Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas, One and All

Sea Ice Breakup, Port Lockroy, Antarctica
Tomorrow is Christmas, and we'll be heading out soon to spend it with family on the Oregon Coast. A week ago, however, we were busting through the pack ice in Antarctica.  As I have previously posted, the light was not always what I might have hoped, with almost constant clouds and snow. But when conditions are less-than-generous with color, it's often a good time to switch to black and white.

This image was originally shot in color, but with digital cameras it is easy to transform a dull color landscape into a rather nice b&w one. There are many ways to do it, but my technique is to simply de-saturated the color image (saving the original RAW in case I ever want to go back to color) and add needed contrast through Levels or Curves - the ideal is to create a histogram with the complete spread of gray tones from left to right (rather than bunched up in the middle). Snow, it turns out, is filled with all sorts of nuances - light and shadows - and lends itself perfectly for this kind of treatment.

Enough Tech Talk - go spend some time with your loved ones, and stay warm...

Nikon D3, Nikkor 24-70mm lens

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Unexpected Moments

Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica)
I was pleased to be asked to return to Antarctica this month, as a lecturer on the National Geographic Explorer. It is one of my favorite corners of the planet and the timing was good: I am working on an updated version of my 2000 book Penguin Planet and would love to include as much new material as I can. And because I have quite limited time on the Antarctic Peninsula, I thought this would give me a shot at some new images of the 3 most common penguin species found there: Adelie, Gentoo and Chinstrap.

There was still a lot of snow on the Peninsula this season, and many of the nesting birds were arriving at their colonies to find them still buried. Although penguins generally choose nesting sites in areas that are among the first to be snow-free, sometimes a heavy snowfall defeats them. They can't lay their eggs on the snow, and can only sit there waiting for it to melt.

This Chinstrap was doing just that, sitting on a snowbank, several feet above what he had expected would be his nest site. When I started photographing him, he was drifting in and out of sleep, and I was just about to walk on when he suddenly woke up and had a stretch, opening his mouth in a wide yawn - and twisting his body into a contortion that I had never seen before - nor thought possible.  He held it for just a second...and then promptly went back to sleep.

So although it may look like he was warning me to back off, I can assure you it was a simple, extravagant stretch - born of boredom and frustration (or so I imagine).  Whatever the emotion, it created a striking image, even if slightly weird (like a feathered ball with handles), and I was grateful for it.

Nikon D3 with 70-200mm lens

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vultures of the Sea

Northern Giant Petrel in Flight, Drake Passage
As big as an albatross, and a close relative, the giant petrel has been a constant companion on our voyage back from Antarctica. Giant Petrels are polar scavengers, eating the carcasses of  seals, whales and anything they might find at sea or on land. They can also be predators of penguin chicks and eggs.

Following the ship as we plow through the swells, petrels like these can soar effortlessly for hours, if not days, in the strong wind. This bird flew right along the ship at eye level, apparently curious, and I was able to get this portrait as he passed by the bridge wing. I used a flash to give him a little extra color in the gloomy light, and used a slightly slow shutter speed to give the background a silky motion.

With two long days at sea back to Ushuaia, photographing the world's greatest flying birds is an enjoyable distraction.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Visions of the Forest

Forest Stream, Mt. Tompotika, Sulawesi
As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I spent several weeks in Indonesia, documenting diversity for a small NGO.  For the first week, I concentrated on the endangered Maleo (see below) but I also spent several days exploring the montane forests on the slopes of Mt. Tompotika, in a remote corner of central Sulawesi. With few trails, we hiked up the bed of an un-named creek, swollen with water from recent rains. Except for the stifling heat, I felt right at home in an environment that looked very much like the temperate Olympic rainforests near my home.

For this shot, my eye was immediately drawn to this cluster of leaves growing on a stream-side boulder.  Moving in close with a 17mm lens, I was able to fill the lower part of the frame with these boldly shaped leaves, and use the upper part to give a sense of the stream and surrounding forest.

The leaves were wet, however, and reflecting the silver light from the cloudy sky, so I used a polarizer to cut that glare, saturate the green, and slow down the motion of the water.

Nikon D3, with 17-35mm lens, Polarizer and tripod