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Nikon D3s, 70mm, 1/5000 @ f/4, ISO 400

The light does not always do what we expect or hope for. I expected seven days of light like this. I got one. The bulk of my Antarctica monograph is shot under thick diffuse cloud, often accompanied by snow and rain. On this first day in Antarctic waters, the light brought color and drama I wouldn’t see again. Don’t assume you’ll get another shot at a scene. In terms of composition, placement of the horizon was my most significant choice, and as the drama was happening between sky and land, I placed the horizon low in the frame, giving the eye plenty of room to move among the clouds. I considered a 16:9 aspect ratio, but that long horizontal frame didn’t give enough sense of the vastness of the skies. It robbed the image of the scale I wanted to play with, and it took away some of the impact of the blue of the sky that echoes in the iceberg.

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Nikon D3s, 105mm, 1/5000 @ f/4, ISO 400

The silhouettes in this frame belong to penguins and fellow photographers. The so-called rule of thirds would have suggested I place the group of humans higher and more to the left, but that would throw the whole image into a much more static balance. I wanted tension. I wanted the humans to seem less significant; it’s not the humans themselves that are the point of this image. The point is their presence in a landscape that is larger than them. To convey that I needed the tension and scale created by the long line of penguins. The other thing I’d have lost in reframing is the weight of the sky. I wanted, as in the image before this, to portray a vastness, and that will either be gained or lost according to our decisions about use of space in our compositions. The horizontal frame allows that ribbon of light to more fully rhyme with the contour of the land.

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Nikon D3s, 200mm, 1/8000 @ f/2.8, ISO 400

The reflection of sunlit clouds on the water just off the bow of our boat, isolated here with a longer lens to make an abstract of light, line, and texture. The contrast of warmer colors with the cooler blues of the reflected sky gives the image an added depth, as well as tranquility. In creating abstracts, the biggest challenge for me is to stop seeing “clouds reflected in waves” and begin to see the patterns and shapes on their own merits. In the moment, there in Antarctic waters, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the mood. But if you want any of that mood to translate into the frame, it has to be done purely in terms of shapes and light. How do those shapes lead the eye? How do they create tension with, or balance against, each other? Sometimes it helps to defocus the eyes a little in order to see the shapes more in context of the frame than the scene itself.

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Nikon D3s, 70mm, 1/800 @ f/8, ISO 400

One lone cloud is lit by the setting sun, which is now well out of sight behind the dense bank of cloud rolling over the headland of the peninsula. Those last rays are always the warmest, and in this context, they do two things—the first is create much bluer shadows, which contrast nicely with the warmer cloud, the second is isolate that cloud, making it the lone player on this stage. Conceptually there’s contrast too, and contrast is what gives photographs an implication of story. That contrast here is between the literal warmth of that cloud in a scene that is otherwise cold and forbidding. And there’s contrast between water and land, the water in all its forms—liquid, solid, gas. Compositionally, I didn’t get too clever. This is a photograph about a lone cloud, and I gave it just enough space to balance against the visual pull of the land and water.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/640 @ f/16, ISO 400

I had to get quite low and close to the water for this one. It took some patience waiting for my driver to position the inflatable Zodiac in such a way that the sun and the sundog that surrounds it lined up vertically on top of the iceberg. Sometimes what we try to accomplish and what is actually possible leads us to create something completely different. In this case I imagined the complete reflection of the iceberg in the water, with the accompanying reflection of the sun and its aura. But my constraints made that impossible, forcing me not to compromise but to find another, completely different composition—in this case, to use the partial reflection of the berg to create a visual path through the foreground and reinforce the verticality of the composition. Even the flare reinforces that dynamic, providing an awareness of the medium, which makes for a more visceral experience of the image.

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Nikon D3s, 175mm, 1/800 @ f/13, ISO 400

Any study of graphic design, which I’m convinced photographers should pay more heed to, will imply the importance of contrasts and repeated elements. In the case of this one, during our first landing on the peninsula, it is the repetition of shape combined with the contrast of sharp rocky peak and softer glacial peak. The two mountains also create a strong, dynamic implied line, which, combined with the blue crevasses to the left of the frame, form a triangle—a logical path for the eye to travel that pulls the reader not just across the photograph but into it. The simplicity of compositions like this gives greater power to the few elements that are there, allowing the reader of the image to focus thought and emotion on one dynamic or idea. The longer I do this, the more I find myself preferring to create a couple of stronger images than one that is too cluttered or complex.

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Nikon D3s, 300mm, 1/8000 @ f/2.8, ISO 200

The first of my penguin portraits, this one, like the previous image, relies on the repetition of elements, like a visual echo, for its impact. I discovered this composition while sitting down, exhausted from postholing my way through hip-deep snow. I had a fixed 300mm lens, so any composition had to come from what I had: here, that was two penguins, two shadows, and a white background, and not much time before they became too large in the frame and I’d be unable to back up quickly enough to reframe the shot. The obvious composition was to place the penguins high and left in the frame, allowing the shadows to point the eye through the frame. But that implied more about where they were going than where they were coming from, and the pull of visual gravity on the eye took me away from the birds instead of toward them.

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Nikon D3s, 300mm, 1/8000 @ f/3.2, ISO 200

Isolating a moment, pulling it free of its context, gives the imagination something to play with. This penguin was shuffling along, stopped, and yawned. But at the apex of the yawn it felt more like a scream than a yawn. Or is he singing? Calling to a mate? The ambiguity of it, and his somewhat human posture, makes it easy to anthropomorphize and project our own feelings on the little guy. Story exists best when we allow questions and mystery and some room for the readers of our photographs to flex their imaginations. The choice of so much negative space gives a sense of scale and diminishes the penguin in the landscape in a way that filling the frame would never have done. Technically, the hardest part of this work is the exposure, but the light was soft and relatively unchanging, so metering off the snow and pushing the reading two stops makes quick work of it.

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Nikon D3s, 300mm, 1/8000 @ f/3.2, ISO 200

This penguin wasn’t sliding down a hill at all. He was just waddling along and, as they do so often, fell over. But I shot these parked in the snow, my back leaning against my ski poles, with my 300mm, forcing myself to come up with compositions that didn’t require me to move, which placed the birds at roughly the same scale as all the other frames, as well as giving a sense of fun. So my options were limited; knowing there were no other visual cues to betray the illusion, I just tilted the camera. His placement so high in the frame was more playfulness on my part, asking myself how I could give a sense of the penguins flying. I’m not sure it’s more than an inside joke with me, or too many Far Side comics as a kid, but penguins make me smile. I wanted the images to convey that sense of delight and whimsy.

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Nikon D3s, 300mm, 1/8000 @ f/3.2, ISO 200

The last in my penguin series until I can visit again, this image works not only because of the balance and composition, but the choice of moment. That the penguins create a repeating element is good, but that they are walking in divergent directions creates room for us to fill in the story. Did these two birds meet in the middle, have a falling-out over something, then agree to disagree? There’s an implication here, and we can’t ignore it. Had the two penguins been in the exact same place in the frame but walking toward each other, we’d read this photograph very differently. I shot frames that tell exactly that story, but none of them comes with the same humor as this one does, because the ambiguity and divergence isn’t there (and frankly they’re boring). Composition is not always merely about where we place our elements in the frame, but when we place them.

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Nikon D3s, 82mm, 1/400 @ f/7.1, ISO 400

Whalers Bay, Deception Island, contains an abandoned whaling station. In contrast to the pristine beauty and wildness of the rest of my Antarctic experience, Whalers Bay struck me very differently. That it has such physical reminders of the whaling activities here was one thing, but Deception Island itself is an active volcano, so the place overall feels not only violated by man’s activities, but violent as well. This wider shot places abandoned oil storage silos into the context of the place—the snow covered in ash, and nature beginning its slow, persistent reclamation of the place. I shot this closer and wider, but those images failed as context shots because they diminished the hill that rises above the old station. Walking further back and using my 70–200 lens at 82mm allowed me to compress those elements and establish a relationship between them.

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Nikon D3s, 200mm, 1/50 @ f/9, ISO 400

This image affords a closer look at the oil storage buildings. There’s no commentary here, really, other than to play with the light and the geometry and textures in this scene. If anything, it’s an effort on my part to make something beautiful out of something so ugly. The longer 200mm focal length forces these buildings together, makes them appear closer than they are, and flattens them in shapes without regard for the spaces between them. I was drawn to this scene by the light and moved around until I found an angle that allowed that light to play differently on different silos. That brighter silo in the back pulls the eye through the darker foreground silos, giving the image its depth. The hanging broken ladder was a bonus, speaking to the abandonment of the place and adding the ambiguity that contributes to the possibility of story within the image.

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Nikon D3s, 26mm, 1/200 @ f/5, ISO 400

I was drawn to these silos by the texture and color. I find my attempts at macros like this seldom work for me unless I can identify some other graphic element that will guide my composition. In this case, the repeated pattern of rivets forms a diagonal line across the frame, leading the eye through the texture and color to a second line of rivets, which gives the image its geometry and tension. The shallower depth of field, a function of my wider aperture (f/5), works with that first line to give depth to this otherwise flat image. When I return I’ll spend more time here looking for tighter abstracts in the rust, coaxing beauty from decay. I love the way the yellow and red paint so beautifully coincides with the yellows and reds of the next frame, which is why I placed the image into the series; it works better as part of the series than it does alone.

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Nikon D3s, 22mm, 1/160 @ f/8, ISO 400

There is something both tragic and triumphant in the assumptions I made about this scene and therefore the way I photographed it. In the foreground, a wooden cross and a pile of rocks marking a grave from almost 100 years ago. In the background, a crumbling dormitory at Whalers Bay. And in the mid-ground, presiding over this place as if nothing had ever been otherwise, two penguins. The tragedy is obvious; the triumph lies in the reclamation of this place, by nature. I crawled on the ground, close and wide (22mm) to make this grave prominent, but in line with the penguins and collapsing buildings. There’s a strong triangle formed by the top of the cross, through the buildings to the vanishing point on the horizon, and back to what would be the base of the cross. Strong perspective creates interest and depth.

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Nikon D3s, 112mm, 1/1000 @ f/6.3, ISO 400

I’ve always been drawn to abstracts of landscapes, but the ability to pluck these patterns of line and color from larger landscapes has always eluded me. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away.” I think images like this are about design, and the closer I can come to simplicity, the better. The more we exclude what is not part of our image, the more powerfully, or precisely, that which remains can speak. Here I saw both the beauty of pattern, as well as the idea that life in Antarctica is precarious, and afforded very thin margins. The scene is mostly monochromatic—volcanic rock, snow, ash—the presence of life only a thin split of green. Vibrant, very much alive, and lush where it’s present, life in Antarctica seemed tenacious but tenuous to me.

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Nikon D3s, 300mm, 1/800 @ f/6.3, ISO 400

While most of my work leans toward simple compositions, this is a little simpler than usual, another in an effort to express myself more abstractly. I’m drawn to sensual lines, and this distant ridge of snow backed by gray sky seemed graceful and feminine to me. Free from any reference that would otherwise establish scale, this could be the smallest line between ice and snow, or the ridge of an incalculably large mountain. I pulled the scene out with my 300mm, and while I shot several others with more visual cues about what this scene represents—blowing snow and wave shapes formed by ice—it’s the very ambiguity that makes it so elegant. I metered off the ridge and then added two stops, and should have added three. Light like this makes exposure the easiest part of the task, leaving you free to compose and focus and try not to fall over as the boat moves.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/160 @ f/8, ISO 400

It amused me to hear other travelers on my boat bemoaning the “lack of great light,” while I couldn’t get enough of the mood and saturation brought on by the constant cloud cover. I often tell my students that there is no such thing as “bad” light, only light that works with or against your intent for the image. In this case, we had what we had and bemoaning the fact that the light doesn’t play to your expectations is wasted energy that could be otherwise used to make photographs. I’m sure this would have been gorgeous with mirrored waters and bright skies, but it would not have been this. The first in my short series of iceberg portraits, I think the monochromatic scene only makes the color of the iceberg stand out more. Contrast does that. If you want something to seem brighter, or more colorful, surround it by that which is dull, or monochrome.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/125 @ f/10, ISO 400

It frustrated me to no end that I couldn’t use my tripod and create longer exposures on this trip; the moving boat from which I was shooting made that impossible. But it created a constraint that proved useful once I stopped moaning about it. It forced me to use composition to create the calm and serenity I might have otherwise expressed through the blurred skies and water created by longer exposures. Part of that, as I mentioned, came through use of scale. Much of my work here used my 16mm focal length, allowing contrasts of size to exaggerate the solitude of lone elements. There are two contrasts of scale here that I love. The first is the small iceberg in a vast sea, under a vast cloud. The second is the small penguins on their own vast island. The biggest challenge was to make those compositions without including every other iceberg out there.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/60 @ f/13, ISO 400

Socked in by dense fog, I found that my choice of f/13 gave me no advantage in terms of depth of field, but it was the fastest way, in Aperture Priority mode (with which I shoot 90 percent of the time), to slow the shutter enough to blur the snowflakes and turn them into brushstrokes. A faster shutter froze the flakes but gave me no feeling, no sense of the graceful fall of the snow. Too slow and the flakes began to disappear, and the motion of the boat past the iceberg started to make a sharp image difficult. There’s no formula for this kind of thing. The next image was shot at 1/30 instead of 1/60. What shutter speed you choose has as much to do with how fast the snow falls and at what angle. I verify my choices with the LCD screen; then I stop looking at the screen and just make photographs, relying on my experience (and the vibration reduction of my lens).

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Nikon D3s, 17mm, 1/30 @ f/13, ISO 400

As in the previous photograph, I was mesmerized by the brushstrokes of the falling snow and wanted to make them a bigger part of the image. They showed best against the black of the water, so I started looking for compositions that allowed me to place something in the top half of the frame while allowing the brushstrokes to form the foreground. Placing this iceberg near the top left balanced against the lower right of the frame, which has significant visual mass. The strong diagonal line implied by the framing and exaggerated by the lines formed by the motion of the falling snow gives energy to what might otherwise be a static photograph, like the previous image. A static balance is not a bad thing; it communicates a stillness and serenity that’s different than what this much more dynamically balanced image expresses.

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Nikon D3s, 200mm, 1/1250 @ f/7.1, ISO 400

This fissure in a massive iceberg is another example of my play with scale during the Antarctica project. There’s no clue here about the size of this subject. It could almost be a macro, except I don’t think these blues, which get deeper as the ice does, would register in the same way. I’m not looking for great shots of icebergs, or whatever my subject is, when I shoot this kind of thing; I’m looking for lines and color, the basic visual elements of a photograph. Here, all I wanted was mood and a sense of beauty to come from the violence that created this fissure. Compositionally, the colors help pull the eye in the frame—not only to the blues themselves, but the transition from lighter to deeper blues provide greater mass, pulling the eye into the depths of the crevasse.

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Nikon D3s, 35mm, 1/250 @ f/9, ISO 400

One of the things I most wanted was some photographs of ice in context with the continent itself. I don’t know that I had ever thought about what it means for Antarctica to be a continent, but I think I’d assumed it was all ice. So I was surprised to see mountains. As I’ve shown people this work, some of them have shared that surprise. Adding the context of the continent itself also allowed me to use the wider lenses for what they’re really good at—a sense of inclusion. I love getting really low with my wide lenses, in part because they make foregrounds so prominent from a standing position; lowering the perspective allows me to get more depth into the frame. In this case, that meant hooking my feet under some ropes and hanging out over the edge of the Zodiac to get my camera closer to water level. Using Live View in these situations is invaluable.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/800 @ f/8, ISO 400

The echoing of the shapes in this scene hooked me, and I tried the patience of my Zodiac driver here more than at any other time, asking him to move the boat just so in order to position that cloud over the ice. Part of this image was made in camera, in terms of composition, but I’ve used traditional darkroom techniques in post-production to subtly push and pull the eye. Dodging (lightening) the lighter ridges of ice and the lighter blue values gives greater pull, while burning (darkening) the solitary cloud and darker undersides of the iceberg gives a little nudge to the eye. I almost always dodge and burn together, finding that a little pull and a little corresponding push is better than one big pull or push; it’s less distracting and more naturally emulates the way light works.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/1000 @ f/8, ISO 400

The interaction between the blues of the ice and the black of the deep water fascinated me and made for some ever-changing graphic elements to explore. Here I went very wide and very low, in some cases getting water splashes on my lens and camera. The rougher water allowed me to play with the shapes created by the underwater ice, creating texture that mirrors the churning clouds. Going low like this allows me to give the water prominence and enables the shape of the iceberg above the water to split the frame, creating bands of color and texture. A higher angle lost the foreground strength and the feeling of being immersed. I use graduated neutral-density filters a lot in my landscape work, usually handheld, but here I couldn’t do that and still shoot so low over the water. Instead, I added one in Lightroom to retain the detail and mood in the sky.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/320 @ f/8, ISO 200

On our final day the clouds broke and we saw the first glimpse of blue sky, which I generally don’t get enthusiastic about, but here that edge of blue sky and the bank of cloud create a beautiful line that echoes the diagonal line of the iceberg itself. I mentioned my love of wider lenses, and in part that’s because of what they do to lines—allowing diagonals to gain visual momentum, to pull us not just deeper into an image, but with greater energy. Here the lines of the iceberg lead strongly from the left, from foreground to mid-ground, while the line of wave, and the line created by the meeting of blue ice and black water, do the same from low right foreground into the image and through the arch. Longer lenses, with their tighter angle of view and magnification, would squash this energy and give the reader a less immersive experience.

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Nikon D3s, 200mm, 1/1000 @ f/5, ISO 200

The wildlife in Antarctica is hard to photograph, not because of their fear of humans, but because of their lack of it. They just don’t care. So they just sleep as you drift past, and you desperately hope someone in the Zodiac will fall into the water (briefly, of course), if only to get these crabeater seals to look up. I did two significant things in Lightroom to this image that I didn’t do to the others (except the next image, which got the same treatment so they would share the same look and feel). The fur of the seals is amazing, and I wanted to be able to feel it in the photograph. So I gave the Clarity slider a good bump (+77) to emphasize the texture and waterdrops. And I slightly desaturated every hue except the blues and aquas, creating a softer, though not significantly different, palette.

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Nikon D3s, 35mm, 1/320 @ f8, ISO 200

Where the previous image has something of an intimacy about it, this one has, I think, the reverse. It’s less a photograph about the seals and more a photograph about the landscape that happens to have seals in it. We spent a couple of hours getting lost among the icebergs in what the crew was calling the iceberg graveyard, and the sense of remoteness was amazing. Somewhere out in that mist was our ship. That shroud of fog and the distant mass of the continent made it difficult to make the moody landscape I was after, but these seals provided the perfect foreground interest to anchor a shot that would otherwise have lots of mood but no real interest.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/320 @ f/8, ISO 200

This place is uncomfortably named Circumcision Bay. Early wooden ships would shelter here during the long winters, a cable stretched across the mouth of the narrow bay to prevent icebergs from floating in and crushing the schooners. This is one of the only shots I have with signs of the human research presence in Antarctica, the small cabin placed there as an emergency shelter. The bay itself is in the most beautiful place. I made this from a low perspective, using my widest lens, and filtering the sky with a warming polarizer, and a three-stop graduated ND filter to hold back the detail and color of the sky. The 4:5 frame ratio is a conscious aesthetic choice, but it has the advantage of eliminating the vignetting from my circular polarizer, which is plainly evident when shooting this wide and using a more traditional 2:3 ratio of the 35mm frame.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/50 @ f/11, ISO 200

I think if we make the assumption that the photographer has created his photograph intentionally, and that every element has meaning, we begin to ask what the photographer might be implying, what story he’s telling, through his composition. Here, I don’t think you’d be stretching to see a relationship between the foreground boulder, the underwater rocks, and the large continental mountains in the background. The contrast in their size within the frame provides some interest and bounces the eye from foreground to background. The color is a result of muted skies and the circular Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer I was using, with no tweaks to color in Lightroom.

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Nikon D3s, 16mm, 1/200 @ f/10, ISO 200

My final image from Circumcision Bay, and the final image in my Antarctica series, was one that endeavored to place both the inflatable Zodiacs and our ship, the Ocean Nova, into context, and to give the place scale. Like the photograph of the seals in the iceberg graveyard, the point was really not the eco-tourists in the boats, or the boats themselves, but Antarctica. It’s tempting to keep these elements out entirely, but as a storytelling image, the travelers in these boats are me; they’re all of us. For better or worse, Antarctica is now an undeniably popular tourist destination, a reality I’m sure neither Shackleton nor the other early Antarctic explorers ever imagined.

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