February Photo of the Month: Petermann Island Antarctica

My photograph of the month for February is of a Penguin rookery high on the mountain side at Petermann Island in Antarctica. Petermann Island is one of those incredible Antarctic locations where it is possible to go ashore and wander amongst the many Penguin rookeries making photographs. In this instance, we landed late in the evening via zodiac at Petermann Island and spent several hours photographing the landscape and penguins as the sun slowly set in perfect weather conditions. This photograph was taken around 11pm at night and illustrates just how much light is available this late in the evening in Antarctica. We were very fortunate during this landing to have just about perfect conditions with wonderful light and atmospherics. Dedicated expeditions for photography such as this one (Read the Report) are the key difference between capturing images such as this in ideal lighting conditions and just snapshots taken in the middle of the day. If you are interested in travelling to Antarctica for photography I am running two expeditions to the great white continent this year. The first is an extended expedition to South Georgia Island and Antarctica with my good friend Andy Biggs. The second is a shorter expedition to the Antarctic peninsula with fellow Australian photographer Antony Watson. Full details, including an itinerary is available for download on the workshops page of my website at www.jholko.com There are only very limited places remaining on both expeditions. If you want to get more of an idea what it is like to travel on a dedicated photography expedition be sure watch the Polar Experience Video I produced late las year.

FujiFilm Australian Landscape Photographer of the Year 2013

Just over a month ago I helped judge the Fujifilm Australian Landscape Photographer of the Year Competition for Australian Photography + Digital Magazine and the winners have now been announced. Congratulations to Debbie Fowler who is the inaugural winner of the prestigious Australian Photography + digital Fujifilm X Landscape Photographer of the Year award. She won with her aerial abstract series, which she shot whilst on an open-door helicopter flight above the Cambridge Gulf in far northwest Australia. Second place overall went to Helen McFadden, who shot a series of icy images made in Godhul Bay, South Georgia island, north of Antarctica and east of the South American continent. The other eight finalists to make the top ten included Brad Grove, Matthew Smith, Luke Tscharke, Shirley Milburn, Aaron Huang, Andrew Dickman, Judith Conning, and William Patino. The top twenty five portfolios included Peter Hill, a second portfolio from Aaron Huang, Nick Baldas, Derek Feebrey, Francis Pisani, Tim McCullough, Peter Hammer, Ben Taylor, Priyaji Peiris, Michael Harris, Cameron Downie, Chris Wiewiora, Margot Hughes, Jason Beaven, Kiall Frost. My congratulations to all of these photographers.

The competition was open to amateur photographers only and true to its name sake was out to find the 2013 Australian amateur landscape photographer of the year. I know the term professional photographer is somewhat convoluted these days but Australian Photography Magazine define it as: Professional photographers are not permitted to enter. By entering this competition the entrant guarantees that he/she is not a professional photographer. For the purposes of this competition a professional photographer is someone who earns more than $2000 a year from photography. By that definition we can assume that all entrants into this competition earned less than $2000 with their photography in the year of entry. This is an important distinction as this point rules out many very fine photographers who make some (albeit a meagre) income (above $2000) from the pursuit of their passion but fall far short of being able to sustain and support themselves without some other supplementary income (usually a full time job). I emphasise this point as this competition is one truly open to amateurs only.

This was not the first time I have  been invited to judge a photographic competition (and I hope it wont be the last!) but it was the first time I have judged a competition whilst I have been on a photographic expedition. In this case, I had just completed two spectacular weeks in Antarctica (Read the Report) surrounded by fifty other passionate photographers. Emotionally this time away on an expedition spent with a passionate group of participants put me in a very creative frame of mind and I felt charged and dare I say it perhaps even qualified to judge the photographs entered into the competition and prepare my thoughts on the winning images.

Whilst I was viewing the photographs it struck me that those images that were most successful were those that stepped beyond the obvious cliché and triggered an emotional response in the viewer (in this case me). I wrote briefly about this for Australian Photography Magazine and my orginal text is included below:

Firstly, thank you for the invitation to judge this competition and for the opportunity to present my thoughts on the judging process in relation to the submitted entries. It is very easy to wowed as a judge by exotic locations and having been fortunate to travel to, and visit many of the places depicted in the images submitted by many of the contestants I feel qualified to comment on how the image has been executed – composition, light, the ability to see past the obvious cliché. Travel to exotic photography destinations is perhaps half the battle. But it is on location where the magic of light and composition have to come together to create something truly special in landscape photography. It takes a keen eye and the ability to successfully translate a three-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional image that maintains a sense of depth and movement.  Being able to see past the obvious and capture form, shape and texture sets the best work apart from merely technically competent work. I was very pleased to see a selection of images in the competition that clearly demonstrated this skill and ability.

As a judge I am looking for images that demonstrate not only technical excellence, but also that evoke an emotional response in the viewer (In short, images that challenge the viewer and make them stop and think). A photograph that is well composed with a strong subject and great light really shines when the photographer also manages to capture the mood and feeling of a location. I look for a sense of depth, movement and design (once the technical aspects have been assessed) when judging images and those photographs that successfully convey this always stand out. Photographs that pose a question or that cause the viewer to pause and consider what it is that they are viewing are always far more powerful than just a pretty scene.

FujiFilm Australian Amateur Landscape photographer of the year is not a title to be bestowed lightly. Although this competition is not open to professionals I viewed all images with the eye of a professional full time nature photographer and it was very pleasing to see such a solid standard of work. The line is very blurred these days between amateur and professional photographers and I regularly see work from amateurs of the highest calibre. I am pleased that this competition has attracted this high standard of work and it was my pleasure to view and judge the photographs. I commend all the photographers who entered and encourage them to do so again next year. Thank you.

Not long after I had finished judging the competition and had forwarded my thoughts above to Australian Photography Magazine I came across a fascinating article by photographer David Ward. I was sitting in the airport at Punta Arenas in Chile waiting for my connecting flight to Santiago last December and was reading issue #65 of On Landscape magazine (one of the finest publications on landscape photography to grace the halls of landscape literature in my view). Of particular interest was an article by David titled ‘Leaving Room, Where Does the Viewer Live?’. I have not yet had the pleasure to meet David but his article strikes at the very core of what I was driving at when I wrote the above statement about judging the Fujifilm Landscape Photographer of the Year competition.  Landscape photography is about so much more than just a pretty or dramatic picture and David’s article sums this up succinctly and in such a way that the photographer can take many pearls of wisdom away from the article and apply them to their own phtoography. If you do not subscribe to On Landscape I highly recommend you do so and read David’s excellent article. Issue #66 also includes an excellent article on judging Competitions titled ‘The View from the Other Side” by Tim Parkin that is well worth a read for any would be contestant entrant as well as any existing or potential future photographic judge.

Gura Gear announce the ‘Uinta’ Modular Camera Backpack

It would be hard to argue that the Gura Gear Kiboko and Bataflae camera bags have not made a major impact with photographers around the world. In my travels, I an fortunate to spend a lot of time with photographers from all over the globe and I consistently see a multitude of these bags on my workshops and expeditions. Gura Gear bags are universally adored by their owners for their sturdy construction, light weight build and ability to swallow copious amounts of gear. In fact, the only criticism I ocassionally here from owners of these camera bags is that they hold too much gear and therefore there is a temptation to carry too much equipment into the field. The only other comment I ever here is “I wish they made a pack more suitable for hiking.” As it turns out the folks at Gura Gear have been listening and since the release of the new Bataflae camera bags Gura Gear have been hard at work behind the scenes on a new modular camera bag system designed for photographers with different needs and they are now introducing the newest addiition to the Gura Gear product line, the Uinta adventure backpack system.From the Press Release: Named after the majestic Uinta mountain range located in Northern Utah, the Uinta is designed to be the ultimate adventure pack ready to haul camera gear and hiking essentials wherever your travels take you. The Uinta spans the gap between urban and adventure lifestyles. Whether you need a technical day pack for photo/video gear, or a reliable adventure pack that accommodates a single DSLR and adventure’s essentials, Uinta boasts 30 liters of space and adjusts to your needs with specially designed module inserts. Uinta is a lightweight, weather-resistant bag that will adapt to your needs.

Featuring an extremely comfortable and breathable harness system, the Uinta is perfect for day trips in the mountains, deserts, or wherever life’s adventures may take you. In any situation, accessing gear is easy through any of the multiple access points. Uinta features a set of removable padded, configurable photo modules engineered for the latest in digital photographic equipment allowing the user to adapt the bag for each day’s requirements. The protective foams were specifically designed to maximise protection while minimising weight. Not all of life’s adventures involve the wilderness, that’s why Uinta can even stow up to a 17” MacBook Pro in the padded interior compartment, perfect for travel, work, or play. (I know many photographers will very very appreciative of the ability to carry a laptop in their camera bag if required).

The Uinta is an adventure pack designed to utilise Gura Gear’s new modular photo inserts and tripod and hydration system. Small Pro and Medium Pro Modules as well as a Tripod & Hydration System (THS) are available as separate components. Thus the system can be customised to suit the needs of the individual user. This new bag opens up new areas for Gura Gear and gives those photographers who require a dedicated backpack an ideal solution. The current line of Gura Gear camera bags is very much designed for travel and handling large amounts of gear. This new bag is designed with hiking and day trips in mind.The Uinta is all about being the right bag for whatever adventures you take. Whether you are looking for a spacious technical daypack for hiking to the summit of your dreams, or a pack to haul just a little or a whole lot of camera gear, the Uinta can be configured to suit your needs.

The available modules make carrying just the gear you need easy and accessible. Your options are many:

  • Use both the Medium and Small Pro Modules for the maximum camera gear configuration.
  • Use only the Medium Pro Module and give yourself some additional space for extra essentials at the bottom of the pack.
  • With the Small Pro Module you can handle the lightest camera setup with ample room for hiking essentials. The Small Pro Module can be installed in both the lower and upper sections of the bag. This allows you to manage the weight distribution in the pack to be exactly where you want it.
  • For those times when you’re not taking your beloved camera gear and you just need a lightweight and durable pack, the Uinta offers a spacious configurable 30 liters of space to tote everything you need.
  • Add the Tripod and Hydration System for a simple way to secure a tripod, hydration bladder, small shovel or anything else your adventure requires.

Uinta has many options. Photographers never face the same conditions and what works best in the morning may not work in the evening. With the Multi-Point Front and Rear Access System you have the ultimate control on how you would like to access your gear. When Modules are installed in the top section of the pack you have full access to your gear from either the back or front of the Uinta. And the Small Pro Module (when installed in the lower section) is easily accessed through a third opening on the bottom back of the bag. Uinta even has built in room for up to a 17″ laptop and compartments to organize the small stuff in life.

Introductory Offer

I am currently field testing the Uinta system – look for my full review in the coming weeks. In the meantime Gura Gear have a super introductory offer for those of you keen to get your hands on the new system. When you order a Uinta with both the Small Pro and Medium Pro Modules you will receive a free Tripod & Hydration System (THS) valued at $39.95. Add a Uinta + Sm and Md Modules + THS to your cart. Use coupon code FREETHS when checking out.

Creating Intimate Wildlife Photographs

One of the easiest things you can do to dramatically improve your wildlife photography is to get down low. Chris Gamel who was a participant on my photography expedition to Antarctica last November touched on this briefly with his ‘Alter the Perspective‘ tip in his guest post here on my blog a week or so ago. It is worth emphasising the importance of this advice as getting down low allows the photographer to connect with the subject and create a far more intimate photograph than one taken at the average human standing height. When you get down low (to eye level) with the wildlife you have a much better chance to connect with your subject and to create a photograph that tells the viewer much more about the life of the critter and the environment in which it lives. Many banal wildlife images could easily have been improved if the photographer had made the effort to get down to the perspective of the subject. Getting down low is not always the answer of course. There are occasions when raising the perspective is the preferred approach and these instances should be relatively obvious.

I am including an example below that illustrate the importance of getting down low and connecting with your subject in wildlife photography. I want to place particular emphasis on ‘connecting with the subject’ as this is something professional portrait and street photographers often talk about and with good reason. When you connect with your subject you have a far better chance to successfully capture their character and personality. You are going to create a photograph that tells the viewer something about the subject and perhaps gives an insight into who they are.  Connecting with a subject does not always mean you have to make eye contact either. Connecting in this case simply means you are shooting the subject in a manner in which you are trying to tell their story. When it comes to telling the story of wildlife my preference is often to shoot landscape photographs that include wildlife rather than head and shoulder portraits. Photographs that include the animal in the landscape tell the viewer something about the environment in which the animal lives and helps place the critter in context. In this example I am including a photograph that is more portrait orientated to better illustrate the importance of perspective. I photographed this Polar Bear at 80º North of Svalbard at the edge of the permanent pack ice. This bear showed no fear whatsoever of the small ship (with only twelve photographers aboard) I was travelling on and approached within just a few feet of us. The opportunity to create a great photograph was a combination of being in the right place at the right time, but just as important as actually being there was getting down low. In this instance I got down as low as I possibly could and waited until such time as the bear and I made eye contact before I pressed the shutter and took the photograph. The result is an intimate and personal photograph that speaks volumes about the environment in which the animal lives and how it perceives its surroundings. The viewer perceives the sea ice and surroundings from the perspective of the bear which helps connect the viewer with the subject. In this instance, eye contact with the bear helps draw the viewer into the photograph and emphasises the connection with the subject.

I want to emphasise that getting down low and connecting with your subject starts long before you arrive on the scene and take a photograph. You have to consider the location you are going to be shooting from and how this relates to where your subject might be when you press the shutter. And of course you have to take into account the all important background amongst a myriad of other technical, aesthetic and compositional concerns and challenges.  Some forward planning can go a long way when you are planning your next wildlife photography sojourn. Give serious consideration to the places you will be able to take photographs from and the opportunities that location will provide you. Your chance to get down low and connect with wildlife could be more than hampered by a poor choice of vessel or vehicle. Large cruise ships with hundreds of people and big buses that place the photographer high up are not ideal shooting platforms if you want to get down to eye level with your subject. Be it an African Big Cat Safari or an expedition to Photograph Polar Bears take a moment and find out what your real options are for connecting with your subject. It could well be the difference between an outstanding wildlife image and just another snapshot.

Limited Edition Gura Gear Bataflae 32L Camera Bag in Stone Green

The good folks over at Gura Gear who design and manufacture my favourite camera bags have just announced a new limited edition Stone Green version of the Batalfae 32L (The Bataflae 32L is my primary camera bag for international airline travel, workshops and expeditions. I usually just order my camera bags in black, but there is some real benefit to having a limited edition colour when you are reaching for your camera bag on a trip or expedition amongst a myriad of other ‘black’ camera bags. Stone Green was inspired by Gura Gear’s recent work in the field and will be available exclusively in the Bataflae 32L beginning in Mid-January 2014. The limited edition Grey and Tan colors of the Bataflae 32L were discontinued last fall. There are still limited quantities remaining of the Tan Bataflae 32L (Grey is sold out). You can Pre-order the new Stone Green today to receive it in the first shipment later this month. If you are wondering just how much gear you can actually fit inside one of these Bataflae 32L bags be sure to check out the VIDEO I did late last year.