Antarctica: A Voyage to the Bottom of the Earth

By Mark Dubovoy Back to

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A writer and critic for the New York Times once told me that every landscape picture worth taking had already been taken. He also claimed that landscape photographers continued in a futile quest to get farther and farther away, to more difficult and inaccessible places, only to return with images that looked basically the same as prior work. I could not disagree more with both statements. I personally feel that any notion that all landscape images worth capturing have already been captured is absolutely preposterous.

I am also a strong believer that in spite of the gross overpopulation and pollution of our planet, there are still spectacular areas that remain in a pristine state with unparalleled beauty that needs to be protected and documented. Furthermore, these areas still contain precious resources and invaluable scientific evidence, materials, plants and animal life that are precious and must be saved for posterity. In view of the above, I jumped at the opportunity to visit Antarctica with a group of experienced photographers.

THE VOYAGE

The trip took place in January, basically peak summer in Antarctica. It never gets dark that time of year; 24 hours of daylight is the rule. There is also no local time, as all the time zones intersect at the South Pole. This necessitates “picking a time zone” so that at least the members of the group have their watches synchronized. We picked our time zone to be halfway between GMT and New York time.

The lack of darkness plays havoc with your biological clock. I soon found out that I could not sleep for what most of us consider normal (6-8 hours) periods of time. We all functioned on short 1-2 hour naps. After I returned to the United States, I found that the darkness of night caused me to get depressed, and it took me over three weeks before I was finally able to sleep six hours. It took me about a month to get used to the darkness of night without getting depressed.

From a practical point of view, the best way to go to Antarctica is by ship. The preferred route is to go to the southern tip of South America, either Chile or Argentina, and sail south from there. There are a number of ships that go to Antarctica, what I would classify as “designer tours” luxury cruise ships. While this may be attractive to some travelers, I do not believe it is a good way to photograph or experience Antarctica.

Fortunately, the trip I joined was organized by photographers for photographers. We chartered an double steel hull ship with no stabilizers, similar to an icebreaker, but with a keel. As such, we had the privilege of exploring places that had been rarely, or never, visited by humans before.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough the concept of flexibility in Antarctica. The weather can change dramatically in a matter of minutes. Temperature drops of 50 or 60 degrees, or going from no wind to 100 MPH winds, can happen in less than 30 minutes. Being nimble and flexible is a necessity in order to stay out of trouble and in order to be able to photograph. It is also worth mentioning that to visit Antarctica you must cross the Drake Passage. This passage is famous for rough waters and extreme wind conditions. Many people consider the Drake Passage to be the roughest waters in the world. Therefore, if you decide to go to Antarctica, make sure that you are well prepared for this.

The advantage of being in an icebreaker is obvious: one can go places where a regular ship might get stuck. The disadvantage, however, is that a double steel hull ship with no stabilizers cannot have lateral stabilizers, as they are too wide. The result is that in rough waters the ship not only moves up and down, but it also rolls. We experienced one crossing through the Drake Passage with 39 hours of winds of around 90 MPH and waves up to 70 feet. Trust me, it is no fun to be strapped to your bunk with three straps, with all the hatches closed, inside a platform that is being violently tossed up and down by huge waves while simultaneously rolling for more than a day and a half.

EQUIPMENT

A number of photographers brought 35mm pro- fessional DSLR’s, mostly Canon and Nikon. Many of them also brought lower model back-up bodies. It was typical to see someone with a Canon 1Ds MKIIIanda5DII,oraNikonD3andaD700. While all the Pro level DSLR’s survived the trip just fine, a very large number of the lower models had catastrophic failures. It quickly became evident that they simply could not tolerate the changes in temperature and humidity.

Personally, I like to shoot with medium format digital. Although I would have liked to bring my Linhof M679 CS view camera on the trip, I knew that it was going to be too slow and cumbersome. I then thought about bringing my ALPA technical camera with my PhaseOne digital back. After having a number of conversations with photographers who had been to Antarctica before, I was convinced that I really needed to have a zoom lens, so in the end I took my medium format DSLR on the trip. Was this the right decision? Well, yes and no. While the DSLR worked just fine, I did not find a terribly pressing need for a zoom lens. I actually believe that the light weight, simplicity and better image quality of the ALPA would have served me better, but I am not complaining. The technical quality of my Antarctica images is certainly outstanding.

I would definitely recommend either a technical camera or a medium format DSLR with a medium format digital back as the ideal camera outfit to shoot landscapes in Antarctica. The image quality is vastly superior to 35mm DSLR’s, and all the medium format equipment that several photographers (myself included) used on the trip worked flawlessly.

SHOOTING CONDITIONS

When I shoot landscapes, my camera is always on a tripod. So, I brought a couple of tripods with me without even thinking. This was a total waste. It took very little time to realize that tripods were no good on this trip. The main reasons relate to the shooting conditions in Antarctica.

First of all, one is forced to shoot many of the best scenes either from the ship or from inside a Zodiac (rubber raft-like boat and landing craft). These are both moving platforms with vibrating engines, so using a tripod is silly. Tripods are also a nuisance and a serious safety hazard when boarding or getting off the Zodiacs.

On land, there are two basic possibilities:

1. In areas that are not totally inhospitable, penguins have found the best landing spots and the safest places to walk. In order to be safe, the rule is to follow the penguin paths. This means that you are also following the penguin guano paths. Tripods are magnets for penguin guano and almost impossible to clean. It is quite disgusting.

2. In inhospitable areas, where there is no wildlife on land, the tripod legs have a habit of sinking and being so unstable that tripods are essentially useless.

My recommendation, as strange as it sounds, is to not bring a tripod to Antarctica if you travel there during the Antarctic Summer. I make this recommendation particularly because the light levels are extremely bright, in fact much brighter than I had imagined, so I was able to shoot hand-held at shutter speeds and lens apertures that were totally comfortable for medium format.

THE EXPERIENCE

All I can say is that all the effort and expense in making this voyage was well worth it and more. I cannot express in simple words the sheer magnitude of the place, let alone the incredible beauty it displays. All senses of scale, time and sensory perceptions are affected in a manner I had never experienced before. The place inspires such awe that we would go out in a Zodiac periodically and turn off all radios, ship and Zodiac engines, generators, etc., just so we could experience the natural silence, the complete absence of smells, the pure air, the crystalline atmosphere and the pitch black ocean water. Occasionally the complete silence was pierced by the sweet sound of the water hitting an iceberg or the rumble of a glacier moving, which would only add impact to a most marvelous experience.

Since I am at a loss for words at this point, I will let the images do the rest of the talking.

Product Resources: Cameras: Hasselblad H2 body with a PhaseOne P45+ back, PhaseOne AF camera with a PhaseOne P65+ digital back.


About the Author

Mark Dubovoy
MDubovoy
Dr. Dubovoy is highly regarded as a technical expert in many aspects of photography and printing technology. He is a regular writer of technical articles for The Luminous Landscape and photo technique magazine and is a lecturer at various workshops. His photographs are included in a number of private collections, as well as the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Monterey Art Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Nanao, Japan. He is a partner and Board Member of The Luminous Landscape, Inc., and holds MS and Ph.D. degrees in Physics from the University of California, Berkeley.