(Thanks to all of you who checked in on my blog while I was in Antarctica for a month. Postings were slim due to a busy schedule of work since my primary purpose was an expedition staff member. While this is primarily a blog about Alaska photography, I’ll be deviating to Antarctica over the next few weeks to share some of the amazing sights from the southern hemisphere).
Chaos is a good word to describe this scene, both from a visual experience and a photographic endeavor. Besides the obvious action packed scene the conditions for this shot were on the edge in all respects. The location is an exposed, steeply sloped gravel beach on Deception Island, notorious for its high surf and difficult access. A large colony of Chinstrap penguins inhabit the island and are a bio-mass of movement as they depart and return from feeding sessions at sea.
The cloudy and rainy morning offered paltry light, calling for high ISO in order to get a shutter speed sufficient for stop action. Additionally, the nearly black beach and white surf presented a very high contrast, monochromatic scene. I found composition difficult, and therefore resorted to hanging out in the surf zone waiting for penguins to make landing near my camera. I was wearing chest waders along with a robust rain shell tightly strapped at the cuffs for additional waterproofing. I started with my camera in an EWA marine housing but it was too difficult to operate the camera settings so I grabbed my other camera (1Ds with a 24-105) and did my best to stay somewhat dry in the crashing surf. Not visible to you on my left is a large crowd of people shooting the same scene but from a higher point on the beach.
In order to keep my camera dry, I raised it high when I heard the surf crashing. This worked pretty well in general, although I nearly doused the camera one time when I was startled by a bunch of penguins that crashed into me when leaping onto the beach. The reason these little birds enter and exit with a great frenzy is that leopard seals are patrolling the offshore waters waiting to prey on the penguins. The beach was one giant mix of energy. The sound of the waves, penguins, and the movement of both, with mixed patterns of black and white was amazing. I shot a lot of frames in the short time available, and was not overly excited about any of them. But the experience was a thrill. Unfortunately the video function in my 5D Mark II malfunctioned on this landing or I’d share some sound and movement.
From a technical perspective, I “exposed to the right” for this scene, with the whites just blinking on the histogram. This is a general style of exposure shooting I engage in by habit but it is very critical when shooting at high ISO, since it gives the latitude to work with post production adjustments with a lower signal to noise ratio in the shadows. These files held up very well.
A note about access: small zodiacs brought groups of 8 people to the beach. The technique is to approach on a large incoming wave as a team of staff on shore grab the inflatable boat and hold it stable amidst the crashing surf. Then passengers get out quickly and the skiff is turned around and pushed back out as soon as possible. We had about 8-10 people to handle each incoming boat. The frame below denotes a celebratory posture once all the passengers were safely on shore!