Tales by Light is a series of photography documentaries now running globally on Netflix. Produced by Abraham Joffe in association with Canon Australia, the first series features Art Wolfe, Darren Jew, Krystle Wright, Richard I’Anson and me (Peter Eastway)! There are six half-hour programs that feature some of the most amazing locations on Earth.
A lot of people ask me how the job came about and I guess I’m still not quite sure. Abraham asked if I’d be interested in doing a television program with him where I could go anywhere in the world I wanted and they’d pay me. You don’t get jobs like this every day – well, at least I don’t!
We decided that my job was to shoot Antarctica, which is a location on many photographers’ bucket lists. I’d been to Antarctica before so I had a good idea of what to expect. But more importantly, I was pretty confident I could get lots of great photographs and not make too much of a fool of myself on international television! Antarctica really is an amazing location and you don’t have to wait long before amazing photography opportunities arise.
So, if you’re planning a trip to Antarctica (or perhaps you’re looking at the Arctic areas instead), how to get there, what do you wear and what camera equipment do you take? I’ll cover some of that here for you.
There are options to fly over Antarctica and you can also fly to Antarctica as well, but if you want to experience it, you really have no option but to jump on a ship. We traveled with Aurora Expeditions on the Polar Pioneer, a small ship in the scheme of things with around 50 passengers plus crew.
Small ships with fewer than 100 passengers are best. First, many of the locations you visit limit the number of people that can go ashore at any one time and often that number is under 100. So while larger ships might seem safer and more comfortable, they may not give you the shore access you want. Second, when you have a small ship, you can get into locations larger ships won’t fit. And third, a smaller passenger list really does make it a more enjoyable voyage as you get to know everyone.
A lot of what you see will be from the deck of your ship which will affect the camera equipment you want to take. However, it also turns the ship into a floating studio. You go to bed at night and wake up at a new location every day. You keep all your equipment in your cabin and it’s easy to change lenses depending on what’s happening outside. It really is a wonderful way to photograph – and chances are the food and hospitality for those times in between taking photographs will be pretty good too.
A voyage to Antarctica has a number of sea days, meaning you see no land. Yes, it can get rough, but generally, the captain will steer the ship around storms and keep the passengers as comfortable as possible. On rough days, I enjoy it while I can but I may retire to my cabin with a sea sickness medication or two and a video to watch on my iPad.
However, except for the sea days, the ship is generally in harbors or bays and close to the coast, away from the swell. It’s a great camera platform in more ways than one.
However, while ship life is a lot of fun, the aim of most expeditions is to get you ashore two or three times a day. To do this, you jump into a zodiac – well, not literally. You walk down the gangway and climb carefully into a zodiac, ably assisted by the crew.
A zodiac is a large inflatable dinghy with a flat bottom. It is very stable in the water and is also an ideal camera platform. In addition to carrying you to and from shore, it can also cruise around the icebergs and headlands in search of wildlife and landscapes. Cut the engine and you can float up to the local wildlife without it even knowing you’re there. You’ll see me doing this in the Tales by Light episode.
In the zodiac, things can get wet. You can start the day on still, glassy waters, but a few hours later, the wind can whip up the waves and the return journey to the ship can be quite damp. For this reason, I take a large “dry bag” into which I drop my normal camera bag. My dry bag has a wide mouth, so it’s more like a briefcase than a duffel bag. I seal the dry bag before I get on or off the zodiac, and also when the waves are splashing over the sides. However, once we get to calm waters or shore, it’s quick to open the dry bag, and the camera bag inside it, for access to my cameras.
Another option is a waterproof Pelican case or similar – I usually take out most of the padding and just leave two cameras inside with lenses attached, ready for use.
Life on the ship is very warm and you’ll find yourself walking around in a t-shirt and sandals. You will even wear this out on deck from time to time, weather allowing. However, while it can get very cold, rarely is it that cold simply because you’re near the coast and the sea keeps the temperatures relatively moderate.
Nevertheless, when you go out on the zodiac or ashore, you need to dress warmly. It’s better to have too much clothing than too little. I have a thermal top, shirt, one to three thin pullovers or jumpers, a feather-down jacket, and a waterproof wind jacket on the outside. I have thermal undergarments, trousers and waterproof over-pants as well.
When it comes to footwear, I just use the Wellington boots provided by most ships.
A word of caution. I remember being told that when you go ashore, there will be no mud. However, there are a lot of penguins and you can find yourself walking around in a substance that certainly looks like mud! The Wellington boots are much easier to clean and I would suggest that any boots you wear would not be used again.
So, what do you take in terms of camera equipment? The short answer is everything. My current lens outfit is slightly different from the gear I used for the television series, but only because two of the items weren’t available.
For the Tales by Light voyage, I used two Canon EOS 1D-X cameras with mainly a 24mm f/1.4 wide-angle and a 200-400mm 1.4x telephoto. However, I also used the 17mm tilt-shift, 50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.4, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms. On later trips, I also took along a Canon EOS 5DSR and the new 11-24mm ultra wide-angle zoom. (On other trips, I also take Phase One medium format equipment for the landscape work, but it’s not optimum for shooting wildlife, especially birds).
As you can see, I take quite a lot of equipment and I can use it all when I’m on board. However, for trips ashore, I would usually limit my gear to what was comfortable to carry. Yes, I often left behind a lens I wish I had taken! Such is life!
On board ship, the longest telephoto you have is great for photographing the birdlife that follow the ship, as well as the coastlines you pass. In fact, I find telephotos some of the most useful lenses for landscape photography. However, when you enter a bay or harbour, or the sky is looking spectacular, a wide-angle lens is essential. How wide is up to you, but I have to say I am quite partial to that 11-24mm zoom simply because I can shoot very, very wide.
On shore, you still need both lenses. A super telephoto will let you capture close-ups of penguins and elephant seals, while a wide-angle will give you a wonderful sense of location. And don’t forget the mid-way focal lengths – although I confess I often do! With so many people taking so many photographs in Antarctica, super long and ultra wide give your photographs a point of difference.
In Tales by Light I talk about using a 10-stop neutral density filter, which allows me to shoot 30-second or two minute exposures in the middle of the day. Naturally you need to be on land, not the ship, and a tripod and cable release are also helpful. What happens during the long exposure is that the clouds and sea move, creating a blurred effect, but the mountains and shoreline remain stationery and clear to view. It’s an effect I am particularly fond of – and so easy to do once you’ve practised a couple of times.
Recently I was asked what would I shoot when going to Antarctica. My answer was everything and lots of it. I think of the photography process as pixel gathering. When I am at an exotic location or photographing wildlife, I take lots and lots and lots of photographs. I change the exposure, the focus point, and the framing. I shoot from different angles with different lenses. For a single subject, I might take 50 or even 100 shots.
When I download my images, I can review what I have captured and proceed to the next stage, post-production. As you will see in the Tales by Light episode, I am a firm believer in post-production as an integral and essential part of the photography process. You can do a lot or just a little, but some post-production is required, especially if you’re going to make some prints.
So, this is the background to a photo shoot in Antarctica. When are you going? I hope you’ll look out the Tales By Light series on Netflix and enjoy them as much as we did making them.
Some jobs don’t happen very often, but when they do, grab them!