Polar Bear and Musk Oxen East Greenland Winter Trip Report 2020

Forward: As a direct result of the COVID-19 Virus that spread rapidly across the world from Wuhan China in early 2020 both my Polar Bear and Musk Oxen expeditions were unfortunately cut short. Some of us did make it to Greenland before the country closed its borders to further inbound traffic and the time we had there during our expedition turned out to be an experience of both extreme highs and lows. What follows is the trip report for our experience during the expedition.

To date, and to my knowledge no one else has tried to mount a commercial operation to bring photographers to the East Coast of Greenland in Winter to try and photograph wild Polar Bears on the sea ice or Musk Oxen in Jameson land. I have done countless expeditions to the East-coast during Summer and Autumn, but this was the first time I have travelled to Greenland during the Winter months. There were many challenges with this scouting expedition – both logistical and political. Through my Iceland contacts I was able to put together the logistical pieces that made mounting the expedition possible, but the political challenges once on location proved more problematic than I had hoped and envisaged.

The expedition began in March of 2020 with a flight from the northern town of Akureyri in Iceland to the East-coast of Greenland and the small snow covered airstrip at Constable Point (a flight across the Denmark Strait of approximately one and a half hours). From Constable point we took a waiting helicopter to the small Inuit town of Ittoq. and from there we used pre-prepared snow mobiles to access our private cabin at the remote Cap Tobin area. Cap Tobin is the ideal place to encounter Polar Bears in the winter months as they migrate past the exposed point of Scoresby Sund on the frozen sea ice. It is also a wonderful location for Arctic Fox, Walrus, Narwhal, Ptarmigan and the beautiful white GyrFalcon. In short, the area has huge photographic potential for wildlife, that during the winter months at least, has been more or less completely untapped. Cap Tobin itself is a small abandoned town of approximately a dozen cabins that is now only utilised by local Inuit for their hunting practices. Through my Iceland contacts I was able to secure one of the better cabins for us to use as a base for our daily excursions in search of wildlife. The feeling of being in such a remote and beautiful place in winter was truly extraordinary and was the topic of much discussion and pleasure during our stay in the cabin.

Temperatures during our expedition hovered consistently around -25º Celsius with wind chill frequently dipping them below -35ºC. We experienced everything from bright sunny days to heavy overcast and white out conditions. On the whole, the weather was extremely co-operative and were fortunate to be able to really maximise our time in the field as a result. 

It is important to note at this point that Polar Bears are still hunted on the East-coast of Greenland by local Inuit who have the legal (but appalling) right to kill a significant quota of polar bears annually (35 bears this year on the East-coast in just the small area we were visiting). Despite my express moral and vocal objections to this practice the simple reality is that the law is on the side of the Inuit and there was absolutely nothing I could do to persuade the hunters from killing the bears. I utilised a local contact as an intermediary during our time in Greenland and even tried bribing the hunters with very significant cash offers in excess of several thousand USD not to shoot each bear. Although there is no requirement for bears to be killed for food (there is plenty of food available in Ittoq. supplied and subsidised by the Danish Government) the disgusting practice continues under the thinly veiled guise of ‘tradition’. This is a truly appalling situation that the Danish government needs to be held accountable for. Polar Bears are a highly endangered species and the killing of them should be a criminal offence punishable by jail. It was my sincere hope (and dream) that I could try to educate the hunters that if you shoot the bear with a gun that there is no business, but if you shoot it with a camera then business is just getting started and that there was and is potentially much greater financial reward to photographing the bears rather than shooting them. In the end, despite all my concerted efforts to communicate and educate the hunters, the most I was able to achieve was an understanding that the hunters would at least call us if they found a bear (in exchange for $800 USD per bear) and provide us an opportunity to photograph it before we would be forced to withdraw and the hunters would engage and kill the bear. I found this both ethically and morally unacceptable and abandoned further efforts to work with the local hunters and instead made the decision to make our own daily excursions further afield in search of Polar Bears.

I want to make it loud and clear that although it is illegal for the local Inuit to sell Polar Bear products that they are doing so, and that those products (such as the fur) are being exported back to Denmark. This process needs to be immediately halted and laws put in place to protect all Polar Bears from hunting.

I do also want to make note that the local Inuit shot and killed both a Walrus and a Polar Bear the day before our arrival at Kap Tobin. They subsequently shot and killed a second Polar bear on our first day in the field less than two kilometres from where we were searching the ice. Unfortunately, the Inuit spotted the bear before we arrived and refused us the opportunity to not only photograph it, but to even approach closer than our distant vantage point for fear of scaring the bear away. They then proceeded to hunt the bear with dogs, running it down and shooting the exhausted bear on the sea ice. I personally watched the entire scene unfold through my binoculars. I then watched the triumphant hunter return on his sled atop the dead polar bear with huge grin on his face. I make no bones when I say that the entire process left me disgusted and sick to my stomach. My personal feeling and reading of this situation was that the Inuit wanted to make the point that this was their land and that they can do what they like. They wanted us to know that ‘they’ are in control and that we have no say in what happens. In this instance, no amount of money was going to dissuade them from killing the bear. Whilst they did successfully make this point, they also successfully ensured that any respect I had for them and the Danish government (that allows this to continue) is now gone.

We subsequently spent the next five days far away from the hunters searching the frozen landscape and sea ice in search of Polar Bears and although we did encounter very fresh tracks from a mother and cub we were unable to find them. We tracked them for many kilometres across the landscape as they moved from bay-to-bay before loosing the tracks in an elevated rocky area where we were unable to follow with our snow mobiles. Although we did not find the bears it was nevertheless very exciting to see that there was a mother and cub active in the area. I am told the hunters do not shoot bears with cubs, but I was nonetheless very pleased to know that the tracks were leading well away from the area the hunters are frequenting. We tracked a second mother and cub (and large male) on our last full day in the field, but unfortunately they entered the same rocky area and we were unable to follow.

During our days in the field we took the opportunity to also photograph the incredible winter landscape. Quite honestly, the East-coast of Greenland in winter is the most spectacular landscape I have ever been fortunate to experience. It is truly both extraordinary and other-worldly. The landscape opportunities proved a major boon during the expedition and we very much enjoyed photographing the wonderful sea ice patterns and frozen landscape.

With the COVID-19 situation continuing to develop at a rapid pace across the rest of the world we then made the group decision to cut the expedition short and return to Iceland for further onward travel. Through my local contact I was able to arrange for our flight to come in early and we then reverse engineered ourselves back to Iceland where we concluded our expedition.

The potential to photograph Polar Bears, Walrus, Musk Ox and more wildlife on the East-coast of Greenland in winter remains. I still believe the potential in this area to be untapped and truly extraordinary. The frozen landscape is breathtaking and as I sum up this trip report I find myself feeling immensely blessed to have had this opportunity and find myself already yearning to return to this remarkable land during the winter months. Although there are easier places in the world to find and photograph Polar Bears I have not as yet experienced any location anywhere on the planet that offers such an incredible back drop to Polar wildlife.  It is for this reason that I will almost certainly return in future years for subsequent expeditions – both to try and photograph Polar Bears and other wildlife in what I believe is the best setting on earth, but also and importantly to continue to try and educate the local Inuit that they do not have to kill Polar Bears to make a business transaction.

In relation to the local Inuit, I do believe it highly unlikely anything will change with their hunting practices until such time as the Danish government steps in to stop the practice. On a positive note the number of Inuit hunters is slowly decreasing and although it will take time, the practice ‘may’ naturally die out as people move away from the small village of Ittoq. for larger towns and cities. In the meantime, I will continue to do what I can to bring attention to current practices and to photograph this magnificent apex predator in the beauty of its natural environment with other passionate wildlife and nature photographers whenever and wherever I can.

New Canon Photo Culling AI Software Coming Soon 2020

It barely made Photo news headlines, but some weeks ago Canon announced a brand new plug-in for Adobe Lightroom Classic that could potentially be a huge time saver for photographers such as myself who shoot tens of thousands of photographs a year. The software is designed to help you save time during post-processing by intelligently selecting the best shots for you out of a large set of photos.

The plugin is powered by the Canon Computer Vision AI engine and uses technical models to select photos based on a number of criteria: sharpness, noise, exposure, contrast, closed eyes, and red eyes. These “technical models” have customisable settings to give you some ability to control the process. How well this works in the real world remains to be seen, but the potential is there for it to be game changing in terms of time saved. I don’t believe software such as this will ever be able to make the final edit decisions, but if it can help narrow the choice and save time in the process then it is most welcome in my workflow.

Canon says the Photo Culling Plugin will be available sometime before the end of March 2020 through the Adobe Exchange App marketplace. Unfortunately, the plugin won’t be offered with a one-time payment and perpetual license — just like when hiring a human photo assistant, you’ll need to pay a monthly fee (pricing has yet to be announced) for the AI’s services. Such is life these days.

Ross Sea Antarctica and Sub Antarctic Islands Report 2020

In January and early February of 2020 I guided a small group of photographers to the sub Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia that included Enderby Island, MacQuarrie Island, Campbell Island and Snares Island on a twenty-eight day voyage that subsequently took us on a planned expedition deep into the southern reaches of the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. This unique itinerary also provided us with the opportunity to visit the historic hits of Scott and Shakelton. This expedition was a joint co-operation between my company Wild Nature Photo Travel and Heritage Expeditions from New Zealand.

By way of some background; tourism in Antarctica has grown exponentially in recent years and this year the Antarctic peninsula will receive in excess of forty-thousand visitors alone (mostly by boat from Ushuaia in Argentina and Puerto Williams in Chile). By comparison, the Ross Sea region of Antartica will receive fewer than four hundred visitors this year. This makes the Ross Sea region of Antarctica incredibly special and an area that is a real privilege to travel to and experience. This region of Antarctica is very remote and requires a considerable commitment in time to reach – hence the requirement for a twenty-eight day expedition.

Our journey began from the port of Bluff in Invercargill in the South Island of New Zealand. From here we boarded our ice-class ship (the Spirit of Enderby) and set sail into the Southern Ocean for the highly protected sub-Antarctic islands. It was our plan to first visit the Snares group of Islands but the weather conspired against us with 35-50 knot winds and swells that exceeded thirty feet – welcome to the Southern Ocean! The Snares islands (home to the endemic Snares penguin, the Tom Tit and Fern bird) would have to wait for our return trip.

With Snares off limits due to the inclement weather we instead set our sites on Enderby Island where we safely landed on two different locations. Enderby Island is home to the rare and endangered Yellow-eyed penguin (the world’s rarest Penguin) as well as the New Zealand Hooker Sea Lion and is also the nesting place for Wandering and Southern Royal Albatross. We were able to photograph all four species during our landings. Enderby is also home to a great many other birds including the flightless Teal, the Snipe and Pippit; all of which are endemic to the island. There were also several sightings of Falcon during our first landing (although I personally did not see it).

From Enderby Island we set sail south for MacQuarrie Island (Australian territory). It is a full days sailing from Enderby to MacQuarrie across the notoriously rough southern ocean and thankfully we had far more cooperative weather for the crossing with only light winds and a small moderate swell. At MacQuarrie island we also landed twice – once at Sandy Bay where we photographed the thousands of Royal and King Penguins that call the island home and once at the islands base where we toured the facility and photographed the Gentoo Penguins, Giant Petrels, Skuas and elephant seals.  All of our landings at Enderby and MacQuarrie were several hours in length that gave us plenty of time for contemplative photography. We were mercifully blessed with heavy overcast skies and light drizzle during our time in the sub-antarctic islands which made for wonderfully soft light.

From the sub-antarctic islands we set our waypoint south for the three plus day steam to the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. To help give you an idea of how remote this area of the world is there was only one other ship on our radar during our time in this region – our sister ship that operates with us for safety in a ‘buddy’ system (there was also an American Ice Breaker ‘The Polar Star’ treading water near McMurdo after cutting a channel through the ice for its re-supply ship). By comparison there were more than forty-five ships operating on the Antarctic Peninsula.

During the crossing south we had sightings of Orca, dolphins and whales (including Minke, Fin and Humpback) as well as countless albatross that followed in the wake of our ship as we made our way south. Antarctic Petrels, Snow Petrels, Wilson Storm Petrels, Prions and Diving and Cape Petrels were also present from time to time. As we pushed through the pack ice we had many sightings of Crab Eater and Weddell Seals; as well as many Adelie Penguins on open drift ice. We also had our first Emperor Penguin sighting. Although we searched hard, the elusive Ross Seal alluded us the entire expedition. We spotted our first iceberg early on our fourth day south as we set our sights on a landing at Cape Adere. Cape Adere is hope to the largest colony of Adelie Penguins in the world and is also home to Carsten’s historic hut. We landed at Cape Adere and spent some time photographing the penguins before a zodiac cruise amongst the ice and our subsequent return to ship. Cape Adare was also a continental landing for those who had never traveled to Antarctica before.

From Cape Adare we travelled south where we hoped to land at the Possession Islands. Thick ice surrounding the islands prevented us from approaching and a potential landing so we turned our attention further south again for the 300 nautical mile steam to Terra Nova bay.

At Terra Nova bay we landed in perfect conditions late in the evening in great light at Gondwana where we photographed Adelie Penguins and South Polar Skuas. With perfect conditions we worked well into the early morning hours before relocating to inexpressible island. Local catabatic winds delayed our landing until after 4am, but we landed briefly.

From Inexpressible Island we relocated and visited the Italian Antarctic research base where we were greeted with some wonderful hospitality including good coffee, biscotti and pizza (God bless the Italians and their penchant for coffee). Although I personally find these type of landings at Antarctic bases to be somewhat banal it was nevertheless appreciated to have some time on terra firma to stretch ones legs and enjoy some hospitality.

Continuing south we landed at Franklin Island in near perfect conditions with soft morning yellow light on the horizon. Franklin Island is home to a huge Adelie penguin colony and we spent several hours photographing the penguins porpoising in the glassy water against beautiful morning light.

After Franklin Island we continued even further south past Beaufort Island, passing Mount Errabus and Mount Terror bound for Ross Island and McMurdo. We cruised the ice edge of McMurdo Sound before photographing large pods of Orca and an Emperor Penguin before landing at Hut Point late in the evening. Mount Errabus is still an active volcano with clear and open caldera that puffs smoke on a slow but steady basis. McMurdo was the furthest south we could reach with a position of 77.5 degrees south. Dense pack ice prevented any further travel south.

From McMurdo we travelled north to Cape Evans where we visited the historic Scott hut. This was a highly emotional and powerful experience for me. I remember as a young boy watching the movie, Scott of the Antarctic and later reading about his adventures and final ending in Antarctica only eleven kilometres from shelter and safety. The hut itself has been immaculately restored with thousands of artefacts still in place. The dark room still includes all of the chemicals, trays, aprons and materials used to process the film from the parties expedition. This was an absolutely fascinating location to visit and a real time warp. The hut and contents are near perfectly preserved in the sub zero temperatures. Surrounded by a protective asper the entire area is heavily managed and controlled with no more than eight individuals (including guide) allowed in the hut at one time.

After our landing at Cape Evans we repositioned to Cape Royds where we landed ashore in the afternoon to spend some time visiting the restored remains of Sir Ernst Shakelton’s hut. Like Scott’s hut, Shakelton’s hut has been immaculately restored and offers a first hand glimpse into what life was like for the early explorers. Shakelton’s socks still hang from a clothesline inside the hut.

From Cape Royds we made our way slowly out of McMurdo sound to the Ross Ice shelf. It was my hope that we would encounter a great number of cetaceans of whales in this area as we cruised the impressive ice shelf (I was particularly hopeful for Blue Whales), but it was not to be. We did however have large numbers of Killer Whales cruising the edge of the ice pack on several occasions as well as a large pod of twenty or so Minke Whales as we began our journey north. Crab Eater seals and Adelie penguins were also in abundance.

We left Antarctica in the evening of the 29th of February with a waypoint set for the Bellini Islands; a distance of some 400 nautical miles. The Bellini islands offered a chance for Chinstrap penguin sightings as well as possible landscape opportunities. On arrival we had our first Chinstrap sighting on an ice flow, which was followed by a zodiac cruise of the glacier face for landscape work. One of the chinstraps took the opportunity to hop aboard one of the zodiacs as it cruised the glassy seas!

After the Bellini islands we set our course north for Campbell island; a three and a half day steam that provided some fabulous birding opportunities from the rear deck of the ship (especially as we left the Bellini islands and approached Campbell island).

On arrival at Campbell island we landed in good conditions and hiked up to a large Southern Royal albatross colony where we spent several hours photographing the birds as they preened, displayed and soared overhead. This was a magical experience for those with an interest in birds as there are few places on earth where one can get so close to Southern Royal Albatross. I had hoped we would see the Yellow-eyed penguin again at Campbell Island but it was not to be. We did however site both the endemic Snipe and flightless Teal.  Strong winds outside the protective bay prevented us from zodiac cruising the western side for Southern Rockhoppers.

With time running out we set a waypoint north for the Snares series of Islands – home to the rare and endemic Snares Penguin. This was a big hope of mine as I am now closing in on photographing all eighteen of the worlds Penguin species. Landing is forbidden at Snares and conditions must be near perfect for zodiac cruising due to the granite islands exposure to the ocean. There is no safe harbour at Snares and no anchorage. Given we had missed the Snares on the way south my hopes were high we would pull off a close encounter with the Snares penguin on our return.

The weather gods were on our side and on arrival at the Snares islands we put zodiacs in the water at sunrise for an early morning cruise of these jurassic like islands. Landings are strictly prohibited on Snares, so all photography is from zodiac. Honestly, this makes it extremely tough to photograph the Snares Penguin. Ideally, one could land and take the time to choose clean backgrounds; but with the inability to land and the penguins resting on rocky shores there are very limited opportunities for clean backgrounds. Nevertheless it was a wonderful experience to see and photograph this endemic penguin species.

All up we spotted and photographed a amazing total of ten different species of Penguins on this expedition that included: Gentoo, Adelie, Emperor, Royal, King, Yellow-eyed, Southern Rockhopper, Chinstrap, Snares and a vagrant Fjordland Crested penguin we found at the Snares Islands.

The Ross Sea region of Antarctica offers breathtaking landscape, wildlife and experiences. It is not without its difficulties however; extensive days at sea, highly variable wind and weather and of course the unknown of wildlife sightings. However, for the intrepid explorer / photographer, the Ross Sea region of Antarctica offers a very unique experience that few on the planet will ever undertake.

Mongolia Pallas Cat Field Report December 2019

A few days ago I returned home from my scouting trip to Eastern Mongolia in the depths of their frigid winter to try and photograph one of the worlds rarest, least known and most elusive wild cats – the Pallas cat. You can read my introduction to this project HERE. As it turned out, I discovered whilst on this shoot that the local Nature and Wildlife photographers in Mongolia and most of Asia regard the Pallas Cat as much harder to find and photograph than the enigmatic and iconic Snow Leopard. So much for my planning and research. Fate it seems is not without a sense of irony…

It is important to clarify, that this scouting trip was not a precursor to a future workshop. Put simply, the Pallas cat is just too elusive, too shy and too hard to find to be able to reliably run even a small group workshop for this amazing animal. On top of this, the lack of basic infrastructure such as running water, flushing toilets, hot showers and the requirement to tent camp in temperatures between -40C and -15C in the middle of a very remote location mean that it is an exceptionally tough environment in which to work. The only heat I had during my time in the field was provided by burning coal in a small fire stove in my tent. It was, without doubt, the toughest shoot I have personally undertaken.

As this was not an official workshop and I was operating effectively on my own (with a local field guide) I decided to simply publish my raw unedited dot point field notes (along with some raw video journal footage), instead of an offical trip report. These are the notes I made on a daily basis in my tent during the evenings. They are a summary of my days activities and thoughts.

In summary, I believe I found a total of three individual Pallas cats during the two and a bit weeks I was in the field. I photographed cats on five seperate occasions, but I do think two of these cats were on reflection the same cats as I had previously photographed. Pallas cats have little in the way of distinguishing features from what I can tell, and my assertion that two of them may have been the same cat has more to do with their overall size and relative location where I photographed them.

I have not as yet had time to process any of the actual photographs I made during this expedition. Instead, I am including the video logs I made on a semi-daily basis along with my dot point field notes. The actual photographs I will release next year as a portfolio of work on my website at www.jholko.com

I want to sincerely thank my local fixer and field guide who worked tirelessly with me in the field as we scoured the lunar-like landscape for kilometre after kilometre in search of this rare cat. On a daily basis we walked many kilometres across the frozen landscape in search of this cat in temperatures that were often hovering between -20C and -40C. Trying to put into words the difficulty of searching and photographing in this environment is impossible. All I can really say is that the inner region of eastern Mongolia in winter is as brutal an environment as I have ever worked. The cold is insidious and relentless; the cat elusive and ghost like in its rare appearances.

Pallas Cat Scouting Trip Field Notes

Day 1 – Depart for Beijing. Flight on time. Get a few hours sleep to break the monotony. Arrive Beijing and transit through for international flight to Ulaanbaatar. Why do security make me pull every single camera and lens out of my bag? Is the bag really x-ray proof? Flight departs for Mongolia on time. Its a two and a half hour flight, but we circle the airport at Ulaanbaatar for an hour. Unable to land due to high winds we are forced to fly the two and half hours back to Beijing.

Back in Beijing, we sit on the tarmac for what seems like an hour before they unload us into a transit area. Stuck for four hours we are told we will try again at 18:00 tonight.

Board the plane again for Mongolia. I sleep the two and a half hours it takes and wake as the wheels touch the tarmac in Mongolia. Its -28C when I disembark – frigid. I collect luggage and meet my local fixer who transports me into the city for one night in the hotel. I am tired. I hope I can find this cat.

Day 2 – I wake at 5am; unable to sleep further. I take a shower and check email and go for breakfast and coffee at 7:45am. I am supposed to meet my fixer at 8:30am in reception. I am ready and waiting at 8:15am. 8:30 rolls around and no one shows up; then 9am and then 9:30am. Finally at 10:30am my fixer and local guide arrive. They blame peak hour traffic. Welcome to Ulaanbaatar.

We load the 4WD – a Toyota land cruiser. It is supposed to be about 600km out into the wilderness. We drive all day. The roads are better than I expected, but the going is slow. Lots of snow on the road and we can barely do 80km per hour. We break for lunch at some random truck spot. The noodle soup is hot and hearty. We drive all afternoon and into the evening before we turn off onto a dirt snow covered trail. I have long since lost my sense of direction. Its pitch dark and we are barrelling along a snow covered road like it is the Jakarta rally. Another hour drifts past and then another…We have been driving for nearly ten hours before we arrive at basecamp. There are approximately six gyrs (tents) set up. We have some dinner – I think its beef, it might be horse; I have no idea. But I am hungry and devour it. Outside the Gyr its -35C; but inside its about 20 degrees and quite comfortable. I am shown to my private Gyr where there is a small bed, a wash basin and a coal fuelled fire to warm the tent. I unpack and crash.

Day 3 – I wake at 5am and lie in bed for an hour before getting up to dress. It is still dark. Outside its -35C and I can hear the wind rustling the outside fabric of my Gyr. We head out into the field after some breakfast to begin searching. Its icy cold and the air is super dry. It doesn’t take long; maybe an hour or two before we find a Pallas cat hunkering down between two boulders out of the wind. The Pallas cat must feel cornered as it bolts out of the rocks and into the nearby grass and snow. Out in the open I grab my chance to make some photographs of this incredible cat. The wind blows the snow across the landscape. Is it going to be this easy every day? I had not expected to find a cat so quickly and to be able to get photographs of it out in the open. This feels like a gift.

Day 4 – I am awake by 5:30am and after a quick breakfast am already out in the field prior to sunrise searching rocky outcrops for the Pallas cat. I walk maybe four hours across the frozen lunar landscape. Going from rocky out crop to rocky outcrop searching for signs of passing of the Pallas Cat. It is hard to find fresh prints. There are many horses in the area as well as Corsak Fox and the foot print left by the Pallas cat is small and easily missed.

Finally, in the afternoon after hours of searching I find a cat; hidden deep inside a rocky nook on top of one of the Mongolian Steppes. I set up a hundred metres or so away and wait for the cat to come out near sunset to start to hunt. I only have to wait an hour or so before the cat emerges. It is hesitant and shy. It scans its surroundings and spots me easily; even though I am wearing full camouflage and hidden in the grass and snow. It hisses and backs away slowly. I take the opportunity and grab some photographs. The snow is a bit patchy and the photography is difficult.

Day 5 – Today we plan to take things a little more slowly. I still wake at 5am after a restless night. The small bed in the Gyr is like a plank of wood and it seems hard to get the temperature regulated inside the Gyr. It’s either too hot or too cold. I woke at 1am in a sweat and had to go outside for a few minutes to cool off. By 5am I was freezing cold, despite the many quilt layers.

We head out into the field around 9am. Its warmer than yesterday, nearer to -10C, but I can hear the wind so I know it will be cold out in the field. The plan today is to try and find another Pallas cat, and then set up a portable hide to try and get some photographs of hunting behaviour.

Found a Pallas cat den site with fresh tracks around it, I set up the hide and hunker down to wait. My field guide believes the cat is inside the den; but I have my doubts. Hours drift past.. Nothing. No sign of anything other than a Raven overhead. I can feel frustration starting to seep into my bones and I finally call it quits in the late afternoon. No sign of the cat all day.


Day 6 – The wind is howling outside my tent when I wake at 5:30am. Its going to be frigid and icy out there today. I lie in bed an hour trying to force myself to get up and make coffee.

Spend the entire day searching in difficult conditions; strong wind makes it tough walking. Find one Pallas cat hidden deep in a rocky outcrop and decide to try and wait it out.  Hours go past and the cat shows no sign of leaving the safety of its natural wind shelter so I decide to abandon it and keep looking.

Near sunset the wind begins to drop and small snow flakes are falling. The light is magnificent, but there is no sign of the Pallas cat… or any other wildlife. I search until dark before giving up and heading back to my Gyr for the evening. The reality of how difficult this cat is to photograph is starting to seriously hit home. Even when I find a cat, its hidden deep in the rocks and impossible to photograph.

Day 7- Waking at 5:30am seems to be the norm for me now. Breakfast is quick and we are out looking for the Pallas cat before 7am. It doesn’t take very long before we find one, hidden in some rocks as I have come to expect. It becomes a waiting game. Either I am going to get too cold and give up, or the cat is going to come out to hunt. Finally, unable to feel my toes or fingers any more and around 3:30pm the cat emerges and I am able to get some photographs of it amongst the sparse snow and grass. A long day, but worth the wait.

Day 8 – I think I jinxed myself with the 5:30am wake-up as this morning I was awake by 3:30am and could not get back to sleep. I lie in bed for a couple of hours pondering yesterdays shoot before I get up for some coffee and breakfast. Its another blue sky day; so I decide to take the morning off and spend the afternoon trying to find Saker Falcon, Eagle Owl and Little Owl; both of which are regularly spotted in this area.

I get a few shots of Little Owls during the day, but there is no sign of other raptors, outside of a few buzzards.

Day 9 – Searched from 8am until nearly sunset and nothing. Some days the candy bar, some days the wrapper…Super windy all day. I am starting to wonder if I am going to achieve my vision of photographing this enigmatic cat in the snow. I scan the photographs I have already taken in the evening. I have a few I like, but I am missing the iconic shots I really want to capture.

Day 10 – Breakfast at 6am is now my norm and we are out in the field again before sunrise. Another very windy day with freezing temperatures. Just staying warm and hydrated in this environment consumes a huge amount of energy and effort. Searched all day, finally found cat right on sunset in a small snow covered area. I grab the opportunity and photograph the cat in the snow. This feels like mana from heaven after the last few days.

Day 11- Re-invigorated by the success last evening I am out in the field well before sunrise and head back to where I photographed the cat yesterday evening. We find the  cat on sunrise not far from our position last night. The light is fantastic and I grab as many photographs as I can before the cat bolts for shelter in the rocks. This morning feels like a bonus and I decide to take the afternoon off and recharge my batteries.

Day 12 – I take the morning a little slow and head out bout 10:30am. Search all day long, but find nothing. Its cold; perhaps somewhere around -30C today. I am starting to feel worn down. Long days in the field, lots of walking in freezing wind and relentless searching. The photographic opportunities seem few and far between.

Day 13 – Head out out early again this morning. After yesterdays bust I am keen to put in the hours and find a cat. I realise I am running out of days. It is a blue Sky day. Its warm, the warmest day so far with temperatures around -10C.  I search all day long, going from rocky area to rocky area, but there is no sign of a cat anywhere. I cant even find any prints. I suspect all the cats are out hunting in the warmer weather. The rodents, gerbils and vols are out today and its the first time I have seen them regularly so it makes sense the cats are also out hunting. Yet I cant find one. Frustration.


Day 14 – Today is my final full day in the field. There is loads of fresh snow on the ground from a blizzard last night. Great drifts have piled up against the hills – stunning conditions. I hope I can find a cat today in the snow. The light this morning is stunning. A mix of soft overcast light with pastel colors. Although I feel I have many great photographs I would love one more opportunity with this rare cat. Especially as there is some snow still falling in the air. 

Jackpot! Found a cat in the snow early morning. Some wonderful photographs of the cat sitting in the snow as the falling flakes piles up on its fur. This is what I came all this way for.  What a way to finish up this trip. I feel deeply blessed to have had this time with this rare cat in such a beautiful environment. This is an incredibly harsh place, lunar-like, sparse, frozen and desolate; yet this cat survives here. Amazing animal.

Day 15 – Final day this morning. Early breakfast and on the road by 7:15am. Eight hour plus drive back to Ulaanbaatar.  It has been an incredible trip. I am grateful for the experiences I have had in the field with the Pallas cat and I feel I have the photographs I came for. My thoughts are turning to home.

BenQ W5700 / HT5550 4K UHD DLP Projector Review

Introduction: More than a year ago now I wrote a fairly extensive two-part review of the BenQ W11000H 4K Projector and gave it a very enthusiastic thumbs up. It was a breakthrough product in the projection arena and offered a level of performance and value not seen previously at this price point. If you have not read the review I recommend you take a moment to at least read Part One to get an understanding of not only my background in the arena of projection, but also a brief history of home cinema projection and its uses in photographic applications.

In the fullness of time, the W11000H has subsequently been superseded by the incrementally upgraded W12000H which is currently now being phased out (technology moves at a rapid pace in this arena these days). The reason BenQ is retiring the W12000H is there is a new kid on the block that has yet again substantially broken through the price and performance barrier. I make no bones when I say the level of performance in the new BenQ W5700 was the realm of science fiction just a few years ago; irrespective of price. The fact that BenQ can now produce a product that offers the highest level of performance at this price point whilst providing consumers with this much value is nothing short of remarkable. The BenQ W5700 is sold in North America as the HT5550.

There was quite a palpable buzz in the marketplace when BenQ announced the W5700 earlier this year (2019) and for some time demand for the product outstripped supply. I have been eager to get my hands on this new projector for many months and was delighted when a review sample arrived on my doorstep a month or so ago.


Color Reproduction: If you have read any of my BenQ LCD photographic display reviews (or my review of the now retired W11000H projector) you will already know that BenQ are a company that takes colour reproduction extremely seriously. As a photographer and as an ISF (imaging Science Foundation) certified video engineer, accurate colour reproduction is a subject very near and dear to my heart. Most manufacturers do not go to anywhere near the effort and trouble that BenQ do to ensure colour accuracy in their display products.

The accurate reproduction of colour in both photographic displays and projectors (which I use to display my images during print workshops) is hyper critical to the production of high quality photographs. If you are at all serious about your photography (and movie and TV watching) you absolutely owe it to yourself to ensure that your display device is capable of producing accurate colour and that it has been properly calibrated. In fact, if you have not calibrated your display you are absolutely robbing yourself of the very significant benefits of accurate colour reproduction.

BenQ have taken this aspect of image reproduction to the extreme with its latest W5700 projector. This projector is not only capable of reproducing full Rec. 709 (HD) and DCI (4K UHD) colour gamuts but can also do it accurately and all at a retail price of just $3,999. This is quite simply a ground breaking offering in a product anywhere near this price point.

BenQ actually take their colour reproduction seriously enough to individually calibrate each of the W5700 projectors to exacting tolerances before it leaves their facility. Each unit is hand tweaked by an in-house technician to have a Delta E of less than 3. Delta E is the measurement used to gauge colour errors in a display. Any error of 3 or less is considered imperceptible to human vision. 

Resolution: The W5700 has a native resolution of 3840 x 2160 which is UHD or Ultra High Definition. In reality this falls just short of the DCI 4K standard of 4096 x 2160 which is more commonly associated with cinema. Virtually all consumer displays that are marketed as 4K are 3840 x 2160 UHD with only a small handful of them conforming to the DCI 4K standard. It should be noted that the W5700 uses the same standard as the UHD alliance for 4K. If you are a videographer you may well prefer the UHD standard as many of the digital video cameras on the market shoot video in this format.

Internally the W5700 achieves its 3840 x 2160 resolution with a Texas instruments 0.47” Digital Micro Mirror Device (DMD). By flashing its two million + micrometer sized mirrors four times in very fast succession the projector is able to display 8.3 million pixels. This visual trickery enables the W5700 to reach its UHD resolution. If you want a truly native 4K panel inside your projector then your wallet needs to be prepared to drop a great many thousands of dollars more for your projector.

About: The W5700 looks both svelte and bespoke with its beautiful curves and lines that are both modern and designer in nature. As far as projectors go this is about as beautiful as one could wish for. Finished in a dark matt charcoal black the W5700 has a centrally mounted lens and forward facing air vents. The chassis itself is wider than longer which should make installation easier for those in small rooms. Certainly and in my case, I greatly appreciated the proportions during installation in my small room.

It is clear from the first glance that there has been a lot thought given to the overall design of the W5700; with well considered features such as a small hood that covers the top of the lens to prevent dust build up. Venting for heat dissipation has also been carefully considered and implemented in the W5700.

In regards to the optics, the W5700 has a 4K UHD optimised all-glass lens array that comprises of 11 different elements. The super-high resolution 11-element lens array is structured into six groups with metal barrel and cell framework, far outshining 1080p projector technology with greater light penetration for long-lasting 4K intensity with accurate colour performance, clarity, and sharpness across the entire screen. An all glass lens of this quality and at this price point is something rarely seen in projectors. Keeping in mind that my previous W11000H costs more than twice as much as the W5700, side by side I can see no difference in on screen sharpness and acutance. Make no mistake; the lens in the W5700 is a superb optical light path and you can expect razor sharp images with this projector.

The W5700 is a DLP projector and uses a lamp with a specified life of 4,000 hours in Normal mode (as reviewed), 10,000 hours in Eco mode and a whopping 15,000 hours in smart Eco mode. BenQ have used an Osram lamp that is capable of 2000 ANSI lumens that provides a quoted contrast ratio of 30,000:1. Lamp life is one area of projector technology that has significantly improved in recent years as evidenced in the quoted lamp life hours. Even heavy users should get many years of use before needing to replace the lamp.

I was more than pleasantly surprised to find that the W5700 includes a dynamic iris which is an unexpected and very welcome addition at this price point. The dynamic iris is used in conjunction with BenQ’s HDR Pro technology to improve the projectors tone mapping capabilities. In plain english, it enables the the projector to produce a deeper black on screen. As expected the W5700 has full HDR10 and HLG support. Personally, I find myself susceptible to visual detection of the dynamic iris shifts on screen and found I prefer to leave this setting off most of the time. Your mileage may vary, and it is worth taking some time experiment.

The W5700 includes two HDMI inputs which are both HDMI 2.0b/HDCP 2.2 compliant. Each input supports a full 18 GB bandwidth signal. Also included on the back of the projector is a single USB A input, a single USB B input, a LAN connection, RS232 connection and a 12-volt trigger. I am told that unlike the W11000H that I have now replaced, the W5700 has user upgradeable firmware.

A printed manual is included inside the box (thank you BenQ), a power cord for the projector, remote control and an envelope with the individual calibration report for your W5700. The remote control is a good improvement over the W11000H with large back-lit buttons that enables easy navigation in a room with heavily controlled lighting. I never understood why some other projector manufacturers do not provide a back lit remote knowing full well it needs to be operated in a dark room. 

Setup: The W5700 provides a lot of flexibility with placement both due to its chassis design and its ability to project a 100” image at just three metres distance. Zoom and focus of the lens are manual only and are controlled via an inner and outer ring control on the lens barrel. Since zoom and focus are more or less set once and forget having to do these manually is not a problem.

The W5700 has extensive vertical and horizontal lens shift capability which are both controlled via chassis mounted dials. The lens shift provides a lot of flexibility for placement for those who need to mount the projector off-centre. Digital keystoning is included, but is unlikely to be required given the extensive lens shift the W5700 includes. I never recommend using keystone to correct a projected image in any case as it is always detrimental to the overall image resolution. If you need to use keystone in your system to correct geometry errors you should seriously consider alternate placement for your projector.

The W5700 includes the full suite of calibration controls via its on screen menu. A 2-point gray scale is included, along with a user selectable gamma control and six point colour management system. Everything is provided in a logical easy to ready layout that any competent calibrator or knowledgeable user can navigate.

Calibration: In order to make critical observations of a displays performance it has to be calibrated and viewed in an ideal viewing environment. In my case, I installed the W5700 in my dedicated cinema room that I use to show video and display images during my print workshops. I used both an X-Rite i1 Pro 2 Spectrophotometer and X-rIte  i1 Display Pro Colorimeter to make my measurements. Both meters were tripod mounted and measurements were taken from my 92” Screen Research 4K Projector screen. I put the projector through a few days of heavy use to let the lamp settle into hits sweet spot before I began a calibration.

The W5700 includes seven different picture modes including Cinema Rec 709, D Cinema, User, Vivid TV, Bright, Silence, and HDR10. HDR10 is only available when the projector receives a HDR signal. BenQ recommend (and I agree with them after performing my own calibration and testing) Cinema Rec 709 for accurate HD colour reproduction and D Cinema for accurate 4K DCI colour reproduction. The W5700 will automatically switch to HDR10 picture mode when fed a HDR signal. 

Once calibrated in Cinema Rec 709 the W5700 exhibits extremely accurate grayscale tracking and I want to note that in my experience very few projectors I have calibrated or tested can match the grayscale tracking of the W5700. At this price point this is exemplary performance.

The HDR10 picture mode exhibits grayscale tracking that comes very close to the performance measured in Cinema Rec 709 picture mode. In HDR10 mode the W5700 does come up just short of the full DCI colour gamut, but still offers excellent performance. It is possible to turn off the HDR10 mode which will force the projector to convert the HDR signal to SDR. Doing so will enable you to get the full colour gamut accuracy of the Cinema Rec 709 mode and some users may prefer this. The W5700 can reproduce the full DCI colour gamut in D Cinema mode. There is no doubt that overall the W5700 offers reference level performance.

All of my testing was done an acoustically transparent Screen Research Clear Pix II 4K micro woven screen that measures 92″ diagonally. The screen is housed in a custom shadow box covered in black felt in a fully light controlled room. Of course the final colour accuracy in your own home is heavily dependant on your screen, screen surface type, viewing environment and ambient light. However, given the included suite of colour management in the W5700 it should be possible to get a great result in many different situations.

Performance: The W5700 offers nothing short of dazzling performance at this price point. Images are razor blade sharp with deep, rich blacks and a great sense of depth and dimensionality. Black levels are no doubt helped along by the W5700’s dynamic iris. Flesh tones are natural and colour reproduction is outstanding with rich, vibrant and saturated colours.  You can expect colour reproduction from the W5700 that meets or exceeds that of projectors that cost many thousands of dollars more. HDR material absolutely pops with superb depth and contrast that I have not experienced in a projector anywhere near this price point. Comparatively, it looks very similar to my previous W11000H which sold for more than twice as much. In a blind test I would be hard pressed to know which was which.

The level of image detail with 4K UHD transfers is simply jaw dropping and really has to be experienced first hand. As a photographer I know and understand the importance of optical quality and it is very clear that BenQ has included a lens that offers little in the way of compromise in the W5700. The overall image is exceptionally film-like with no hint of digital artifacting.

On area of improvement that is extremely welcome is the W5700’s ability to quickly detect and lock onto the HDMI signal. My previous W11000H was quite slow to lock signal – a small niggle that I am pleased to see has been rectified.

Conclusion: In summing up the W5700 one has to keep in mind that this is a projector that retails for less than $4000. Quite simply the performance offered at this price point, as noted in my introduction, is ground breaking. It was unequivocally the stuff of science fiction just a few years ago and  I believe, one would have to spend many, thousands of dollars more to find incremental improvement; and even then any improvement may be imperceptible to all but the most critical eye. In terms of colour accuracy, the W5700 offers exemplary performance that defines the reference that many other manufacturers would do well to follow.

As I stated in my review of the W11000H; Smart consumers will recognise that products such as the W5700 are absolute bargains; offering performance and value that far outweighs the cost of investment. As someone who has owned displays and projectors that cost many times more than the BenQ offerings I can unequivocally report that I don’t believe you can do better for the money (or even close to it.

When considering if the W5700 is the right projector for your needs you should defiantly take into consideration your screen size and viewing environment and how they will impact overall performance in your room.

Associated Review Equipment

  • Screen Research 92” Clear Pix II 4K Ultra High Definition Acoustically transparent THX Certified Projection Screen – mounted in a custom black felt shadow box
  • Acurus Muse ATMOS Home Cinema Processor configured for 5.4.2 with Front Height and Rear Height
  • Cary Cinema 5 Power Amplifiers (2 amplifiers for total of 10 channels of amplification)
  • M&K S300 MKII THX Ultra II Left, Centre and Right speakers
  • M&K S300 MKII THX Ultra II Tripole Surround Speakers
  • M&K X12 MKII THX Ultra II Dual 12” Powered Subwoofers (two subwoofers)
  • Triad In-Ceiling Bronze ATMOS Speakers Front Height (two speakers)
  • Triad In-Ceiling Bronze ATMOS Speakers Rear Height (two speakers)
  • AudioQuest King Cobra Analog Interconnect Cables
  • Fibre HDMI Cables