photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

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



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.



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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Is this a good photo ?

Flickr seems to think it is

in Photography , Friday, December 14, 2012

Is this photo any good?


Apparently it is. It seems to have been selected for the exalted status of “Explore” on Flickr, which is something I’ve never given much attention to. However, this raises it’s visibility, and therefore it gets many more visits, more comments, more favourites than ninety percent of the photos I post.

I posted it as part of by sort-of 1 photo a day Antarctic Archive project. To me it is at best a curiosity, and it completely falls apart at anything larger than the size I posted it at. It was taken centuries ago, with a Canon FT-QL camera, I think a 50mm f1.4 lens, and one of these screw-in fisheye lenses that were big when flares were in fashion the first time around. I guess the first, and probably last, reaction of anybody now is that it came straight out of Instagram. Or a Holga. But there’s no post-processing at all beyond cleaning up the scan. The file wouldn’t even take sharpening. It is totally soft, the composition isn’t even considered. Any serious landscape photographer would be embarassed to be asked to venture an opinion on it.

It has an atmosphere to it, and an eerie sort of feel. It seems to touch a nerve. It’s hardly a typical Antarctic landscape shot. At best, it’s a collection of mistakes which somehow summed up turn into something interesting.

But is it a good photo? I guess I’m not qualified to be the judge of that.


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