Antartica Photography 2005

January 13, 2009 ·

Michael Reichmann

Convoluted Iceberg, Antarctica. December, 2005

Canon 5D with 24-105mm f/4L IS lens @ ISO 200

In the days following my return from Antarctica., as I worked on my files, I thought about the text that I would write to accompany the images on the web site. I regretted that I was not a poet, because none of the prose that my mind conjured up as I loaded files, processed, cropped and printed images, was able to express how profoundly this trip to – what some have called theCrystal Desert– had affected me.

I have shot in the Canadian Arctic, Iceland, the Sierra, and the Rockies in winter, but these were totally dissimilar experiences to Antarctica. There is a quality to the air and the light that makes Antarctica like no other place on earth. No one is unaffected by the difference. It is that profound.

In this brief essay I will display some of my photographs from the 10 days that we spent near and on the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. I will also attempt to convey some of the wonder of doing photography in this strange land.

The photographs on this page are also found, together with all others taken on this trip and published thus far in the
Antarctic Archive
where brief descriptions of each particular situation as well as any additional shooting information is also provided.


Another Planet

Supply Ship. Antarctica. December, 2005

Canon 1Ds MKII with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISO 200

When I returned from Antarctica the first question naturally asked by friends and family was –What was it like?My automatic response was –Like another planet!

Antarctica is the only major land mass on earth where human beings did not evolve and prosper. From the Arctic tundra to the jungles and deserts of Africa, human beings have adapted and lived in every climate and geography that this planet has to offer. But not Antarctica.

Up until the greatAge of Explorationin modern times, no human being had ever set foot on the Antarctic. No one could. Without modern technology survival in this cruel environment is impossible. The brief summers along the coast are almost balmy, with daytime temperatures around and frequently even above freezing. But for the other 9 months of the year, and continuously when away from the encircling Antarctic Ocean, nothing can survive. Temperatures of -50 degrees (at these temperatures the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit becomes essentially meaningless), in combination with winds that can reach over 125 MPH, spell a quick death to anyone without high-tech protection.

For this reason a trip to Antarctica is like a visit to another planet. Ones ship, ones parka, and all the other accoutrements needed to protect our fragile bodies, take on a special significance. The sight of another vessel, a not-too-common occurrence, reminds us of our isolation and fragility.



Deception. Antarctica. December, 2005

Canon 1Ds MKII with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISO 100

It needs to be understood that tourism to Antarctica is a relatively new phenomena, having developed over just the past 20 years. Today, some 20,000 tourists a year visit the sub-Antarctic islands and the continent. This compares to the roughly 3,000 scientists that visit each year.

Antarctica is the only place on earth that does not belong to any one country. Though many have laid claim, none are enforced, and the continent has been declared a weapons and resource exploitation free zone; a National Park, if you will, for all humanity to treasure.

The 20 odd expedition companies that bring tourists to Antarctica have formed an association with very strict rules, designed to ensure that human impact on the environment is kept to an absolute minimum. It also needs to be recognized that the places that tourists visit are also very narrowly delineated. Probably no more than one tenth of 1% of the continent and surrounding islands. But that’s enough.

Most tourist expeditions make two or three landings a day, by Zodiac. Ones ship is ones hotel though, and so when the last person has left the land or ice for the day there’s nothing left except footprints, and even these disappear swiftly on the blowing snow. Boots are washed in an antiseptic bath both before and after boarding the Zodiacs, and one is required to even hold ones bladder during the 2-3 hours ashore that each landing offers.

Like visiting another planet.


The Drake Passage

Waves and Mountains. Antarctica. December, 2005

Canon 5D with 24-105mm f/4L IS lens @ ISO 100

The ordeal of having to cross the Drake Passage, isa riite of passage, and it in many ways serves to keep tourism to a certain level, as does the high cost of such trips.

Circling the entire globe, this stretch of ocean is the roughest in the world. Every day huge cyclonic storms take turns circling the globe, as there is no land to disrupt their course.

I was told before departure from Ushuaia, the most southerly town in the world at the very tip of Argentina in Terra del Fuego, that a third of the time the crossing is easy, a third of the time it’s rough, and the final third can make one both fear death and alternately wish for it.

Both our crossings of the Drake, to and from the continent, were rated by the expedition staff as 2 on a scale of 1-5. In any event, in both instances I spent about 12 hours in my bunk, loaded with anti-nausia medicine, as the ship rolled in swells that sent us from +30 degrees to -30 degrees. But once our ship reached calmer Antarctic waters the discomfort quickly passes, not to return until the voyage home, if at all. About half our ship’s passengers fared similarly, while for the rest good drugs and a hardier constitution let them eat meals, visit the ship’s bridge to watch the roiling sea, and to chat in the ship’s bar during the 36 hour crossings.



Dark Berg. Antarctica. December, 2005

Canon 1Ds MKII with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISO 100

Nothing prepares you for the colours of Antarctica. I had gone there fully expecting to work primarily in B&W. Of course since I was shooting digital I would be shooting in colour, but as is so often the case when I shoot in snow, I find myself looking for contrasts and tonal patterns rather than colours. But not in Antarctica. The shades of blue and cyan seen in icebergs beggar the imagination. The air is so clear that the low summer sun creates tonalities in the sky and reflections in the water that demand to be rendered in colour.

But the problem is that few people will believe the colours, even when seeing them themselves. As photographers our group frequently found ourselves kidding each other about how this continent wasout of gamut. A running joke among us was that we would ask Steve Johnson to issues certificates of authenticity for the colours that we were seeing and shooting.

This little bit of "in" humour needs some explanation. Steve, one of the pioneers of digital imaging, and an instructor on this trip, is from the school that believes that for the most part it is the photographer’s responsibility to render the world as "accurately" as possible. At least that’s what he usually attempts with his own work, especially that done with his Betterlight scanning back. Obtaining a "certificate from Steve" therefore became the mantra for those that kept shaking their heads at the incredible colour we found at almost every turn.

I take a less orthodox approach to colour rendition. Just as I used to choose a film such asAstiawhen I wanted subdued colour,Proviawhen I wanted relatively neutral colour, andVelvia(only occasionally) when I wanted "pop" colour, I have no hesitation in selecting the white balance and saturation level that I feel works best to convey the impression that I want in my work. Sometimes, I believe that therightwhite balance and saturation can bewrongfor a particular image.

Cyan Iceberg – Antarctica. December, 2005

Canon 1Ds MKII with 300mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 100

For example, inCyan Icebergabove the originalas shotimage saturation and balance of this remarkable iceberg didn’t work. The overall palette was simply too strong. Some experimentation lead me to desaturate the image by about 90%, except for the cyan and yellow layers, which were left unchanged. In this way I drew attention to the bizarre colour within the arch, and the warmth of the clouds of the high latitude sky, while not altering what I saw as the essential meaning of the image. Indeed I feel that I made it more accessible.

Some would argue that this is inappropriate. So be it. It produced an image that pleases me more than a literal interpretation, and hopefully it will others as well.


The Light

Sky Glow. Antarctica. December, 2005

Canon 1Ds MKII with 300mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 200

It’s almost impossible to describe the quality of the Antarctic light without sounding hyperbolic. To appreciate why it has an almost preternatural quality you need to understand that it contains no dust, no pollen and no moisture. The consequent transparency of the air removes all distance clues. You can be standing on the deck of a ship looking out over the ocean, and be unable to differentiate between an iceberg the size of a building that’s a mile away, or the top of a mountain 30 miles distant. There are no visual clues such as haze to help you scale what is being seen. When combined with the fact that ever in mid-summer, because of the high latitude, the sun is never very high in the sky, and there is therefore a warmth to the light, even at mid-day. Together with the almost unreal blues and cyans of the ice and snow, it produces a strong sense of unreality in most people, along with a sense of euphoria in photographers.


What Was in the Bag

Ripples after Sunset. Antarctica. December, 2005

Canon 5D with 24-105mm f/4L IS @ ISO 640

I supplied all 46 trip members, including instructors, withLowepro Dryzone 200backpack camera bags. We ended up only having one really wet Zodiac landing, and so while they weren’t strictly necessary, they proved to be a worthwhile precaution. (They also helped everyone recognize each other when we met at the Buenos Aires airport for our flight south to Ushuaia).

My bag contained a Canon 1Ds MKII, a 5D, and four lenses – a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS, 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, 24-105mm f/4L IS, 50mm f/1.4, 15mm f/4 and 1.4X as well as 2X extenders. A flash unit, and five 2GB Sandisk Extreeme III CF cards were included. My briefcase contained a 12" Powerbook, Epson P2000, and 3 additional mini-hard drives, for a total of about 250GB of storage. I ended up shooting about 110GB, and so I was able to do a redundant backup in the field of all of my files.

The 1Ds MKII and the 5D were used about equally. While the MII produces slightly larger files, the 5D is better at high ISO. I typically had either the 70-200mm or the 300mm on the MKII, and the 24-105mm lived on the 5D. I used the 1.4X extender with the 300mm from time to time for wildlife, but neither of the other lenses were used.

The weather tuned out not to be an issue. It rarely was more than a few degrees below freezing and we only had one day with high winds and blowing snow. Among the 46 photographers there were no equipment failures, other than two corrupt CF cards, which curiously happened on the same day.

I shot approximately 100GB of files, some 2,000 frames with the 5D and about 4,000 with the 1Ds MKII. Most of the other members of the expedition shot a similar amount.

This produced approximately 50 "selects"; what I would consider portfolio grade images, of which about a dozen are exhibition worthy. This is just under 1%, about par for me for a shoot like this.



Huddle. Antarctica. December, 2005

Canon 1Ds MKII with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISO 100

Birds, penguins, sea lions and whales abound in and along the coastal waters. Though humans are interlopers in this land of sea and ice, a few species have adapted and call Antarctica home.

The most appealing of these are the penguins. Like everyone else I shot my fair share of penguin photographs. It’s hard not to. But my approach to wildlife photography isn’t to do portraits. Rather, what I try and accomplish is to capture them in the context of their environment.Huddle, seen above, is one such attempt., whilePenguin Ridgebelow is another. Environmental portraits, if you will.

Penguin Ridge, Antarctica. December 2005

Canon 1Ds MKII with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISO 100


These are just a handful of my successful images from this expedition to Antarctica. I could prattle on about the wonders of thisother planet, but better writers than I have had much to say about it. One book that I recommend isThe Crystal Desertby David G. Campbell. A must-read for anyone contemplating a trip to Antarctica, or simply the armchair traveler.

December, 2005

The photographs on this page are also found, together with all others taken on this trip, in theAntarctic Archive,
where brief descriptions of each particular situation as well as any additional shooting information is also provided.



I have just announced, together with the publication of this article on December 21, 2005, my next Antarctic photographic expedition. It will take place in February, 2007 and you can read more about it and place yourself on the preliminary waitlist on the page titledAntarctic Quest 2007.


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Michael Reichmann is the founder of the Luminous Landscape. Michael passed away in May 2016. Since its inception in 1999 LuLa has become the world's largest site devoted to the art, craft, and technology of photography. Each month more than one million people from every country on the globe visit LuLa.

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