Arrived Home to Australia – Self Isolation Day One

Very early this morning (around 12:30am) I returned from the East Coast of Greenland to my home in Australia. My earlier than planned return was obviously a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently sweeping around the globe (I had planned to stay in the Arctic the better part of another month). The East coast of Greenland in winter is not the easiest place in the world to return from and my journey began with a snow mobile ride from the remote cabin at Kap Tobin at the entrance to the Scoresby Sund fjord system to the small inuit village of Ittoq. From there I took a helicopter to the small airport at Constable Point and then a charter flight back to Akureyri in the north of Iceland. A short internal flight to Reykjavik followed with a couple of days in Reykjavik to sort onward travel logistics. I was able to change my flights to come home via a 2-hour transit in Singapore, but those plans were kiboshed at the very last minute when Singapore announced its borders were closing to non-citizens. Several panicked emails later to my travel agent and assistant I was able to take an Iceland Air flight to Heathrow and connect with Emirates to Dubai and then onto Melbourne Australia. As it turned out I made the very last Emirates flight out of Dubai before it also shut down. The entire travel process was complicated by the fact that I have either a herniated or bulging disc in my lower back and am suffering constant pain down the sciatic nerve.  I was very glad to make it home this morning and walk in my front door.

Of course, as is mandatory I am now the subject of a two week self isolation period; which means I am now locked in my office (which thankfully has an attached bathroom). I knew one day there would be a benefit to having a home office! I thought I would take the opportunity to try and post an image a day here on my blog during this fourteen day period as well as record some image processing tutorials which I will upload and make available free of charge on my You Tube channel.

Kicking off the image for day one is a photograph of a blue morph arctic fox I photographed on my Arctic Fox workshop this February (full trip report coming very soon). This particular female fox is one I have been photographing since 2016. Over the last four years I have built trust with this fox to the point she will now come to within just a few feet of me,  lie down in the snow, curl up and go to sleep. She is now toward the end of her life and this is probably her last winter.  I will miss her dearly and pray I may see her again for one more season next year.

This photograph works for me because of the wonderful feeling of movement and gesture in the foxes stride, the curl and sweep of the tail and the raised front paw. Of course, the addition of the snow plastered to the foxes face and body adds a sense of drama and is the icing on the cake. The photograph was taken hand held with the brand new Canon EOS 1DX MK3 with the Canon 400mm F2.8L IS MK3.  Camera Settings: ISO800 f5.0, 1/1000th of a second.

Nature Photography In the Spirit of Full Disclosure

A very similar opinion piece to this was originally penned by Andrew Parkinson. With apologies to Andrew, I do not recall where it was originally published, but I agreed so strongly with the sentiment that I took a copy of the article at the time I read it; which I revised and updated with my own thoughts below in relation to the genre of Nature photography.

I have always considered myself a ‘full disclosure’ photographer; someone who puts honesty and integrity before ego, authenticity before falsehood and ethics before photographs. It is not a particularly complicated process, I just tell the truth about my photography and my photographs are an accurate depiction of Nature and what I experienced at the time. When a viewer stands in front of one of my photographs they can know in their heart that what they are looking at is an accurate depiction of Nature. This might sound somewhat lofty to some, but as a Nature photographer, I believe in my heart that I have a responsibility to accurately depict Nature and that my viewer should not be deceived. They have a right to the truth and to know (and expect) that the photograph they are viewing accurately depicts the truth of the moment.

Like all digital images, my RAW files require some optimisation prior to publication. Usually this optimisation involves little more than setting a white and black point, tweaking shadows and highlights, subtle white balance adjustment, some capture sharpening and perhaps a small contrast or saturation adjustment. Other than the above, nothing is added or taken away – save the odd dust spot (I do crop). There is absolutely no use of compositing in my photography. There is no HDR and no Focus Stacking. If you see a photograph of mine that looks like the depth of field was impossible – I did it with a tilt shift lens in camera. I will walk over and pick up the stick that is in the way of my photograph and remove it. I wont clone it out after the fact. I will reposition myself to to improve my background, but I wont drop a new background in during post production. I learned the craft of photography shooting 35mm chrome transparencies. If I was a third of a stop out in my exposure the slide went in the trash; so I learned very early on to get it right in camera; and to this day my mantra is quite simply to get it right in camera. If the light was no good or the wildlife did not co-operate then thats just part of the process and I will try again another day. I don’t feel the need to process and publish a photograph just because it was the best I could do on any given day. It is the process of being out in the field and trying to capture a great photograph that is important to me. The process is as important as the end result and I have to have had a great day out in the field even if I didn’t make a great photograph. Nature photography is after all about being out in Nature. It is certainly not about creating a work of fiction in the computer and peddling it to the masses as a Nature photograph. This process is not Nature photography. It is quite simply digital compositing.

My intention is always to maintain the integrity of both the original capture and importantly the original experience. The act of processing is simply a finishing touch on an authentic end product. This is what is known as ‘photography’.

However, it is fair to say that these somewhat prosaic values are not shared by all image makers. For some, it seems the original RAW file is nothing more than raw ingredients. It is part of the cake waiting to be baked, a mere brushstroke in the direction of the finished masterpiece. For some, there are no rules about what can or cannot be done. If their imagination can conceive it, then creating it seems to be the status quo. Never, it seems is this dubious approach more prevalent than in the peculiar and murky world of fine art photography. And never have I seen it so badly abused as the pages of social media. Fine art photography it seems has become a dumping ground of convenience for images that are excessively post produced and that have long since left the realm of reality. 

Of course, it goes without saying that it is none of my dam business what other photographers do (or do not do) with their photographs, but in our rapidly evolving world I often look on with more than bemused interest at many of the trends that ebb and flow in our photographic space. With the popularity of digital photography sky rocketing, we are increasingly bombarded with a plethora of images so unreal that they have long since left the realm of photography. For lack of a better term they have entered the loose arena of digital composited art. Overworked images with radioactive saturation and hyper-realistic contrast are produced en-mass and sold to the world as Nature images; which they most certainly are not. Quite honestly, nothing irks me more than when one of these images turns up somewhere in a high profile Nature competition and is subsequently gushed over by the seemingly oblivious judges who must clearly be ignorant to the reality of Nature.  Sometimes it really does feel like its the blind leading the blind out there…

One has to only scroll through the pages of social media to witness the level of absurdity that is applauded, the falsehood that goes unnoticed and the rather spurious invention that is praised. In a world largely ignorant to the duplicity of the desperate, my critical eye has grown tired of this nonsense. More so, now than ever before the natural world is dependant upon the honesty of photographers to produce an authentic rendition of what they saw. We need to inspire with reality, and not distract with deception. Oh, I can hear the naysayers now; ‘but its my artistic vision!’ What nonsense. If it was truly artistic vision and expression there would also be accompanying full disclosure and they’re rarely if ever is. Instead, the photographer sits quietly in the shadows; lapping up social media likes and comments through the disingenuous artefact.

I believe strongly that we should reward the photographer for their skill and ability to capture the photograph in the field. Not reward them for being a software expert in post production. A great photograph doesn’t need much post production! It is already a great photograph!

Of course it isn’t easy; It takes commitment, skill, dedication and passion to produce emotional and powerful Nature photographs in camera. Many photographers simply are not willing to make this commitment and seek instead a quick path to glory through the crucible of post production.

When it comes to wildlife photography, “Fine Art’ and “Social Media” it seems are most concerned only with the apex species (the gallery walls are no place for even a Pallas cat). The gallery wall images when viewed without receipt, often seem mundane and banal; badly lit, badly executed and totally lacking emotion. It might be a bear or it might be a lion; it might be wild or it might be captive; the audience will likely never know. The magic does not occur in the field (where it should) – rather this is where the RAW materials are mined. Instead the wizardry occurs on the screen of a computer, and the photographer is reduced to nothing more than a composer as the artifice is orchestrated. Multiple images can be merged, miraculous anomalies will happen with the light and the sky really is no limit. It is here that the final images rise like a phoenix from the embers of mediocrity. For me, these images are a lie. They are an unrealistic fantasy composed of exaggeration, invention, manipulation and deceit. They are sold to the public under the disingenuous guise of reality. And when someone dare call out the photographer for their falsehood they are cast down amidst cries of personal artistic expression. The truth is, the photographer was caught out and has run for refuge into that safe haven of ‘creative vision’.

When these undisclosed creations are used to market workshops they are at their most insidious. They’re intent to deceive is laid bare by those in the know. Workshop participants will never capture these images, despite their hopes and dreams. They were sold a lie. They were tricked and deceived and that is unacceptable to me and it should be unacceptable to them and to you.

I believe it is important to clarify that my thoughts and opinion relate solely to the genre of Nature photography. However, my comments also apply to landscape photography when it falls into the Nature category and they certainly apply to all wildlife Nature photography. Commercial photography, professional portraiture and other such genres work to a very different set of principles. Again, I want to credit Andrew Parkinson for so eloquently penning his original piece and thank him for inspiring me to pay homage to it with my own ideals.

With thanks to Chris Wahl for the photograph below from this years expedition to photograph Arctic Fox in the north-west of Iceland. This particular female fox is one I have been photographing since 2016. Over the last four years I have built trust with this fox to the point she will now come to within just a few feet of me,  lie down in the snow, curl up and go to sleep. She is now toward the end of her life and this is probably her last winter.  I will miss her dearly and pray I may see her again for one more season next year.

Arctic Fox 2020

Canon EOS 1DX MK3 Auto Focus Results in Winter Blizzard

Late yesterday I wrapped up my 2020 expedition to photograph Arctic Fox in the Hornstrandir Nature reserve in the north-west of Iceland. This year we had an absolute abundance of snow and some fantastic conditions (full trip report coming soon) with strong winds that created a really dramatic environment for photography. The conditions this year were in fact the best I can recall in recent years. Next years expedition is a couple of weeks earlier than this year which should promise similar conditions with deep, soft snow that makes for superb backgrounds for this tenacious little predator.

This years expedition was also the first chance for me to truly test the Canon EOS 1DX MK3’s auto focus system in the field (in winter). Conditions were absolutely ideal for testing this past week with strong wind and blizzard conditions that were perfect for torture testing the cameras autofocus. Visibility was often near zero and the air was literally full of blowing snow. During our shooting sessions we had to frequently clean the front lens elements from blowing snow. With temperatures hovering around -6º Celsius the cameras were frequently covered in snow and frozen. Despite the difficult conditions the 1DX MK3 auto focus proved truly superb. I was consistently and reliably able to obtain focus lock and tracking in white out blizzard conditions where focus would previously have been all but impossible (or at best extremely unreliable). The new tracking system (when set to Case 2 for these type of conditions) provided an extremely high keeper rate; even in the heaviest blowing snow blizzard conditions. I doubt there could have been more difficult conditions for any camera to auto focus and in comparisons between my own findings and those shooting Sony A9 MKII cameras we found the results comparable in terms of the cameras ability to lock and track focus. If there are any differences between either cameras ability to lock and track focus in these sort of conditions they are a quibble. The differences however between the 1DX MK3 and other DSLR cameras ability to lock and track focus are huge. The 1DX MK3 represents nothing short a significant quantum leap in auto focus capability for DSLR cameras. Of course, you can also lock up the mirror on the 1DX MK3 and expand the focus points further and add eye tracking on top of head tracking for even better performance. The video below gives you some idea of the conditions I was testing the cameras autofocus.

Iceberg in Antarctica

Departing for Arctic Winter Expeditions with Canon EOS 1DX MK3 Cameras

My brief time at home in Australia has come and gone and in a few minutes I am heading back to the airport to start the trek back north to north-western Iceland for my sold out Winter Arctic Fox workshop and subsequent sold Polar Bears and Musk Ox expeditions to the East Coast of Greenland in Winter. If you are interested in photographing Arctic Fox in a beautiful winter setting drop me an email for further details on the 2021 expedition – flyer below. The north-west of Iceland is the definitive place to photograph Arctic Fox in a beautiful, quiet and secluded setting.

My equipment for these expeditions will be quite familiar to those of you who regularly follow my blog with the exception that I have now sold  both my Canon EOS 1DX MK2 cameras and have purchased two new Canon EOS 1DX MK3 bodies. Although I have previously tested the new 1DX MK3 cameras autofocus system (HERE) and its noise performance (HERE), I am really looking forward to putting these cameras through real world use in the Arctic winter.  There really is no substitute for being out in the field with a camera to test real world performance. I am packing the 400mm f2.8 specifically for the Arctic Foxes and the 600mm f4 specifically for the Polar Bears on the East Coast of Greenland. I had toyed with also packing my Canon Mirrorless R, but in the end decided I just was very unlikely to even pick it up with two 1DX MK3’s always at the ready.

2 x Canon EOS 1DX MK3 Bodies w/ 2 spare batteries

1 x Canon 16-35mm F4L IS

1 x Canon 24-70mm F4L IS

1 x Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS MK3

1 x Canon 400mm F2.8L IS MK3

1 x Canon 600mm F4L IS MK3

1 x Canon 1.4 TC MK3

All of the above fits in my Gura Gear camera backpack with the exception of the 400mm f2.8 which fits nicely in my Gura Gear Chobe laptop bag. See you in Iceland!

Wildlife Photographic Magazine Cover Shot Article January / February 2020

The 2020 January / February issue of Wildlife Photographic magazine includes one of my photographs of an Arctic Fox on the cover as well as an article I wrote on arctic fox photography and my three year project ‘Melrakki’. This is the second time I have been published in Wildlife Photographic and the second time I have been fortunate to score the cover shot! (the last edition was on Polar Bear Photography). The magazine can be found in the Apple App Store: HERE Clicking the link will automatically determine the type of device you are on (IOS or Android), send you to the appropriate store to download the WP app. and best of all activate a free 3-month subscription! Links must be used before 2020-03-31.