photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography


move on, nothing to see here

in Antarctica , Sunday, February 24, 2013

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was inspired by reading Stuart Klipper’s “The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole“ to attempt to capture some feeling of Antarctica away from the more usual high drama of high contrast, mirrored, dramatic landscapes. I hope this doesn’t descend into plagiarism - after all it’s hardly the first time I’ve tried this, or something like it - but I can’t deny that I was compelled to get the hell out of the library, and work with this soft, dull light while I still had the opportunity.  Actually, there would be all too much opportunity in the days ahead!

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Xpan antarctic02 6

Both photos taken with the Hasselblad XPan, 90mm lens, and Kodak Ektachrome E100G


discovering Stuart Klipper

panoramic heaven

in Photography , Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An unavoidable part of Antarctic Peninsula cruises is crossing the Drake Passage. Apart from the high probability of gut-churning seas, it takes at least 2 full days, more if you’re headed further South. Fortunately one of the compensations onboard OneOcean’s Akademik Vavilov is a well stocked polar library, which included a number of photo books. Most of these books were either historical (Frank Hurley, etc) or recent monographs by well-known photographers. The latter tend to follow the fine art, “National Geographic” school - beautifully crafted representations of the natural beauty of the polar regions, in the style of the particular photographer. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, of course, it’s what pretty much all photographers onboard aspired to, however unrealistically, me included. And OneOcean make sure to have not only a excellent staff photographer on-board, but often as well a professional, known photographer as “artist in residence”, for example Daisy Gilardini, or in our case, Ira Meyer. But the book that grabbed my attention was somewhat different. First of all it stood out by having a stark, subdued cover photo. And second, much to my delight, it appeared to, and indeed did, contain exclsively panoramic photography. I had stumbled across “The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole“, by Stuart Klipper, and it turned out to be quite a discovery.

The photography featured in the book came out of a number of visits to the Antarctic as part of the US National Science Foundation’s artist and writers programme. This has given Stuart Klipper extensive and near-exclusive access to areas of the continent well off the tourist trail, and from these he has built up a fantastic body of work. This work is generally more aligned with the “extraordinary in the ordinary” ethos pioneered by Stephen Shore, but with the twist that there is little ordinary in this particular subject matter. It presents a much more reflective and impressionistic view than we usually see. His photographs often dictate no obvious focal point. The subject is the whole frame, and often at first glance it could seem void of interest. There are few “wow” moments. But give it a little time and space, and the otherworldliness of the scene starts to take hold. Far more than another shot of an impossibly blue iceberg against a dramatic sky, Klipper’s vast expanses of ice under soft, subdued light give you a true picture of Antarctica. And it doesn’t hurt that the majority of his work is made using the unattainable, unrealistic camera of my dreams, the Linhof Technorama 617. Which in a short documentary clip, he’s seen using handheld, for heaven’s sake!

Finding further information about Stuart Klipper is not totally straightforward. He has a website, but to say it is inscrutable is putting it mildly. When you do manage to find anything written about or by him, he seems to come across as an erudite, engaging, committed, entertaining and slightly insane character. He’s certainly a million miles away from the standard pro landscape photographer type. He offers no workshops, no gear reviews, he doesn’t sell his work, at least not directly. He doesn’t even sell his book. In fact he doesn’t even mention it on his website. He does have a Facebook page, but that has only photos on it. Which, actually, is more than enough. His non-polar work is equally fascinating, and again mainly 617 panoramic. All in all he seems to pretty much a denizen of the “art” end of the photography world (actually I’ve discovered that he is an associate professor of art at the University of Colorado).

Although it’s a bit glib to say so, I feel just a little bit validated by Stuart Klipper’s work. Although I enjoy “normal” photogaphy and try to do a good job of it, both myself and others have noticed that panoramic format work is where my heart really lies. And I have a lot of shots in my archive which could be taken for attempts at copying Stuart Klipper.

So, as soon as I’d got a little immersed in “The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole” for the first time, I couldn’t resist going to grab my XPan, and spending some time outside in the southern reaches of the Drake Passage shooting a whole roll of essentially nothing, with a few chunks of ice floating in it. Totally undistracted by the later, unavoidable lures of penguins, whales, leopard seals and big blue icebergs against dramatic skies (and indeed anybody else on deck), I tried to let the approaching Antarctic speak to me.


Coda - actually, doing a touch more Googling turns up quite a lot of references to Stuart Klipper, even on one of my favourite websites, The Online Photographer.  I obviously haven’t been paying attention. It’s also gratifying to discover that pretty much everything I’ve read about him is more or less aligned with my own reactions.

Oh, and two great quotes from this interview:

Film or digital, why ?
I’m not a Luddite. Film is what
the Linhof uses.

When asked why he prefers the ‘wide-field’ format he simply says ‘because it’s wider’.


(what) kind of blue ?

Kodak or common sense ?

in Photography , Wednesday, February 13, 2013

This is something I’ve been dithering about since the dawn of time: the camera, and film in particular, does not see always light the way that we do, or rather the way that our brain interprets it.  With normal open air daytime light, this isn’t usually so obvious, but in shaded light, in morning and evening, and of course in mixed and artificial light, it’s a completely different story. The question is, should it be corrected ? There isn’t a “correct” answer to this - it is down to circumstance, taste, intent, perception and even ability. For mixed artificial and natural light it’s a real dilemma, but since I don’t really do that sort of thing, not for me.  But it strikes in landscape a lot too. Take this shot:

Xpan breggia051212 006

This is pretty much the scene as-is on film. The shadow areas show a strong blue tint, because the light is mainly coming from reflected a cloudless blue sky. In the background, there’s an area lit by the sun, and that looks “normal”. However, if you were actually there, your brain, knowing what colour the rocks and water are “supposed” to be, would tell you it looks roughly like this:

Xpan breggia051212 006 pip

So, which one to go with ? In the past I’ve tended more to go with the re-balanced version, but that can look pretty artificial if you’re not very careful, especially in the shadows. One photographer I have considerable time for, Bruce Percy, does not appear to correct his transparencies at all - and sometimes to me this seems to go too far.

I’ve just added three XPan shots from the nearby Gole della Breggia (including the one above) to my Recent Work gallery. In this case I’ve decided to leave the colour as it came off film, or rather as the scanner interpreted it, which is more or less the same thing.

But I’m really not sure…


Sigma in Antarctica

good in parts

in Antarctica , Tuesday, February 05, 2013

As I confessed a little while back, I failed to resist the temptation to buy yet another camera. But the Sigma DP2 Merrill seemed irresistible, especially given that its cantankerous and awkward nature dovetails so closely with mine. I managed to convince myself that, potentially, it could be a fantastic tool to use in Antarctica. So, here are some thoughts on how it worked out.

First of all, it would have been a lot easier if some low-life scumbag had not stolen my shoulder bag in Buenos Aires, which at the time contained my 3 spare batteries for the Sigma, and its lens cap. And a few other things, but of no value whatsoever to the aforementioned scumbag (note, this is just part of life in Buenos Aires. Thievery is rampant. But 99.99% of the people are great).

This setback led to me using the Sigma a lot less, since one battery gives, at best, 70 shots. Had I used it more, I might have got more familiar with it, which might have altered my experience with in in Antarctica. But I’m not sure of that.

My DP2M is equipped with an optical viewfinder, lens hood and JM combo grip. All three were very useful.

The DP2M is actually quite well designed. The menu system is clear and well laid out, and the various buttons are fairly obvious. In calm conditions, with plenty of time to think, it’s fine. However, in a Zodiac, in snow, wind and rain, it is a bit of a handful. The main problem lies with focussing and composing, which is a bit crucial, really. To focus, you need to use the rear screen, and unfortunately, in most conditions I find it quite hard to do this without reading glasses. I’m not getting any younger. You can of course get a focus confirm light close enough to see when looking through the optical viewfinder, but that doesn’t tell you what you’re focussing on. One way to work was to take a quick glance at the screen first to see where the chosen focus was looking, roughly, then compose through the viewfinder. This worked ok sometimes, obviously better for distant subjects. Another method is to use manual focus, but that requires glasses to work well. Or to use autofocus on a blurry object on the screen, matching this up with what I could actually see in front of me. All in all it’s a miracle that anything was in focus.

Another associated problem involves the shutter button. It is far to sensitive, especially for the focus and recompose, or focus-on-point-that-penguin-is-heading-for method. The difference between a half press and a full press is marginal, and the lightest pressure will trigger the shutter. This is even trickier when wearing gloves.

Finally, one has to pay careful attention when moving the focus point around in case by mistake you’re altering the exposure compensation. Or vice-versa. Oh, and the focus mode button can trip you up to, especially if you accidentally leave it in “limiter” mode, and then try to work out why you can’t focus on anything close.

All of these issues don’t really arise on a pleasant sunny day when you have all the time in the world, but photography from a moving platform in cold, damp and windy conditions is another matter altogether.

So what about the results ? Well, one thing I might have discovered if I’d used it more is that the DP2M underexposes drastically in snowy conditions, by around and sometimes over 2 stops. The histogram on the back of the camera is near-useless, so it isn’t until getting into post-processing that this becomes really noticeable. And I didn’t have much time to dive into Sigma Photo Pro onboard ship. Speaking of post-processing, I was pleased to find that Iridient Developer 2.0 was released while I was away, and it supports the Sigma Merrill files. However, having run a whole series through it, I discovered it has some serious issues dealing with less than perfectly exposed files.  Most of my Antarctic shots feature grey skies, and in the Iridient interpretations of these there is often drastic variation of colour balance across the width, with nasty green tinging on both edges. This was … disappointing. However, Sigma Photo Pro actually works some magic which removes this effect pretty much altogether.  Iridient is much easier to use, and more sophisticated, and I love its split toning sliders, but for now with these images the only solution is SPP + Photoshop.

In conclusion, I’m tempted to say that it really wasn’t a very successful experiment. However, there was a degree of operator inexperience involved, and the totally abysmal weather didn’t help either. Probably I wasn’t committed enough either, as I had two other cameras with me! Half of me feels like strongly advising against using this camera in such conditions, but the other half feels that there was a lot of lost opportunity.

Here’s a few initial stabs at processed photos. Maybe it wasn’t a complete disaster…

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Return to Damoy

the ghost of Basil Doumer

in Antarctica , Sunday, February 03, 2013

On January 21st, 2013, I returned to Damoy hut, on Doumer Island, having left on January 2nd, 1988. I first arrived there on December 5th, 1987, with about 20 British Antarctic Survey colleagues, expecting to be there a few days, before being flown further south to Rothera. As it turned out, things didn’t work out quite as planned, resulting in myself, Clem Collins and Alan Osbourne not only being the 2nd ever party to spend Christmas at Damoy, but smashing all records by being the first to spend New Year there. So it figures quite strongly in my memories of Antarctica.

Damoy hut 1987

Damoy Hut, 1987

So, a few weeks ago, thanks to Graham Charles, the OneOcean expedition leader on the Akademik Vavilov, I was dropped off, together with Luchiana, at Damoy point, and we trekked up and over the point to the hut, about 1km away. As far as I remember there was considerably more snow back in 1988… The hut itself has for some reason been repainted a sort of turquoise colour, rather than the pink hue it used to have. And the penguin weather vane has gone.

Damoy door

Welcome home. We’ve been expecting you

Inside the hut very little had changed. On opening the door it felt just like I’d never been away. Apart from a few notices on the wall placed by the British Antarctic Heritage Trust, pretty much everything was exactly as it was. Even the smell was the same. Inside the bunk room, the only thing missing apart from my sleeping bag was the radio. Three pairs of the original snowshoes, without which it was very difficult to get around outside, are still there. Actually it was only marginally easier getting around with them on: snowshoe design has improved somewhat over the years.

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Proper snowshoes - they make you fall flat on your face every 3 steps

One thing had changed, which I knew about, but had forgotten - the group photo we took on Christmas Day 1987 was on the wall.

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Christmas 1987

Digging out my notes on my enforced holiday at Damoy confirms that although it is a beautiful spot, I was increasingly frustrated, and bored, by being stuck there. It would probably be something like paradise now, with a generator and a digital camera, but back then I wasn’t really that in to photography, and I was supposed to be a further 15 degrees south. And we were running very low on paraffin, meaning that in the last couple of weeks we could not use the heater. And Alan, Clem and myself were not the most compatible trio you could pick. The weather was usually foul, and when it wasn’t, it was either foul at Rothera, or the aircraft were busy somewhere else. With the skiway snow warming up and deteriorating, It looked increasingly like we were going to have to be evacuated by ship. Finally, we were rescued by a Twin Otter piloted by my field party pilot Mike Collins, with the new BAS director David Drewery along for the ride (everybody at Rothera disliked Drewery, and gave him the cold shoulder. I felt sorry for him, and tried to get him involved in planning my field work, as it was in an area he’d been involved in. This did not prevent him stabbing me in the back a short while later, thereby demonstrating what a good judge of character I am).

Back to the present day, it is remarkable how well preserved the hut is. Even to the extent of tins of the despised “Nespray” still being on the shelf. Actually there’s probably a hidden dump of Nespray tins outside somewhere. The various “Use Before Feb 1968” ingredients we used to cobble together some form of Christmas baking are still around too.

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There’s never a shortage of Nespray…

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All that the creative cook requires

I didn’t want to make Sophie, our zodiac driver, wait too long, and conscious of the fact that we’d been out of sight of any of the expedition staff for over an hour, I felt it was time to close and bolt the door one last time, and make our way back to the Point. On the way I couldn’t but help stopping a few times at the various Gentoo rookeries on the way. But none of the penguins seemed to remember me.

Back on 23rd December 1987, the nearby (but inaccessible to us) Port Lockroy was visited by the cruise ship m/v World Discoverer, as I mentioned somewhat inaccurately in an earlier post. There were very few tourist ships around in those days - nowadays there would be one almost every day - and this was our only visitor. Quoting from my notes:

23rd December, Damoy: Well, we’re _still_ here, but at least today was exciting! The tourist ship “World Discoverer” passed through Neumayer Channel, answered our call and invited us on board for an evening barbecue! As they had anchored in Port Lockroy, they kindly sent a zodiac around for us. We were well looked after by both the crew and the passengers, the passengers being mostly Americans. Before I got totally inebriated I gave the assembled masses a talk on BAS activities, using a familiar AKG microphone. Biggest audience and best applause I’ve ever got though! Anyway, we then passed on to the food, which was exquisite after 3 weeks of munch, and the mulled wine. This was probably my biggest mistake, but when you’ve been doing sod-all in the middle of nowhere for 3 weeks, you don’t pass up the offer of refill after refill from a rather nice young German girl. (…) We finally returned to Damoy with crates of Guinness,  Budweiser and Carlsberg, 2 bottles of Port and a bottle of Bacardi, not to mention steaks and fresh vegetables.

Later in the evening I felt rather unwell.

On returning to the Akademik Vavilvov, after, finally, after all these years actually making it to Port Lockroy, the when turned full circle as Graham invited me up during the recap to give a brief account of the day’s adventures. Little did I imagine this scenario just over 25 years ago.

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Hogging the spotlight once again

I’d like to effusively thank Graham Charles for this opportunity, and for trusting me not to get lost or do anything stupid. And equally a big “thank you” to Sophie Ballagh for driving the Zodiac and patiently waiting for our return. It was quite an experience…

Damoy table 87

Inside the hut, 1987

Damoy table 2012

Inside the hut, 2013 - photo by Luchiana Cinghita

Damoy stove 87

Damoy stove, 1987

Damoy stove 2012

Damoy stove, 2013 - photo by Luchiana Cinghita

Damoy bunk

Somebody’s stolen my sleeping bag! - photo by Luchiana Cinghita

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And not forgetting the legendary epic explorer Sir Basil Doumer of Damoy