Travel Tips

5 More Awesome Photo Locations in Banff

Photographers are getting ever more stingy with their “secret” spots lately. It’s for good reason. The impact of tourism (including us serious photographers) on the land has become a burdon for our natural areas and wildlife. It’s ironic that in an effort to spend time in, and gain greater appreciation for, the great outdoors we’ve actually been causing loads of damage. The instagram culture of “influencers” has spawned a new kind of 21st century gold rush. Instead of searching for valuable metals and gems, people now flock to National Parks for pictures and likes and attention. For serious nature photographers, the crowds of selfie-stick wielding tourists are annoying, but we are responsible for much of the damage too.

The locations I mention in this post are well-known and easy to get to from the Banff townsite. No secrets here. Like many, I reserve some special places for myself, but I believe in sharing locations that are less vulnerable and can handle the foot traffic. Make sure that if you visit these amazing places, you leave no trace of your presence, respect wildlife and give them space, and take nothing but pictures.

1. Castle Mountain

 Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Castle Mountain towers over the Bow River Valley. If you’re driving along the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) near Banff you can’t miss it’s looming spires. It’s a great subject year-round. My favourite spots to photograph it from are along the rocky banks of the Bow River. A popular access point is Castle Junction, located at the intersection of Highway 1 and the Bow Valley Parkway just north of Banff. There’s a fence to block wildlife from getting onto the road. Visitors are allowed to open the gate and enter at the bridge over the Bow River at Castle Junction, but make sure you close it behind you after entering and exiting.

2. banff viewpoint

 Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Want that epic postcard-ass shot of Banff townsite from above? Banff Viewpoint is an official “park and peek” along Mt. Norquay Road just north of Banff. It takes only 10 minutes to reach this spot from downtown. Just know that the road is steep and windy. It can be very slippery in winter. The view is one of the best in the Banff area (without having to hike half a day up a mountain). This point provides great views of the town, surrounding mountains, and Vermillion Lakes.

 Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

3. two jack lake

 Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack lake is a popular spot for landscape photographers. When I was there, I was the first to arrive at twilight. Soon there were several others sharing the same small stretch of lakeshore. It’s popular because it’s very close to downtown Banff and provides excellent (and relatively easy) compositional opportunities for photographers. There is an island of spruce trees that gives much needed visual interest when framing Mount Rundle on the horizon. On clear winter mornings, expect a bit of alpenglow on Mount Rundle’s peaks. In summer the mountain can glow from base to peak when the sun is very low. This is great spot at either sunrise or sunset.

4. bow valley parkway

 Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

The Bow Valley Parkway runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway north of Banff heading in the direction of Lake Louise. I suggest taking it to Castle Junction. Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled; this is a great area to spot wildlife. There are several road-side pull-offs where you can watch wildlife like elk, moose, and deer graze. Occasional grizzly and wolf sightings are also reported along this route in spring and fall. Wildlife often use the road as their own highway for convenience, so make sure to drive the speed limit or less.

The Bow Valley Parkway also holds opportunities for landscape photographers. There are several spots along the route that provide great views of the surrounding mountain ranges as well as the railroad, which runs along the Bow River. In early autumn, birches and aspens can be photographed in full golden colour.

5. waterfowl lakes

 Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

The Icefields Parkway is famous for awesome scenery. One of the most convenient stops is Waterfowl Lakes, which is a few large iridescent blue lakes surrounded by epic mountains. The pull-off is right by the road, no hiking in, which makes this a convenient stop for sunrise or sunset.

I photographed this scene on a whim. I was leaving Banff with my wife, and we happened to be passing Waterfowl Lakes around sunrise. For a few brief minutes a pink column of cloud lit up the otherwise monochrome sky. I pulled over, hopped out of the car, and took two quick shots by the lakeside before the light faded. Sometimes things just come together.

To read the original post, 5 Awesome Photo Locations in Banff, click here.

Tips for the Khutzeymateen

TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING GRIZZLIES IN THE
 KHUTZEYMATEEN, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Khutzeymateen Provincial Park is one of British Columbia's premier, virtually untouched, wildlife preservation areas. Located near the B.C. - Alaska border just north of Prince Rupert, it occupies an area of 44,300 hectares at the northern most edge of what has become known as the Great Bear Rainforest. The park was established as a sanctuary for grizzlies in 1994 with the help of conservationists and none other than the Duke of Edinburgh. Accessible by float plane from Prince Rupert, only a couple hundred visitors are permitted to visit the sanctuary each year. Only two vessels are allowed to dock in the Inlet, the Ocean Light II and Sunchaser. Both take clients out into the estuaries to view bears in inflatable boats (called zodiacs). I chose the Sunchaser, captained By Dan Wakeman (and it wont be the only time). 

The Khutzeymateen Inlet is a stunningly beautiful area and a great example of conservation success. Canada would benefit greatly from more protected habitats like it. Despite the beauty and potential for awesome wildlife images, there are some things I learned on my May 2018 trip that I wish I knew beforehand. There are also some decisions I made (in gear choices, clothing, etc) in preparation for the trip that made photographing much more enjoyable and efficient. Here are my tips for photography in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary:

PACK RAIN GEAR ("WATER RESISTANT" IS NOT SUFFICIENT)

It rains a lot in British Columbia's northern coastal forests. During my Khutzeymateen experience, it rained every day and night. When you're living on a sailboat and going out to view bears in an uncovered zodiac, you're gonna get wet even when isn't raining. Probably the most important advice I can give for visiting a climate like this is to have warm, water-proof clothing - not "water-resistant" or "water-repellent." Those aren't sufficient and tend to soak through after a few hours in the rain (and it is very difficult to dry out your stuff on a sailboat). You want solid rubber and full coverage from head to toe. Imagine the stuff that lobster fisherman wear...that bright yellow rubber rain jacket and pants...that's what you want. Several outdoor clothing companies make rain gear of this caliber; I'd recommend something from Helly Hansen or similar, or you'll be stuck with the guide's bulky rain suits, which are difficult to shoot in. Make sure your boots are waterproof as well!

 A large male grizzly swims in the estuary, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. No matter the weather, the bears are usually active in Spring and Summer. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 3200)

A large male grizzly swims in the estuary, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. No matter the weather, the bears are usually active in Spring and Summer. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 3200)

PROTECT YOUR CAMERA GEAR FROM THE ELEMENTS

The best investment I made in preparation for the Khutzeymateen was the cheapest purchase made for the trip. I paid $7 for a pack of two plastic rain covers with drawstrings for my cameras. They worked perfectly. Even though my clothing was damp by the second day of shooting in the rain, my camera gear was completely dry! A couple other guys in the boat had much more expensive nylon rain covers, but I noticed them constantly adjusting them, and they didn't seem to cover their lenses completely. My cheap plastic covers protected my camera and 200-500mm lens from hood to viewfinder. I only got a couple droplets on the LCD at times. One of the other photographers actually had water and condensation get inside his lens and camera body while using one of the more expensive covers. I had no issues with moisture. I also packed several absorbent microfibre cleaning cloths, but rarely used them. 

A waterproof camera backpack, or a good rain cover, is also essential to store other gear or a backup camera in. The bottom of the inflatable boat will be very damp, so a rain cover is necessary. I used a detachable cover so that I could hang it out to drip dry between outings. 

 A grizzly looks across the rainy inlet in the direction of the Sunchaser, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia. 

A grizzly looks across the rainy inlet in the direction of the Sunchaser, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia. 

CHOOSE THE RIGHT CAMERA GEAR

You may be tempted to bring a 500mm f4 or 400mm f2.8 or some other gargantuan piece of glass to the Khutzeymateen. You don't need it. You'll be close enough to photograph bears with a 70-200mm for the most part. I used my Nikon 200-500mm VR 90% of the time. In fact, each of the four of us used lenses in that range. One guy had a Tamron 150-600, another used a Canon 100-400 IS, and both me and the other photographer were using the Nikon 200-500mm. We all got great images.

These lenses are not only light and easy to pack and hand-hold, they provide lots of versatility in focal length. This allows for creating a variety of compositions instead of being bound to just 400 or 500mm. The boat can't always shift around to give photographers a better view (the bears well-being and safety come first), so versatility is essential. You also can't use a tripod in the zodiac, and even use of a monopod makes shooting awkward (and is annoying for others in the boat). So, use of heavy prime telephotos is not recommended. Make sure your lens has vibration reduction (or equivalent). The zodiac is moving a bit even when the engine isn't running, which makes getting sharp shots a bit of a challenge. 

 The guide is required to keep the boat a minimum distance from the bears. Some bears are more tolerant of human presence than others. This particular bear didn't mind us hanging out for a while at the minimum distance, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 4000)

The guide is required to keep the boat a minimum distance from the bears. Some bears are more tolerant of human presence than others. This particular bear didn't mind us hanging out for a while at the minimum distance, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 4000)

CHOOSE THE "RIGHT" EXPOSURE SETTINGS

The biggest challenge in photographing wild grizzlies was getting sharp and well-exposed images. As earlier mentioned, the boat is constantly moving, but so are the bears. Proper hand-holding technique with longer lenses is crucial and vibration reduction helps as well, but a fast shutter-speed is also needed to freeze the bears. They're not moving fast, usually just lumbering around eating sedges. Combine their constant movement with the constant movement/vibration of the boat, and the fact that it'll probably be dark overcast, and you've got the perfect recipe for blurry images. The faster the shutter-speed, the sharper the image. Of course that comes at a cost. High ISOs (which degrade image quality especially with crop-sensor cameras) are needed to get shutter-speeds fast enough to freeze motion. 

I shot in Manual mode with auto-ISO turned on while using a full-frame DSLR (allowing ISO to fluctuate between 400 - 4000 depending on the shutter-speed and aperture I selected manually). Full-frame cameras do a much better job at producing clean (less-noisy) images at high ISOs compared to crop-sensor models. Most of my images from the Khutzeymateen were shot between ISO 1250 and ISO 3200. Many of my favorite shots were captured at ISO 2500. This allowed me to get shutter-speeds of at least 1/500th of a second. My ideal shutter-speed was 1/1000th or faster, but that was not always possible. To help achieve the fast shutter-speeds necessary and not boost my ISO even higher, I shot at relatively wide apertures in the f5.6 - f7.1 range (my Nikon 200-500 VR is f5.6 at its widest). 

 A young grizzly rests on the banks of the Khutzeymateen Inlet at low tide, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f.6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 2500)

A young grizzly rests on the banks of the Khutzeymateen Inlet at low tide, British Columbia.
(Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f.6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 2500)

HAVE RESPECT FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, OTHER GUESTS, AND THE GUIDES

I am happy with my first experience in the Khutzeymateen, as well as with Sunchaser Grizzly Tours. The other three photographers on the trip, who I had never met previously, were great to shoot with. We cooperated with each other in the small zodiac to make sure we all had clear views of the bears. There were no big egos. We had a great time and came away with great images despite the tricky conditions. Captain Dan and his assistant made sure that we had a 5-star bear viewing experience while respecting the environment and coming away with a better understanding of grizzlies and their habitat. I'd recommend this trip to any nature photographer. Thanks for reading and safe travels.

For my full travel/nature photography packing list, click here.

Travel Photographer's Master Packing List

I like to travel light. Not "ultra-light" necessarily- I'm a photographer, so the gear required to do a job takes precedence over everything else I carry. That stuff adds a bit of weight. I do manage, however, to fit everything I need for most travel photography situations into a single 35 litre backpack (usually weighing less than 30 lbs). I don't check luggage. That means all the camera gear, clothing, and everything else has to fit into one backpack that fits in any overhead compartment. It's taken years to whittle things down and develop a system that provides me with everything I need and nothing extraneous. One pack means I don't have to waste extra funds paying to check bags and risk missing flights during layovers waiting for my luggage to be rechecked (never check your camera gear!).

Below is my "master packing list." Everything listed here fits into (or onto) a 35L Mammut Nirvana Pro backpack. This system works great for both city travel and nature photography. The following assumes I am traveling to a destination by plane with weight restrictions.

 Pictured are a few of my travel photography essentials. The F-Stop Gear Medium Shallow ICU fits perfectly in my Mammut Nirvana Pro 35 backpack with just enough room left over for the necessary photo accessories and clothing for 1 - 2 weeks. The Cameron CF700 tripod with BH30 head is a new addition that I may review later. It straps securly to the outside of my backpack.

Pictured are a few of my travel photography essentials. The F-Stop Gear Medium Shallow ICU fits perfectly in my Mammut Nirvana Pro 35 backpack with just enough room left over for the necessary photo accessories and clothing for 1 - 2 weeks. The Cameron CF700 tripod with BH30 head is a new addition that I may review later. It straps securly to the outside of my backpack.

Storage System:

Clothing:

Miscellaneous Essentials:

  • Passports & wallet
  • Toiletries (I only take toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant)
  • Clif Bars (4 to 6)
  • Empty water bottle (filled with random things on this list to save space)
  • Headlamp
  • Travel-size first aid kit (with Ibuprofen and extra bandaids)
  • Small notebook and 2 pens
  • Parachute cord (20 feet)
  • Maps (good old fashioned printed on paper maps are best)
  • Phone, iPad Mini, ear phones, and chargers
  • Power adaptor (for international travel)

Camera Gear Option I: Typical for City Travel

Camera Gear Option II: Typical for Nature & Wildlife Trips

Why not use a traditional camera backpack? After my most recent Lowepro bag finally kicked the dust, I decided to look for better options for not only storing camera gear, but everything else I needed for travel as well. Camera bag manufacturers just don't make comfortable bags for hiking long distances either, so I started looking into alpine pack companies like Mammut who make rugged packs with a fully-opening back just like traditional camera packs. The Nirvana Pro 35 zips open on the back to fully reveal the main compartment's contents just like F-Stop or Lowepro packs.

Using the F-Stop ICU, I can have quick and easy access to my gear while the backpack lies flat on the ground. It works just like F-Stop Gear's system, but with a much cheaper backpack. For us Canadians, F-Stop bags are just too pricey once you factor in import fees and taxes. My Mammut bag, which is very well designed and comfortable, was only $120 CDN at my local outdoor gear shop (and about $150 for the F-Stop Medium ICU on Amazon). After several uses on international trips, wildlife excursions, and landscape shoots, I can confidently say this is the best/most versitile camera backpack I've ever had. 

Mammut Backpack with F-Stop Medium Shallow ICU:

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How to Stay in the Canadian Rockies on a Budget

Canada's 150th birthday (2017) was a big year for tourism in Canada's national parks. Entry was free of charge that year. Banff and Jasper National Parks are the most visited by far. I remember being in bumper to bumper traffic miles from the Jasper entrance on my first visit. All the sites were packed and campgrounds and parking lots overflowed throughout summer and fall. It was nuts! Free admission led to an increase of over 400,000 visitors. In an average year, a whopping 8.5 million people still visit Canada's 7 Rocky Mountain Parks. That means high demand for accommodation. That also means you have to plan far ahead (even a year or more) in order to get a place to stay in Jasper and Banff during peak summer season.

I've managed to make paying for accommodation in Alberta and British Columbia's mountain parks relatively cheap. I've visited Banff and/or Jasper NP every month for the last 10 months on a tight budget. Here's what I've learned.

Avoid peak season

It's convenient for most people to head to the Canadian Rockies in summer during vacation season and when school is out. It's also the most pleasant time to visit Canada's natural places weather wise. For these reasons, the high season (June, July, and into August) is the most packed. Knowing this, hotels, lodges and Airbnbs all hike their rates to alarmingly high levels. Supply is low and demand is high...it's simple economics really. 

If possible, it's best to visit the Rockies during shoulder seasons like spring and fall. Autumn can still be quite busy as throngs of tourists (and photographers) flock to the mountains for fall foliage, but it's less crowded than the high season. Winter in the mountains is stunningly beautiful. If you love winter outdoor activities, then you'll also enjoy lower hotel rates and having more Airbnbs to choose from. My wife and I once stayed in a very nice modern hotel in downtown Banff for $350 CDN for a weekend getaway....half the summer rate for the same room.

 Tourists harassing an elk in Jasper National Park, Summer 2017. I pulled over 30 yards down the road, whipped out my 500mm lens, and had about 30 seconds alone with this elk before about a dozen other cars showed up. At that point I moved on. People should never get this close to wildlife. 

Tourists harassing an elk in Jasper National Park, Summer 2017. I pulled over 30 yards down the road, whipped out my 500mm lens, and had about 30 seconds alone with this elk before about a dozen other cars showed up. At that point I moved on. People should never get this close to wildlife. 

Book weekdays, not weekends

Year-round weekday rates are typically much lower than weekend dates. I once stayed in a great little Airbnb in downtown Jasper mid-week during February for only $58 CDN per night. That same room costs $30 more per night on weekends in winter (double during high season). If you have flexibility with your dates, use it. It can save you hundreds versus choosing "weekend getaways."

book accommodation wayyyy in advance

If you don't have the flexibility to visit the rockies in the low season, you should book your stay as far in advance as possible. The best and most affordable places book up quickest. This is especially true for Airbnbs. They are usually much cheaper than lodges, hotels, or renting RVs (the latter is surprisingly expensive). Many Airbnbs have kitchens, providing guests the ability to save more money by cooking their own meals (eating out in Jasper and Banff is pricy).

Both Airbnbs and hotels begin disappearing as early as a year in advance in the towns of Jasper and Banff. I recommend booking yours at least 6 months in advance in order to take advantage of the more reasonably priced ones. Wait until the spring before, and you'll have to choose accommodation in one of the peripheral mountain towns farther from the parks.

drive more, pay less

Staying in one of the small towns outside of Banff and Jasper isn't necessarily a bad thing. Towns like Golden, BC, Invermere, BC, Hinton, AB, or Canmore, AB have lots of great places to stay as well. Accommodation in these areas is not as expensive as Jasper and Banff and tend to not book up as quickly. They are all located within the beautiful Canadian Rockies, just a bit farther from the National Park entrances. Even though you may drive a little more to get to the sites within the parks, you'll pay a lot less per night to stay. There are awesome things to see and do within these towns as well. If staying on the British Columbia side of the Rockies, you'll have quicker access to lesser known (but no less amazing) Glacier and Kootenay National Parks, as well as Mount Robson Provincial Park. 

 Located on the British Columbia side of the Rockies, Glacier National Park of Canada boasts some pretty awesome sites and hikes for those keen on avoiding crowds. (Photo: Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park, BC)

Located on the British Columbia side of the Rockies, Glacier National Park of Canada boasts some pretty awesome sites and hikes for those keen on avoiding crowds. (Photo: Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park, BC)

Camping - the most budget friendly option

The most affordable way to spend time in the Canadian Rockies by far is to pitch a tent. There are loads of front country campsites, some primitive, and some with basic amenities like showers and electricity (most also have fire pits and picnic tables). Backcountry camping is also an option for more adventurous travelers. Backcountry camping is around $10 CDN a night, while more convenient front country campsites cost between $22 and $32 CDN per night. Note that some campgrounds are first come, first serve, while some may be booked in advance (the earlier, the better).

Sites with sewer and electrical hookups for RVs cost more, but unless you own a camper van or RV, I wouldn't recommend visiting the Rockies this way. Renting an RV in Canada can cost $400-600 per night excluding gas, insurance, and park fees - not exactly budget friendly. You could stay in a hotel in town or lodge within the park boundaries for that price. 

the elephant in the room: car camping (aka sleeping in your vehicle)

There are no official rules or regulations against overnighting in your passenger vehicle (car, SUV, mini-van) within the national parks. I feel, however, that it's only a matter of time before parks officials figure out a way to regulate this practice. At the time of this writing, there is no mention of "car camping" on the Parks Canada site. Doing so is fairly common practice, especially with those traveling through the park alone. Sometimes the campgrounds are simply booked up entirely, and you may have no choice. It is obviously preferred that people pay and use campsites even if not tent camping. Those with camper vans and small RVs must still register for a campsite. 

Discretion should be used. If overnighting in your vehicle (and assuming you have paid your admission fees for the duration or purchased a discovery pass), you must not park in areas which overnight parking is prohibited or in day use only areas. Do not build fires or pitch tents in areas outside of designated campsites. If overnighting in your vehicle, you should not let your "footprint" grow beyond the parking spot. Photographers typically don't sleep for very long, so the practice of overnighting in their car is common. In the summer months, daylight is so long, and nighttime so short that overnighting is really only a 3 to 4 hour nap, and not technically camping. There are no rules against napping in your car during the day, so why would it matter at night? There is a lot of grey area surrounding this topic...just use your head, pay your fees, and respect the park rules, wildlife, and other visitors.