What have I been up to anyway?

It's been a bit of a stretch since I've posted to this blog, and I fear I'm guilty of neglect. I've been busy with other things. Firstly, I've been spending a lot of time traveling around the Canadian Rockies in search of elk, bighorn sheep, and epic landscapes. I'm not sure how often I'll be able to leave the city to venture into the wilds this winter, so I've been packing it in. I'm glad to say that most of my trips into the mountains have been successful, and I've added some nice "trophies" to my wildlife portfolio.

In between trips I've been working on my travel photography blog, MAPS & CAMERAS, which I encourage you to check out. I've worked really hard on it since it's launch in January, and I'm proud that my readership has increased to several hundred a week in a short amount of time. I'm in the process of planning trips for 2018, which includes a two week bounce around eastern Europe and likely an excursion into the Alaskan or British Columbia forests to photograph grizzlies during the salmon run. Fingers crossed...nothing is quite set in stone yet as I've been milking every opportunity to photograph Alberta's wildlife before the deep freeze. 

The other project I've been working on is an eBook (which will probably be self-published) tentatively titled Behind the Image: Stories from the Field. It will include many of my favorite images from 10 years of travel, behind-the-scenes stories, and the processes by which the photos were made. They'll be some technical stuff, but I'm trying to keep the stories about my artistic process and experiences in the field rather than gear talk. I want it to be interesting and entertaining for both photographers and travelers alike. 

While I work on these projects and make plans for next year, please follow me on Instagram @jonreavesphoto and be sure to visit www.mapsandcameras.com for travel and photography tips. In the meantime, here are some of my latest images from Banff and Jasper National Park. Thanks for reading!

Hangin' with Rocky Mountain Bighorns

My most recent trip to Jasper National Park got off to a rocky start. Thick smoke from the roaring wildfires in British Columbia had drifted east, covering much of western Alberta. There were times I couldn't see more than two car lengths in front of me on the open highway. The further I got into the mountains, the clearer the air became, but the smell of burnt forest was ever present. For the entire first day I saw no wildlife aside from a skittish bull elk. The hazy atmosphere mixed with dense rain clouds in the evening, and my sunset shoot was rained out.

It didn't seem like I was going to have much luck on my second day in the park either. I was planning a sunrise shoot at Pyramid Lake, but the smoke was so thick there that Pyramid Mountain was barely visible. I, instead, filmed some loons by the lake for a while and headed south along the Icefields Parkway again in hopes of spotting wildlife. At first, no luck. I was ready to give up, and my head throbbed from lack of sleep and smoke inhalation. Then, on my way out, only a few miles from the park exit, I spotted three rocky mountain bighorn rams coming down a mountain toward a small pond. I crept close through thick brambles until I could photograph them by the waters edge. Tourists arrived, pulled over, got too close to the sheep with their phones, and forced them across the road into the bushes by a dried river bed. The crowd eventually left. I patiently approached indirectly with my camera and 70-200mm lens - never making eye contact and acting "like a sheep." I sat about 30 yards away while the three rams nibbled at leaves. Eventually, they came close enough for me to get several shots on my own time - everyone's calm, everyone's peacefully doing their thing. 

I've been dreaming about a close encounter with rocky mountain bighorns since I was a kid, sitting on my grandmother's couch watching Wild America on PBS. It's always satisfying when I'm able to get my shots without disturbing the wildlife. As long as they're doing the same thing when you leave that they were doing when you arrived, you've done a good job. Find out how I get close to wildlife at mapsandcameras.com

My First Northern Lights Images

I'd spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours driving around at night during my trips to Iceland in hopes of photographing the northern lights. I never saw them, much less photographed them. The aurora is elusive and can only be seen in Iceland in winter on the darkest of nights. Even if you're there during optimum viewing conditions, you still only have a fifty percent chance of seeing them. Recently I moved to Edmonton, Alberta and was pleased to discover that there are northern lights viewing opportunities year-round - even in summer. That is because even though we have long days and short nights in the summer months, it's still dark enough and far enough north to see the aurora at night (assuming strong activity and clear skies). My luck changed a few nights ago when the aurora forecasters called for strong auroral activity across southern Canada and the northern parts of the U.S. 

My original plan was to head to the rockies to see the northern lights, but smoke from the raging British Columbia wild fires had been brought all the way to Edmonton on strong winds. The city was in a high air quality advisory and my throat and eyes burned when I attempted to pack the car. Jasper National Park is between most of the fires in B.C. and Edmonton, so I assumed the atmosphere was even more hostile there. I decided to head east, instead, and try Elk Island National Park. Luckily, the atmosphere was much more hospitable there. Luckily still, it was cold enough that there were no mosquitos out either (a blessing).

The skies were clear at Astotin Lake upon my arrival. At 12:15 AM I squeezed in between several other photographers by the lakeside and made a test exposure. To my surprise, barely visible to the naked eye, the aurora was already there! The sky was a pale green on my test image. I made adjustments to exposure, composition, and focus and fired away. The lake seemed like the place to be for northern lights at first, but the orange glow on the horizon from city lights to the west competed with the green glow of the aurora. I decided to abandon the crowd (as I often do) and head to darker skies facing north instead of west. I made frequent stops all over the park as the northern lights intensified and diminished over the course of 3 hours. The problems I encountered were finding a decent foreground and getting that sharp. Winds gusted around 30 MPH making long exposures of trees difficult. Despite this challenge, which was out of my control, I was blown away by my first northern lights experience. Thick bands of green and purple light danced across the sky like waves on a beach. 

Ghosts of the North Woods

Sometimes you're in the right place in the right light, but there's no subject to photograph. I was hoping to capture the Elk Island bison in golden evening light two days ago, but when I arrived at the plains the herd was in an inaccessible location. They had tucked themselves away in the spruce and birch forest and out of the sun on the opposite side of a boggy marsh. On my way out of the park, well after sunset, they appeared in the headlights. I pulled over, hopped out of the car (into the mist and swarming mosquitos) and shot away. I had very little light to work with and could barely even see the bison as they crossed the road by the dozen, so I adopted the method "don't think, just shoot." Auto-focus was useless in the dark, so I went full manual. There were, of course, a lot of misses. The shots I did come away with are a bit different from my typical style. I'm actually pleased despite the technical imperfections of shooting in the dark at very high ISOs. I am glad I was able to capture such an important and ancient species in our continent's history trying to survive in the modern world.