Being invited to be an instructor on a Rock Hopper Landscape Photography Workshop, bound for Antarctica, saw me travel from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, then onto Punta Arenas, where 65 photographers flew across the Drake Passage to King George Island.
We boarded our chartered ship, Antarctica 21, for six days of photography. The expedition leader designed the itinerary for photographers, and the plan was to be in the right place for the best light for our work.
Over the six days, I made more than 2700 captures. After each photography session I would download, rename, and backup my files — creating good habits like this helps to keep your cataloguing safe and informative. I believe that audio visuals are a great way to share travel experiences, but for this I had to edit my 2700 files down to 100. I’ll share with you a selection of these images, the camera techniques I used at the time they were captured, and how I dealt with the editing process.
Audio visuals require images that work together in sequences: these sequences take the viewer on a journey that hopefully makes them feel like they were there. Or perhaps may inspire them to go there and experience a place themselves.
After processing all my favourite files, I then split them into specific categories so that I could see what I had, and build up the story. The categories I created were The Travelling Experience (including people shots), Man-made Structures in the Landscapes, Man in the Landscape, Landscapes and Seascapes (including icebergs and seascapes), and Wildlife. Be aware that if you don’t work hard enough to capture the story and events as they present themselves, then your audio visuals or visual story may be full of holes.
The Travelling Experience
It’s important to photograph the start of a journey as well as remembering to photograph the end. Much like a written composition, you need an introduction, the body of the story, and finally a conclusion. This set of six images is a selection of files I used in my audio visual: I used them to visually describe what I was travelling in, and what I photographed from. Each image is a reminder of specific events — walking off the runway on our first day, how it felt to be on the Antarctic ocean in a small zodiac, the trips to and from the ship, and how it felt when witnessing the quiet magnificent beauty found in the Lemaire Channel. The last frame shows the plane returning to King George Island to take us back to Chile. Notice how these images become reference points for the viewer.
I made a decision to photograph the view from the front of the ship, leaving in the bow, as a way of showing the changes in the landscape. Each image represents a different day and a different environment. Allowing a viewer to make comparisons helps them to engage in the story. Look at the six different images from the bow of the boat, and notice how effective it is when one thing stays the same.
Man-made Structures in the Landscapes
Man-made structures in the landscape become obvious focal points. They also create a great contrast to the idea that Antarctica is empty, or just full of ice and snow. I photograph these structures much like an environmental portrait, showing where the structures are and how they express themselves to me in that space. At each destination I shoot from different angles and with different lenses so that my story of that place will have layers of interest.
Man in the Landscape
Most Antarctic expeditions stop at the location pictured above. The harbour has a great shape that protrudes into the foreground, and when conditions are calm, the water reflects the advancing glacier. Panoramic images are a great way to communicate where you are. Leaving a figure on the edge of the frame, and the boat in the distance, gives the viewer an idea of the scale. This epic landscape allows the eye to wander around the scene — the image was made up of seven separate vertical images. Each image overlaps the other by one third, which allows software to stitch the frames together, carried out later on the computer. To keep things consistent I used manual exposure to ensure all the frames would have the same brightness. I selected a cloudy-day white balance (not auto white balance) so the colour balance would not change. I also manually focused at a spot just beyond the sitter so that the focus would not move about. At f/16 my depth of focus extended from the foreground to the background. From this vantage point I continued to watch the light, zooming into areas of interest with my telephoto lens.
Landscapes and Seascapes
Look at the images of the landscapes and notice that they are all about light. The reflective nature of light, the way the light casts spotlights on areas of interest, the way the light brings out colour, shape, and form. These moments of special light can be fleeting. Most of the images I made from the ship’s bow were with my Canon EF 70–200mm f/2.8, or my Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L telephoto lens. I had two camera bodies with me, the full-frame Canon 5D Mark III, and the Canon 7D Mark II, which has a smaller sensor that magnifies the focal length by x1.6. I made sure I minimized camera shake by keeping my shutter speed faster than the focal length of the lens, and whenever possible I sheltered my body from the wind. Using high ISOs helps to keep shutter speeds fast. Having two different camera bodies on hand at the same time allowed me to have two different-focal-length lenses available at the one time, and I could also swap the lenses from one to the other and benefit from the x1.6 magnification if needed.
The wildlife in Antarctica is generally unafraid of people. In the zodiacs we could approach and get quite close without disturbing them. Having good technique, a long lens, and some patience to wait for the seals to wake up and lift their heads was all that was required for these shots.
Good technique comes from practicing before you leave home. The idea, when on shore, was to find a place to sit and let the procession of penguins walk past as they moved to and fro to feed their chicks. The best animal portraits that I made were when they were doing something, or were making a gesture of some sort. My advice is to slow down and enjoy being there — having access to watch these amazing creatures go about their daily lives is extraordinary.
The trick about photographing icebergs is to explore the technique of shooting with your camera held over the edge of the zodiac and close to the height of the water. Compare these two images (above) taken just minutes apart. Lowering the camera enhances the reflections in the water and helps to separate the iceberg from the horizon. The water is not as dark and looks less choppy — to me it makes the iceberg feel much more dramatic. For this image I used manual exposure and focusing, 16mm focal length, f/11, 1/400s, and ISO 160.
This kind of travel photography takes a little more preparation. Knowing it’s going to be cold, and having the right gear to keep you warm, will help to make your experience more enjoyable. I used thin merino/silk gloves under my fingerless Kathmandu mittens, and my hands were never cold.
For this trip I packed the following into my camera bag:
- Canon 5D Mark III
- Canon 7D Mark II
- EF 16–35mm f/4L IS USM
- EF 24–70mm f/4 USM
- EF 70–200mm f/2.8L USM
- EF 400mm f/5.6L USM
- 1.4 III Extender
- ND Grads P120, P121
- ND 400
- Circular polarizers
- Canon remote switch RS80N3
- Three spare batteries
- Memory cards: two 32GB, two 16GB
- Lens cloth
- Manfrotto 322RC2
- A/Ball Grip Head — when travelling I use lighter
- Benro A-600EX legs
- Petzl headlight
- Two hard drives
- Card reader
This article was originally published in D-Photo Issue No. 67. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: