Photo of the Month June 2019 – Golden Eagle Landing

The photograph of the month for June 2019 is of a magnificent Golden Eagle coming into land on the snow in northern Finland in winter. Photographed from a private hide during my Finland workshop in February earlier this year (Read the Trip Report); the image was captured with a Canon EOS 1DX MKII and 600mm F4L IS MKII Lens (I had not yet updated to the MKIII). The key to capturing really sharp, powerful moments of birds in flight such as this is a combination of anticipating the animals behaviour and having everything set and ready on your camera so that once the action starts you are immediately shooting and not fumbling with settings. In this case, I knew it would be really difficult to accurately track the eagle with a single focus point  (even with surrounding focus points) as it came in to land at high speed, so I used multiple points with ‘Case 3’ Auto Focus (telling the camera to instantly focus on objects as they came into frame). I also ensured I stopped down the lens enough for adequate depth of field in case the focus points grabbed the tip of the wing (as they are prone to do) to give me the best possible chance. I set my cameras shutter speed to at least 1/1000th of a second and to high speed capture at 12 frames per second which meant as long as I could keep the eagle in frame I was going to get sharp images.

Polar Bears of the High Arctic 2020 Expedition Announcment

Bookings are now open for my 2020 Polar Bears of the High Arctic expedition to Svalbard in July next year. (Read the report from last years expedition). The expedition runs from the 6th of July until the 15th of July and is strictly limited to twelve participants (some places already spoken for).

The High Arctic is a place to inspire the imagination. Nowhere is it more accessible than the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, located deep within the Arctic Circle. Nowhere else can the Polar Bear be seen more reliably in its natural habitat, and photographing these magnificent animals will be our main objective. We will also search for walrus and the other wildlife of the region. Dramatic glaciers, plunging cliffs and beautiful drift ice formations will be present as well.Our intention is to sail directly north from the small town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard to approximately 80o degrees north, to the very edge of the permanent pack ice. At our northerly most point we will likely be less than 600 miles from the North Pole and depending on the sea ice we may get even closer. We will be using the ice hardened expedition ship M.S Freya that will enable us to skirt the edge of the pack ice searching for and photographing Polar Bears. M.S Freya is widely regarded as the best ship in the Arctic for Polar Bear Photography. With low-lying decks and operable portholes a mere 60cm above the water line we can photograph at eye level with wild Polar Bears. Our expedition ship is also equipped with sufficient zodiacs (2 x Zodiac MKV models) and crew for all photographers to be shooting simultaneously with plenty of room to spare for camera equipment – So bring what you need!Watch the expedition video ‘Kingdom of the Ice Bear’ to get an idea of what this expedition entails.If you are excited by the idea of traveling to the edge of the permanent pack ice to photograph Polar Bears in their natural environment with a small group of dedicated photographers now is the time to secure the very last place. You can download a detailed PDF itinerary HERE. You can check out testimonials from previous participants HERE.

Why use Super Fast Telephoto Lenses for Wildlife?

Why use an f2.8 (or other super fast) telephoto lens for your wildlife work when modern cameras are so good at high ISO?

It’s a good question; and one I get asked on a frequent basis on the workshops and expeditions I run in the world’s polar regions. The truth is, super fast telephoto lenses do weigh more than their f4 or slower equivalents and that can be an issue schlepping them through airports; especially if you are unfortunate enough to run into any airport staff having a particularly bad day. Just as an aside,  the latest generation MK3 super-telephoto lenses from Canon are now much lighter than their predecessors, so the issue of weight is starting to disappear. Super fast telephoto lenses also cost more than their slower, smaller and lighter brethren; but there are some BIG advantages that far outweigh the extra weight (and cost) if capturing something special and unique is your goal. The most obvious advantage a super fast telephoto lens brings to the party is the shallow depth of field obtainable with a wide open aperture; which for wildlife can be a real boon in isolating the subject from its background. In addition, a wide aperture gives you a faster shutter speed; which in low light can make the difference between a sharp shot and a blurry one. A very good friend of mine recently waxed-lyrical, ‘Which would you rather? A sharp grainy image, or a soft blurry one? Well, truth be known I want to eat my cake and as such I want a sharp shot with a soft background free from excessive grain! And thankfully you and I can have it with a super fast telephoto lens strapped to a modern digital camera.

The third and probably the most useful (although vastly underrated) feature of a fast super telephoto lens (after creative DOF control) is you gain access to a lot more cross-type auto focus points and thus significantly faster and more accurate auto focus. The benefit of cross type points is more than considerable with moving wildlife and is in my experience often the difference between a sharp capture and one that doesn’t quite make it. The photograph above of a polar bear on the sea ice in Svalbard was shot with the Canon 400mm f2.8L IS MKII wide open at f2.8 in low light (I recently updated to the MKIII version of this lens, but have not yet had a chance to use it in the field). You just cant replicate this creamy bokeh and ‘look’ with a significantly slower lens. Nor could I have achieved the shutter speed I wanted and needed in the light conditions I was shooting in with a slower lens. If you are not familiar with cross-type auto focus points then its well worth your time to either break out your manual (that paper book thing that used to ship with a new camera) or read up online about the differences. Cross types are one of the best ‘guns’ in any wildlife photographers arsenal.

Photo of the Month May 2019 – Reindeer Sketch

The photograph of the month for May 2019 is from my recent Svalbard Snow Mobile Expedition (Read the Trip Report). One of the greatest joys for me of photography in the Arctic in winter is the monochromatic colour palette (along with the driving snow). The combination of a muted monochromatic palette with fresh wind blown snow on the fur of the Reindeer (with its perfect antlers) is highly evocative. This is a very simple, yet very elegant photograph that tells a great story about the environment the animal lives in.

Svalbard Winter Ship 2019 Expedition Report

In March and early April of 2019 I lead my annual winter expedition by ship in the Svalbard archipelago in search of wildlife and frozen landscapes. As I have written recently before, Winter has become my favourite time of year to visit Svalbard.  The low angle of sun, snow and ice covered landscape draped with stunning ethereal light make for wonderful photographic opportunities and unlimited potential. Of course, winter also brings with it an increased chance in inclement weather which can present a different set of challenges to summer expeditions when the weather is typically more stable. For those that are willing to brave the elements of a winter trip the rewards can be truly outstanding.

Unlike my snowmobile expeditions (Read the Trip Report), the 2019 ship expedition proved a challenging year for weather with repeated days of high winds and often poor visibility. Strong winds over the entire archipelago prevented us from heading to the edge of the permanent pack ice north of Spitzbergen. Instead, we made the decision to search many of the fjord systems still partially frozen with sea ice. We played cat and mouse with the high winds, seeking shelter in the fjords wherever possible.  This strategy proved fruitful with some great landscape opportunities that we might otherwise have missed. We also had some really great wildlife encounters whilst we sheltered from the weather.

This year we encountered just two Polar Bears during the expedition. Thankfully, both encounters proved extremely profitable with fantastic photographs of both the  bear in front of one of Svalbard’s many glacier fronts as well as the playful teenage bear that put on a wonderful show for us on our last full day of the expedition. As I have frequently lamented – its not the number of bears one encounters during an expedition; its the chance for a ‘photo-friendly’ bear encounter that really counts. I would trade ten bear sightings for one good ‘photo bear’. This year we had two wonderful bears and all aboard made fantastic photographs.

Although Polar Bears were quite thin pickings this year we did have some absolutely superb Walrus encounters on ice flows that more than made up for the lack of bears. Walrus are fantastic to photograph and vastly underrated as a subject. In addition we also had multiple encounters with both white and blue Arctic Fox, Harp Seals, Ivory Gulls and more.

My 2020 expedition to Svalbard in Winter is already almost sold out with just a few places remaining. If you are keen to photograph in this amazing archipelago in the beauty of winter then just drop me an email to express your interest. The remaining places are filled on a first come, first served basis.  If you want to get an idea of what to expect check out the Article – The Art of Polar Bear Photography.