Lair of the Frost Dragon

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An ice cave opens at the terminus of Portage Glacier, Portage Lake, Alaska.

Story

In August, my wife, Susan, and I returned to south central Alaska for the first time since 1992. Susan’s last three years of high school were spent in Anchorage, and during college we both spent the summer of 1986 in Anchorage, as well. But other than an Inside Passage cruise in 2012, we had not been back in over a quarter century. Far too long.

This was also the first time any of our children (the youngest is now 18) had been to Alaska, so we tried to book some activities that would give them a good feel for the place. On our first weekend, we took the Portage Lake “cruise” with our three youngest. Taking the boat down the lake lets you get a nice close view of the face of the glacier where it meets the water.

The cruise started at 10:30 AM (five hours after sunrise) so it was hardly golden hour. Since the light was uninspiring and the sky was boring, I took a number of broad panoramic sequences across the face of the glacier, like this:

Portage Glacier, riddled with cravasses and streaked with sediment, terminates in Portage Lake, Alaska.

There are a few things I like about this picture, but I consider it so-so at best. (There are some crops within it that do have promise, though.) I eventually decided that my best bet was likely to shoot tight scenes of the glacier’s face where the cracks and deep blues would stand out. To this end, I switched from my 70-200mm to my (new!) 500mm lens to make up for the fact that the MV Ptarmigan (our boat) was pretty timid about approaching the glacier. In the end, the best single point of interest I found was the ice cave at water level.

Although it’s not like I was taking pictures of the Kentucky Derby, the scene was still changing rapidly enough to make careful composition difficult. Even though I don’t mind working with fixed focal lengths in the least, I do concede that this was a situation where a long zoom would have been handy.

Analysis

The prominent feature of the featured photograph is clearly the ice cave at the bottom left: it is a dark and relatively simple shape (a circular segment, to be precise) that contrasts sharply from the rest of the image in value and texture. The darkness of the cave adds to its mysteriousness—we can only imagine what is obscured inside. It also fits neatly in the corner, equally spaced from the left and bottom edges. There is also a little bit of ice disappearing into the shadows on the right side of the cave, which adds some interest and breaks up the perfect shape just a bit.

In contrast with the largely homogenous blackness of the cave, the rest of the image has a lot of strong texture and vertical lines formed by the cracks in the ice. There are many deep blues that attract the eye, including on the rightmost third of the image, where the large blue face of the glacier provides some visual weight to balance with the dark cave. The dark sediment on the ice also adds texture, and the small pieces of ice in the water prevent the lake from being a featureless band at the bottom. All in all, this image, despite being a simple composition, offers plenty of things to explore and wonder about.

That said, one consequence of the time pressure that I was under—it’s not like these were carefully composed on a tripod, after all—is that my framing was not perfect. In particular, I wish that I had a little more coverage at the top edge of the frame so that the triangular feature directly above the cave was not so painfully close to the top; with a little more space, it would have formed a nice caret over the cave. In retrospect, it would have been better to turn the camera sideways and then stitch this image from five vertical frames rather than from three horizontal ones. Then I could have cropped it down to exactly where I want it.

Creation

This image was stitched and processed in Lightroom. Other than cropping at a 2:1 aspect ratio, some global adjustments were all that was required.

Technical Data

Nikon Z7 with Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF, 1/250 sec, f/8.0, ISO 140, hand-held. Three horizontal frames, stitched.

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