June 28

5 comments

On Assignment: Shooting Aerials of Denali

By Dan

June 28, 2010

I was recently hired by Story Worldwide to shoot photos for an article in Holland America’s Mariner Magazine they are running about Denali National Park, with the emphasis on getting a great aerial shot of Denali (Mt. McKinley) for the cover.

After discussing specifics and time frames, I started tracking the weather, which can be extremely finicky in the summertime. One statistic I saw showed that the mountain is only visible for an average of four days in the month of June. Denali rises so high above the surrounding landscape that it literally makes its own weather. Wind currents hitting the sides of the mountain area forced upwards, and in the process the air cools and condenses into clouds. Since warm air holds more moisture than cold air, there are just way more clouds that surround the mountain in the summer.

Spotting a short but promising window of opportunity last weekend, I drove up to the park entrance, caught a camper bus out to Kantishna and parked myself out there a the west end of the park until the weather cleared. I spent three days day hiking in the park, tromping around the tundra and hoofing it up and down the wide open gravel river bars, all the while capturing landscapes and animal shots for the article.

Eventually, on Sunday evening, after a day of building moisture and towering cumulous clouds, the sky let loose with all its moisture. By 8:00PM, the mountain came out and revealed itself in all it’s grandeur. I caught the bus back to Kantishna and scheduled an air taxi flight for 10:00PM. Shoot on!

Shooting from a doors-off Cessna 206

We went down to the airstrip, where they were prepping the Cessna 206 for the photo flight and removing both passenger doors for maximum visibility and clarity. With me in the back seat secured by seat belt that was duct taped closed for added safety, we took off underneath a rainbow from the clearing storm, turned south and climbed to nearly 13,000 feet.

For the next hour, the pilot made circles and followed my direction as I looked for the best angles and shot aerials of Denali and the rest of the Alaska Range out of the open door. I used a Nikon D700 and a D300, with 17mm, 24mm and 50mm lenses. Above 10,000 feet, the late evening sky was perfectly clear and the moon was out, making for near perfect photography conditions. The only thing that would have made it better would have been to take off two hours later in order to get the best evening light. However, due to pilot duty hour regulations, this wasn’t possible, since my pilot had been flying since early that morning.

Overall, the assignment went off without a hitch, except that on my way out of the park on Tuesday morning, my shuttle bus drove off without me at one of the rest stops. Of course, my packs and all my camera gear (and full memory cards!) were still on the bus, and after I managed to catch a new bus, it took me the rest of the day to track down all of my stuff.

Very special thanks to all the great folks at Kantishna Air Taxi and the Skyline Lodge- great pilots, great people and a wonderful place to stay. I highly recommend them for lodging and/or flightseeing on the North side of the Park.

Edit- 10/25/10: The issue has been published, you can see my photo on the cover here.

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About the author

Hi, I'm Dan Bailey, a 20+ year pro outdoor and adventure photographer, and official FUJIFILM X-Photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.


As a top rated blogger and author my goal is to help you become a better, more confident and competent photographer, so that you can have as much fun and creative enjoyment as I do.


  • cool gig! how do I get to be a famous adventure photographer like you? weren’t you worried about that seat belt?
    At first I thought the 10 PM start must be a typo, but I get it now. endless days!

    some great images. have they decided which they will use?

  • Dan,
    The misty mountain magic that engulfs that big rock is a wonder in itself. I’ve done that flightseeing trip, and it is spectacular. Kudos to you for paying the dues for waiting out and targeting the right weather. Are you going to show us a few of your favorite shots from the shoot or are they locked up until after publication? Additionally, besides your self portrait with the 17mm, did you not find that way too wide to shoot with? Oh, I forgot, some of those cameras may not be full frame. Additionally, I’m surprised you did not have a longer lens to pick up some detail shots of the mountain ridges, or was this not in the desired scope? And finally, I’m happy to hear there are a few thrilling assignments circulating out there…

  • Patrick,
    I mostly shot medium to wide shots, as the focus on the assignment was to get a cover worthy aerial shot of the entire mountain, or as much of it as possible. With limited time in the flight, that’s about all I had time for. The wide angles actually did quite well, and with the D300 and D700 I had a thorough variety of focal length/magnifications to choose from. Photos to follow after initial publication by the client. Yes, it’s a good sign indeed that there is work like this out there, I’m hoping that more comes along as the year progresses!

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