Packing for Iceland in Winter and the Deserts of Namibia

Late this evening (my plane leaves at the not so civilised time of 3:30am) I am starting the long trek to Iceland for my annual winter workshop with my good friend Daniel Bergmann and I have found myself struggling over the last couple of days with a real packing quandary. I will be spending a total of nearly a month in Iceland this winter before I fly directly to Namibia (via Frankfurt) to meet with Andy Biggs for our back-to-back Namibia desert workshops. At the completion of my winter workshop in Iceland and before I head to Namibia I will be heading further north with a film crew and spending a week in the extreme remote north of Iceland on a new project on the Arctic Fox. This means I need to pack my Arctic winter gear as well as clothing suitable for the world’s oldest deserts in Namibia – it has been quite the brain buster trying to rationalise my packing (I know.. its a good problem to have).  In the end I have decided to simply leave my winter gear in Iceland and collect it when I am back there in July later this year. It makes little sense to haul unnecessary winter gear half way around the world through the deserts of Namibia when all it would be doing is adding weight and bulk. With that intention in mind I still had to figure out how to get myself, over twenty kilograms of camera gear plus my winter gear and summer desert clothing for Namibia over to Iceland. I admit it feels a tad strange to be packing a wide brimmed sunhat and sunshirts with my arctic boots and winter clothing. The issue is somewhat compounded by the fact that Iceland and Namibia require very different approaches in terms of camera gear which adds both weight and complexity. Perhaps doubly so as I am carrying long and heavy telephoto lenses for my project on the Arctic Fox at the completion of my winter workshop. In the end I have packed almost my entire lens line-up and my checked luggage is right on the 30 kilogram limit imposed by the airlines.

Despite my intentions not to upgrade my Macbook Pro I finally crumbled and purchased the new model not long after my return from Antarctica in December last year. There are significant weight savings in the new model (as well as the much improved retina display) and these advantages finally swayed me to part with the cash and purchase the new model (GAS ‘Gear Acquisition Syndrome’ strikes again). It is funny how when you travel as much as I do you can quickly rationalise a new piece of expensive equipment just to save some weight. That said, I have very quickly become quite accustomed and fond of the Retina display. If NEC ever offer their current large wide gamut SpectraView monitors in a retina display I will be sorely tempted to upgrade – especially if they reach the magic 300 DPI number.

The Canon 1DX will remain my primary camera of choice for these trips. I will also carry a couple of spare batteries so that I can cycle them in and out of warm pockets. Experience has shown me that I can pretty much go an entire day without a battery change but I like to have spares on hand just in case. I did long ponder the idea of taking a camera with more mega pixels with me (particularly for Namibia) but I have ultimately decided that the quality of the pixels in the 1DX are more than good enough for my requirements. I have been making really wonderful 20 x 30 and 40 x 60 inch prints from Canon 1DX files and my agent recently sold a 24 x 100 inch print (also from a 1DX file) from Antarctica at his gallery in Aspen in the USA. Suffice to say the quality of the pixels makes a huge difference to the final output and the 1DX has truly fantastic pixels.

Gura Gear Bataflae 32L: (carry on luggage – Believe it or not this does all fit in the one camera bag!)

  • Canon EOS 1DX Pro Body Camera
  • Canon 17mm F4L TSE Lens
  • Canon 24mm F3.5L TSE MKII Lens
  • Canon 24-70mm F2.8L MKII Lens (The MKII version of this lens is an amazing piece of glass)
  • Canon 70-200mm F2.8L IS MKII Lens
  • Canon 600mm F4L IS MKII Lens
  • 1 x Spare Battery for the 1DX
  • Canon 1.4 TC MKIII Tele-Extender
  • Leica Ultra-Vid HD Binoculars
  • Cable Release and Bubble Level
  • Assorted CF and SD Cards totalling around 100 Gigabytes
  • Rocket Blower and Dust Cleaning paraphernalia
  • Complete LEE Foundation and Filter Kit with Soft and Hard ND Graduated filters and LEE Polariser – includes new LEE adapter for the Canon 17mm TSE Lens

I am carrying the two TSE lenses specifically for photography at Kolmanskop ghost town in Namibia. This abandoned town is the ideal location for Tilt and Shift lenses and I hope to put them to good use in this area. Although I am primarily carrying the 600m and 200-400mm lenses for the Arctic Foxes in Iceland I do hope to put these lenses to use for wildlife in Namibia at the end of our second workshop when we head into Erindi Wildlife Reserve on a short extension.

Gura Gear Chobe Bag: (carry on luggage)

  • 15″ Macbook Pro with Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CS6 with the Nik Plugin suite
  • MacBook Power Adapter
  • Canon 200-400mm F4L IS Lens with inbuilt 1.4 TC (Watch the Unboxing Video) This lens ‘just’ fits inside the Chobe!
  • 1 x LACIE Thunderbolt External 1TB Hard Drive for in the field Back Up.
  • Various Power Adapters / Chargers and Associated Cables
  • Canon 1DX / 1DS MK3 Battery  Charger
  • iPad Mini (e-books and movies for the long flights)
  • Sandisk USB CF and SD Card reader
  • Passport / iPhone / Wallet
  • A lot of these items I store inside Gura Gear Etcetera cases inside the Chobe. (These cases are fabulous for organising accessories)

North Face Thunder Rolling Duffle: (checked luggage)

  • Sorrel Caribou Winter Boots
  • 66º North Wet and Cold Weather Outer Shells
  • Arc’teryx Kappa and Atom LT Jackets
  • Devold Expedition Base Layers
  • Mid Layers – Trekking Pants and Tops
  • Light Weight Long Sleeve Shirts for Namibia
  • Gloves and Hat
  • Miscellaneous clothes
  • Micro Spikes
  • Sunhat
  • Personal items and toiletries – including Sunscreen

Tripod: (checked luggage)

  • Really Right TVC24L Tripod
  • Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head
  • Really Right Stuff Tripod Spikes (For mossy ground and rock claws for ice and rock)
  • Jobo Jnr. Deluxe Gimbal Head with Really Right Stuff Dovetail Base Plate

The astute amongst you may have noticed that there is no back-up camera in the equipment listed above. Thankfully, I have access to a back-up 1DSMK3 in Iceland should I require it. There is a tendency across the internet these days for photographers to tout the virtue of travelling super light when flying internationally (often with micro four thirds systems or even mirror less camera systems). Whilst I admire these photographers for their ability to travel with slim light weight kits I confess that I personally prefer to haul my best quality lenses and cameras irrespective of their weight. After working with a pro video team in the Arctic last August even the above extensive list of gear would be considered light weight in the world of professional video. I thank the gods I am a still photographer. See you in Iceland.

March Photograph of the Month: Aurora over Hellnar in Iceland

Whoops.. I have been busy packing for my annual winter workshop to Iceland and almost let another photo of the month slip through the cracks before I board the plane tomorrow. It seems only fitting to post an image from Iceland in Winter as my photo of the month for March given in a couple of days I will be back in my favourite country for photography. This was a photograph I made in March last year whilst leading my winter workshop with Andy Biggs and Daniel Bergmann of Aurora Borealis over the church at Hellnar. This wonderful little church was just a short walk from our guest house accommodation and proved the ideal subject to include beneath the Northern Lights. I am very much looking forward to abandoning the heat of Australia and photographing more Aurora in just a few days time. My winter workshop to Iceland this year is sold out, but I will shortly be taking bookings for 2015. If you would like to reserve a place please drop me an email to info@jholko.com

Guest Photographer: Antony Watson – Does the Camera Make the Image?

Late last year I started a new segment on my blog for photographers with whom I have travelled before in order to provide an outlet for them to share some of their own writing and photography. The first to do so was wildlife photographer and biologist Chris Gamel who accompanied me to Antarctica last year and wrote about Better Wildlife Photography. This second guest post is by fellow workshop leader Antony Watson and poses that much discussed adage: Does the Camera Make the Image? With all the gear talk online these days and with many photographers continually looking for that next magic silver equipment bullet I felt the post quite timely and relevant.

Does the Camera Make the Image?

When I think about this question I visualise a Shakespearean Actor on stage posing the question in olde English to the audience with questioning hand extended  ’Doth the camera maketh the image?’ In all seriousness though, does the camera make the image?

Well that question can be answered from a few different perspectives namely with regards to how one defines the various elements in the posed question.

First and foremost the simplest thing to define is what is an ‘image’?   A dictionary definition of what an Image is may shed some light into one interpretation of what constitutes an ‘image’ per se:

An Image, derived from the Latin term imago, can be defined as “an artefact that provides a visual representation or depiction of a likeness of a subject”.

That makes perfect sense to me. But the clincher of the question we’re looking at lies in the question of how one defines “makes“.  What ‘makes’ an image?’

If you consider the term ‘makes an image‘  to be loosely interpreted as the manufacture/construction of a physical of visual representation , or  alternatively if you define it as makes the image as per the phrase this makes my day i.e. to make it, to succeed, to pull it off, to accomplish, to be successful can make the ultimate difference in how one answers the question posed.  I prefer the latter interpretation.

There is absolutely no doubt about it, a camera technically constructs a physical visual representation of a likeness of a subject and stores it in a digital file, but does it ‘make an image’ in the sense of it being a successful and accomplished image and thus an overall well regarded image?  So what makes an image successful, accomplished and well regarded is a pretty good question?

There are a million articles out there easily accessible on the web discussing just this. They cover topics such as composition, colour harmony,  leading lines, emotion, communication, light amongst numerous other attributes of what constitutes good image design and the key ingredients for a recipe to a successful image.  But what 99.99% of these articles will never mention is the camera.   Why is that?  Why isn’t the camera mentioned in all those articles, let alone specific camera types or specific camera capabilities?

Because the camera is merely one of many tools used in the process to create a successful image along with a number of other tools.  Its a very important and necessary tool in the overall production of a successful image, but its not the be all and end all of tools in the chain of image making.

Without human intervention in some way or another a camera has never taken an image. We construct, trigger, program, push, point, direct, aim, place …

But a camera will NOT:

  • frame a composition
  • find you leading lines
  • select colour harmony
  • communicate emotion
  • provide amazing light

……. and on the list goes on and on.  Really a camera doesn’t do that much to create a successful well regarded photograph.

But what it will do is allow you to capture light and thus a representation of your vision into a digital file.

Your own vision and talent ARE the biggest contributors to producing a successful image. PERIOD.

So often these days we are focussed on camera gear.  So often I read/hear I need the latest body that has X more megapixels, more dynamic range, better colour depth etc but do we really need these things or are we somehow fuelling our unjustified and completely wrong belief that the newer faster better more awesomely marketed camera will make the image.

It was only just a few years ago, in 2012, that a famous wedding photographer entered a Wedding Album into WPPI.  He scored an 85 for the album. A sound result most wedding photographers would be proud of.  All the photographs within the album were shot on an iPhone ( I believe it was an iPhone 4) with no Photoshop post processing.   A tonne of vision and talent and what most would consider, a camera with a long list of limitations and short falls, outscored a very large majority of photographers albums equipped with the latest and greatest cameras, lenses and computer software.

Without vision and talent, a Stradivarius makes a horrendous noise yet a $100 violin played by an artist with vision and talent makes exquisite music.

As I have stated numerous times to others when posed questions such as to  ”Should I upgrade to the latest and greatest?”  ”Do I need a MFDB?”   ….. unless you have a resounding business justification or limitation you need to overcome to deliver a result, then the answer is a resounding “NO!”

Yes having better gear definitely won’t hold you back, but if you’re looking to produce more successful images, then more often than not, one would be better to invest time and funds in developing ones vision and talent more so than the latest camera body or lens.

Only you can decide whether you’re an artist with commensurate vision and talent that will make use of/is hampered by not having the extra features of the latest, greatest, biggest, sharpest camera offering more megapixels, more dynamic range, more bits of colour depth.  But I’d hazard to say that most of us, with a fascination with camera gear, will find some way to justify the purchase to satiate our addiction for new camera gear,  myself included, regardless of having a true need *.

* Editors Note: Otherwise referred to as GAS – Or Gear Acquisition Syndrome

When I can afford to, I will be buying a Ferrari 458 Speciale.  With its sleek thoroughbred design, 595 horsepower and magnesium wheels that will cost more to replace than my children’s college education when I clip a gutter driving them to high school.  I dream of speeding around a racetrack with the the ferver and pace only the skills of the talented Michael Schumacher will allow, a skill set of which I have made zero inroads to develop so far. But I’m still buying that car…. one day.  But in the mean time, after now writing this article,  I might just go and enrol in a few high performance driving courses to develop some of those skills whilst I save my pennies/quarters.  After all I have just quite of few years of saving ahead of me.

New Zealand South Island Summer Workshop Report

Late last week I returned home from a brand new Summer workshop to the South Island of New Zealand with my good friend Phillip Bartlett. Our workshop took us on a photographic journey into ‘Middle Earth’ – The spectacular South Island of New Zealand. In case you have not seen the Lord of the Rings movies, the South Island of New Zealand is home to some of the most spectacular scenery and landscapes in the world. It is no co-incidence that Peter Jackson chose the South Island of New Zealand to film the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings movies. Perhaps nowhere else in the world can one see and photograph precipitous alpine mountains plunging into temperate rain forest and wild ocean beaches in so short a space. New Zealand is home to an incredibly diverse range of subject matter in a small island. Glaciers, waterfalls, spectacular valleys, imposing mountain ranges and black pebble beaches. It is an island of ever changing weather and spectacular light conditions. It is a country made for photography.

Our workshop took us on an eleven night / twelve day odyssey around the South Island to many of its iconic locations and some of its lesser known gems. During our travels we experienced some incredible weather and light as well as some fantastic landscape and wildlife photography opportunities. Two of the main highlights of this workshop included a privately chartered helicopter flight with the doors removed for photography over Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and the awe inspiring Southern Alps and a privately chartered boat in Kaikoura to photograph Albatross and playful Dusky Dolphins. Both of these experiences were regarded by all on this trip as once in a lifetime and not to be missed. Included below is a brief summary of our travel and photography during our time in the South Island.

Day One – We began our workshop in Christchurch in two large 4-wheel drive vehicles that were to be our transport around the island for the next twelve days. One of the real benefits of travelling by 4-wheel drive instead of bus is the ability to get off the beaten path and into more remote locations and we certainly took advtange of this ability during our travels. Our first stop was Mount Cook on the East side of the Island where we photographed New Zealand’s tallest mountain against a sunset backdrop and some dramatic evening light and cloud.

Day Two – We rose early for Sunrise in the Tasman Valley  where we had wonderful views looking back up the river to Mount Cook. Sunrise in the Tasman Valley can be an incredible experience if the weather is co-operating and we were fortunate to have some beautiful pre-dawn light during our morning shoot. After our morning session and breakfast we took advantage of our 4-wheel drives off road capability and went off roading up to the terminal face of the Tasman Glaicer where we scaled one of the large lateral moraines for spectacular views across the glacier. We returned in the evening and photographed sunset at the edge of the lake at Tasman Glacier.

Day Three – Day three saw us depart Mount Cook before dawn and head south toward Queenstown. Along the way we stopped to photograph sunrise at Lake Pukaiki with some incredibly spectacular light – quite literally one of the most breathtaking sunrises I have ever exeperienced. The southern shore of Lake Pukaiki is a fantastic location for photography as the waterline is dotted with giant boulders that lie partially submerged and make for wonderful foreground subject. In the distance Mount Cook can be seen illuminated with Alpine Glow. We spent several hours in this location basking in the incredible light and conditions.

After breakfast we also stopped to photograph dramatic storm clouds at Ahuriri on our way to Queenstown. My thanks to my co-leader Phillip for spotting the clouds in his rear vision mirror! This area of New Zealand offers a myriad of photographic opportunities with dramatic cloud cover and we spent an hour photographing the racing clouds in this location. Midday is often a time for driving between locations and usually not the ideal time for landscape photography. Every once in a while however the clouds and light combine to provide fantastic midday landscape opportunities.

After our midday shooting session we continued to Queenstown where we photographed Lake Wakatipu against the backdrop of the spectacular Remarkables mountain range. Queenstown was also a chance to stock up on snacks and souvenirs for those who wished to take home some nick-nacks.

Day Four – We rose again well before sunrise and travelled south to Glenorchy for sunrise at the edge of Lake Wakatipu. This part of Lake Wakitpu is home to some small Willow trees set against the mountains and makes for a great location for landscape photography. After breakfast we headed off road again up to the Routeburn where we photographed the forest, waterfalls and mountains in misty cloud by the shore of the river. New Zealand’s rivers are spectacularly pure and clean and I spotted several wild trout swimming slowly against the current whilst photographing in this area. At sunset we photographed in Queenstown at the shore of Lake Wakatipu with the Remarkabes mountain range as our backdrop.

Day Five – We again headed off road in our 4-wheel drives to a high vantage point for sunrise known as Skipper’s Canyon. Skippers Canyon looks down a valley into rural farmland and is an opportunity to capture long shadows and low hanging cloud and fog in the valley below. We were fortunate to have a perfect morning for this type of landscape photography with low cloud and fog hugging the trees in the valley below us. After breakfast We travelled to Milford Sound, one of the icons of the South Island, and photographed the mountains at sunset by the shoreline in misty conditions.

Day Six – We photographed Milford Sound at Dawn and then took a boat cruise up the Sound where we photographed cloud swirling around the mountains and the waterfalls cascading down into the sound. Milford Sound is truly an amazing location with dramatic peaks that plunge for hundreds of metres into the water below. This entire area was once glaciated and the Sound is what now remains as a result of the glacier carving its way through the mountains. Milford sound has a great deal to offer in the way of Wildlife photography as well as landscape and I took this photograph of a white Heron whilst ankle deep in the inky black water near the shoreline (I did have to fight with the local and rather irritating sand flies to make this photograph!). After our cruise up Milford Sound we drove to Wanaka where we photographed another iconic New Zealand location – the Lone Willow tree.

Day Seven – Sunrise we photographed at lake Wanaka amongst the boulders in soft pastel light before driving to Fox Glacier. Fox Glacier is one of my favourite locations in the South Island. This small town boasts easy access to Fox Glacier and is the main hub for helicopter flights over the glaciers and alps. It also provides easy access to Gillespie’s beach where we had drizzly rain combined with dramatic cloud at sunset. The west coast beaches of New Zealand can be notoriously wild with their steep pebble beaches and large breaking waves. In this instance we were fortunate to have little in the way of wind and some dark brooding clouds that made for some very moody images.

Day Eight – We took a pre-dawn hike to Lake Matheson for a viewpoint looking up to the Southern Alps. On a clear morning the southern alps can be seen reflected in the dark water of Lake Matheson and the well known viewpoint makes for an iconic photograph when conditions are right. After breakfast we photographed in the Goblin forest at the base of Fox Glacier. The forest at the base of the southern Alps is akin to a scene straight from the Lord of the Rings. The forest is full of old gnarled trees draped with vines and wonderful foliage. We took the opportunity to do some macro work for several hours under the dense canopy in misty rain. These sort of conditions are ideal for forest photography with the cloud over head acting as a giant softbox and the rain ensuring the greens of the forest are very saturated.Day Nine – We rose early and took a chartered helicopter flight with the doors removed for photography over the Southern Alps in spectacular conditions. We photographed Fox Glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, Mount Cook and Mount Tasman in fantastic conditions. We were blessed with swirling moody cloud and breaking light dancing amongst the ice formations and mountains.  Click on the image below to be taken to the RAW HD video footage from our aerial photography flight over the Southern Alps.

After our helicopter flight we drove north along the spectacular west coast to Punakaiki and photographed Pancake Rocks at Sunset. This location is one of the more easily accessed in the South Island and comprises of unusual layered pancake like rock formations that feature several blow holes. Large rolling swells crash against the rocks and throw spray high into the air that often catches the last golden rays of sunset.

Day Ten – We photographed sunrise at nearby Truman Beach in soft dawn pastel light before packing up and driving to the seaside town of Kaikoura on the East coast. We photographed at sunset on the rocks in the bay.

Day Eleven – Day eleven proved one of the real highlights of the trip as we took a private boat charter out to photograph Albatross and playful Dusky Dolphins at sunrise. We also discovered a sperm whale at first light and a few of us captured this magical moment before the whale sounded and was gone. Having our own private boat meant we had plenty of space for photography and we were able to move and follow the Albatross and Dolphins as we wished.After breakfast we spent time photographing Sea Lions and sea Lion pups on the rocks north of Kaikoura. These Sea Lions (often incorrectly referred to as seals) are quite approachable and as long as you don’t get closer than about fifteen feet they are quite comfortable to pose for photographs as they bask on the rocks in the sun. January and February are great times for photographing the sea lions as the more aggressive bull males have moved on and the pups are curious for all things and often approach quite closely to investigate.

Day Twelve – Saw us travelling from Kaikoura to Christchurch and completing our twelve day odyssey around the South Island.

The photographs above are just a very small sampling of the more than one thousand images I made during this workshop. As yet, I have not had time to sort, edit and process the vast majority and as I am leaving for Iceland in a few days for my annual winter workshop I will not have time to really devote to them until later this year. This was a very successful workshop and some fabulous photography resulted from all who participated. Our days were very long as we rose well before sunrise each morning and shot until after sunset each evening but we certainly made the most of all the locations we visited and opportunities that presented themselves to us.

Phillip and I will be leading another workshop to the South Island of New Zealand in May next year – May 2nd to May 13th 2015. This workshop will include even more aerial photography in privately chartered helicopters at areas including Milford Sound, Fjordlands and Fox Glacier and the Southern Alps. We will even be using helicopters to land us high in the Alps amongst the glacial seracs for a chance to set up our tripods and photograph these incredible formations as well as visiting and photographing areas inaccessible by 4-wheel drive. We will be limiting this workshop to just six photographers and It is going to be a very exciting trip. Look for details here on my blog and on my website in the coming months.

I will also be opening bookings in the next few days for my annual Winter Aurora workshop to Iceland with Daniel Bergmann in late February / early March next year. Our 2014 Winter workshop sold out in just a few days this year so if you would like to reserve a place or have any question about the trip please drop me an email at info@jholko.com.