What I Learned about Photography in the Antarctic

Two months later, five weeks at sea in the Southern Ocean with Polar Latitudes and I feel like I’ve been in a dream. But it was all real and I know it because I’ve 12,000 new photographs in my library and a few hundred video clips to boot. So how did things work out? What equipment worked well and what would I leave behind next time? What did I learn and what tried and true techniques found a place in this harsh environment?

The trip for me and the rest of the Polar Latitudes Expedition Staff started off from Montevideo where we congregated at a downtown hotel and boarded Sea Explorer 1. It was somewhat surreal to be embarking for the Antarctic from this sub-tropical city.

Shooting Onboard the Ship
The first thing that pops into my head is that I had read several blog posts, beforehand, by travellers to the Antarctic who commented on the difficulty, even futility of shooting from the ship deck. That I found to be a complete red herring. As much time as we spent ashore or Zodiac cruising, of course by far and away the majority of the time was spent aboard Sea Explorer 1 travelling to, from and around the Antarctic. While this was an early season trip (November) and there were few whales around we did still see many beautiful sea birds, a school of Hourglass dolphins, Commerson’s dolphins, Orca and Humpback Whales.

Shooting from the ship deck was a great experience. It was a challenge to be sure but it was a great reason to be outside enjoying the fresh air, chatting with our guests, learning about the sea life and getting to know the patterns and character of the birds and mammals we encountered.

Giant Petrels and Cape Petrel

Giant Petrels and Cape Petrel

The first thing I noticed was the ample available light. Even on an overcast day setting combinations of 1/1000 sec. f11 ISO 400 were typical. This was good news because the Giant Petrels, Cape Petrels and Snow Petrels soared around the ship at pretty fast speeds. The Wilsons Storm Petrel was another story entirely, skimming across the waves, often at some distance from the ship at a dizzying speed. The larger albatross were easier to track but still fairly swift. The most common were the Black-Browed Albatross and Dark-Mantled Sooty Albatross but we saw Royal and Wandering Albatross from item to time and they always caused a stir on deck. The slower, drifting gait of the albatross made them a little easier to photograph but only the Black-Browed and Sooties regularly came close to the ship. The Royals and Wanderers generally kept a little distance.

With some observation a pattern emerges and the ornithologists confirm the Albatrosses soar in regular figure-eights. Each of the petrels also had their own patterns, the Giant Petrels consistent dead-pointing right off the ship deck was especially dramatic as they seemed to hang in the air for a brief moment before swooping away. Combined, the ship’s compliment must have snapped several thousand images a day of the sea birds but, speaking for myself – only a few were real keepers. Framing, and focus were a real challenge.

I varied my autofocus settings to see if I could find a combination that might be the magic bullet but despite those promising names ‘3D’, ‘predictive tracking’ etc… I ended up returning to my standard AF settings of manually selecting the focus point, continuous-servo and of course relentless focus engagement with the AF-On button. The best technique really seemed to be more about predicting the birds flight pattern to gain smooth tracking and keeping the active AF point on the head and timing the shutter release accordingly. Flight paths across the view plane helped of course. At typical focal lengths of 100-400mm if the birds were flying away or toward the camera they went from tiny to huge in the frame in next to no time. As with so much photography the real winners were part skill and part good luck.

A highlight of our sea days were visits by Commerson’s and Hourglass Dolphins who rode the stern wave of the ship sometimes for more than an hour at a time. One evening the light was especially enchanting with a low sun catching the wind-whipped spray off the waves in warm, gold light. The dolphins were surfing the waves, visible below the water surface and would break through the wave wall into the light was the wave reared up. You just can’t make this stuff up!

While the sea birds presented a fun challenge, the dolphins were putting on a once in a lifetime show! With the plane of motion a bit more restricted than the bird’s, focus and framing was easier but the speed of the dolphins still made capturing the critical moment elusive.

Commerson's Dolphin

Commerson’s Dolphin

First landing
The first landing was at West Point Island in the Falklands. By the time we reached the Falklands it had already been a week since I’d joined the ship in Montevideo so was pretty eager to get ashore and really get to work. West Point is a small but not tiny island about 12sqkm. The island is basically one big sheep farm operated by Roddy and Lily Napier who are lovely hosts and put on a traditional tea for cruise ship guests – well traditional doesn’t do it justice because the spread we saw was little shy of a feast!

The farmhouse overlooks a sheltered cove which was lit up in beguilingly tropical-turquoise coloured water backdropped by rich yellow blooms of gorse on the hillside. For anyone who has been to Ireland, or for the visiting Brits, it would have looked all very familiar with quaint buildings being the only shelter on a wide open, barren moorland. The main attraction is an albatross and Rockhopper Penguin colony on the west, windward side of the island. We made our way over the moors on foot and by Land Rover a couple of kilometres to a clifftop rookery.

The wind whipped over the moor almost stopping the walkers in their tracks, but the day was sunny and reasonably warm. The promise of penguins and albatross drew everyone along. Once at the colony the cameras came out but it was far from easy shooting. The subjects were obliging enough. The Black-Browed Albatross that only that morning had been racing around the ship now sat motionless on their nests just a few metres away. And Rockhopper Penguins dotted about the tussock grass and hopped amongst the albatross nests. You’d think it was all on a platter but oh no.

First I found my 35L dry pack to be unwieldy in accessing items as I needed them. The ground was wet and mucky with penguin guano so there was no way to put things to one side and rummaging in the pack with a 40 knot wind tearing at everything was a real juggling act. I wanted to shoot was much video as possible so I got my DSLR rig set up on the tripod and continued to shoot stills in between clips. Then I began to notice a strange thing. First I noticed that the view through the cameras was getting misty as if the lens front was dirty. Then a fine white powder started settling on my clothes and camera equipment. I quickly realized it was salt! The seas were beating against the cliffs below and the strong, dry wind lifted the spray, evaporated the water leaving only a fine aerosol of salt that alighted on everything.

West Point Island albatross colony

West Point Island albatross colony

Concerned about the salt entering the lens barrels in particular I packed my gear away and found my rain cover. I had expected to be challenged by the cold and snow on this trip but air-borne salt had not crossed my mind! Luckily I had my secret weapon, a small face cloth, and wiped everything down carefully as I used it and packed it away. Once back onboard the ship I used another damp cloth to make a second pass and I finished feeling reasonably confident there was no harm done.

We attempted another landing later that day but the wind foiled that plan so the ship sailed on toward Stanley where we spent most of the next day. The town was charming and made for some good photography. The museum was extensive and the waterfront dotted with more bird species, comfortable enough with people for some close up shots. And then it was back to sea and on to South Georgia.

There was more time to shoot sea birds and dolphins, this time Hourglass Dolphins. But after the first day the seas picked up and deck access was curtailed. It was tough going keeping the seasickness at bay but the expedition staff kept up a schedule of informative lectures and the time passed quickly.

South Georgia
South Georgia is a sub-Antarctic Island. They say ‘sub’ but that really only applies to the latitude. It is south of the Antarctic convergence so is surrounded by the same cold water currents as the continent and is mountainous, heavily glaciated and only a fraction of the island is habitable, not surprisingly hardly anyone lives there. But it is stunningly beautiful, rich in wildlife and an unfortunate human history.

We made a half dozen or so landings on South Georgia at Salisbury Plain, Prion Island, Stromness, Fortuna Bay, St Andrews Bay and Grytviken. To single out one place or experience in South Georgia would be impossible. Being at such a remote corner of the world is a highlight from start to finish. There are no comparisons.

Wandering Albatross chick, Prion Island, South Georgia.

Wandering Albatross chick, Prion Island, South Georgia.

Photography-wise this is where I found my work really began. Recording our experiences here was a responsibility and a joy. Every time we stepped ashore it was as if we’d just walked into another episode of some BBC natural history epic. David Attenborough could have narrated our every move.

I developed routines and steadily the images and footage accumulated. Equipment-wise things well into place with the two Nikon bodies I had brought. A D7100 had the 80-400mm AF-S pretty much permanently mounted to it, the D600 had the 24-120mm f4 alternating with the 16-35mm f4. At the end of 5 weeks the stats looked like so 80-400 5,000 images, 24-120 5,000 images and 16-35 2,000 images. I used a 35mm f2 and a 50mm f1.8 sporadically but these two only accounted for about 750 images combined.

I continued to use the 35L dry pack but instead of packing it to the gills with everything I found the best combination was to use my regular setup: carrying the cameras with mounted lens in my 1450 Pelican case, happily at the last minute before leaving home I had switched pelican cases and brought the 1450 as my ‘personal’ carry on item. With the cameras secure in the peli-case I kept my spare gear: mainly the 16-35mm lens, audio and video accessories and spare gloves, toque, water bottle etc.. in the dry pack. My tripod I kept in-hand. It was a bit of a juggle with three items but an improvised shoulder strap for the peli-case helped keep a hand free.

I only used my 1.4 lll teleconverter once but I would not have traded carrying it the whole time for recording that one moment – a Wandering Albatross adult feeding its chick.

This was one of those almost unbelievable moments. The type of thing you imagine only seeing on TV, yet there we were, witness to one of the greatest reproductive feats on the planet. Wandering Albatross leave their chicks all winter and return like some of the penguin species the following spring to reunite and feed the chick until it is fully fledged and take to the wing at last. We spotted this adult approaching, which was a blessing as it allowed me to get my camera setup, including mounting the teleconverter. I mainly shot video of the feeding and the IQ loss with the TC was unnoticeable on moving picture – managed to crack off a few stills for the record too.

Wandering Albatross feeding its chick

Wandering Albatross feeding its chick

The feeding was a magical moment. The adults may range thousands of kilometres to forage and only return briefly to land to feed. In all this adult was on the ground under 8 minutes before it was aloft and away again! What do they say about photography and timing!

Having the tripod and teleconverter for that shot made it, and I continued to make heavy use of the tripod. Once setup at any location, having the larger lens mounted safely on the support not only helped sharpen up those shots but gave me more maneuverability with the other body and shorter lens. I had left the ballhead at home in favour of a Monfrotto 2W XPro Fluid Head and was very glad with that decision. I used the tripod far more for video and time-lapse than stills. The light-weight carbon fibre Monfrotto 190 and the light, but capable, pan-tilt head proved to be a great travel setup.

Philip Stone on location with Polar Latitudes at Danco Island, Antarctica

Philip Stone on location with Polar Latitudes at Danco Island, Antarctica

We had a stormy day at Stromness where a derelict whaling station marks the end of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s epic and daring crossing of the Scotia Sea to call a rescue for his crew on Elephant Island. With a strong katabatibc wind whipping down the valley a solemn procession walked up to the snow’s edge at a prominent waterfall that features in Shackleton’s own account of their crossing of South Georgia. Then turning around we followed his footsteps down the valley to the whaling station. Just a couple of hours in that biting wind and inhospitable place was enough to drive home the magnitude of the experience the early polar explorers endured to discover and record the Antarctic.

Polar Latitudes

Propellers at Stromness, South Georgia

The eerie industrial scenes of the now abandoned whaling stations made for some poignant photography. Today we’re drawn to places like South Georgia to marvel at its natural beauty and celebrate the abundance of life. But the whalers, sealers and penguin refiners came to exploit this bounty and killed untold millions of creatures in the process. Their derelict factories are a haunting reminder of human’s toll on our planet and the beings we share it with.

Not surprisingly with the stark subjects, flat light and historical overtones Stromness lent itself to black and white. By shooting in RAW + JPEG it’s possible to record a in-camera black and white image with the JPEg while preserving a colour RAW file for other applications. I used several Custom Profiles for monochromatic images. The names should be somewhat self explanatory: B&W Red Sharp, Archival Sepia, B&W Portrait Soft.

After the storms of Stromness it seemed faint hope that we would be able to make a safe landing at our next destination, St Andrew’s Bay. Passengers and crew went to bed more or less assuming that it would be a bust and we’d get a lie in. But when the radio crackled to life at 4-something-AM and I pulled the curtain back the sight of the clear sky and calm sea had me jumping out of bed. We had scored a day to remember!

Superlatives are pointless with St Andrews Bay. The scale of the landscape and the abundance of wildlife has to be seen to be believed. Over 100,000 King Penguins gather at one of the world’s largest penguin colonies which quite literally stretches as far as the eye can see. Hundreds of Elephant and Fur seals line the beach and the air is rent with the noise of life.

Polar Latitudes 2015

Sea Explorer 1 slips into anchor at St Andrews Bay

We were ashore early, planning to make the most of the weather window before the katabatibc winds picked up. I just checked the time stamp on some of my first images and they say 5:40am. Was it THAT early? I’m not sure, could be a time-change hour out.. But either way we had a spectacularly long visit ashore as the winds never did pick up and it was only when our schedule insisted did we pack up and head back to Sea Explorer.

Picking our way through the seals, giving a wide berth to the large bulls, it was hard to know where to look and what to photograph, it was simply overwhelming. The light was amazing. A wan but warm, diffuse light held in check by a thin layer of cloud. But thin enough that the blues held off the greys and anything with any colour: penguin breasts, seal mouths, people’s jackets etc… were lit up and set-off from he typically stark, monochromatic surroundings.

Polar Latitudes

King Penguins at St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

Having said how great the colours popped I’m a bit annoyed that the WordPress rendering of this image is so desaturated. I tried four times with two different images and each one has a noticeably muted colour from my on screen version here. Have to move on but I’ll have to investigate that and improve that image.

From St Andrews Bay we were on to one of the highlights of South Georgia, Grytviken. This sheltered cove is tucked against the mountains in Cumberland Bay and is the most protected harbour in South Georgia. So no surprise that it became a hive of industrial whaling activity for over 60 years. The carnage unleashed by the Grytviken whaling fleet is one of the real tragedies of the Southern Ocean and only a token of amendment is made by the former factories role as a museum that educates visitors about its sordid past.

Polar Latitudes

Old anchor and tender at Grytviken

Sentiment aside Grytviken is a remarkable place for photography. It has a stunning backdrop with an imposing mountain looming above the site and the range to the east across Cumberland Bay. The whaling station site has a mix of moods with the now familiar rusting machinery juxtaposed against the quaint red-roofed, white-clad houses. And Grytviken is home to two interesting landmarks: the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the exquisite South Georgia Museum and gift shop.

Grytviken was one of the places I used my 16-35mm f4 wide-angle lens the most. The tight topography of the cove with the surrounding mountain peaks and the opportunity to wander right up close to the whaling station relics and old ship hulls was ideal territory for wide fields of view. Unfortunately I missed the opportunity to shoot as much of the museum exhibits as I should have and that was a big lesson to pay attention to not only opportunities as they arose but my work duties. I can only plead a bit of fatigue because after the sights of St Andrews Bay and Grytviken all in one day my head was practically spinning.

As with Stromness black and white worked especially well at Grytviken. Although the light was quite magical still so colour was definitely called for. I shot a mix and kept shooting RAW+JPEG to make that a seamless practice.

With our time at South Georgia drawing to a close word was in the air of our next sea crossing and especially a forecasted storm that was approaching. The captain and expedition leader wisely cut our stay in South Georgia a day short to out-run the storm but after such a good experience, trading one day in South Georgia for an extra day in Antarctica and missing the wind seemed like a pretty good deal. And so as night fell we slipped anchor in Cumberland Bay and Sea Explorer headed southwest across the Scotia Sea for the Antarctic Peninsula.

Elephant Island
Our 2 day crossing went fairly smoothly and the timing paid off, we missed the wind. On the third day after leaving South Georgia it was announced that we were pulling up to Elephant Island specifically Cape Wild where Shackleton had left his crew and headed out across the Scotia Sea in the James Caird, a modified lifeboat, to hail a rescue 800 miles away on South Georgia. I had always imagined Elephant Island to be pretty desolate but the harshness of that tiny perch can’t be over-exaggerated. The day we pulled along side in our cosy, warm 90m ship it was barely possible to stand on deck because of the relentless wind. Point Wild itself only barely made an appearance through the fog and a landing was sadly out of the question.

Polar Latitudes

Point Wild, Elephant Island where Sir Ernest Shackleton left his men to seek rescue at South Georgia

Once bundled up it was fantastic being out on deck as we cruised alongside Elephant Island. It was a surprisingly large island, about 30 miles, and rugged beyond belief. That Shackleton and his crew had found anywhere to land on the shore was a stroke of great fortune, that they survived long enough to be rescued… a miracle.

Icebergs were now our constant companion and made for some interesting photography. The light looking off of either side of the vessel varied widely from grey, diffuse fog on the landward side to deep, rich contrast on the seaward side. And the icebergs relative position to each other made for ever-evolving scenes. Timing played an important role in framing and capturing. There was the inter-play of position but also intermittent action like breaking waves on the bergs, seabirds soaring between the ice and that ever-elusive turquoise water swirling around the base of the bergs as the angle of the sun ignited it and then dissipated.

Polar Latitudes

Icebergs off Elephant Island

[Disclaimer! IMAGE QUALITY: As I’ve worked on this post and added images I’ve noticed that several of the photos have taken on a different colour hue and saturation from what I expected. Poking around I found out that this is a known issue with WordPress as detailed in this post amongst others. I’ll do what I can to remedy that but needless to say it’s disappointing to have sub-standard images to accompany an article about photography. Once I get an album posted on Flickr or some such I’ll add a link here to view the pictures in better quality.]

Here a polarizer was the perfect compliment to enhance the contrast, whiten the whites of the icebergs and deepen the blues in the sky and water. The haze shrouding the land was trickier to deal with with a combination of fog, doubtless produced by the warmer air above the ocean drifting above the glaciers, and harsh glare from the sun angle. Certainly the polarizing filter helped here too but it was only later in post that I was able to bring the best out of these images with a drastic increase of contrast and lifting he exposure in the resulting darkened shadows.

At the southern tip of Elephant Island at Cape Lookout we were treated to an unearthly green in the water. Again the wind roared across the ocean, it felt as if the cape, jutting as it did across the path of the wind was helping accelerate it and a low spray skipped across the white-caps. With a dark, overcast sky yet a vivid green the challenge here was to exposure as to keep the dark in the rock spires while allowing enough light to ignite the emerald sea.

Iceberg B-15
From Elephant Island we continued south overnight. The plan was to nose into Antarctic Sound if the ice conditions allowed. The sound is a wide channel of water at the very northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula bounded on the north side by the Joinville Islands. As it was still very early in the season there wasn’t a lot of information about the ice coverage. But what we did know was that the remnants of the massive tabular iceberg B-15 were choked up in and around the sound.

B-15 had separated off the Ross Ice Shelf in 2000. It was a massive piece of ice almost 300 km long (200 miles) and almost 40 km (25 miles) wide, 11,000 square kilometres or according to Wikipedia about the size of the island of Jamaica! In 2005 B-15A broke into several ‘smaller’ bergs that drifted around the continent and now much of it is caught against the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.