ICELAND 2013 EXPEDITION : JULY 13th – JULY 22nd WAITING LIST ONLY

I had been planning to announce that registrations are now officially open for the July workshop I am leading to Iceland in 2013. However, due to client expressions of interest, pre-registration and bookings the expedition is already sold out.  If you are interested in photographing in the amazingly geologically diverse country of Iceland then you can still register your interest and be placed on the waiting list. This workshop is for a maximum of 6 participants who are serious about their photography and are willing to put in long hours in the field and work for their images. Working with a small number of photographers means we can get to more inaccessible locations when the light is at its absolute best. We can move quickly from location to location as the light changes; or maximise our time in the one location when the light is magical. 

If you want to be able to take photographs like this under the spectacular midnight sun then please contact me with your registration of interest. I am currently investigating if it is logistically possible to run a second trip in the Icelandic winter and if so those who have previously expressed interest or are already on the waiting list will be contacted first. All expeditions are strictly limited to a maximum of six participants, plus leader and guide and places are reserved on a first come, first served basis. For further queries please contact me directly.

Fire and Ice

CANONS ‘X’ FACTOR & NIKONS 5D MKII KILLER

The Internet forums were abuzz with talk of the merging of the Canon 1DS and 1D lines into the new ‘multi-media powerhouse’ 1DX DSLR, when Canon announced it late in 2011. I actually predicted the merging of the 1DS and 1D lines in my blog HERE just prior to leaving for Antarctica. However, I was way off beam on the effective mega pixel count. I did not expect Canon to announce a new 1 series camera with a lower pixel count than the 1DS MKIII (I was quite sure at the time that the camera would be at least 30+ mega pixels). I had been hoping any announcement from Canon would come well before my Antarctic expedition so that I could take one of their new cameras with me. However, in typical Canon fashion they announced the product literally months before actual planned release. If rumors are to be believed, it was Canon’s way of heading off Nikon’s impending D4 announcement – read into that what you will. Irrespective, as of today the camera is still not even available for pre-order at B&H. Planned release for the 1DX was March this year, but I am now hearing the first cameras will not be delivered in Australia before April at the earliest. I ordered my 1DS MKIII the day they were announced and it took nearly three months to receive the camera in Australia, and this is simply not good enough. Canon should take a lesson from Apple’s marketing department. When Apple announce a new product it is almost always available that very same day – or very shortly thereafter. With the Olympic Games only a few months away it is quite obvious that the bulk of new 1DX cameras will first be delivered to photographers attending the Games. Although I was quick to put my name down for the 1DX, I doubt I will actually receive one before April at the earliest.

I have been holding off making any comment on the 1DX until I had an opportunity to actually see some sample images from the camera in order to consider the implications from moving to a new body with a lower pixel count than my existing 1DS MKIII. I was preparing a post with my thoughts on the 1DX, when Nikon officially announced the world’s “worst kept secret” – the 36 mega pixel D800 and D800E. In case you missed it, the D800 and D800E are identical, with the exception of the use of a traditional anti-alias (blurring) filter on the E version to remove potential moiré issues. The announcement of the D800/E is highly significant in 35mm digital terms. There is no doubt that Nikon has really thrown down the gauntlet to Canon with the announcement of the D800/E cameras. The Nikon also marks a serious move into low-end medium format digital resolution at a price point that must be keeping medium format camera manufacturers up at night. Importantly for Nikon, it also effectively kills Canon’s 5D MKII Golden Goose. Up until now, Nikon had nothing to compete with the amazingly low street price and high pixel count of the 5D MKII. Nikon photographers had to purchase a D3X at $8000 US dollars to compete on a purely mega pixel basis. A 5D MKII, on the other hand, could be had for under $3000 US dollars. I shudder to think how many 5D MKIIs Canon has sold, but you can bet its many tens of thousands more than Nikon’s D3X.

With the D800 and D800E slated to ship in March/April at an estimated retail price of $3000 and $3,300 US dollars respectively, the game has well and truly changed for landscape and studio photographers. The pendulum has now swung firmly back toward Nikon. Landscape photographers with bags of Nikon glass can rejoice as their prayers have been finally answered in the D800 and D800E. With an effective pixel count of 36.3 mega pixels, the D800 and D800E ‘should’ be able to produce stunning files with exceptionally fine detail.

There are, however, some serious caveats to consider. Firstly, lens quality, camera technique, and diffraction are going to play a very significant role in final output quality from these two new cameras. I suspect any lens that is not up to the task is going to really disappoint with these cameras. Likewise, poor technique and stopping down too much will result in mushy files that fail to utilize the full sensor’s capabilities. However, on the flip side of the coin, a good sharp prime lens shot at F5.6 on a tripod with mirror lock-up, cable release etc. should result in a file with stunning detail. I do predict an outpouring of ‘this lens is soft!‘ from Nikon shooters as the D800 finds its way into end-user’s hands. One thing is for sure, and that is the D800/E will clearly test the limits of not only Nikon’s best glass but also its users’ techniques.

Nikon wasted no time putting sample images from the D800 online for potential purchasers and armchair critics to scrutinize. I don’t want to spend a lot of time critiquing the sample files since they are 8 bit jpeg files and it remains unclear how they were processed. Suffice to say at this point, the jpeg files are not without issues, but they do show a significant amount of high frequency detail that has been captured by the camera’s sensor. They are (for all their issues) quite impressive, and if I were a Nikon shooter I would be salivating over these limited samples. Incidentally, I think the move by Nikon to offer a D800E without the traditional form of anti-alias filter for landscape photographers is a brilliant move on their part. Anyone looking to purchase an expensive medium format system in the sub 40 mega pixel bracket would now seriously have to consider a D800E as a more cost- effective viable alternative. Medium format manufactures have long touted the superiority of their sensors because of the lack of the AA filter. By removing the filter Nikon has removed this argument effectively, thus neutralizing one of medium format’s unique selling propositions. The Nikon also uses a CMOS sensor, which means it can handle much longer exposures than most medium format sensors.

In a move that can only be considered a knee-jerk reaction, Canon has finally released limited sample jpeg files for the 1DX. It can hardly be a coincidence that 1DX files appear online within 24 hours of Nikon’s D800 announcement! Interestingly, the files provided to date are quite restricted in their ISO range. There are, as yet, no really high ISO files available (as of this post), which is where the 1DX is really supposed to shine. Additionally, none of the samples to date are of subjects with high frequency detail. This is not really surprising since the 1DX is clearly not targeted at landscape photographers and it would be better compared against Nikon’s new D4 camera. Those files that have been made available are extremely impressive, however. They are exceptionally clean and free of noise, smooth and, without overdoing the superlatives, they are gorgeous. These 8-bit jpeg files also upscale very nicely in Photoshop to 200%. 16 Bit Tiff files should look even better. It is difficult to make further comment on the sample files to date as, like Nikon, the Canon files are 8 bit jpegs and it remains unclear how they have been processed. I suspect they are either jpegs straight from the camera or have otherwise been processed in Canon’s own Digital Photo Professional software.

Canon made quite the show when they announced their new 1DX camera in late 2011. Clearly the 1DX is targeted at Sports, Photojournalist and Wedding photographers (and not Landscape and Studio photographers). With its low-light capabilities and its gazillion frames-a-second capabilities it is also going to be an outstanding camera for Wildlife photographers. If I were only shooting wildlife I would be ecstatic at the new 1Dx and very excited by the sample files posted to date. However, I am primarily a landscape photographer and mega pixels are important to me in order to make large prints. There is no substitute for cubic inches, as they say in the automotive game. Yes, the quality of those pixels is of critical importance.

I don’t want to get into the whole pixel game, sensor size, or noise debate in this post since that is a can of worms that needs a thesis of its own and this post is not intended to be a technical analysis of either Canon or Nikon cameras. There are plenty of technical comparisons already available online, and DXO will no doubt post their own findings in due course. I merely point out that, at the end of the day, it is the actual output file that matters and not the specifications. If (and I consider it a big IF) Canon can produce a file from the 1DX that can be upsized 200% in Photoshop and provide a better image than a native 36 mega pixel file, then the 1DX may yet prove a viable landscape camera. However, I suspect that Canon hasn’t as yet revealed all their cards and are holding back a large mega pixel camera to compete against the Nikon D800/E. I have no inside information to confirm this; it’s just a gut feeling based on the needs of the marketplace. If Canon is to announce such a camera they will need to do so soon, since we are likely to see somewhat of a flood of 5D MKII’s on the second-hand market as Canon owners abandon their cameras for Nikon’s newest bad boy on the block. For the Canon stayers, this may be an excellent opportunity to pick up some cheap pre-loved glass from those switching camps. For Nikon it’s an opportunity to lead the field in pixels and sales—at least for the time being.

ANTARCTICA – THE LAST BASTION : WHEN INSTINCT TRUMPS PRECONCEPTION

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

FEBRUARY PHOTOGRAPH OF THE MONTH – PENGUINS ADRIFT IN SNOW STORM II

I have updated the photograph of the month for February with one of my favourite landscape / wildlife images from my expedition to Antarctica late last year. This photograph of penguins adrift on an iceberg was taken during overcast conditions and very heavy snow fall from the deck of our ship the Ocean Nova. What particularly appeals to me about this photograph is the placement of the penguins in their environment. There is a vastness and emptiness that speaks to me about the struggle to live in such an open exposed environment. A higher resolution version of this photograph can also be seen on my portfolio website at www.jholko.com

DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY+DESIGN – COVER AND FEATURE ARTICLE FEBRUARY / MARCH EDITION

Having a photograph published in a photography magazine (or any magazine for that matter) is a lot of fun and will always puts a smile on a photographers face. Being interviewed and having a multi-page feature on your photography published in that magazine will fix that smile for at least as long as the issue remains on the news stands. Scoring the cover photograph in the very same issue is the home run that hits the ball well and truly out of the park. In a home run for me, the latest February / March edition of the Australia’s top selling digital imaging magazine Digital Photography + Design features an interview and six page spread of my photography, as well as sporting one of my most well known photographs from Iceland on the cover. A PDF of the complete article can be downloaded HERE.