An overtly strong preconception of how a new location or subject will photograph is an all too-easy pitfall for the landscape photographer to fall into. It is a problem I have discussed with other photographers, and I find myself struggling with the problem every now and then. As a landscape photographer who is forever chasing the best possible light, I frequently find myself headed to new, often exotic locations with a strong preconception of, not only what I will photograph but also the quality of light I will encounter. At times this preconception will even lead me as far as framing the image in my mind. The danger of the preconception is that it is inevitably stronger than the reality. Indeed, in my experience the stronger the preconception the more likely it is to lead to disappointment. Such is the power of the human imagination. The preconception can easily lead to disappointment and even, at times, to not getting the camera gear out of the bag. Reality can sometimes have quite a sobering effect on the vision. The preconception can also blind us to the obvious. With too strong a picture in the mind’s eye, it is all too easy to spend all one’s time looking for that shot, when the real gem lies dead ahead but remains unseen for our inability to see past the preconception.
With such a long build up to my Antarctica expedition late last year, I had literally months and months to build preconceptions, hopes and dreams for my Antarctic photography. Believe me when I say my mind was running wild with thoughts of blazing sunsets and sunrises, soft pastel light and a depth of colour that would ignite a fire in even the most cynical landscape photographer’s dreams. Browsing through my collection of photography books on Antarctica did little to quell my raging imagination. I am a realist at heart, however, and even though my mind was running amok with the possibilities, I was also acutely aware that what-would-be would-be and that there was very little I was going to be able to do about it once on location, except make the most of things. Antarctica is not an easy place to get to and arranging a re-shoot is logistically impractical. When you are shooting from a ship, when time is limited and the costs are high, you must make the most of the cards you are dealt.
As it happened, there were no blazing sunsets or sunrises that would result in an explosion of fiery oranges and pink pastels during the expedition. As I am oft heard to say in such situations – ‘Sometimes you get the candy bar, sometimes you get the wrapper’. But is the lack of blazing colour really always the wrapper? Most definitely not.
Despite the lack of sunrise and sunset colour during the expedition I was nevertheless thrilled with the quality of the light. I am on record as preferring overcast and dark, moody skies in my photography rather than clear sunny days. I love the drama of storms, dark brooding skies, and racing clouds. There is a drama to such scenes that I find highly evocative and strongly emotional. There is a primordial quality to dramatic skies that I find very appealing. Hence, I found myself really struggling on the one bright and clear sunny day that we did have in Antarctica.
I have seen many photographs from the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica with wonderful golden evening or pre-dawn light, and this was indeed the preconception in my own mind’s eye as we turned into the channel for what would be one of our final shoots of the trip. The fact that the skies were dark, brooding and filled with snow did at the time give me pause to stop and think ‘damn… I wanted sunset colour!‘ However, I quickly realized that this was also an opportunity to produce a photograph that was very different to others I had seen from the Lemaire Channel. Instead of the classic channel shot bathed in golden sunset light, I could instead take advantage of the dark overcast skies to frame one of the imposing mountains overlooking the channel, one that I had not seen before.I chose to shoot this with Canon’s 17mm Tilt and Shift lens on my 1DS MKIII as I wanted to use some in-camera perspective control to prevent the mountain appearing to fall away from the viewer. I have previously blogged about this phenomenon in my post about ‘The Fortress‘ iceberg. I have found, through experience, that I prefer to accomplish my perspective control in-camera, rather than in the digital darkroom. I do not recall the exact amount of tilt I used in this photograph but it was somewhere around 1.5 degrees. As I was photographing from several stories high on the aft of the ship I also used a significant amount of lens shift to get lower to the water.
What I was aiming for in this photograph was to convey the imposing and seemingly menacing nature of the mountains that guard the entrance to the channel. I wanted the chalky blue nature of the ice to contrast against the black and frigid water. I also wanted to capture the wake left by our ship as a leading line into the frame. Lastly, I was hoping to try and give the impression of rivers of ice running down the mountain, juxtaposed against the dark skies and the back-lit mountain. Because it is impossible to use filters with the 17mm TSE due to it bulbous front element I had to add a graduated effect in post-production in Adobe Lightroom to achieve this result. I would normally have used a graduated neutral density filter in the field to achieve this.
By far the majority of photography from the world’s southern most continent consists of classic icebergs and penguins and I have many photographs of this kind that I am very pleased with. There are few photographs that I feel speak to the raw natural power and primordial beauty of Antarctica. I hope that this photograph has captured at least some of that majesty and power. A higher resolution version of this photograph can also be seen in my Antarctica portfolio at www.jholko.com