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Antarctica. The name conjures up images of giant icebergs, howling winds, mountainous seas and desolate landscapes. The idea of travelling there evokes thoughts of those that are defined by that continent. The bravery of Shackleton, the brilliance of Amundsen, the tragedy of Scott, and the resilience of our own Douglas Mawson.
For myself, I have always wanted to travel there and with the advent of eco-tourism that dream was finally realised. However, this dissertation is on photography in Antarctica, so to begin.
Travel Plans and Personal Equipment
Antarctica is an expensive place to travel to and most of us will only get the opportunity to go once. Therefore, it is prudent to research which trip will serve you best. We went on a 26 day cruise that included the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. The thrust of the trip was on the ecology of the area and with every effort to spend as much time ashore as was possible. Our ship had about 100 passengers, this allowed landings for all people to occur whereas larger ships are discouraged to put everyone ashore at once.
It is important to be as comfortable as possible to allow the creative juices to flow. This means feeling well, seasickness pills, being warm, layers of clothing, being dry, wet weather gear. Several pairs of gloves would be recommended. Gloves to keep your hands dry and others either thin or with finger holes cut out for camera manipulation. Knee pads for the constant kneeling (I wish I had had some).
The use of zodiacs (motorised rubber boats), necessitate the need for a dry bag to keep your camera bag, tripod etc, safe from seawater. These need to be sturdy, as they need to support the weight of the photographic equipment contained within. This is especially true for rough landings. A camera bag with wet weather cover (backpack style works best), plus a tripod/monopod. Wet weather covers for the camera/lens set-up is essential. Several bodies failed due excessive moisture. I took a “Storm Jacket” and had no real problems. Cleaning equipment (lens cleaner in particular) plus a blower is also essential.
It is prudent to take 2 camera bodies. This guards against equipment failure on your once in a lifetime trip and additionally, to reduce the need to change lenses in harsh weather conditions. Several bodies and lenses failed during the trip.
Zoom lenses give a large degree of flexibility and I would consider a wide angle (landscapes and close-ups) and a telephoto, necessities.
My usual set-up was:
Canon 30D with 100-400mm
Canon 5D with 24-105mm
CP filters to help reduce reflections were useful on several locations. UV filters (easier to clean than the lens) would also be valuable. It would be virtually impossible to never have the front element of your lens with water droplets on it.
Backup hard drive storage is vital, as is sufficient memory cards for a days shooting. My wife and I were both shooting between 8GB - 12GB each per day in RAW format. A laptop is also valuable as you are better able to check critical focus and for the inevitable photo submissions that these trips provide.
Camera Settings and Technique
The environment will provide the full gamut of shooting conditions, from blue sunny days to overcast, dark and wet. Subject matter can also be very challenging with bright reflective ice with adjacent dark rock. Penguins are also black and white.
Quality- I would recommend RAW capture as it can allow for highlight recovery more easily than jpeg and also gives you that extra information to produce a large print of that stunning shot.
ISO/TV- Although there are many hours of daylight much of the light is subdued. The wildlife in these locations is varied and unpredictable. Much of the time, the animals are sleeping or static in behaviour, however, one always needs to be mindful that a flurry of activity is never far away.
High shutter speeds should be maintained as much as possible to capture some truly remarkable behaviour. This can mean that high ISO settings are used more often than not.
Although the use of a tripod/monopod during long periods ashore is desirable, shooting handheld is a necessity. Crouching down on one side of a zodiac whilst the other side is standing is the standard modus operandi. Therefore, even if you are just shooting an iceberg, you have to be careful of the movement on the boat/zodiac so a higher shutter speed is required. Speeds of 1/500 were usually required for static subjects and significantly higher for the moving wildlife shots. Prior practicing of shooting birds in flight handheld would augment success in this area.
AV- This recommendation is geared more towards wildlife settings for whales and porpoising penguins. Most people were using F8-F10 to get the necessary DOF, particularly if the focus point was slightly off.
Battery life- Colder weather means battery life is reduced compared to warmer climates. This, plus the number of shots and limited time to recharge batteries during the day means several should be bought along. I bought six for two bodies and did not have a problem.
Exposure- As always when shooting in bright locations where darker elements are part of the frame, correct metering is critical. This is especially true as the penguins are black and white, the rock is very dark and of course the ice and snow is white. The majority of my shots had a +.33 to + .7 EV compensation using matrix metering. It is crucial to check your exposure as you go, especially as the scene can change dramatically. Exposure bracketing is also recommended for the scenic shots, this is less value when shooting moving wildlife. Practising on a beach on a bright day would help simulate these conditions.
Beautiful and unbelievable sights will assail your senses and there will be an overwhelming desire to rush around and capture it all.
Unfortunately, the images taken by fellow passengers will have you ask, “why didn’t I see that”. The main point to remember is that you can’t see it all. Certainlyinvestigate the region you have landed at,asAntarctica needs to be explored, however, the best images are taken by those that are prepared to spend the time to sit, wait and watch.
Try to isolate and simplify the images you take. This is not always an easy task as penguins and elephant sealsin particular live incrowded colonies. Work a particular subject and you never knowwhat might come out of it. Do not however, forget tocapture the whole environment rather than just the close-up.
I would recommend taking slightly more image when framing your shot. This is due the movement experienced when working from the zodiac or ship. It can be difficult to always get straight horizons.
There are certain guidelines to follow when dealing with Antarctic wildlife. These are laid out in the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) Marine Wildlife Watching Guidelines. More information can be found at. www.iaato.org
Essentially, there are minimum distances that tourists must adhere to whenapproaching wildlife. It depends on species, whether they are nesting and other pertinent criteria. Luckily, most are curious and if you stay still and get down to their level then they will approach you. A very special experience.
A more varied interaction can be had with fellow travelers.None will deliberately get in the way of your shot, however it is very hard to always be aware of and able to remain clear of another persons shot. This requires vigilance, patience and some degree of tact. With a few notable exceptions I had no real problems with this issue.
Antarctica is a wonderful wilderness and the number one priority should be to enjoy the experience. Photography can focus your concentration and in my opinion, enhance the journey. It is important to come well prepared as there are not too many shops down there for that last minute purchase.
I feel privileged that I was able to visit this pristine wilderness and to all nature enthusiasts a trip to Antarctica should be high on your list.
© M & R Hopgood – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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