Let loose in one of the last pristine wildernesses with an open brief can lead to an embarrassment of riches. But you can take too many photos, says Nick Smith
When I told a photographer friend of mine in a pub in London last November that I was heading off on assignment to Antarctica he was suitably impressed. Why wouldn’t he be? After all, for many of us outdoor photographers, the chance to visit the White Continent, to see what the likes of Shackleton and Scott saw only a century ago, is the stuff of dreams. The chance to tick off my sixth continent was also alluring, leaving a relatively pipsy Australasia last on my list. ‘Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures of penguins,’ was his considered advice.
I won’t bore you with how far away Antarctica is. Two days flying – London, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Ushuaia – followed by three days sailing in a converted Argentine navy ship across the fearsome Drake Passage. But it would all be worth it, I told myself, as my three cabin mates vomited their way to the South Shetlands, when I see my first penguin. Not that I’d been commissioned to photograph penguins specifically: my helpful editor on the national newspaper I was on assignment for had merely told me to ‘get some nice shots.’
Well the news is, for anyone who’s not been there, in Antarctica you can get ‘nice shots’ a-plenty. To be honest, it’s hard to go wrong. Once you’ve passed the Convergence (where the Southern Ocean and the Atlantic meet) it’s pretty much plain sailing: cobalt blue skies, lagoons as smooth as glass and smoked salmon skies. I’m not going to say that it’s warm, but I was there in the Austral summer, and chilly though it may have been at times, it beat the pants off winter in London, camping at Heathrow and the Eastenders Christmas Day special.
Ever mindful of my friend’s advice, when I finally got ashore at Aitcho Island, I decided that penguins were the order of the day. At the South Shetlands you’ll be lucky to see anything other than chinstraps, gentoos and adelies, so I considered myself lucky indeed to find all three in the first rookery I visited. The light wasn’t great, but it was my first landfall in Antarctica and so… bang. Eight gigabytes in one hour. As I was shooting RAW images on a full frame sensor camera, that’s not too bad I told myself, but I knew that not one of the 250 shots would be a keeper. Safely back on the mother ship I duly downloaded and tagged the whole lot. I was right: there were no keepers, but these might be my only sightings.
In Antarctica there are strict rules when it comes to interacting with the wildlife. The penguins effectively have a 5-metre force field around them. You don’t enter their personal space or you risk negatively modifying their behaviour and causing stress that could ultimately lead to parents abandoning their young. However, they are inquisitive birds and if you sit still for long enough, as they have no fear of humans, they will simply come to you. And they did. And for first and perhaps the only time in my career I used my pride and joy 135mm f/2 prime for photographing birds. Seeing the results on my laptop later, I was amazed by just how well what’s fundamentally a portrait lens performed in such circumstances. You won’t find the manufacturer recommending this lens for penguin photography, but part of the fun is making your own decisions about kit.
A week into my voyage around the Antarctic Peninsular I found myself sick of bloody penguins. Not because I don’t like them – I think they’re tough, gutsy little animals that command the respect of all of us – but because I’d got 2,000 of the buggers in my laptop and I was getting extremely bored with editing, night after night (except it never got dark) what were essentially the same photos. And then it happened. Error message ‘Start-up disc almost full’, which if you are a Mac user (and I suspect that’s nearly all Outdoor Photography readers) is the one error message you don’t want to read. It means your computer has reached its capacity. Warning: your laptop is full of penguins, icebergs, clouds, reflections, mountain range silhouettes… all the ‘nice shots’ my editor had asked for.
Given that no photographer’s computer should ever each this point, something was going seriously wrong. I was, to put it simply, taking too many photographs and not spending enough time considering the lilies. I’d made a basic schoolboy error of being trigger happy, seduced by the beauty of my surroundings into taking so many trivial variations on the theme that I’d become over indulgent.
On the leg home from Buenos Aires to Madrid, I opened for the first time, as I so often do, the guidebook to the place I’d just visited. ‘Leave nothing but footprints’ it intoned with environmental piety, before reminding me to ‘take nothing but photographs.’ Perhaps it should have said: ‘before taking any more photographs, ask yourself if you’ve already met the editor’s brief. Do you really need more?’
This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography magazine… without Nick’s photos of penguins