Tony Beck - Photography, Nature and Birding Tours, Local Birding Excursions

Archive for April, 2011

Polar Photography – Dealing With The Challenges

Adelie Penguins - black & white subjects are a challenge for the camera meter

Adelie Penguins - black & white subjects are a challenge for the camera meter

As adventurers, we tend to seek unusual travel destinations. We need to satisfy an insatiable appetite for discovering remote parts of the world. Inevitably, these isolated destinations come with extreme conditions – rugged landscape, unpredictable wildlife, inhospitable environments and harsh weather. Yet the wilderness calls us. And, we answer.
Fortunately, thanks to advances in digital photography, it’s never been easier to document such adventures. Even tiny cameras can produce high-quality images with just the push of a button.
But, extreme conditions come with challenges. Polar regions in particular will test the limits of any modern electronic gadget. Beware of ice, snow, wind, salt, moisture and extreme light.

Here are a few simple recommendations:

1) Cold temperatures eat battery power. Battery life is much shorter in the cold. Keep spare batteries handy – ALWAYS! If possible, keep them warm in a pocket close to your body. When you replace batteries, return the used ones to your warm pocket. There may still be some juice there.

2) Keep things dry / protect your equipment. I use a large, padded, weather-resistant backpack with an additional rain-cover that folds out from the lining. I sometimes also use a solid waterproof Pelican Case. There’s a lot of protective gear available on the market. Search for the right products that match your needs and equipment. At the very least, carry a large plastic garbage bag or heavy-duty zip-lock bag. It will keep your equipment dry for short periods, or during less severe situations.

3) Watch your exposure, especially with black or white subjects – both ends of the visible colour spectrum. In Polar Regions, you can expect a lot of highly reflective snow cover. Camera meters are calibrated to read mid-range colours, and have trouble dealing with extremes like snow scenes. Black & White subjects, like an Adelie Penguin or Thick-billed Murre, can pose severe exposure challenges. I deal with exposure issues later, while viewing my images on a computer. I fix imperfections with a photo editor like Photoshop, Elements or Nikon Capture. However, learning to use the editors takes time. Fortunately with digital cameras, we have the advantage of reviewing the image immediately after exposure. Look at your results right away, and compensate your exposure with your camera’s exposure controls. Try using several different exposure settings (bracketing), take lots of pictures, and review your results as you go. At least one of the images is bound to work. Many new digital cameras have auto-braketing functions.

4) Bring two of everything. You never know when something will fail, break, or even disappear. Although doubling your camera inventory isn’t always practical, if you have the capacity, it might save you in time of need. I always travel with two cameras, and several lenses. But, even a little compact camera will work as a spare. It may not replace your DSLR. But, it’s better than nothing if your good camera expires.

5) Memorize your owner’s manual. At least, bring your manual with you when you travel. Most digital cameras have a myriad of functions and features. Your manual will familiarize you with them. It should also inform you how to deal with extremes such as snow and cold.

6) Take lots of pictures. Bring plenty of memory cards. And, don’t ever hesitate to press the shutter release. You can always delete the bad pics if necessary.

You’re about to travel on the trip of a lifetime, a place where few have dared to venture. Be prepared, and you’ll capture all the beauty, drama and joy to share later with the world.

Polar Bear - another tricky exposure challenge

Polar Bear - another tricky exposure challenge

The immaculate beauty of our vast polar regions are waiting to be discovered

The immaculate beauty of our vast polar regions are waiting to be discovered

Humpback Whales from the Zodiac - be prepared to capture the excitement

Humpback Whales from the Zodiac - be prepared to capture the excitement

Nikon’s EDG binoculars and D3s Camera – durable, reliable and top-quality performance

Tony with his Nikon EDG 10 X 42 binoculars

Tony with his Nikon EDG 10 X 42 binoculars

Yup… It’s been a hectic winter.
From the dusty deserts and scorching coast of Kenya to the icy grip of Canada and Antarctica in January, topped off with the salt-spray of the turbulent Drake Passage, in just a few months, I’ve dragged my new Nikon gear through countless extremes. At home in Ottawa, Ontario, I cram my equipment into the tiny trunk of my compact car, drive down bumpy back-roads full of pot holes, then stop abruptly at the first sign of wildlife. I often rush to the trunk, frantically pull my equipment out as something like an Osprey flies overhead. Add to this the stress of going through endless security checks at airports, getting squeezed into tight overhead compartments, and occasionally doubling as a pillow between connecting flights. Let’s face it, I’m hard on my camera and optical gear.
In order to capture the images I want, I need to work fast and respond quickly to the opportunities as they present themselves. To identify wildlife at a distance, or under low light, I need precision optics that give me comfort and optimum clarity under the worst of conditions. Although I’m hard on my gear, I demand equipment that’s high performance, and reliable, regardless of what the planet throws at me.
I’m delighted to report that the latest equipment I have from Nikon lives up to their reputation of being rugged under the extremes I’ve put them through. Back home in the comfort and safety of Canada’s spring, my Nikon equipment is performing flawlessly.
My Nikon EDG 10 X 42 binoculars are the best optics I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning. And, the Nikon D3s is simply the best camera I’ve ever worked with. Best of all, they don’t complain when I push them to the limits.
Life is good.

Grevy's Zebras - horsing around in the scrubland dust

Grevy's Zebras - horsing around in the scrubland dust

Gentoo Penguins - marching along the icy shores of Antarctica

Gentoo Penguins - marching along the icy shores of Antarctica

American Tree Sparrow - what Nikon equipment can do after months of extreme use.

American Tree Sparrow - what Nikon equipment can do after months of extreme use.

Seabirds of the Drake Passage

adult Black-browed Albatross riding the wind over the Drake Passage

adult Black-browed Albatross riding the wind over the Drake Passage

It’s a three-day journey sailing across the Drake Passage from Tierra del Fuego to the Antarctic Peninsula. These legendary waters have earned the reputation of being the roughest in the world. Southern currents squeezed between two continents cause even the largest of vessels to rock and roll. Crew and passengers reluctantly prepare for the long haul. They “drake-proof” their cabin, securing all loose items to prevent them from being tossed around from the relentless swells.
I on the other hand, see great opportunity – a chance to study graceful seabirds effortlessly riding the wind. The strategy is simple – find a dry place on the bow or the stern and wait. Eventually, they come. At first they appear as small specs on the horizon. Tiny shapes with long slender wings, growing larger as they approach. Closer and closer, like an airliner coming in for a landing. Yet, they twist and turn in the wind, their eyes always level with the horizon, never beating a wing, their tails steering them towards you. The perfect moment comes when they glide overhead, occasionally close enough to touch. As suddenly as they appear, they’re gone. With luck, they return out of the mist for a few more passes. Many of these long-winged birds are large – Giant Petrel, Black-browed Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross, Royal Albatross, and the bird with the world’s longest wingspan (4 metres) – The Wandering Albatross. Perfectly adapted to a life over open ocean, they endlessly search the surface for small invertebrates.

adult Wandering Albatross

adult Wandering Albatross

Rarely are they alone. I’m equally as excited when their smaller cousins show up. Petrels, shearwaters, prions and skuas can come out of nowhere, occasionally in large numbers. One of my favourites is the Pintado Petrel, an energetic seabird with an odd plumage that looks like a chunky bowl-full of Oreo Cookie ice cream. At first there is only one, low on the water, repeatedly circling the ship. It’s then joined by another, then several more until the flock grows to about forty or more. They follow us for hours, dipping, diving and dancing in an aerial ballet, almost always together as a unified group.

Pintado Petrels (Cape Petrels)

Pintado Petrels (Cape Petrels)

Antarctic Waters can be unforgiving. But, in the bleak emptiness of the endless ocean, seabirds sparkle like gems in the wind.

adult Black-browed Albatross

adult Black-browed Albatross