It’s a typical morning for a nomadic freelance travel and adventure photography team working in Denali National Park. After a three-hour nap, another long sleepless day begins. We shove energy bars down our throats at 5 a.m. and arrive at the north end of Wonder Lake looking for the “money shot”—a moose feeding below Denali, North America’s highest mountain at 20,310 feet and bathed now in alpenglow. The light is nice; we are the only ones here, but the lake is empty. We wait motionless on a damp, mid-30-degree July dawn for half an hour. No moose. I shoot some landscapes and move on.
For over 20 years, I qualified for a professional photographer’s permit, which allowed me to drive my own vehicle with one other passenger, park wide. The criteria for this lottery were strict and permits were highly regulated and competitive. Approval by the park service took place months in advance.
I favored the western part of the park from Eielson Visitor Center to Wonder Lake where the most iconic views of Denali are. Many Denali pros I’ve met over the years prioritized wildlife opportunities, which spanned from near nothing park wide on some days to nothing short of amazing on other days. I was an opportunistic wildlife photographer.
Practice pays off
Near 6 a.m., we find a bull moose feeding in one of the many tundra ponds west of Eielson. Standing close to the van’s rear, I shoot with my 400mm lens as the bull feeds, unconcerned with our presence. A cow moose and calf emerge from the alders right behind the bull. They briefly lock stares before bolting in opposite directions. The cow and calf return to the alders. The bull, with antlers in summer velvet, sprints toward me with alarming speed. He’s not after me. I’m just another willow in his path. Still, the road shakes like an earthquake in the aftershock of his stampede.
Staying calm and focused, I capture several nice shots before making a lateral move to get out of his way. Mr. Moose vanishes over the moraine toward the Muldrow Glacier. The whole thing takes a mere 30 seconds. These fast-breaking magical moments of action are when the thousands of hours spent practicing my craft, keeping my skills and vision finely tuned, really pay off.
Denali photography at its best
Photographing on a Denali “propho” permit is far from a vacation. Great stock images of Denali for commercial markets are abundant. To make sales, you have to shoot in optimal conditions and find fresh perspectives. You exploit any competitive advantage you have. Mine is many years of experience photographing lifestyle and adventure. In addition to landscape and wildlife shooting, I create images of people exploring the Denali wilderness. This has led to assignments in Denali for the park service, Alaska tourism, and for private concessionaires operating in Denali.
To see and photograph Denali at its best, one must adapt to hours of sleep deprivation and waiting days for good light or workable wildlife sightings. Sometimes you stay up all night. In early July, the last light leaves the summit of the mountain after midnight and returns at 3:45 a.m. In between, clouds can glow on the northern horizon for hours as dusk and dawn blend together in a continuous haze of twilight. Late in August when nights lengthen, aurora displays return. Daytime naps are short. Some animals, such as bears and fox are active even in the middle of the day. But all that diligence results in images of a lifetime and a body of work that honors the best of Alaska.
Michael DeYoung is a travel and adventure photographer with 31 years of experience photographing Alaska for commercial and editorial clients. He leads photo tours and workshops for Arizona Highways Photoscapes and private adventure photo tours on his own with Active Photo Tours. A large display of his images can be found at the Eielson Visitor Center in Denali. Learn more at activephototours.com and michaeldeyoung.com.