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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Here Be Dragons

Documenting the wild world in expeditions that go to the ends of the earth

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Courtship display of wandering albatross, Prion Island, South Georgia, Antarctica.
Standard equipment on most expedition ships are inflatable Zodiacs®. These rubberized craft provide a safe means of getting ashore for wet landings through the surf, and are great for photographing at water level, as well. And for the more adventurous, some ships carry sea kayaks for an even more intimate experience.

The best thing about expedition travel is that once you embark, it’s the ship that moves you from location to location, so there’s no constant packing and repacking as when on safari in Africa. These are true expeditions, where it’s uncommon to visit another port until you return, as opposed to more tame “cruises” that travel from port to port. And for polar travel, it may require flying halfway around the world just to reach the port where your journey begins.

The serious nature of ocean navigation makes it important to travel with an experienced adventure company operating state-of-the-art vessels. No matter with whom you travel or how you get there, you still need to plan your trip carefully. A quick Internet search yields dozens of companies offering voyages to the poles. Larger ships carry more passengers, so keep in mind that your time ashore may be limited, since operating guidelines require groups of 100 or less. I frequently travel aboard the National Geographic Explorer, which carries only 148 travelers, but many ships carry 200 or more. Booking a polar expedition is a big investment and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so do your homework and choose wisely.

It’s important that you take time to learn your camera’s features and limitations—before you leave home. A good understanding of your camera, lenses and accessories will help you respond quickly to fast-changing photo opportunities that happen in wild places. If you have the time, consider taking a workshop or attending a local seminar. Give yourself an assignment to help you practice. Photograph your dog running in the backyard, birds flying at the feeder or close-ups of garden flowers. Practice and make mistakes in advance, rather than during your trip.

In addition, research all there is about your destination and the potential for wildlife encounters. Strive to become an expert. The more you know about natural history and animal behavior, the better you’ll be at placing yourself in the right situation for making great images.

Shooting From Ships

Expedition ships are a great platform for photography, but there’s no single “best place” onboard to set up camp. You have to be mobile.

While underway at sea, the stern or aft deck is best for photographing seabirds drafting along with the ship.
I especially enjoy crossing the Southern Ocean to Antarctica and the dreaded Drake Passage, looking for wandering albatross effortlessly skimming the tops of the waves. For shooting reflections of icebergs, I prefer to be as low as possible at the ship’s bow. In contrast, for shooting patterns in the pack ice and polar bears at a distance, it’s best to be as high as possible on the top deck. But when the whales or bears are close, put me on the rail where I can follow the action.

Image-stabilized lenses and a fast shutter speed are important for making sharp images shooting from the moving ship or Zodiac®.
Every ship has its own unique motion and vibration. You still can shoot in rolling seas by firing in the troughs between waves when the motion is at a minimum. It’s not uncommon to shoot at ISO 400 or higher if that’s what it takes to get shutter speeds greater than 1/1000 sec. If subjects are at a distance, I use a wide aperture (ƒ/2.8-ƒ/5.6) to maximize shutter speed. When depth of field is needed, I bump up the ISO and stop down to a smaller aperture. With noise-reduction improvement, ISO is now a creative control, so don’t just set it and forget about it. With changing conditions, vary the ISO as you do with the ƒ-stop.

Lastly, the polar regions are famous for variable and even stormy weather. In fact, bad weather can be a great time to make images, so be prepared with good foul-weather gear for both yourself and your equipment. Often, the most dramatic light is when the storm is clearing, so dress properly and get out on deck.


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