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February 2010

Sunset Arch, Southern Ocean

Southern Ocean

During our crossing from Falklands to South Georgia Island we were treated to a magnificent sunset:

Photographer takes picture of a spectacular sunset arch, spanning the heavens from horizon to horizon, over the open sea between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island

Photographer takes picture of a spectacular sunset arch, spanning the heavens from horizon to horizon, over the open sea between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island.
Image ID: 24096
Location: Southern Ocean

A long band of rich orange-red cloud stretched across the sky nearly from one horizon to the other. The only way I could capture the entire formation was with a fisheye lens (which I used a lot on this trip!). The resulting bendo-factor of the lens makes the cloud band look almost like a rainbow or arch. If only we had some mountain peaks or an iceberg below this sunset, but alas we were far out to sea and well north of any icebergs. The photographer in this scene is Scott Davis, a pro from Moss Landing, California. Scott was on assignment gathering lifestyle and action images. His photos, some of which he shared at the end of the trip, are great.

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Black-Browed Albatross at Sunset

Albatross, Falklands, Southern Ocean

One of the unexpected joys of the trip for me was the albatrosses. Before this trip, the only albatrosses I had seen were Waved Albatross in Galapagos (but only sitting on nests) and some distant albatrosses as we motored at sea to Guadalupe Island. Now that I have had a chance to really see them, soaring as they do over the open ocean, I love these birds. On this night we had just left the enormous rookery of black-browed albatross at Steeple Jason Island in the Falklands, on our way to South Georgia Island. While eating dinner I noticed out the dining room window how the sky was growing pink, and I could see albatrosses occasionally flying by the window. I rudely chugged my wine and gobbled the rest of my dinner, made some weak excuse to my dining companions that I would be right back, and quickly made my way to the stern with my camera setup. I stood out there in the fading light and fresh air making a set of what I think of as “painterly images” of albatrosses and petrels.

Black-browed albatross in flight, at sea.  The black-browed albatross is a medium-sized seabird at 31-37" long with a 79-94" wingspan and an average weight of 6.4-10 lb. They have a natural lifespan exceeding 70 years. They breed on remote oceanic islands and are circumpolar, ranging throughout the Southern Oceanic, Thalassarche melanophrys

Black-browed albatross in flight, at sea. The black-browed albatross is a medium-sized seabird at 31-37″ long with a 79-94″ wingspan and an average weight of 6.4-10 lb. They have a natural lifespan exceeding 70 years. They breed on remote oceanic islands and are circumpolar, ranging throughout the Southern Oceanic
Image ID: 23962
Species: Black-browed albatross, Thalassarche melanophrys
Location: Falkland Islands, United Kingdom

I used a Canon 1Ds Mark III camera with a 300 f/2.8 lens and 1.4x converter. The light was growing faint making it easy to match the available light of the waning dusk with the artificial light from the camera’s flash. It was about an hour after sunset, a time when the pastel colors in the sky become quite saturated. I popped a little flash on this beautiful seabird and dragged the shutter to give the shot some blur. I shot several hundred of these images and managed many keepers, each using the fading colors in the sky as a canvas ranging from pink to purple to yellow depending on which direction I pointed my camera.

Another one, about 20 minutes later, color is different since this was aimed higher and in a little different direction:

Black-browed albatross in flight, at sea.  The black-browed albatross is a medium-sized seabird at 31-37" long with a 79-94" wingspan and an average weight of 6.4-10 lb. They have a natural lifespan exceeding 70 years. They breed on remote oceanic islands and are circumpolar, ranging throughout the Southern Oceanic, Thalassarche melanophrys

Black-browed albatross in flight, at sea. The black-browed albatross is a medium-sized seabird at 31-37″ long with a 79-94″ wingspan and an average weight of 6.4-10 lb. They have a natural lifespan exceeding 70 years. They breed on remote oceanic islands and are circumpolar, ranging throughout the Southern Oceanic
Image ID: 23965
Species: Black-browed albatross, Thalassarche melanophrys
Location: Falkland Islands, United Kingdom

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Photography Gear for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands

Antarctica, Falklands, South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Recommended List of Photography Equipment for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands.

Brash Ice, Antarctic Peninsula

Brash Ice, Antarctic Peninsula

Following is what I took on my recent trip, along with comments about how useful it was and how I will change for my next trip. Yup, I took too much, but most people do and next time I’ll have it dialed in. Weight and bulk are an issue on this sort of trip, and one wants to be nimble on shore without too much gear. By March 2010 I should have linked to several example photos taken with each piece of gear, but as of now I am just beginning my edit. Take note of my comments about 300/500 vs. 200-400 below.

  • Canon 1Ds Mark III — primary body. I love this thing. You can have it when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
  • Canon 1Ds Mark II — used for time lapse sequences, and as back up body. Just a few years ago this was the standard by which other 35mm digital cameras were judged, and mine is still going strong after probably 200,000 frames.
  • Canon 5D Mark II — used for video, and as a landscape body. Attached 24-105 remained on camera the entire trip to minimize dust issues. This is something of a toy camera, it just does not feel right, too light and plasticy. It does NOT have the ability to withstand harsh weather that the 1D series bodies have, so be careful with it in the rain, snow and spray! The files, however, are quite nice and I am going to have a lot of fun with the video capabilities of this thing.
  • Canon 500 f/4 — great for portraits, and for isolating subjects due to its narrow field of view (almost half of the view angle of a 300). I used this for portraits of penguins, and for many subjects in Falklands. Once at South Georgia and in Antarctica, this length was no longer needed. I even used it handheld with 1.4x (700mm equivalent) for photographing Wandering albatross in flight, since they rarely came near to the boat. Granted that is quite a load to handhold on a moving boat, but it was the only way I could fill the frame with those distant birds. The images are quite sharp.
  • Canon 300 f/2.8 — most useful of the prime telephoto lenses, crazy sharp on its own and still very sharp as a handheld flight lens with the 1.4x converter (420mm equivalent). If I were to take just one prime telephoto, this is the one.
  • Canon 70-200 f/4 — probably the most useful of all lenses for this trip. Great for much of the wildlife and many of the landscapes. You want the f/4 version due to its lightness since it makes handling two lenses easier. With today’s high ISO camera bodies there is little need for the f/2.8 version, which is rumored to be softer than the f/4 version anyway. I love this sharp little lens.
  • Canon 24-70 f/2.8 — brought this along as a back-up in case the recently purchased 24-105 failed to live up to expectations. I only used this lens for a few time lapse experiments. For a trip on which weight is an issue, this lens is too heavy and not as versatile as the 24-105. Next time it will stay home.
  • Canon 24-105 f/4 — kept it permanently attached to my 5D Mark II. It performed well, although like the 5DII this lens is not well-suited to wet or harsh environments. But it is so light, small and sharp that, provided it is cared for properly, it has a place in my gear bag in the future. It does have some barrel distortion at 24mm.
  • Canon 16-35 f/2.8 II — this is often too wide but I did break it out a few times in ice or when we had clear or dramatic skies. Sharper and with less distortion than the 17-40 f/4, but heavier too.
  • Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye — ok, if you don’t understand why you want a fisheye in Antarctica, you need to rethink being a photographer.
  • Gitzo 1327 Tripod with RRS BH-55 ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick. The Wimberley Sidekick was used only for the 500 and will be left at home next time. The RRS BH-55 ballhead is strong enough to handle a 300/2.8 or 200-400/4. I may bring a light monopod next time, as many times I would have preferred that. But a tripod is needed for 500 or longer, or when shooting time lapse, video or in low light.
  • Think Tank Airport Acceleration v2 Backpack — this thing performed wonderfully in the airport and in the field. I had no problems with it at all. I was able to pack even more stuff in this pack than my huge Lowepro, so much so that my pack was damn-near too heavy on the flight down to Ushuaia. This pack comes with a rain cover but I did not use it in the field since the pack sheds rain and snow so well. This is what I packed on the trip down: 1DsIII/1DsII/300/500/70-200/16-35/1.4x/harddisks/laptop/couple chargers/spare clothes. (The 5DII/24-105/15 went in a small second bag.) That’s a lot in one pack.
  • NRS 3.8 Liter Heavy Duty Dry Bag. I used a really big, strong dry bag from NRS. It was large enough that I could slip my entire backpack into it, along with spare sweaters, shoes, jacket, whatever. I would leave it at the landing site and return to it if I needed to exchange gear, or remove clothes if it got too warm, etc. This thing is built like a tank, reinforced at all stress points with double thick material on the boat for abrasion resistance. Be warned: this particular bag is big. I needed a big bag to put my big backpack in, and I am big enough to heft it around. You may want to go with a smaller dry bag, especially if your camera backpack is small.
  • Laptop computer, three Seagate Freeagent Go 500gb portable drives and one Hyperspace Colorspace 320gb photo storage device. My computer (a very small Sony Vaio) is used for writing, playing movies and downloading images. I do not do any serious editing while traveling. The Seagate Freeagent Go drives are great, so tiny and light and they do not require their own power source (using USB power from the computer). The “Colorspace device” is much faster at downloading images than a computer, but is less flexible when it comes to doing a quick review in the evening. The Hyperspace Colorspace, while not a full-fledged computer, is sophisticated enough that it can be configured to read/write to my 500gb external hard disks which is helpful if the computer were to die during the trip. Probably the ideal solution, for someone who did not want to bring a computer, would be to bring two Colorspace devices (two backups is safer than one).

I always had the 5DII / 24-105 with me, as well as the 70-200 mounted on a body. The only question was, do I have along a longer lens (typically in Falklands) or a wider lens (Antarctica). South Georgia had so much variety that I ended up carrying more gear there than anywhere else.

NOTE: One major change I will make next time will be to leave the 300 and 500 lenses at home in favor of the Nikon 200-400 f/4, probably on a D300 crop body (equivalent 300-600mm). I owned a 200-400 and D3 briefly and just loved that combo, but could not justify the expense at that time and sold them after one shoot. The 200-400 is so absolutely perfect for this trip that I simply must have one in spite of the fact it is not quite as sharp as a prime, and loses a bit more quality with crop bodies which I avoid whenever possible. But on this trip the versatility of the 200-400 is enough to make up for it, and it almost doesn’t matter whether it is paired with a crop body (D300) or fullframe (D3/D3x/D700). I would guess that bird photographers will want the D300 for tighter bird stuff. Carryon luggage can be an issue on this trip (special thanks to the arbitrary and capricious ticket agents at Aerolineas Argentina when flying between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia!) and exchanging two big primes for one big zoom will ease my carryon situation a lot.

Note also that I do not carry high-speed bodies. I just don’t feel a need for them. I have used most of Canon’s bodies and have never really been satisfied with the image quality of the 1.6x crop bodies after becoming accustomed to the full frame quality. And the only shooting situations I have found that absolutely required high frame rates are photographing surf and action sports. Perhaps the 1D Mark IV will tempt me if the AF is good enough, but for now the 1DsIII and 1DsII were more than enough to handle the AF and frame-rate situations I encountered on this trip.

Conclusion, the ideal setup for me would have been: 1DsIII and 5DII with 15 / 16-35 / 24-105 / 70-200, and D3/D3x with 200-400.

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Equipment List for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands

Southern Ocean, Video

Equipment List for Antarctica, South Georgia Island and the Falklands.

Adelie penguins leaping into the ocean from an iceberg, Pygoscelis adeliae, Brown Bluff

Adelie penguins leaping into the ocean from an iceberg.
Image ID: 25005
Species: Adelie Penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae
Location: Brown Bluff, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

This is what I used on my recent Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands trip. Photo gear will be described tomorrow as that is a whole nuther issue. I’ll take virtually the same gear next time, with one small alteration.

Clothing

In general my main concern on this trip was staying dry in the rain and snow, and not overheating on longer walks. Layers and synthetics worked great. The only time I actually felt cold was on a few zodiac rides, and then putting on an extra fleece jacket under my Goretex shell did the trick.

  • Goretex jacket / shell. I use North Face Goretex jackets. I took two of them, one for use ashore that soon got dirty and smelly since I often lay down on the ground to photograph. The other was for use on the ship and remained clean. Both have dual zippers that allow North Face and Marmot fleece sweaters to be zipped into the jacket. The shell does not need insulation, in fact it is better to insulate with polar fleece sweaters separate (see next). The shell should have a hood for rain and for wet zodiac rides. You will get bird guano on your outer jacket.
  • Polar fleece jacket. I took three, one each of all three Polartec weights, that zip into the North Face jackets. Usually the mid-weight one was enough but a few times I wore two of them for warmth.
  • Gortex Pants. I use Cabela’s GORE-TEX® Guidewear® Uninsulated Bibs – Tall. They are big, heavy duty and I am very happy with them. I have never had any rips or worn areas with these pants in spite of many hours scrambling around on rocks and the ground for photos. They are tougher than most people need, but the big pockets are great for gloves, camera stuff, hats, etc. If you use a more lightweight material don’t be surprised when they tear, in which case rubber cement or duct tape will save the day. You will get lots of bird guano on your pants.
  • Waterproof Boots. I use Muckboots, the Wetlands model. Your boots absolutely must be waterproof and comfortable. I observed that NEOS overboots did not perform well for those that brought them; they eventually borrowed plain-old rubber boots provided by the Polar Star. I found my Muckboots to be quite comfortable and since they are neoprene they are very warm, I only needed to wear a single pair of athletic socks even in the coldest places we went. They do fit a little on the loose side but were still serviceable for long hikes. Wear extra layer of socks to make them fit more snugly. You will walk through vast areas of bird guano in your boots, and then you will rinse them off on deck when you return to the boat.
  • Chest waders: I may use chest waders in lieu of pants and boots on my next visit, since there were a few times I wanted to wade into the water up to my waist. The key is finding a set of chest waders that are comfortable to wear for 6-10 hours at a time.
  • Inner wear: Do not wear cotton. Wear synthetics to ensure that you dry quickly if you are sweating or if you get wet. Cotton does not dry well, and if you get wet you will stay wet and eventually get cold. I prefer to wear Nike quick-dry athletic shirts under my sweater, and either shorts (in Falklands) or light-insulation pants (such as REI quick-dry synthetic pants or thin fleece or pile pants) under my heavy duty waterproof pants. Long-johns, thermal underwear, are often mentioned for this sort of trip but I did not bring them nor did I need them, however, if you are old or have poor circulation you might consider thermals of some sort.
  • Gloves: I took several different pairs mittens and gloves plus a sturdy pair of glove underliners that themselves can also serve as lightweight gloves. You may find you prefer lightweight gloves for time ashore when you are handling camera equipment or walking sticks, and heavier gloves (such as neoprene/wetsuite gloves or waterproof ski gloves) for the often wet zodiac rides. Your gloves will get bird guano on them.
  • Hat. I took a warm ski hat for cold days and a lightweight baseball hat for sunny days. My mistake is that I forgot to pack my Sun Precautions Hat, which I use in the tropics or on my boat. In the Falklands we had sunny, dry, warm weather and my neck, face and ears got burnt even with sunscreen on.
  • Shades. Bring at least one good pair of polarized sunglasses. They should be suitable for marine use since you will be wearing them around water much of the time.
  • Shorts and comfortable shoes for around the boat. Flip flops if you are from California.
  • Luggage. I use an REI wheeled duffel, it can carry all of my clothes, boots, tripod and loads of camera stuff.

Dry Bag / River Bag

  • NRS 3.8 Liter Heavy Duty Dry Bag. I used a really big, strong dry bag from NRS. It was large enough that I could slip my entire backpack into it, along with spare sweaters, shoes, jacket, whatever. I would leave it at the landing site and return to it if I needed to exchange gear, or remove clothes if it got too warm, etc. This thing is built like a tank, reinforced at all stress points with double thick material on the boat for abrasion resistance. Be warned: this particular bag is big. I needed a big bag to put my big backpack in, and I am big enough to heft it around. You may want to go with a smaller dry bag, especially if your camera backpack is small.

Personal

  • Sunscreen. SPF 1000 is good. I ran out and had to borrow. Bring plenty.
  • Chapstick. Wow, I ran out and boy was I sorry. Your lips will get wind-burnt and chapped. Bring 3-4 chapsticks.
  • Hand lotion. My hands got really dry and the skin cracked.
  • Medications. Make sure to have proper antibiotics if you have a history of infections, as well as plenty of Advil for sore muscles. Tamiflu if you can get it and are worried about someone bringing flu onto the boat. H1N1 flu vaccine if you can get it. Seasick medication, including the prescription “patch”. I generally do not get seasick and yet I packed Bonine and the patch just in case. Hand santizer is good to have for any travel. Bring your own supply of bandaids and Neosporin ointment, the last thing you want is for a small cut to become a problem infection.
  • Ear plugs. Get some good ones, the kind that are shaped (sort of) ergonomically, they can really make the difference between a good night’s sleep and sleep deprivation.
  • Converter plugs. I went to a lighting and electrical shop in Ushuaia and bought two converters which I used together on the ship: one to change two-prong marine/ship outlet to South American three-prong 220V and a second to convert South American three-prong 220V to North American three-prong 220V/110V.

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Penguin Encounter, Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula

Antarctica, Penguin, Southern Ocean

Update: the cover of Nature’s Best Photography Spring/Summer 2010 issue came from this shot.

OK, I admit it, this post is really just an excuse to share a photo of myself. I get so few photos of me that when I receive one I like, its a big deal.

Photographing Adelie penguins at Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula, © Patrick Endres / AlaskaPhotographics.com

Photographing Adelie penguins at Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula, © Patrick Endres / AlaskaPhotographics.com

Patrick Endres made this photograph. Patrick, a full-time professional stock photographer and guide and tour leader from Fairbanks, Alaska, was on staff for my recent Cheesemans Antarctica trip. He, along with fellow pro and staff member Hugh Rose, had a few of us out zodiac cruising at Paulet Island in the northern reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula. We were sidled up beside a low, flat ice berg with some Adelie penguins on it when three of the penguins walked across the berg to us and looked at us curiously, as if they wanted to hop into our boat. We scrambled for the widest lenses we had (even 70-200 was too much, the penguins were so close) and snapped off a few photos. It wasn’t the photos but the sponteneity of the moment and the naive inquisitiveness of the Adelies that really made our face-to-face meeting with these little guys special. All of us were laughing and enjoying the moment. Another couple zodiacs came over and had the three Adelies look them over as well. You can see the icebreaker ship M/V Polar Star that was our home for a month, in the background of this photo. That was about two weeks ago. I wish I was still there among the birds and ice. Patrick sent me this photo last night. I love it, it brings back that wonderful afternoon.

Patrick Endres has a great blog, be sure to check it out since he is currently sharing some of his experiences from the Falklands, South Georgia Island and Antarctica. I really do owe Patrick and Hugh and the rest of the Cheeseman’s staff a big “thank you” This is a staff that has the experience in the field, particularly in the Southern Ocean, that enables them to find great wildlife watching and photo experiences for their guests. They worked hard in all kinds of weather and sea conditions to make such experiences happen frequently.

Next: Equipment List for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands
Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
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