Antarctic Dreams

The exhilaration of being out of the comfort zone
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Iceberg Arch, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. This photograph was taken on January 30, 2014. It was one of Neill’s longest shooting days ever.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM

Beyond words. Beyond my imagination. Was I dreaming? Fortunately, as more of a photographer than a writer, when words fail to be adequate, my images will have to serve to reconnect me with the experience and, hopefully, others will get a small sense of the sights I saw. I recently returned from an amazing adventure to Antarctica with Michael Reichmann and Kevin Raber’s Luminous Landscape photographic workshop. Only three weeks before departure this past January, I was asked to replace an instructor who was unable to go. Lucky me!

The tour started in Chile, and from there, we flew to Antarctica rather than crossing the Drake Passage by ship. We photographed along the Antarctic Peninsula for five days, and I made 10,000 frames. I know this amount sounds ridiculous, but the days were very long, and the quality of the landscapes and wildlife was epic. The shooting conditions were difficult, as we often were photographing from our moving Zodiacs or ship, and I photographed all images without a tripod, with little time to deliberate on each composition. Handholding, with two cameras around my neck, one with a wide-angle zoom and another with a telephoto zoom, was a constant struggle. I definitely was out of my slow-paced, “landscapes on a tripod” comfort zone.

While adapting to the flow of this type of photography, I learned to watch carefully, to see when the confluence of foreground elements such as icebergs aligned dynamically with the mountains and glaciers in the background. When I photograph on land with a tripod, I’m always shuffling my feet, sideways, back and forth, to find the most interesting alignments. In Antarctica, I was dealing with one-way, steady, lateral motion so I was able to anticipate these alignments while looking ahead from the boats. When I found a stunning iceberg, I also would look for wildlife flying or swimming along to add an accent of scale. We were constantly seeing wildlife, including seals, penguins and whales. It took good timing, a burst of exposures and a good image-stabilization system to catch the action. The experience was sometimes frustrating, but mostly exhilarating!

I’ve been editing and postprocessing at a frenetic pace, eager to see, to begin to absorb and interpret, all that I saw. Since returning, I pore through my Lightroom catalog daily as I recall the myriad images I created. I’m thrilled with the results, but I have a long way to go in my editing and processing. I plan to develop a portfolio of 40 to 50 images for a potential ebook, gallery prints and exhibits. It will take me weeks, maybe months, to absorb and organize the portfolio, a process that can’t be rushed or forced.

In this On Landscape column, I’m showing a photograph from January 30. Our dawn photography along the Lemaire Channel began at 3:30 a.m., photographing from the ship as we cruised past volcanic peaks blanketed with glaciers cascading to the sea. After dropping anchor, our Zodiac cruise in Pleneau Bay began at 5:30 a.m. The bay is also known as the iceberg graveyard, where both large tabular icebergs and older, rolled icebergs have run aground. One of the highlights of this session was photographing this iceberg with its amazing shapes and arch. We floated slowly past, as our very excited group blazed away. Each inch of motion changed our camera positions, altering the relationship of each curve and line and arch opening.

Other factors needing rapid analysis were potential distractions in the foreground, such as bits of ice, depth of field, especially if including a large area of foreground, the shutter speed needed to ensure a sharp image on a moving boat with moving water ripples, and motion caused by six to eight photographers trying to photograph all at once! Even without wildlife in the photograph, setting the highest frame rate mode on our cameras was nearly essential to guarantee some sharp frames. Given the intensity of these situations, our group was extremely polite, considerate and patient with each other, united in our effort to capture the magic. Our Zodiac drivers/guides were exceptional at helping us find great photographic opportunities.

While adapting to the flow of this type of photography, I learned to watch carefully, to see when the confluence of foreground elements such as icebergs aligned dynamically with the mountains and glaciers in the background.

After our early-morning Zodiac cruise, while we had breakfast, our ship relocated to the Yalour Islands. It felt like we’d had a full day already, but when we landed to see a colony of Adelie penguins there, it was only 9:00 a.m. A short walk led us to grand views of the nearby mountains and glaciers, with penguins and their chicks in the foreground. The pace was leisurely now as we walked along a route laid out by our guides. While all of us kept the proper distance from the penguins, if we were still and patient, a few of these curious characters would approach within a few feet. Whether we photographed or not, this experience was priceless.

Since we had such an outstanding experience on our early-morning iceberg cruise, our leaders decided to return for a sunset session. We all boarded our Zodiacs for an epic evening of golden light and the surreal shapes of sculpted icebergs. The summer sunset of Antarctica lasted for two hours.

The day of January 30 started with the first image made at 3:45 a.m. and the last image made at 11:00 p.m. on the most spectacular day of photography I’ve ever experienced. A sweet Antarctic dream.

To see my full collection from the Antarctic Peninsula, go to my Facebook page, my Light On The Landscape photoblog or Google+, where I’ll be uploading the images.

To learn about his one-on-one Yosemite workshops, ebooks and iPad app, and see his latest images, visit William Neill‘s website and photo-blog at

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.