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Calling with camera and tent on the emperor penguins

by Fritz Poelking, 1998


Fritz gratiously gave his permission for the reproduction of this article. The original version, where the small images are links to larger images, is available on his excellent web site at http://www.poelking.com. (follow the "Workshop" link) The images and text on this page are all Copyright Fritz Pölking and may not be reproduced without his permission.


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Calling with camera and tent on the emperor penguins

It was a somewhat ambivalent fascination which emanated from this plan to camp for 10 days near a large colony of emperor penguins with 24 hours of daylight and unbelievable photographic motifs. That was more than exciting, checked only by the thought of 10 days at temperatures ranging between 20 and 30 degrees below zero and no warm room at one?s disposal to which one could retire to regenerate after working in the severe cold.

Well now, one could have arranged the tour one or two months later in the Antarctic summer, then the temperatures would have been a little more agreeable for camping, but the motifs unfortunately would no longer be as attractive since at that time the young penguins would no longer stand on their father?s or mother?s feet. This consequently meant "to bite into the cold apple". - Being a wildlife photographer does after all mean to have a difficult job, but - someone?s got to do it.

Preparation

It goes without saying that such an out-of-the way tour needs a great lot of sound planning. The largest problem was the weight limit as dictated by the small aircraft, a Twin Otter with skids in lieu of wheels which allowed an overall weight of 25 kg per passenger including the photographic equipment. I therefore began by choosing the smallest tripod with which I thought to be able to still work with seriously, that is the carbon tripod "Mountaineer 1228 Arctic" from Gitzo the lightest model of which is also available as a low-temperature version and guaranteed to still work reliably at minus 20 degrees. With the small Graf Mini spherical type head weighing 300 g I put it into the freezer for two days and - believe it or not - the combination worked perfectly even in those extreme minus temperatures. One problem solved.

The second one was the transport of the films on the way there and back: for 10 days of photographing penguins with 24 hours of daylight each day I had calculated 30 films per day. One probably gets to such a place only once in a lifetime and therefore it is better to take along with you 100 films too many than 10 too few. These 300 films I had to stow away in the hand baggage because for over a year now there are these nice new X-ray apparatus with which the checked suitcase is examined for explosives and which guaranteed ruin every undeveloped film. They have meenwhile been installed at more than 100 airports all over the world and recently destroyed all the work a BBC television crew headed by Sir Richard Attenborough had completed in more than four weeks because they had checked their suitcases containing all their films.

For this reason nowadays we wildlife photographers have to put all our films into the hand baggage which is not at all easy since concurrently with the new "film destruction appliances" also the "one piece of hand baggage per passenger only" directive is administered more and more rigorously for insurance reasons. However, how to stow away the normal outfit, a 500/600 mm objective and 200/300 films in one piece of hand baggage sized at the most 20x40x50 cm - with an admissible overall weight of 8 kg - is a complete mystery to me.

I therefore tried first of all to pack all pieces of equipment not being particularly sensitive to vibrations (extension tubes, filters, flashlight, batteries and the like) into the suitcase and that way I managed to put the sensitive portion of the equipment in the Lowepro Phototrekker. When removing cardboard boxes and plastic cans beforehand the front pocket is capable of accommodating about another 150 films. The remaining films I then put into a big multicolored plastic bag of the kind you get at airports in the duty free shops. Unofficially this is not regarded as being a second item of hand baggage.

For the airports this dealing in alcohol and cigarettes after all means big business (some earn more money with these goods than with their flight operations) and if plastic bags containing the bottles and sticks of cigarettes were to be regarded as second piece of hand baggage then the airports were to lose millions which in turn would lead to a palace revolution. For this very reason such multicolored bags are accepted in silence or not noticed, respectively, at both the counter and the gate.

The problem of transporting the film was solved, that of the tripod as well, leaving me with the questions: Which camera and which batteries? Preferably, of course, my F5, because of its bracketing function alone which allows to automatically take three pictures one after the other with one picture correctly exposed, a second one 0.3 f-stops above it and the third one 0.3 f-stops below it. To me this was particularly important considering these motifs being so sensible from an exposure point of view. The question was only: How does such a highly sophisticated camera behave in the face of permanently very low minus temperatures and how many batteries does it "use up" or for how long will they last, respectively. I therefore also took along - just to be on the safe side - an older camera from the "pre AF time", a fully mechanical FM-2 which - as you know - is possible with the Niko system since this company luckily for us photographers did not change the camera bayonet thus allowing us to still use until this very day all the precious older accessories from the camera cabinet.

big pictureHow many lithium batteries to take along? According to Nikon?s F5 operating instructions 30-40 batteries for 300 films at minus 10 degrees ought to suffice. Therefore I took along 100 more to be on the safe side. For it would have been the worst possible nightmare for me on this trip to discover after the first five days of this tour that all batteries are used up.

This left me with only one more question: What to do to ensure that all pictures are correctly exposed? From my previous trips to Churchill and the Antarctica I knew that an exposure correction of 1.3 plus to 2.0 plus f-stops was in most instances the correct one. This does apply, however, only to the center-emphasized integral photometers or the spot photometers. As regards the modern multifield photometers one is to proceed with great care since they correct a portion themselves, but one never knows exactly how much they correct. Faced with such extreme exposure problems one best turns off this multifield photometer and corrects the exposure - starting out from the center-emphasized integral metering - with the help of your palm (plus 1 f-stop), hand light meter, grey card and the rule of the "sunny 16" (in case the sun is shining).


Outward journey

The trick with the multicolored plastic bag and 150 films as its contents worked perfectly. Neither the Lufthansa staff nor anyone on the inland flights in Chile showed any interest in this second piece of hand baggage. The next question keeping us in suspense was when the flight from Punta Arenas to the Antarctica on board a Hercules would start. Upon our arrival on October 28, 1998, one machine had already been waiting at the airport since October 20 for weather conditions permitting a landing at Patriot Hill in the Antarctica. It didn?t look good. Hans Reinhard who had done this trip some years ago had to wait at Punta Arenas for three weeks before the weather allowed a machine to take off and take him to the emperor penguins.

We were in luck (so we thought) and only had to wait five days before the large Hercules took to the air to take us in almost six hours on the first stage covering almost 1300 km into the center of the Antarctica, to Patriot Hill. From there we continued the trip only four days later - again after a weather-conditioned stop on this cold base - with two small Twin Otter aircraft in another seven hours? flight to the colony of emperor penguins about 1100 km away on the Dawson-Lambton glacier where the skid-equipped aircraft landed on the ice. Fourteen days after our departure from Germany we finally had reached the destination of our journey - the big penguins on the white continent.

The emperors of the Antarcticabig picture

The emperor penguins are with their 120 cm the biggest penguins reaching a weight of between 20 and 40 kg and no other bird has their fascinating habits.

In the last light of automn, before the long winter darkness, every emperor penguin female lays one egg to then disappear into the open sea. The male now balances this egg for two months on his feet through the bitter cold of the winter.

The male penguins stay for about ninety days without food and of these they brood 62-64 days. The mothers only return from the sea to rejoin their partners when the young hatch. From then on they care for the young and the males go to the sea to look for food in order to regain their former weight. At first the young grow slowly but when in the early Antarctic summer the food becomes more abundant they are fed more frequently and grow faster. At the age of 5 months, that is about in January/February, they have to head for the sea because their parents already left the colony about one month ago. The young now only have the option between either starving in the colony or making for the open sea to there feed themselves from now on.

Our tent camp - living inside a fridge

big pictureActually it was more like living inside a chest freezer than a fridge for upon our arrival at Patriot Hill we had well over 29 degrees below zero. When you have to leave the aircraft after hours inside a warm machine and are confronted directly and right away with the brutal cold of the Antarctica then this definitely is a shock. After a mere five minutes the glasses were completely covered with ice crystals so that it was absolutely impossible to see anything through them any longer.

After a weather-conditioned forced stay of four days at Patriot Hill at 20-30 degrees below zero it then turned out to pleasantly "warm" near the emperor penguins on the Dawson-Lambton glacier with a mere 10-15 degrees below zero.

We put up our tents about half an hour?s march on foot away from the penguin colony on the ice of the Wedell Sea. It is indeed a special experience to sleep for 10 days on ice. A problem in this context were the 24 hours of daylight preventing you from finding a reasonable sleeping rhythm because it was always as light as day inside the tent. The sleeping rhythm, however, wasn?t too important unlike the work we had come for. We therefore hadn?t arranged for fixed eating or sleeping times either, but everyone came and took whatever he needed whenever he found the time to do it. By the way, inside the sleeping bag it was very pleasant - as long as you didn?t put out your head.

A group which camped here in tents four years ago was surprised by a snowstorm and the tents were covered by snow three meters high. It took them practically twenty-four hours to clear both the tents and the aircraft of the snow. During our stay we had about 5 days of sunshine, three days of clouded sky and only two days of snowstorm confining us to the tents, but fortunately not buring the same under masses of snow.

Working in the realm of the penguins

The large colony of emperor penguins on the Dawson-Lambton glacier comprises - varying from year to year - 5,000 to 10,000 brooding pairs with 2,000 to 5,000 young ones. The colony has no fixed location, since the parent birds wander about with the young in an area of some thousand square meters and the colony is practically located on a different site every other day.

The nice thing from the penguins? point of view is that there are no land-based predatory animals in the Antarctica - no polar bears, no ice foxes - nothing. Therefore these penguins aren?t afraid of humans either. You can aproach the colony as close as 3-4 meters before the animals show any reaction. If you then stand still they come closer to the photographer in groups of 2-20 specimens - also with their young ones or the latter on their own -, that is as close as about 1 meter.

This lack of fear of man has for the wildlife photographer the pleasant effect that he doesn?t have to adapt the focal distance of his objective to the run-away distance or the comfort limit of the animals, but that he can choose it on the basis of mere photographical considerations. He thus may select a tele focal length to achieve a more cool, observing and registering effect as well as wide-angle focal length resulting in an optically surprising effect with thrilling pictures and an emotional touch.

War correspondents, for instance, do not work usually - or almost exclusively - with the 35 mm focal length at close range because they are weary of life but because this way they can convey the emotional dimension and the reality of war much more impressively than from a safe distance with a long telephoto lens. Here with the emperor penguins you could - which is only rarely possible in wildlife photography - use without hesitation both focal ranges without affecting the animals.

big pictureThe best photolight we experienced when the sun was low, that is approximately between 2200 hours and 0200 hours in the morning. But then it was also the coldest and the films showed a tendeny towards breaking like glass. Therefore I often rewound the films at these hours very slowly and manually and at other times - when it was slightly warmer - automatically.

The technically most pleasing surprise was that we experiened no battery problems whatsoever. I worked completely without autofocus - to save power - but used the mechanic film rewind function only when it was extremely cold - as I already mentioned - and mostly the automatic rewind function as well as for winding on the slow automatic film transport and not the fast one to prevent the cold film from breaking and the feared "flashes" (due to electrostatic charging) from occurring on the films. If the battery consumption had been extreme I could have rewound all the films manually as sort of an economy measure. This "reserve", however, turned out to be superfluous. For the more than 300 films which I exposed during my stay with the emperors of the Antarctica I used less than three sets of 8 lithium batteries each. Thus for more than 100 films only one set of batteries. Normally when using the 4.0/500 mm or the 4.0/600 mm objective I need about one set of lithium batteries for 80 films at normal temperatures when working exclusively with autofocus. That here at minus 10 - 20 degrees centigrade I succeeded in exposing more than 100 films with one set of lithium batteries is without any doubt due to the fact that I did not use the AF function. Autofocus seems to consume a lot of power after all.

The new Arctic version of the Gitzo carbon tripod also worked - much to our relief - without any problems. The only real problem in these ten days was the - under-standable - behaviour of the penguins during the snowstorm: for they always and all of them turned their back to the wind. This meant that the photographer had to position himself facing the wind which isn?t too bad, but in this position the objective is fully turned into the wind with the latter blowing the fine and coarse snow directly from the front into the sunshade against the front lens with no chance for the photographer of doing anything against it.

The main photographic problem - from a creative point of view - was the huge number of individuals. It was almost impossible to create a somewhat reasonable and tolerable background. 90 % of the photos could not be taken because there were always some "interfering" penguins standing around in the background. And if nonetheless finally a pair with a young happened to be in the photographically "correct" position in front of a quiet and photogenic background then it lasted only seconds before some penguin head, a body or even a whole bird sliding in destroyed the composition. One often felt like "tearing out one?s hair".

big pictureSomething else you had to pay attention to was to always stop down by at least one step since otherwise there were those unpleasant darkenings in the photo corners. With an open diaphragm objectives tend to loose a little of light intensity towards the picture corners. In the case of normal motifs this often is not even noticed but in all instances where large areas of the photo show snow, bright sand or blue sky one clearly sees how the picture grows darker towards the edges. This rather unpleasant effect can be noticed on almost all polar bear pictures from Churchill since apparently the majority of wildlife photographers there work at the long focal distances with an open diaphragm. Stopping down one step does suffice and will give you a slide uniformly exposed up to and including the corners.

Despite all the technical progress it is still a problem to get an absolutely accurately exposed slide - above all when dealing with difficult motifs. That all exposure meters in cameras take in case of snow motifs exposure times which as a rule are too short is generally known. The question is only: how to correct that? When, for instance, in the presence of snow and sun the camera indicates f-16 and 1/500 secs., yet the grey card, the hand light meter and the rule of the "sunny 16" show all three f-16 and 1/125 secs. then you can be fairly sure that the camera stop reading should be corrected by 2 steps to avoid overexposure. However, it ought to be mentioned in this context that it makes a difference whether the sun is shining or not. When the sun is shining I correct the indicated stop value by 1 1/3 steps only to make sure that the snow still shows contour details and does not look "bleached". If the sky is clouded I correct the full 2 steps to ensure that the snow is white and not grey.

If you want to carry the matter to the extreme to really get slides being exposed absolutely perfectly then nowadays you shoot a bracketing series of 3 shots in which one is exposed correctly and of the other two one each is exposed at +0.3 and -0.3. In other words, in such case you set the exposure - based on the afore-mentioned measurement taken at sunshine - to +1.3 and then you get three pictures at +1.0, +1.3 and +1.7. Without sun to +2.0 then getting three pictures exposed at +1.7, +2.0 and +2.3. You can now be sure that o n e slide is in any case exposed ideally and absolutely perfectly with the remaining two still being useable.

big pictureI have been doing these bracketing series for a number of years now as a matter of principle in all instances where I had the time (that is for all landscapes and close-ups and for animals action permitting). Also in the case of medium-tone motifs where actually it is not necessary. For I have made the experience that 1/3 stop makes a hell of a difference and it is actually not possible to determine the fine, yet decisive difference of 1/3 stop metrologically before the shot. Only when placing the three pictures side by side on the light table you see very clearly which exposure you like best. A mushroom exposed at 1/3 stop lighter or darker, for instance, can give the picture a totally different technical quality and effect. The whole is somewhat expensive, that is true, and costs film, but the film is as you well know the least expensive element in wildlife photography; and when going somewhere having invested a lot of time and money in such journey then for me it makes no sense at all to do without the absolutely optimal exposure only to economize on a couple of films. Furthermore it is a marked pleasure gain to be later on able to view and select optimally exposed slides on the light table.

A general problem one is always faced with when photographing in severe cold and subsequently returning to the warmth - on ships in the Arctic or in the Antarctica, for instance - is that following the transition from cold to warmth cameras and objectives steam up with condensation water forming on both the inside and the outside. That our highly electronic cameras of today do not like at all. But this condensation water poses in particular a great threat to zoom lenses since such lenses for constructional reasons cannot be built as tight as fixed focal distance objectives. For this reason in particular the inner groups of lenses tend to steam up with this type of objective. In this case the problem is remedied with the help of a large plastic bag into which you put both camera and objective prior to returning from the cold to the warmth of the interior. For then condensation water and dimness do no longer form on the equipment but on the plastic bag surrounding it.

To be able to photograph for 10 days within a colony of emperor penguins was quite an experience, yet one requiring a great expenditure of time: 4 days for the outward and return journeys Germany - Punta Arenas in Chile, 10 days for the penguins plus 19 days for waiting on the way to and from the penguins in the Antarctica. It goes without saying that the most beautiful thing on this trip was the encounter with the big penguins, the second most beautiful one the first warm shower at the hotel at Punta Arenas at the end of the tour, after 24 days and nights in the cold tent.

Technical Data

Camera: Nikon F5
Objectives: Nikkore 3.5-4.5/28-70 mm, 2.8/80-200 mm, 4.0/300 mm.
Film: Fujichrome Sensia-100
Tripod: Gitzo Carbon Mountaineer 1228 Arctic with Graf Mini spherical type head 300 g.


Article created 1998

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