Decisions, decisions, decisions ...

What gear to bring on a photographic expedition

Many people have been asking me about my current stay in Antarctica and especially about what kit I brought in order to photograph down here. This blog entry will go over some of my most important kit decisions and why I chose the things I chose. However, this is quite a personal list and other people might have other preferences. The following items have been working very well for me though and have been used in order to create many of the images, that you have seen until now (and many of those you will see in the future).

Of course when you go down to Antarctica, which is one of the harshest places on Earth your gear can experience in terms of the cold and stormy weather, it’s a good idea to take a backup for everything with you. Since I have to pay for my gear myself and most of the equipment I use is quite expensive, redundancy for everything is rather unpractical (and unaffordable), so there are some things that need to be taken into consideration. For example, if one of my cameras broke, would the other one be capable of producing the same image, but maybe with a bit of extra work needed from my side? Or, do I have overlap in the focal lengths of my lenses? Could I use two lenses for the same job? Of course, whenever something breaks, it means a setback in terms of productivity, but it is important that you do not have to stop your work altogether.

CAMERA

Most of you know already that I shoot with Nikon. While I will not feed into the Canon/Nikon debate, the usage of Nikon cameras has always felt more natural to me and more ergonomic. Once you are invested in expensive glass, it is quite awkward to change brands anyway. To be honest, ever since Nikon came out with the D800 I have not really felt the urge of looking around on the camera market. With its successor the D810 I feel I could be satisfied for years to come, but let’s see what Nikon has in store for 2017. As far as I heard they stopped production of the D810, which is usually a good indication for a successor coming soon.

The D810 is an amazing camera in terms of resolution, dynamic range and noise performance. To make it short: I love this camera and I love using it, since the RAW images it produces are simply stunning. Even underexposed frames can be pushed by one or two stops without dramatic visibility of noise.

That being said, the D810 is not the fastest of cameras and with its max. six frames per second, it is quite easy to miss that crucial moment in an action loaded scene. For this reason, I was initially considering buying the D5 alongside the D810 to have a fast framerate body with good low light performance. However, the price of around EUR 6000,- for a single camera is quite steep, especially if you consider the rate at which bodies lose their value. It just does not seem like a smart investment, especially if you look at the specs of the D500 that was announced alongside with the D5. Sure, it’s low light capabilities cannot rival the capabilities of the D5, but autofocus speed, framerate and resolution sure can. Also the D500 can record 30minutes of 4k video, which the D5 was only capable of after a firmware upgrade.

 

For scenes like this one, the D810 is the perfect choice. Once the image is captured, you have 36MP to work with – a treat!

 

To make a long story short, for its fast framerate, its coverage of AF sensors across the entire field of view, as well as the much lower price, I chose the D500 over the D5 as my secondary camera and I am really satisfied with it. When it comes to pushing D500 raw files though, they are not as forgiving as the D810’s files, so it is important to get the exposure right – in fact, a slight overexposure (third stop) seems to work quite well for the D500. Both of my cameras are equipped with battery grips, which I mainly use because of a vertical shutter release button. Also, the D810 as well as the D500 allow the usage of Nikon’s EN-EL18 battery, which is a much bigger battery than the standard EN-EL15 and lasts much longer in the cold. Being able to use the same batteries for two cameras is a big advantage in a place, where energy surely is a bottleneck.

 

For a shot like this you need a good AF that can deal even with low contrast (between head and sky) as well as a fast framerate in order to get the best flyby moment.

 

LENSES

One of the biggest investments I made before I came down to Antarctica again was buying a new telephoto lens with a fast aperture and image stabilization (VR as Nikon calls it). During my first stay at Neumayer I was using my old AF-S I Nikkor 500mm f/4.0 on a D700 full frame body and more than once I found, that 500mm are just a tiny bit too long. I like giving my subjects a bit of space around them so they have „room to breathe“ and even if I ever came into a situation where I would not have enough reach with less than 500mm, the D810 offers 36MP and therefore has plenty of cropping potential. I found 400mm to be the ideal focal length for my kind of photography and since I like soft and homogeneous fore- and backgrounds I knew that I would have to go for the fastest aperture available for such a lens – f/2.8. Now, Nikon builds wonderful 400mm 2.8 lenses, but they are absolute beasts, weighing in at almost 6kg. Investments in glass are usually long term investments and you want to be able to use the same lens for many years. The same is true for my back and carrying a 6kg lens as well as heavy bodies and other lenses around in a backpack did not seem like an idea to strive for. Instead, I waited until Nikon came out with its new version of the 400mm f/2.8 which has fluorite glass elements and weighs roughly around 4kg – the same as my old 500mm f/4.0. So, in April 2016 I finally made the decision, robbed a bank (my bank) and bought the new Nikon AF-S 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens and have been happy with it ever since. It’s not necessary to talk about image quality with a lens like this – it’s stellar at every f-stop, even wide open.

 

Blurring the foreground and giving the subject room to breath. The Nikon AF-S FL ED 400mm f/2.8E excels at this discipline.

 

In general I am covering a range of 14mm-400mm with my selection of lenses, plus a 1.4x teleconverter which can get me up to 560mm of focal length. I do have everyday lenses like a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 and a Nikon 24-120 f/4 for „standard“ work, but this time I also have quite a few specialized lenses for specific purposes and I hope that I will be able to use all of them in the coming months.

The most specialized lens I brought with me this time is a Meyer-Optik-Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8 Titanium Edition, which is a cooke-triplet based, manual focus prime lens with a 15-blade iris, well-known for its very special bokeh. As many of you know a point light source in the blurred background of a photograph usually gets rendered as an illuminated circle. When two more more of these circles overlap, their brightness adds up and it can create amazing effects. With the Trioplan these circles have an even brighter border and look like soap bubbles, which can look very artistic and dreamy. What I intend to do with this lens is to make use of snow crystals on the ground, since they can act as tiny point light sources when the Sun is low in the sky. It should look very nice especially in combination with icebergs, penguins and dramatic light and the manual work will be a nice break from the „fast“ photography with ultrasonic autofocus lenses.

Second to the Trioplan, I’d say my PC-E Micro Nikkor 45mm f/2.8D is quite specialized, as it is a tilt/shift lens. I am still new to tilt/shift photography, but the effects one can achieve with such lenses have always intrigued me. During my first stay at Neumayer it was always quite hard to get good wide shots of the base itself, without the stilts being tilted due to distortion effects of the lens. I hope that with the shift function of this lens, I will be able to correct this. Also, when standing close to big icebergs the shift function will help to reveal the true shape of the iceberg with only very little lens distortion. The tilt aspect of the lens should come in handy when photographing the beautiful sastrugi covered Antarctic ground. Sometimes, due to shadows cast by the tripod and my own body, it is not easy to photograph the ground at a 90° angle, which would be necessary in order to really get everything in focus. Instead most of the time you can only photograph the ground at an angle of less than 90°. In this case, even when you stop down to f/16 or f/22, you will not have a sharp image border to border. With the tilt function of the lens, I should be able to angle the focal plane of the lens and hence, should be able to get the entire ground in focus, independently of my viewing angle. Let’s see how that will work out in the field (the controls on the lens are quite small and could be hard to use with thick gloves on).

Just a few weeks before my departure, Nikon came out with a new portrait lens – the AF-S Nikkor 105mm f/1.4E. First reviews were really promising and when I tried the lens in a local camera store, I was immediately hooked. The bokeh is super soft, while the lens itself is probably the sharpest I have ever owned. Just as in the Trioplan case, I will use this lens for work, where I will blur foregrounds and backgrounds with highlights, so that subjects in my frame are surrounded by beautiful bokeh circles. With its fast f/1.4 aperture it might also be a good lens to capture the Aurora Australis, maybe even with a penguin silhouetted against a starry sky –  we’ll see what can be done :).

The rest of the lenses I use are pretty standard zoom and macro lenses. For Antarctic landscapes I will use an AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f/4G and more importantly my Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G. The latter I had with me during my first stay in 2012 and it delivered some wonderful results. For macro lenses I own an older 105mm AF Micro Nikkor f/2.8D as well as a Sigma EX HSM APO 180mm f/3.5. I like both lenses a lot and will use them mainly for close-up work of snow, ice-crystals and feathers and any other details that I might find in this beautiful environment.

TRIPODS/HEADS

With the Sun now setting again and the days becoming shorter and shorter, the times I can handhold my camera are getting fewer as well. For that reason I made sure, that I brought a variety of tripods and tripod heads that I can use during winter, when light will be quite sparse, but the mood and look of this place will be spectacular. I have had many tripods in my photographic life and none of them was ever able to fit all needs. The big and heavy ones are great for long lens work, but they are not ideal when you go on a hike or do intimate macro work. The lighter ones obviously cannot support telephoto lenses too well. In terms of brands, Gitzo Carbon fibre tripods have given me the best combination of sturdiness and weight and especially in terms of reliability I rarely ever had any issue. Only during my winter in Antarctica in 2012 I had my old Gitzo Systematic 1548GT MKII with me, that gave me one issue with the old locking mechanism. Especially in winter, when temperatures dropped below -15°C, the threads of the knobs would freeze up and I would not be able to turn them anymore, meaning that I was stuck with whatever tripod height I was at, at that time. Also, only having one single tripod with me back then, this meant that I was stuck at that height for the entire day until I could warm it up again. So there were low above the ground days and elevated landscape days, but never could I do both on the same day.

 

If you use the entire frame for your compositions, a tripod is one of your most important tools, if not THE most important.

 

That situation has changed quite dramatically with the new Gitzos, that now have an optimized locking mechanism called ALR (Anti Leg Rotation). When you losen the leg knobs, the leg below will not turn together with the knob anymore, which creates a big advantage: with one single hand you can loosen many knobs at once and extend the legs of the tripods more rapidly. This has also caused the entire mechanism to be much more reliable and robust against cold weather and icing up. At least until now, I have not had any issues at all. One additional thing which needs to be mentioned is Gitzo’s brilliant idea of using top base-plates which can be exchanged with a quick release mechanism. This means that I can have a variety of different tripod heads mounted on plates and exchange them within 20 seconds or less. It’s a great way of changing from a ball-head to a fluid-head without having to deal with tiny screws or additional tools and it can easily be done in the field.

I currently have a total of four tripods with me: a Gitzo 3542LS, which is a medium sized, light-weight tripod I mainly use for landscape and macro work. This is usually equipped with a medium sized ball-head. Then there’s a GT5541LS, which is a much heavier and sturdier tripod. I mainly use this for long lens work, either with a heavy duty ball-head or a fluid head. Additional to that, I brought a backup for each of these tripods. On the one side I have a GT3542LOS, which is in principal a weather sealed, waterproof variant of the GT3542LS, as well as a GT5562LTS, which is a variant of the GT5541LS with more leg extensions and hence can be folded into an even smaller package. It is a perfect fit for the Zargesbox on the back of my skidoo and fits in there with a ball-head mounted on it.

In terms of ball-heads I have also made many experiments throughout my photographic life and now use the German brand Novoflex, which is known for high precision and rock-solid quality (and produces quite close to my hometown). Their ball-heads are a little bit heavier when compared to their competitors, but they perform so much better as well. I’d rather carry 200g more and have a great performance in the field, than saving those 200g and constantly having to battle with things or to use workarounds. With Novoflex and the ClassicBall 3 Mk2 (CB3II) and ClassicBall 5 Mk2 (CB5II), I have found the perfect additions for my medium and heavy Gitzo tripods. What I especially like about the ClassicBall Series is that you can easily open and lock the ball by turning the lever on the side of the head, which is really easy even with thick gloves on. In terms of friction, you can dial in any amount with the ring that goes around the tripod. These ball-heads support my combination of a D810+battery pack as well as the 400mm f/2.8E easily, especially with the ClassicBall 5 being absolutely rock-solid. Another nice aspect of these ball-heads, especially in the Mk2-series is, that they have three cut-outs in the shell of the ball so that you can tilt the camera by 90°. For all lenses that I use, which do not have a lens collar, this makes it quite easy to switch from horizontal to vertical framing without using an L-bracket. Novoflex was nice enough to even prepare two special versions of the CB3II and CB5II for me, which are optimized for usage in cold temperatures. I would have never expected any problems with them in the field as they are, but the company is still willing to go the extra-mile and really make products that suit the needs of photographers. That’s great customer service. On top of the ball-heads I use a quick release solution, which also comes from Novoflex – the so called Q=Base. It is very convenient, since it fits my old Arca Swiss quick-release plates and is not too high (which is especially important when you’re working low above the ground).

 

A good ball-head allows for quick changes in composition while at the same time never losing control of your heavy camera equipment mounted on it.

 

CLOTHING/BACKPACKS

An essential part of kit for field work is clothing. It might not be obvious for everyday work back at home, but it certainly is important working in a place like Antarctica. While we are getting all clothing, which is needed for field work, from AWI, I know that my weak spot is my hands. I always get cold fingers, even if it is quite warm (and it really makes work in a place like this hard). For this assignment, I decided to test a new brand of gloves, which I just recently discovered – the Heat Company. Their Heat 3 SMART gloves (which are made especially for SWAT teams and other professional groups, which have high a high demand for functionality) are made up of a clever three layer system with a liner, a shell and a hood (against wind chill). I am currently giving the gloves as well as their heating packs a thorough testing, but I can already reveal that for temperatures as low as -15°C, they have performed really well and it takes much longer for my fingers to get cold than it did before. To be fair – you could wear pillows or duvets as gloves and your fingers would get cold eventually. It is only a matter of how long they can stay warm and it will make a crucial difference if you can extend your stay outside by one or two hours. For warm days up to -10°C, the merino liner is wonderful, since it feels really nice on the skin and you can still effortlessly handle buttons on your camera and even capacitive and resistive touch screens. When it gets windy or when we ride Skidoos on a cold day, I cover the liner with the full-leather shell. If they are closed, they will keep the hands and fingers wonderfully warm, but you lose all tactility. For that reason you can unzip the front part of the glove and open it, which means, that you can reveal single fingers (which are still protected with the merino liner) without taking the shell off.  So far, I have not needed the hood, but colder days are just around the corner and I will give more feedback on these gloves during winter time. Also I did not have to use the heating packs yet, but it’s just a matter of time until they will get their first thorough testing as well! 😉

You have already noted that I have a lot of gear with me this time and of course I have to carry a lot of it around when we are in the field. Normally I would use my beloved f-Stop Satori EXP with a large ICU, which is very pleasant to wear even when it is heavy. Due to the fact that it opens from the back, I never have to be worried about gear falling out of the bag due to only half-way closed zippers. Also, when putting the pack on the ground, it’s immediately in the correct position to easily open it up and get access to kit quickly. Last but not least, I have been using the pack as hand luggage on airplanes and never had any issues with size.

Being a camera assistant however, aside from my own gear I also need to carry gear for the main camera like spare batteries, filters, memory cards and other things. Consequently, since I wanted to bring all my gear and the additional pieces at the same time, I needed more space in my bag (which was already pretty packed). For that reason, I am currently using a LowePro Pro Trekker 650 AW, which has a lot of room, but which simply is not as nice as the Satori. To be fair, I am carrying a lot of kit (around 22kg), but still the straps should not get lose any time I set the pack on the ground and lift it back up. Also, LowePro packs open on the back, which means that after setting the pack on the ground, you need to turn it around to be able to access your gear (and then open two stupid clips, which connect the top part of the bag to the main part). Additionally, the harness system does not feel very comfortable, so it’s certainly not a pack I would be taking on a long hike. The upside of it is though, that it has plenty of space and millions of little pockets, which can be used not only to stow your equipment, but also your sunscreen, sunglasses, some lunch and dinner :). Having all these bits and pieces with me in the field at all times is quite a good reason to live with all the other downsides.

EDITING/BACKUP

The nicest aspect of my work is certainly capturing the actual photograph and experiencing wonderful and unique moments in nature. However, it is only one part of a two part job. The not so fun part (but still pretty cool part) is editing images and cataloguing them and backing them up. The equipment needed for this kind of work is just as important as the equipment used in the field and for that reason, I only trust very few brands.

In terms of the main piece of kit needed for this task – the computer – I have been with Apple ever since I started university and have never regretted that decision. Currently I am using a MacBook Pro 13“ with an i5 CPU and 16GB of Ram. That is ok for most of my work, but sometimes, especially with the giant raw files of the D810, the machine needs a few seconds to load and especially when rendering timelapses, this can be quite time consuming. At home I still have an iMac 27“ and although it’s pretty old now (from 2010), it still gets the job done and is a pleasure to work with (I did upgrade to an SSD mid-life, which had a huge impact on performance). The worst thing that could happen down here (aside from my electric toothbrush breaking as I have mentioned earlier ;)) is the laptop breaking down. For that reason I brought a second laptop, which is also a MacBook Pro 13“, but an older version. I will only use it, if it is absolutely needed.

When it comes to computer screens I had always been satisfied with my laptop screens. It was not until my work for Audi that I really started digging deep into the topic of color management, color spaces and uniform color reproduction across a variety of devices and the difference it can make to view the same image on different targets. I spent a lot of time doing research and one brand that always came up in positive reviews was EIZO. Pretty soon I started working on EIZO screens with built in colorimeters, which are used to physically measure colors which are shown on the screen and measuring how these colors have to by physically altered by the monitor in order not to impact the amount of colors that can digitally be shown by the operating system. The topic sounds complicated (and it is, trust me), but one of these days I will write a blog entry just about that. But I’ll leave that for the dark hours which are still to come in about two months time, since it will be a nice challenge to prevent my brain from going into hibernation mode :). Currently I am using the newest model from EIZO, the CG2730, which is simply a beautiful monitor. The front buttons have been exchanged for capacitive touch button (which I personally love) and the quality and homogeneity of the panel are simply astounding. The screen has a built in colorimeter, which I have set to do auto calibration once a week and it’s an absolutely essential part of my kit. With a luminance of up to 350cd/m^2 (or nits) it is bright enough to work well even during the bright antarctic summer, when the labs in station are quite bright. Of course being able to see 99% of the colors in Adobe RGB color space gives me the confidence, that I am seeing most of the colors that were recorded by my camera and that all of you are seeing the correct colors when images are uploaded to the web later on.

Last but not least it is super important to have a reliable backup solution here in the field. I did a lot of research on RAIDs and NAS drives, as well as 3.5“ and 2.5“ hard-drives. I wanted a lot of storage at a good price point without having to worry about data loss. I chose the solution of buying a big amount of WD Elements portable hard-drives, since they have very good reliability reports, are small, easy to carry around and also affordable. I wanted a total of 8TB of storage (but with redundancy), which meant that I had to buy a total of 16TB of storage. I could have gone for four 4TB drives, but instead decided to go with eight 2TB drives. The reasons for this decision are numerous: First, if a drive ever broke, I would lose 2TB of data instead of 4TB (which is „only“ half the amount of images). Second, the 2TB drives simply have better statistics when it comes to reliability than the 4TB drives, so the overall likelihood of data loss is reduced. Third, if I decided to use one set of drives for something else, I would not have to mix data on a large drive, which makes organization of the files much more easy. My current workflow is, that I have four sets of drives and each set of two drives contains the same data (data is mirrored). Whenever I come back from the field, the first thing I do is download my memory cards onto both hard-drives and one copy to my local Macbook hard-drive. I then start sorting through the images on my laptop with Adobe Lightroom, erasing images, that I do not want to keep. Once I am done with that, I overwrite the data on the two external hard-drives with the amount of images, that is left from the particular shoot, in order to free memory. Maybe it is not the most streamlined workflow, but it works well for me and I know that my images are safe.

 

Pretty simplistic setup for my editing workflow. LR6 runs on MacBook Pro, images are backed up onto hard drive pairs and editing is done on a beuatiful EIZO CG2730 monitor.

 

I hope this will give you an idea of what I am using in the field and how a potential setup for an extended shoot could look like. Again, this is my personal list and I do not claim that I have made the best of choices for everything. I do claim however, that I am more than happy with the performance of my kit and that is has helped me many times already to render my vision into a photograph. If you have comments or questions, feel free to ask me directly :).