Saturday, April 25, 2009

The making of... Amongst the ice clouds

Antarctic Skua amongst the ice clouds
Laubeuf Fjord, Antarctica

This image is one from January's Antarctic expedition that tends to make people do a double-take. Is that a bird upside-down? Are those clouds? Where's the horizon?

I'd like to "draw back the curtain" and tell you some of what went into making this image.

It was just after lunch, south of the Antarctic Circle (at 67° 15.528'S, 67° 51.635'W to be precise) and I was on the observation deck at the front of the ship (above the bridge) as the ship slowly moved north into the region known as "The Gullet". The scenery was constantly changing as the ship moved, and I had two cameras with me: an EOS 5DmkII with 24-105mm/4 lens, and an EOS 40D with 100-400mm lens. I was almost in a frenzy, with so many scenes opening up before me and disappearing again. I'd pick up one camera and shoot a wide-angle sequence, then see a detail I wanted to capture and switch to the other. It was an amazing experience (one that I was getting used to: Antarctica is amazing!) and to cope you need to get into "the zone", slowing down and pacing yourself. To give you some idea of the environment, on the right is a photo I made with the 5DmkII, literally about 30s before the Skua photo.

With the light being constant (no clouds in the sky) I had the cameras in Manual exposure mode, having taken a couple of test frames to check the exposure before I started. That way as I panned around the exposures were going to be consistent, not affected by how much white ice/snow or dark water was in the frame. I was of course shooting everything in RAW.

Up ahead I saw a bird standing on one of the pieces of ice, and decided to grab the telephoto and watch what the bird did. The ship was going to pass fairly close to it, and I knew it was going to move soon. I had the camera in continuous focus (AI Servo in Canon terms) and tracked it in the viewfinder as we approached. My idea paid off: the bird took off and flew low across the water as we approached. I took a string of photos of it as it flew (by pressing the shutter button multiple times, not by holding the button down and praying: the 40D's buffer would have quickly filled) and later when editing the day's take on my laptop this particular frame struck me as having an interesting arrangement of bird, ice, and water. I may have "chimped" at the time and looked at the 40D's LCD after shooting to double-check what I got, but I don't remember for sure. I do know that less than a minute later I was taking photos with the other camera of the reflection of a glacier field, so I didn't stop for long.

The only processing this image has had (other than fixing the white balance using a photo of a grey reference from about the same time) is to crop it slightly to remove some distracting ice pieces at the edge of the frame. Unfortunately once the bird had decided to fly away from us it was never going to look back, so its head is obscured in this image. But I like to think it doesn't matter. From my position high on the ship looking down onto the water, the background was simply a reflection of the sky (and the bird/ice). The "horizon" is way above this frame, and the result challenges many viewers' assumptions.

By the way, the GPS coordinates were recorded by a GPS unit in my pocket, and later downloaded to the laptop and used to geo-encode the day's photos inside Lightroom (I checked the camera clocks each day to make sure the timestamps on the photos would match the GPS). This is a standard procedure for me, as it makes it simple later to check against maps and sort out the accurate information such as place names.

Final shooting data: EOS 40D, 1/500s, 100-400mm at 400mm, f/8, ISO 100

Continue reading "The making of... Amongst the ice clouds"...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Antarctica presentation - May 13

At the Knox Photographic Society meeting in Boronia (a suburb of Melbourne) I will be giving a talk on my January 2009 voyage to Antarctica.

The KPS meetings are free to attend. If you're in the area, please come along and make yourself known! The meeting starts at 8pm Wednesday May 13, at Boronia West Primary School, Tormore Rd, Boronia, Victoria (Melway ref 64J8).
Continue reading "Antarctica presentation - May 13"...

Camera Insurance

Have you ever dropped your camera? Did it end in tears?
I've had a few accidents over the years, and was reminded of them recently when a student held out the shattered wreck of an SLR with a sad look on her face. And then over the last weekend I heard from friends overseas who'd been busy dropping cameras...

There are 3 major points to consider:
  1. Be careful. "Well, duuuh" I hear you say. It sounds obvious, but have (and use) a neck/wrist/hand-strap, and a lens hood.
  2. Have access to a backup camera. Not necessarily a duplicate of your main camera, but something you can take photos with.
  3. Consider insurance. And read the fine print. Some home contents policies provide surprisingly extensive levels of cover. Many specifically exclude gear you earn money with, and push you towards business insurance. But there's probably a policy out there somewhere that will suit you.

Horror Stories

Check the tripod/camera attachment!

Stirling Range, WA
(Western Australia, not WAshington!)

One cold morning at Bluff Knoll in the Stirling Range, WA I was up before dawn, getting ready to catch the sun as it hit the slopes of the Knoll. This was early in my week-long trip to the region. In near-darkness beside my car, I extended my tripod, set up my EOS 30D and 17-40mm/4 L lens, mounted the camera on the tripod, and closed up the car prior to heading off to a nearby vantage point I'd picked out. I was racing as I knew the sun was about to broach the horizon. The tripod I was using was quite tall, and I pushed the legs together to lean it against my shoulder while walking. The next thing I knew was the sickening sound of camera and lens hitting the bitumen beside the car! It turned out that I hadn't properly attached the camera to the tripod in my hurry in the dark...

The lens hood was broken off, and the front of the lens was mashed in. It was obviously not going to photograph anything that morning. The camera body fared better. Once the camera had bounced lens-first, the RRS L-plate had obviously protected it from too much damage. But it didn't turn on straight away, although it did start working later that day and passed inspection at a later service.
Wanting to put off the depressing situation in front of me, I turned to the scene unfolding in front of me. But first I put the broken camera on a seat of the car, and dug out the EOS 350D and 28-135mm IS lens from the bag. Not my favourite lens at the time, but serviceable. And the 350D at least had the same number of pixels as the 30D. Grabbed the backup camera and tripod, locked the car, and set to work photographing. The morning wasn't a write-off, nor was the rest of the trip. The 17-40mm lens was repaired once I got home, and is still one of my favourite lenses.

I'd made a basic mistake that caused the accident, but I had a backup camera and lens on-hand, and the camera insurance avoided having to pay for a replacement lens. The accident happened almost 3000 km from home, but my policy covered accidental breakages anywhere (although when you read the fine print it specifically excluded North America - go figure).

Check the neck strap!

Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania

While going through a border crossing into Tanzania from Kenya, we had to leave our bus and bags for a while. I took a camera and lens (another 30D body) with me, putting the neck-strap over my shoulder. Unfortunately I made another stupid mistake when putting my hand in my pocket to check my passport: I put my hand inside the loop of the strap, meaning when the strap slipped off my shoulder there was nothing to stop the camera dropping to the pavement from hip-height and resulting in the sound of something breaking and scattering across the road under a nearby car! Not what you want to happen at the beginning of a 2-week photo safari! But it did.

The ground had hit the edge of the body next to the battery door, causing the door to pop open and then break: the metal spring from inside the door was what bounced across the road. I quickly gathered up the parts and dealt with the local passport situation. The lens was fine (although the outside of the lens hood was scratched). The camera still worked, but only if I held the battery door in place (there's a microswitch that turns the camera off when the door's open). Once back on the bus I quickly rigged up a solution: the roll of black electrical tape from my camera bag fixed it. I just had to un-tape the door when changing the battery (which luckily was only once or twice a day with that camera). Despite the scary start to the trip, the camera performed admirably during the rest of the trip. Most of the time it had a 100-400mm lens mounted to it (not during the accident though) and the backup 350D camera got a lot of use as a second body with the 17-40mm lens attached.

When I returned home, a replacement battery door was only around $20 or so!
But insurance, camera repairers, etc weren't going to be much use to me in the African outback. The important tools out there are: being careful (oops), having spare equipment (check) and having enough nouse to jury-rig a solution (check). Whew!

Most of us will have at least one accident with our gear. If you can, treat them as learning experiences (for example, I know someone who will now be more careful with neck straps on ferris wheels!). I do take care of my cameras, and accidents are few and far between.

Unfortunately the same can't be said for my sunglasses (luckily not prescription)! They've fallen off my head when bending over the side of a boat to fix a mooring rope (and last seen sinking into the depths), been left on a car roof, sat on, etc. The last pair got badly scratched on a basalt ahu on Easter Island.
Continue reading "Camera Insurance"...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Welcome to the new blog!

After (too much) work, welcome to the unveiling of our new website. The old site had run for years glued together by some hand-crafted Perl scripts generating old-school HTML, and we've finally moved into the new millenium with a proper blog! This has streamlined the publishing process, and should make it easier for you to provide feedback on articles (you may have to sign up for a free Google ID if you don't already have one). You'll notice the Blogger logo in the top corner of the pages, but hopefully that won't get in your way.
The old site ( now redirects to, so any bookmarks should continue to function.

The site banner is currently a recent image of mine, and may change from time to time.

I've brought over a few of the older articles that were still vaguely relevant (some of the cruft did get dropped on the floor). If we're missing something please let us know. I have a string of posts with new material lined up (some of which will update those older articles) and will be attempting to maintain the buffer of these so you'll see much more regular posting than in the past!

Come back and check soon. If you have RSS client software, please use the RSS feeds that Blogger provides to make this automatic.

Continue reading "Welcome to the new blog!"...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Materials from 2009 Luminous-Landscape Antarctic workshop

The ship

In January 2009 Michael Reichmann led a third expedition to Antarctica.
Jane and myself were on this trip (which we combined with travel to Peninsula Valdes in Argentina and to Easter Island).
This post is collating links to work that's resulted from the expedition. It will be updated as new work comes to light. If you wish to link directly to it, may be a useful shortcut.
Other posts on this site link to materials from the 2005 and 2007 Luminous-Landscape Antarctic expeditions.

The Luminous-Landscape Video Journal Volume 18 has a segment from this trip.
Continue reading "Materials from 2009 Luminous-Landscape Antarctic workshop"...