Moonlight shadow

Preparing for the departure of polar night

It seems like just a few days ago when I was telling you, that polar night has started and that we would not be seeing the Sun for eight weeks. Now, we are only a little less than a week away from our first sunrise. Around July 21st, if the weather permits, we will finally be able to see our shadows on the sea ice again and hopefully, also be able to soak up those first rays of light. We’re really looking forward to that.


Typical landscape on the sea ice photographed during polar night. The subtle lighting makes the structures of sastrugi really stand out.


In terms of filming and photography this will mean, that we will finally be able to work at lower ISO speeds again and image quality – although it is still pretty spectacular – will improve. For my photography this means, that I will not consider a 1/125th of a second a fast shutter speed anymore – in the past weeks, that is as fast as I could get at f/2.8 and ISO 6400. Although it did not feel like it, even at mid day it was quite dark. The human eye is remarkably adaptable.

We always knew it would not be completely black during polar night, but still we were not quite sure how much we would actually be able to film in the dark phase. Other „coastal“ stations around Antarctica are further North, so their emperor penguin colonies have much more light during the phases of courtship/mating and egg-laying/females leaving. However, the past weeks have shown that we were able to spend a significant amount of time on the ice and got some really great footage of the birds’ behavior and the stunning colors of polar night. In fact, we filmed much more, than we originally anticipated, which is great news for us and also for the audience of the program :).

What I said in the beginning was not completely correct – we actually did see our shadows on the sea ice during polar night. We’ve had some incredible starry nights with a full-moon high in the sky. The full moon merely reflects roughly 1/6 of the Sun’s light onto earth, but even this small amount of light is enough to easily see on the sea ice at night without any flashlight or headlamps. One even casts a shadow. Again, our eyes are remarkably adaptable. For the penguins these nights must feel even brighter. Since they are used to diving really deep in the ocean (more than 500m of depths have been scientifically confirmed) their eyes are quite used to low-light environments.


Photo of the Southern portion of the shelf-ice, taken during a full-moon. Only the stars give away, that this image was taken at night.


Seeing the birds at night with a starry sky above them is a spectacular sight and also an acoustic experience. Some of the time, when it is especially cold, the birds don’t call much and just concentrate on conserving energy. However, as they move from loose groups of birds over to huddled birds by making only tiny steps, you can hear their claws scrape on the ice they walk across. It’s an incredible sound when thousands of feet do this at the same time. While they are walking, they leave little footprints and scrape marks on the ground, which create very interesting patterns. They are quite hard to photograph, since they are only very tiny structures, but when the sun comes back and we get some shadows on the sea ice again, I will give it a try.


The huddle at night, illuminated by a full moon. It’s a remarkable sight.


In general, photography at night differs vastly from photography with daylight here in Antarctica. Once it is dark, it is nearly impossible to focus on the birds (neither automatically nor manually). With the ISO cranked up all the way to 3200 or even higher, all you can see in live view is colorful pixel noise and no real edges for precise focussing. The only thing you can do in that case is to use the distance scales on your lenses and „find“ focus by trial and error. If you have to expose each photo for around 20-30 seconds however, this will take a while and it is a quite tedious method. With a full moon or at least a very bright moon in the sky, there is a workaround, which works quite well at least for wide angle photography. Lenses with focal lengths of 24mm and less usually are sufficiently sharp for anything further away than 5m if they are focused to infinity and stopped down once. At least this is true for my Nikon 14-24mm. I will usually use live view to roughly frame up and select the focal length, that I need. Afterwards, I will point the camera towards the moon (without changing the focal length!) and focus on it manually. Then I will swing the camera back around, recompose, stop down once and take a frame. This method is a lot faster than the aforementioned one and has worked quite well for me. Unfortunately, this will only work if the full moon has risen already. If we are working without any moon in the sky (for example setting up a timelapse for moonrise), it’s back to trial and error and guessing from experience, although sometimes Venus is bright enough, that it can serve as a focus target. That being said, we would NEVER use artificial light in order to acquire focus, since the well-being of the birds is top priority at ALL times. We rather live with the difficulties that night brings – it’s beauty is more than enough reward :).


In this scene, the full moon made an easy focus target. However in order to get everything in focus in this shot, I stopped down to f/11 and exposed for around 20 seconds.


One thing that we have been trying to capture at night is the aurora australis – the „northern“ lights of Antarctica. While we did have some nice displays of auroras at the beginning of winter and got some nice timelapses of polar lights dancing above Neumayer Station, we have not had much luck since. Unfortunately at that time we were not able to access the sea ice yet, which is the reason why we are hoping for some good displays in the coming months. Ultimately of course, we would like to capture the aurora australis above the emperor penguin colony of Atka bay, which would be a remarkable sight. In 2012 I managed to capture exactly an event like this after many people had told me, that it was impossible to get. While it is obviously not impossible to get a shot like that, people do have a point and it took me around nine attempts to get the photo I dreamed of. The reason is that just so many things have to fall into place. First you need good and calm weather with wind speeds below 10 knots, otherwise the tripod will just shake too much. That pretty much leaves only half a year worth of potential days. Then, of course it has to be dark. With the eternal light in summer and eternal „darkness“ during polar night, for the sake of simplicity let’s say that this again cuts the amount of potential days in half. We’re now down to a quarter year, so 3 months. Furthermore on these good days, there cannot be any clouds in the sky, since they would obscure the auroras even if they were present. Cutting the amount of potential days in half is very optimistic, but we’ll do it anyway, so we’re down to around 45 potential days. Now let’s keep in mind, that if you would like to be able to depict the colony as a group of individual birds and not just a big black blob, you need at least a half-moon in order to illuminate the sea-ice. Again, we have halved the days. Down to a potential 22.5 days, you also need some magnetic activity in order to actually get auroras…. I think you get the point. Still, we will keep trying with every chance, that we get, since we now: it’s not impossible! 🙂


Only a few people have ever witnessed this incredible sight – the aurora australis above the emperor penguin colony.


Polar night is much more than stars and auroras though. The colors in the sky that we get during dusk and dawn are just spectacular and with the Sun being close to the horizon again, they are just getting better and better. If we have clear skies in the coming days, we can prepare ourselves for some amazing light shows. There are endless gradients from pastel pink colors into blue and then further leading into orange, finally ending in the black of night where you can even see first stars. Sometimes, the snow is illuminated with an orange/reddish light which is hard to describe and which always makes people ask if I apply a lot of post production to my images. I can assure you, that this is absolutely not necessary, because I could not make the colors any better – even if I tried. Never have I seen light like this anywhere else in the world and I will make sure to capture as many of these moments as I can. I feel privileged and lucky to be able to witness this a second time and I will probably even miss polar night once it’s gone :).


The mid day sky during polar night gets even bright enough to silhouette emperor penguins against it.