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National Geographic Explorers


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National Geographic Explorers

Recently, I was honored to be added to a list of National Geographic explorers that also includes some of my own personal heroes in a broad variety of fields.  They published a nice interview, with interesting links, here . You can easily whittle away much of a day exploring the site’s fascinating home page and bios of the other explorers.



Original Source: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/gordon-wiltsie/

A Tribute to Peter Thompson, Age 19


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I always dread the words “I have some bad news.”  Earlier this week they came in an email linking me to a newspaper story about the tragic death of one of my favorite young adventure models, Peter Thompson.  After paddling over a modest waterfall he had descended several times in the past, he didn’t resurface.

Although I didn’t know Peter well, I worked with him in 2007, 2008 and 2009 during adventure photo seminars I taught in Canada’s Banff National Park.  I often think of him and keep seeing him in action whenever I’m looking for pictures of paddling or cycling.


As might be expected in a place like Banff, all of our models were talented, but Peter was a stroke beyond.  At the time he was just in his early teens and I had never before seen someone his age so gifted at both kayaking and mountain biking.  More striking, though, was his poise and unaffected ease with people and his boundless energy helping seminar participants get action pictures that were better than any they had taken before.  That is a rare trait in young stars.

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Like all too many of my other companions who have been struck down while doing things they love, Peter was on a skyward trajectory.  The whole adventure community has suffered a loss of what he might otherwise have done and shown the world.   My heart especially goes out to his family, his friends and all of the youngsters he inspired in his recent work as a kayaking coach.

For more details, go to: http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/alberta/Paddling+community+mourns+loss+Canmore+kayaker+coach+Peter+Thompson/7321923/story.html

A Camera for the Birds


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One stubborn source of pride for me has long been my ability to get good pictures with simple camera bodies and a small assortment of lenses that I almost always focus manually.   People attending photo seminars I teach have often snickered to see my gear, which includes at least one bruised and battered lens that shows every hardship of its 20+ -year lifespan.  I, in turn, used to secretly sneer at amateurs who actually believed that the mere purchase of vastly more expensive cameras and lenses would automatically help them to create better pictures.   

Then – embarrassingly late in the game – I finally bought an [almost] up-to-date Nikon D700, a lighter version of the company’s heavier and pricier D3, which, itself, was first unveiled in 2008.

I already knew that both cameras could shoot at higher ISO’s than anything before them but had not viscerally experienced how profoundly its radical new light sensor had really changed the game.   No longer do I believe that technological leaps in camera function are really just tricks to bypass genuine know-how.  Instead, the actual workings of this camera (and subsequent models by several companies) didn’t just make basic functions easier, but actually enabled shots that were once almost impossible.

I really ate crow when I first tried it out on flying birds.  Until I got the D700, pictures of moving objects that I shot with my manual focus 400mm lens – the only one that is really light enough to carry around — often disappointed me. No matter how great a raptor might look as it soared through my viewfinder, the end results were often out of focus because I had too little depth of field (a function of the f/stop,) or blurred because my shutter speed was too slow.  

Because of the limited light-gathering capacity of either film or earlier digital sensors this dilemma between f/stop and shutter speed has always been a fundamental and inescapable function of physic and chemistry.   At any ISO higher than 400, film grain has always gotten huge and at the same speed even my faithful Nikon D200 starts generating pixelated “noise.”  This makes any telephoto longer than about 300mm very hard to use.

Here’s why: 

First, the longstanding rule of thumb for hand holding a lens is to choose a shutter speed faster than the reciprocal of its length (in mm.)  In other words you have to shoot a 400mm lens faster than 1/400 second (1/500 second in traditional settings.)  Even that can be shaky, though – especially if it’s cold, the wind is blowing, or you have to frame something quickly.  Just to be safe, I double it to 1/1000 second.  Furthermore, if my subject is moving or I am shooting from something like a boat, I double it again to, say, 1/2000 second.  (See note at the end.)

The math of everything means that even with a marginal ISO of 400, shooting at 1/2000 second the wide opening of f/4 to get an optimal exposure.  This, in turn, gives you almost no room for focusing errors.  If you shoot slower you may get camera shake and motion blur.

This whole formula changed, however, with Nikon’s pioneering new sensor.  Unlike anything before them, these can suddenly gather light quickly enough for usable ISO’s as fast as 6400 – or even more.  The pictures I have shot at ISO 3200 include even less digital noise than the often-pleasing grain I got with erstwhile Kodachrome 200.  Even my tests at 6400 are way better than anything I used to get at “just” 800.

Now, if I want to push my exposure all they I can get an either four extra f/stops for hugely more-forgiving focus, or shoot sixteen times faster! (Each doubling in ISO doubles is equivalent to doubling the shutter speed or increasing one f/stop.)  So, instead of shooting at f/5.6, I can use f/16.   Similarly, when the light gets dim, I gain the same advantages.   If a landscape image, for example, meters at f/5.6 at 1/60 second – a picture that would demand a tripod with a 400mm lens – you could comfortably hand hold it at 1/1000.

Now, when a creature starts running or flying, I almost always get the pictures – even with manual focus.

Given my long-standing dismissal of “non-essential” innovations such as autofocus and matrix metering that, in fact, simply make camera option easier (or even dumb it down) cameras like the D700 opened whole new horizons for me.  Now I wonder how I ever worked without them!

The pictures in the accompanying portfolio were all taken with my new camera (and venerable 400mm lens) in just the last two months since I got it.   Every one of them appeared by surprise when I was assigned to shoot something else.  

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IMPORTANT NOTE:  Just as I thought I was catching up with technology, Nikon has now introduced the D800, which delivers the same ISO’s, but triple the megapixels, and exciting video capabilities.  I won’t wait so long to get one of those!


After I showed a draft of this to my son Nick, who is wrapping up a master’s degree at MIT, he responded with a paper he just wrote that “proves” the reciprocal rule of shutter speed.   It’s a bit hard to understand, but it does add up!

Nick bases his premise on contemporary research about “Physiological Tremor, ” or, as he puts it: “a ubiquitous, involuntary, and irregular oscillatory movement present in the neuromuscular systems of all humans.”   In layman’s terms, this basically means that muscles in our extremities are never motionless.

Here the most interesting part of the paper: 

3.2 Camera Optics

Single-lens reflex (SLR) and digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras operate by having the lens focus the scene onto the 36 mm wide x 24 mm tall film strip or sensor. The important measures in this case are the focal length of the lens and the exposure time of the image. Photographic lenses define the focal length, L, as the distance between the ”intersection point” of the light rays and the sensor; a 50 mm lens focuses as if it were a single lens located 50 mm from the sensor. The exposure time or shutter speed, δt, is the length of time the shutter is open.

As can be seen from Figure 10, a single light ray entering a camera that is rotating at angular 8

Figure 10: Diagram of key geometric parameters of a 35 mm camera.

velocity ω will move linearly across the film surface. This blur length, b, can be measured as:

b = ω · L · δt (1)

Enlarging a photograph from a 36 mm x 24 mm exposure to a 8” x 10” print requires a 7x enlargement. As the minimum permissible circle of confusion is 0.2 mm for the purposes of this experiment (as shown in Section 3.1), the maximum permissible size of b is:

bmax = 36 mm (2) Cmax 10 inches

bmax ≈ Cmax ≈ 0.028 mm (3) 7

The general rule-of-thumb used in handheld photography is that the minimum shutter speed to prevent image shake is the inverse of the focal length; for example, a 200 mm lens has a minimum shutter speed of 1/200 of a second. Mathematically, this is:

|δtmin[s]| = | 1 | (4) L[mm]

Combining Equations (1) and (4) with the calculated amplitude of bmax, the maximum allowable angular velocity of the camera becomes:

ωmax = bmax [mm] = 28 · 10−3 rad/s. (5)

Read the full paper here:

Physiological Tremor and Motion Blur in 35mm Photography by Nick Wiltsie

Life Force Magazine


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When I was growing up, I used to eagerly await my family’s weekly issue of LIFE Magazine, which – like National Geographic – brought the world to me in pictures.  LIFE, in particular, was fascinating because it presented photographic essays on often-unpredictable topics, including edgy ones that were either still newspaper headlines or that were made into headlines by the magazine, itself.  At its peak LIFE sold over thirteen and a half million copies a week and regularly published work by of some of the world’s best photojournalists.

Anyone who loved the photo essay as an art form mourned the magazine’s passage from a weekly to a more intermittent publication in recent times.   Now you can only find “special” issues, usually at supermarket checkout stands.  Part of its demise was television, changing tastes and now, the Internet.

Something usually arises to fill a void, however.  Today some of the best photography essays are either co-published in print and electronically or solely presented on the web in the form of  “e-zines. “  The latter are getting better and better. I was very proud, for example, to have my own work published this month as a “cover” feature in a special one emerging from the UK, appropriately named LIFE FORCE.

An excerpt from the article:

“Although I have been passionate about photography since childhood, I only considered making it a career after I discovered that I was colorblind!  My real teenage dream was to rip into the clouds aboard a navy jet: something pretty risky for a person who can’t tell whether a cockpit light is glowing green for “a-ok” or red for “panic!….””

….. Read the full article on Life Force Magazine Issue #18 June 2012.


Amazon- Yanayacu


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I just heard from a friend and colleague that the Amazon Basin in Peru has experienced unusually heavy rainfall.   This has inundated parts of Iquitos, the regional capital, as well as countless villages like San Juan de Yanayacu, which some of you and I have visited.

Here is the message Davarian sent me:

Our Amazon Refuge Wildlife Conservation Center is currently dealing with an emergency that affects the San Juan de Yanayacu Indian Community.  Every year the Amazon River rises as rainwater comes down from the mountains, in turn flooding a significant part of the rainforest in our area.

This year more water than anyone expected came into the Amazon River and the flooding has displaced Indians and even residents of Iquitos city. 

A non-profit organization, Amazonas Project, is providing their boat for us to take emergency supplies/volunteers to the San Juan de Yanayacu Indian community. A community of 200-people hit hard by the flood, living on rooftops and on makeshift tree platforms (125 are children). 

 Small boats are taking things now and we hope to leave Iquitos with a large boat May 16.  Your support and/or passing this information on to anyone interested in helping the Indians is greatly appreciated.  

There is more information about the situation and a link to the donation page of Amazonas Project, USA tax-deductible 501(c)(3) on our site: www.amazonrefuge.com/help/help2.html 

Best, Davarian Hall

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Even if the Amazon is often a spectacularly beautiful environment, it is also a difficult place to live – even in the best of times.  When annual floods rise much higher than the normal 30 feet or so- as is now happening now – countless factors make life even tougher.  Imagine clinging to the top of a thatched roof that might already be filled with rats, watching swirling water destroy your crops and homes, while at the same time ferrying disease, hostile reptiles, electric eels, piranha and the like.  You’d need any help you could get.

Although the broader consequences of this flooding are monumental, the discreet task of steering a boatload of food and supplies to the people of one village is both tangible and achievable.  I’m going to pitch in and hope that some of my friends will join me.

In hopes that it will inspire you, I have attached a photo gallery of the village, its people and the environs.

The Reindeer Herders


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As I was recently framing a print of this picture from one of my favorite assignments, I started thinking about whether it could ever be taken again.  Like so many of places and cultures I have been fortunate to document, the spirit of this scene may have finally evaporated into the modern world.

When writer Gretel Ehrlich and I visited far northern Russia on an assignment for National Geographic Adventure Magazine just five years ago, we chanced upon this last nomadic group of Komi reindeer herders.   While these Caucasian people are not the only culture still chasing these antlered creatures across various tundra plains in northern Europe and Asia, they have a far different heritage, lifestyle, language and culture from either the Sami (Lapp) people to the west or the more Mongolian Nenet and Tuvans to the east.

Out of uncounted Komi who once eked out a living in the tens of thousands of surrounding square miles, only this one small group continued to live on the land.  When we visited the sole thing that held them together was a bond between three elderly women and the tundra they loved.  Each was as tough as most people half their age and had convinced various offspring to assist with them with the sometimes brutally hard work of arctic survival.  Otherwise there were no married couples or children – all of whom now pursued a more modern life in scattered villages.

“Maybe if we had TV they would have stayed,” one of the sons wryly cracked.

As I pondered the question about recreating this scene, I realize that the three old women may now have passed away, taking with them a simpler way of life that many will miss in the future.   I would love to know, but but probably never will.  To answer the question I would both have to mount another very expensive expedition and once again get permission from the KGB.  Someday, someone else will have to figure it out.

Also in thinking about this, I realize that I have to be careful about taking sides concerning modernization, no matter where people live.  Sure, if someone knew nothing about an outside world – which is now virtually impossible – they might remain happy living just as they always have.  But once tempted by cell phones, television, heated houses and running water, who wouldn’t want them?

For more information and pictures of the Komi click here to visit an illustrated interview I did for Adventure, another entity that has sadly disappeared in the wake of changing times.

The Photo Society


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One of my favorite parts of being a National Geographic photographer is meeting not just the people who pass in front of my lenses, but also my colleagues, who gather annually – akin to a family – for a meeting in Washington DC.  Now, as well, they also have finally joined together in a group called The Photo Society, a group of contributing photographers for National Geographic Magazine that is committed to telling the world’s stories through pictures.

You can learn much more about them at http://thephotosociety.org/member .

My own pictures are at: http://thephotosociety.org/member/gordon-wiltsie/

Long ago I thought of some of my fellow photographers – especially adventure ones – as competitors.  Today I number them as some of my closest friends.  Who else in the world shares the same kinds of worries about staying alive both on our assignments and in the rapidly changing marketplace of photography today?  Who else but one of these characters could I meet for the first time and talk all day without either of us repeating ourselves once?

As I think about many of the other sometimes-crazy photographers featured on this website, I am awestruck by the breadth of photographic potential they display.  For those who are observant, you often don’t even need to see a photo credit to identify the artist, and, few of us could – or even would want to – copy another’s style.   Even if we stood shoulder to shoulder, the pictures would be different.

Ironically, many Nat Geo photographers get their first assignments not because they stunned the editors with breathtaking pictures, but rather that they were passionate both about photography and also something completely different.  I am always surprised by how many have PhDs in the subjects they photograph.  Even I got my first project that way.  A friend of mine just happened to mention to an old cohort-turned-photo-editor about a journey we were making to Antarctica.  The magazine just happened to need some adventure pictures to round out a broader survey of the continent and suddenly I was hired – albeit on a tiny project.

To each our own, too.  Consider the underwater specialists.  No way would I want to carry fifty pounds of lighting equipment and underwater housings while sharks circled or I dove under polar ice.  Nor do I want to rappel into active volcanic calderas or claustrophobic caves, sit for weeks in a wildlife blind, shoot one-handed as I steered a motorized paraglider, crawl through snake infested jungles in search of specialized ants, brave wartime bullets, or do so many other things that make National Geographic photographers particularly special.

This beautiful new site – which is reserved only for people who have published at least one feature story in the “yellow magazine” – shows a wonderful collection of visions.  But beware.  You could get stuck for hours.

Young Explorers Grants Workshop by National Geographic Expeditions Council

On Saturday, February 11, 2012, at Montana State University, Bozeman, the National Geographic Expeditions Council will be hosting an informative and exciting workshop for young people interested in exploration.  Previous National Geographic young explorer grantees, staff and grant committee members (including myself) will be hosting a day of presentations and discussion, as well as break-out group to pitch field project ideas.

Then on Saturday night, the EC will host a free evening presentation about Field Research and Exploration, during which Dr. John Francis, Vice President of Research, Conservation and Exploration at the Society, will introduce talks by Expeditions Council grantees Dr. Mike Fay and Conrad Anker.

Both events are free of charge.  For more information visit: www.nationalgeographic.com/yeg-workshop

The National Geographic Expeditions Council, which was founded just over a decade ago, awards grants to noteworthy expeditions pursing a wide variety of scientific, cultural or exploratory goals.  Last year they allocated $825,000 to 185 different grantees.

In the past, projects have been widely diverse, including Himalayan mountaineering, quests for the world’s deepest caves, studies of tornadoes and lightning, archaeology, underwater research, documentation of vanishing cultures or species, glacial studies, polar journeys and much, much more.  I, myself, have photographed a few of these expeditions and they remain among my favorite projects.  (See accompanying pictures.)

Perhaps the most exciting and fastest growing part of the Council’s sponsorship is the Young Explorer Grants (YEG) program, through which people between 18 and 25 can apply for up to $5,000 to participate in endeavors of their dreams.  Past grantees have accomplished a broad variety of their own expeditions, from kite-skiing across Greenland to kayaking rivers in Borneo, to tracking antelope in Wyoming.

Daytime events at the MSU event will focus on YEG grants and how to get them, and will be held in Room 101 of Gaines Hall between 9:45 am and 3:00 pm.  Speaking together with EC staff and grant committee members, former grantees will discuss their own projects.  These include Neil Losin, a photographer, filmmaker PhD candidate in evolutionary biology at UCLA; Andy Maser, a professional kayaker and filmmaker whose most recent film, SPOIL, won Best Mountain Environment film at Banff Mountain Film Festival; and Amy Higgins, a Master’s student at Yale, studying artificial glaciers in Ladakh and their impact on agriculture.

During the 7:30 pm evening program at the Strand Union Building, where doors open at 7:00 pm, Expedition Council grantee Mike Fay will discuss his recent 1,800 mile trek through the entire redwoods range and Conrad Anker will show highlights from his EC-sponsored, 275-mile journey through Tibet’s remote Chang Tang region, in search of the calving ground of the elusive Chiru antelope.

If you are in the area, sign up quickly because this event is certain to fill.

Gordon’s Pictures of EC Sponsored Expeditions:

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After a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant meeting, Director Rebecca Martin descends a staircase below N.C. Wyeth paintings and the Society’s hallowed board room.

Subtle Shifts Part 2: Photo Tip

Subtle Shifts Part 2: Timing



This can be similarly true about subtle shifts in timing.  When you press the shutter, especially when photographing people can make a huge difference.  Not long ago Meredith and I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Memorial in Southwestern Montana.  I liked the bleak setting and vanishing point of the road, but the woman and child were more problematic.  I shot the first frame even though I knew it wasn’t perfect, just in case the girl ran off or something else suddenly changed.  Then, in the second frame, I noticed the play of their shadows, but the relationship of their actual bodies wasn’t very interesting.  Finally, the girl stepped left, and both the shadows and the people clicked in a perfect “moment.”  Especially with people, it pays to just keep shooting.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3