There are no words that any poet could pen that could possibly do justice to the raw beauty, grandeur and natural wonder that is Antarctica. The white continent is quite simply a thing of unbridled, unhinged primordial beauty that is breathtaking in the extreme. It truly feels like an unexplored prehistoric world – a last frontier. I can only hope that I can bring some sort of justice to the amazing Antarctic landscape in my photographs.
I had hoped I would get some time to update my blog during the expedition; however, the frantic pace of photography meant that any down time away from the cameras was spent either eating or sleeping. Any time awake was spent either cruising iceberg fields in a zodiac or in shore landings or in shooting from the deck of the ship as we moved from location to location. Gearing up and down for shore landings and zodiac cruising in Antarctica is quite the logistical exercise. Although the ambient air temperature was never really very cold (it never got below around -5 celsius air temperature) it was often bitterly cold with wind chill factor around -30 degrees Celsius. Multiple layers of clothes, waterproof shell, boots, life jacket and many pounds of camera gear makes getting into and out of pitching zodiacs somewhat tricky – especially when both the ship and zodiac are pitching in large swells. Shooting from zodiac is also tricky and it can be a real battle to keep cameras dry and operating in freezing weather/wind, snow and pervasive salt spray. On multiple occasions I had myself and cameras quite literally drenched in salt spray and sea water when shooting from zodiacs. It was necessary to meticulously clean all of my gear after each shoot to remove the salt spray. Thankfully my cameras and lenses never missed a beat – thanks to the rugged build quality and extreme weather sealing found in Canon’s 1-series cameras. Some of those shooting 5D MKII’s were not so lucky (or well prepared). Although I don’t have an official count of camera failures I am led to believe at least 3 5D MKII’s failed and another 5D MKII and 7D operated sporadically and seemingly at random. To my knowledge there were no issues with any of the medium format cameras in use (Including a couple of Hasselblads with Phase backs and a Pentax 645D). Andy Biggs’s Leica S2 likewise never missed a beat. Antarctica is without doubt the most hostile environment for photography I have ever experienced. The combination of extreme cold, salt water spray and dust (Antarctica is incredibly dry and dusty) will push any camera and photographer to their operational limits. With around 70 photographers on board and most of them sporting at least two DSLR bodies some camera failures were unfortunately inevitable.
We were extremely fortunate to have the renowned Russian captain Alexey for our expedition. Alexey (otherwise known as ‘The Secret Weapon’) was prepared to place the ship extremley close to some truly massive icebergs (ice the size of football fields) for photography as well as navigate ice pack fields and the ice chocked entrance to the Lemaire channel. Some of the icebergs we photographed were the size of a football field and thanks to some very skillful sailing I was able to shoot many of them with the Canon 17mm Tilt Shift lens from the deck of the ship as we glided slowly past. Captain Alexey even circled some of them several times to ensure we had the best angle for our photographs. Our ship the Ocean Nova is an ice hardened ship; which meant we could get closer to big ice and visit locations other ships could not reach. This was a real plus for all of the photographers on board. I would not have been able to capture some of the images I have come back with without such a skillful and experienced Captain. I took the opportunity on several occasions to visit the captains office (the bridge) and it was a real privilege to see him at work navigating the treacherous waters. The reality of this kind of sailing in Antarctica is that there is no coast guard and typically no other ship for hundreds of miles. One only has their own resources to hand if you get into trouble. One could quite easily gauge the Captain’s stress levels by his chain smoking speed and there were a few moments when there was one in the hand, one in the ash try and another ready to light. There is something quite surreal about standing outside the Captains bridge on the deck of the ship in a pristine wilderness with the smell of nicotine wafting down from the bridge. I tip my hat to captain Alexey for some truly remarkable sailing. The crew of the expedition (including the zodiac drivers) were likewise outstanding and extremely sympathetic to the neurotic needs of the many photographers to make ‘just one more pass’ around an iceberg. I will write more about my experience of shooting from zodiac and the Quark crew later. Suffice to say for now that they performed above and beyond my expectations in every way (and I consider myself a difficult photographer to please). The quality of the food aboard ship was equally outstanding and from everyone I spoke with aboard the ship was well above their expectations. I will again write more about this later (It really deserves its own journal entry).
The weather is fickle in Antarctica. Most of the trip was overcast with grey brooding skies, mist and dark clouds; which proved perfect for my style of photography. I find dark and moody skies highly evocative and the perfect back drop for photographing icebergs (my favorite photographic subjects). We also had quite a lot of snowfall during the trip; which added to the drama of the scene (and also increased the complexity of keeping cameras operating). Whilst it was nice to see the sun on the last full day in Antarctica it made photography more problematic with a much wider dynamic range; which created more of a challenge to isolate the subject from busy backgrounds. I feel fortunate to have experienced Antarctica in its natural state as for much of the year the continent is shrouded in cloud, fog and mist. Bright sunny days are not suited to my style of photography. Although the ice can look truly brilliant in sunshine I find it lacks the brooding moody feeling I am trying to capture and convey in my photography. We did not get any blazing surises or sunsets during the trip due to the overcast conditions. In fact, we rarely saw the sun period despite the fact it never really got dark. One could easily read a newspaper between the short hours of sunset and sunrise. Sunset was around 11:30pm and sunrise around 2:30am.
What about the Drake?
We were somewhat fortunate (fortunate is probably the wrong word) with our crossing of the Drake Passage to have relatively average seas. Our two-day sailing journey to Antarctica from Ushuaia saw us encounter swells in the order of 20-30 feet (with the odd larger rogue topping out at close to 40 feet) with the ship pitching around 30-40 degrees (15-20 degrees to starboard and then 15-20 degrees back to Port). I am told this is an average crossing and not extreme by Drake standards. The constant large swells took their toll on the group however with somewhere around 25% of the photographers on board going down with chronic seasickness for most of the crossing. A few particularly badly affected individuals did not re-surface until we reached the calmer waters of the continent. Those that managed to stumble from their cabins now and again looked more than a little green around the gills. I was fortunate to avoid any seasickness; although I have felt somewhat dehydrated the entire trip due to the sea sickness prevention patches I used. I am not sure if the cure is worse than the disease when it comes to seasickness medication. It makes one very drowsy and dehydrated. Although I have never been sea sick before I decided a preventative patch would be a good idea just in case. On our return crossing we were greeted with some truly massive seas as we entered the Drake Passage – the biggest swells I have ever experienced. Watching the breakers smash into the rocky islands as we sailed out into the Drake and throw spray a hundred feet into the air was awesome in the true sense of the word. The massive swells quickly took their toll on our expedition members and many disappeared into their cabins in an effort to minimise sea sickness.
In terms of photography, I shot a total of 13,481 images over the course of the ten-day expedition. My heaviest days shooting was a total of 3143 images and my lightest 481. I did not bracket my exposures as I was comfortable dialing in exposure compensation on the fly. I am used to looking at the cameras histogram to ensure I have a good exposure that is well exposed to the right. In fact, exposure and dynamic range were really quite easy to deal with in the overcast conditions (nature’s soft box). Most of the time I was dialled in around +1 and 1/3rd stops. I also took an opportunity to shoot with the Leica S2 bought along by Gura Gear’s Andy Biggs during one iceberg shoot (thanks Andy!). I will write more on my experiences with the Leica later. There were also some wonderful wildlife photographic opportunities throughout the trip and I will likewise write more about these at a later stage as I process and release my wildlife photographs. For now I will simply comment that Penguins are wonderfully whimsical critters and I enjoyed photographing them very much.
I very much enjoyed shooting alongside my friend Martyn again and it was great fun to compare notes at the end of each days shooting with other photographers over dinner. It never ceases to amaze me that a large group of photographers can visit the same location yet all come away with such different images and interpretations – truly remarkable. I should also note that Link with whom Martyn and I shared a cabin proved a perfect room mate. Thank you to both Martyn and Link for making the trip such a successful and enjoyable experience.
Now I have many weeks of, sorting, editing, ranking and processing in front of me. It may well be years before I have mined all the gems from this remarkable photographic expedition. I am still compiling my thoughts and feelings about Antarctica and will no doubt write much more in due course about all aspects of the trip after due contemplation and reflection. Although I am very keen to start sharing my images from Antarctica I am mindful of my need to spend some time contemplating my photographs before I begin to release my serious work. Until then I just want to share a few snapshots that I hope will convey some of the feeling of what this trip was like. This first photograph I feel conveys the feeling of what it was like to photograph from the zodiacs amidst the icebergs. Believe it or not this photograph has been processed with absolutely zero vibrance or saturation and is as straight a photograph as digital allows – these are the real natural colours of Antarctica. This should also help give a sense of scale. A zodiac is very small protection in Antarctica and I hope this photography also conveys some sense of the environment.I hope to go back to Antarctica one day if time and logistics allow. I feel that I could spend a year or more down there with my cameras and barely scratch the potential photographic possibilities. As a photographer who has a passion for ice the possibilities in Antarctica are quite literally limitless. For several photographers on board this was their second, third or even fourth trip to Antarctica and now having experienced the raw beauty of the continent myself I can fully understand the addiction. I will most definately be back.
I will be writing up a post over the coming days/weeks about what worked and what didn’t (much as I did for my Iceland trip last year) as well as many more thoughts and moments from the trip. But for now I am keen to get home from Buenos Aires and to take some time to reflect and consider my work.
I will up date the photo of the month for December later this month when I release the first of my Antarctic images.