How to Photograph Alaska Like a Pro

The most important element that makes a great photo stand out is knowing the story you’re trying to tell.

Tips for success from Mark Kelley


MARK KELLEY IS A JUNEAU-BASED PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER who has been shooting in Alaska for more than 40 years. His 14 books have sold more than a quarter million copies and his images have appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Outside, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on the cover of Alaska. Kelley broke down how he captured one of his favorite shots this past summer.

1 – BRING THE RIGHT GEAR FOR THE SUBJECT Whales don’t give notice before they breach, so Kelley knew he needed a camera that could shoot many frames a second and a lens that would focus fast.

2 – SUBTRACT THE DISTRACTIONS Shooting in the wild can be chaotic, but it’s important to be sure there are no elements in the frame that take away from the main subject. For instance, if you’re photographing wildlife, you wouldn’t want branches in the frame in front of or behind the animal’s face.

3 – ADD LAYERS OF INFORMATION Once the frame is clean, add in layers that tell a more comprehensive story, but don’t overpower the subject. This photo isn’t of a whale breaching in Hawaii or any ocean, it’s of a humpback breaching in southeast Alaska, so Kelley was sure to include a background that showed rocky coast and the Tongass National Forest.

4 – GET LUCKY It wasn’t until after taking the shot and looking back through his frames that Kelley noticed the water cascading off the whale’s body and shooting in lines from its pectoral fin. Because he’s seen plenty of photos of breaching whales, Kelley knew that water is what made this shot special.

5 – KNOW THE STORY The most important element that makes a great photo stand out is knowing the story you’re trying to tell. “You’ve got to know what you’re shooting and why you’re shooting it,” Kelley says.

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