera body or lens costs. However, not as much as some of the big DSLR glass that many photographers buy without thinking.
However, if you’re really interested in using a view camera and opening up your photography options, and you have the budget, the Actus Mini is one cool piece of gear. Consider it an investment in your creativity. It’s something that would easily last a lifetime, especially since you can order different body mounts for use with other camera systems.
Cambo also has the ACTUS-GFX, which offers the same design for GFX users. Given the ultra high resolution and clarity of the medium format GFX camera, this seems like an incredible combination. It’s probably the best modern view camera you could own right now. Definitely a must have for the most serious of landscape and architecture photographers.
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