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Stress Testing: gear in Antarctica

next up, “which anorak”

in GAS , Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Time for some gear talk. As I’ve mentioned before, I have an insane amount of stuff with me here, and it’s getting to be a real drag. But here are a few notes about some particular items, which might be of use to other travellers.

ThinkTank Airport Commuter backpack

Before travelling I was getting somewhat paranoid about carry-on baggage, in particular my photo backpack. Although I have taken every backpack I’ve ever owned on flights with no problem, including my current LowePro ProTrekker 400, an excellent hiking pack, I was still concerned about the weight of the bags themselves, and especially Aerolineas Argentinas’ reputation for stinginess. So based on reviews on Roël’s web site, and on the experience of two of my companions on my Svalbard trip a few years back, I bought a ThinkTank Airport Commuter. In terms of carry-on size, it worked fine. It also swallowed an impressive amount of gear, and although the padding is light compared to LowePro standards it proved to be quite adequate. However, it has one huge, huge problem: the rather pointlessly removable waist belt strap managed at some point to remove itself in transit, leaving me with a very uncomfortable pack. Some time later one of the equally detachable tripod straps decided to go solo. This turned a comfortable bag into a nightmare. Otherwise the bag is ok, rugged enough for day hiking and fairly impermeable to penguin guano. It has good laptop and iPad pockets, but nothing like the range of thoughtful accessory pockets that LowePro include. It is remarkably light and well constructed, but the detachable strap issue is a major problem. For this reason I would not personally recommend it, and would be very wary of buying another ThinkTank product. Oh, and either things have changed a lot, or Aerolineas Argentinas has a very unjustified reputation. In my experience they are very tolerant on both cabin and hold baggage allowances, and in general are a great airline.

Sigma DP2 Merrill

One excuse for buying the Sigma was Antarctic landscape photography. Well, it didn’t really work out. In the field, composing on the LCD is not my idea of fun, even though the screen is quite good. The shutter button is much too sensitive for focus and (re)compose work, especially when wearing gloves, and the controls are in general fiddly. Manual focus is basically impossible in anything but the most tranquil conditions. The optical viewfinder works ok, providing you have a rough idea where the focus point is, or you’re shooting far-field only. So far I haven’t really gone through many files, so I can’t say much about image quality, but from quick LCD reviews the colour seems a bit weird. We shall see. But generally I didn’t get much benefit from this camera in Antarctic conditions. Possibly an SD1 would have worked out better - but again with a lot of limitations.

Acratech Swift Clamp

I started using a Black Rapid strap a few months before travelling to Antarctica, and in general I like it, even if the carabinier managed to unlock itself a few times. But the problem with this strap design in general is that it uses the tripod socket. Acratech offers to solve this problem with their quick release Arca Swiss-standard Swift Clamp. And like all Acratech products I’ve ever used, it just works. It makes the Black Rapid strap fully practical, and is 100% reliable. The best addition to my setup for this trip, and highly recommended.

Olympus Zuiko 150mm f/2 lens

Hmm. What to say about this.  I desperately wanted this lens, especially for wildlife. And when the subject calls for it, it is indeed sensational. It even works well with the 2x teleconverter. It does, sometimes, have trouble acquiring focus, even without the teleconverter, although this may be in part due to my inexperience with this type of lens and focus limiters. The SWD autofocus on the 50-200 is faster, although that lens still suffers, sometimes, from hunting or total AF failure in some cases. The results can be quite remarkable, but Lord is it heavy! I frequently bitterly regretted dragging it around Argentina, and I may well sell it. It’s undeniably a fabulous lens, but it isn’t very practical for travelling around with.

Olympus E-5 and E-3

Well, the Olympus E-5 was not bought for this trip, neither was the E-3 which was dragged out of retirement as a backup / second body. But they both deserve an honourable mention for once again putting up with the worse conditions I could subject them too, including very frequent drenching, without skipping a beat. Both worked flawlessy, although it was a revelation to realise just how much better the E-5 is over the E-3 in terms of dynamic range. Also in side by side use, I did find that the slightly different control layout of the E-5 is easier to use in cold conditions. Yes, they’re heavy, yes they’re “only” four-thirds sensors, but in terms of field use they’re the equal of top-end Canons and Nikons is most situations. And a lot cheaper.

 

northbound

live from Ushuaia

in Antarctica , Monday, January 28, 2013

Well, we survived a relatively bumpy ride back across the Drake Passage into Ushuaia. The fact that we survived shows that it was not all that bad. Antarctica was damp. Foggy, low cloud, persistent rain, temperatures well above zero most of the time. The rain was the biggest shock. When I was working as a field scientist 20 years ago, people going south of the South Georgia / South Orkneys “banana belt” were not even issued with wet weather gear. Nowadays you need gore-tex underwear. But otherwise it hasn’t changed much. Not one moment of clear sky in 12 days, and perhaps 2 hours of hazy sun at most, in total. At least we didn’t get sunburnt.  Much more to come, but first, of course, some penguins. Take it away, guys.

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southbound

penguin preview

in Photography , Tuesday, January 15, 2013

In a few hours we will board the Akademik Sergey Vavilov to start a 12 day cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula, hopefully as far south as Marguerite Bay. Back in my day it was full of ice, but I guess it’s warmed up a bit.

In the meantime, here are a few non-Antarctic penguins from the Valdes Peninsula, Punto Tomba, and Tiera del Fuego. It almost seems worth carrying this ridiculous amount of gear around with me, although I’m still fully intending a complete rethink when we get home. Small is beautiful.

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Addiction

photocolicism?

in General Rants , Thursday, January 10, 2013

I’m sitting in the upstairs lounge of a very pleasant hosteria in El Calafate, Argentina (Cauquenes de Nimez, very highly recommended), looking out over Lago Argentina, on a sunny windswept day. The view could easily be exchanged with West Iceland, without anybody noticing, although it might confuse the sheep. Yesterday we visited the world famous Perito Moreno glacier, and while it is very much touristified, it is done in a very tasteful and enjoyable way, with kilometers of walkways along the glacier front, and through the adjacent woods. So far from what I’ve seen of Argentina’s national parks, they are curated to a level on a par with Costa Rica’s, which is to say absolutely world class. Argentina is a fabulous, surprising, immense and welcoming country, and there’s enough to see and experience for a lifetime.

So why is experiencing it not enough? Why do I persist in weighing myself down with crazy amounts of camera gear (even when it’s cut down to fit in a cabin-baggage friendly bag, it’s too much), and with the psychological stress of needing to “get the shot”? Yesterday I was briefy chatting with a fellw traveller who turned out to come from Ticino, about 5km from where we live, who was also described by his travelling partners as being a passionate photographer. Actually I’d noticed him before, as he was one of the few other people I could see carrying a tripod. Anyway, I flippantly remarked that it was more like an addiction than a passion. Later, and after an argument with my own travelling companion where the topic of being obsessed with photograhy again casme up, I thought maybe that this was a clear case of a true word spoken in jest. What, really, is the benefit of taking literally thousands of photograhs, of average quality at best, and more generally mundane to dull, and which nobody will ever see? Surely it is better to get away from this addiction on capturing views and getting back to experecing them. In the past, although I would take memento shots, and perhaps sometimes try something a little more ambitious, when I visited places, I would look for a quality book published by a local, where the photogaphy woukd far exceed what I can accomplish. Now, I have so much f**king gear that I can’t even fit a book into my 30kg baggage allowance. This has all gone very wrong. I think as soon as I get back most of my gear is going on eBay, and perhaps going on an extended, if not permanent, break from “serious” photography. After all, it’s really just a thinly veiled excuse for shopping.

 

Seymour Laxon

a cross post

in General Rants , Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Because not so many people read my non-photography blog, The Evenings Out Here (so, less than 2, that would be), I’ve decided to post a link here to the hardest bit of writing I’ve ever had to do, remembering my good friend Seymour Laxon, who tragically died as a result of an accident on New Year’s Day.

And perhaps to point out one other thing about Seymour that few people (any?) have commented on: he was a damned good photographer too.

I’m off for a beer now Seymour - cheer.