Photography in the Field

Last year I bought my first digital camera. Two of the photos in The Roof at the Bottom of the World were made with it. The rest were shot with film. Poor grad student that I was, my first Antarctic season, 1970-71, I didn’t even own a camera, and ended up borrowing one from a friend, a Kodak Pony 135. Because it required a hand-held light meter that I seldom used, I had few photos at the end of the season worth looking at a second time. On the way home that year with some salary earned, I bought a screw-mount Pentax Spotmatic with a 50 mm lens in the Navy store in Christchurch, NZ. This was my camera for about two years, during which I did dissertation research for four months in southern Africa comparing rocks of similar age to my suite in Antarctica. For the following six months, I took a long way home, backpacking from Cape Town to Cairo to Rawalpindi, where I cashed in my return airfare. It was a different world in 1973. The Shah was still in power in Iran and the Russians had not yet invaded Afghanistan. A far out trip if ever there was! I set off for South Africa with 10 rolls of Agfachrome and a vow that I would make them last my time away. This was about one shot per day. In order to give some structure to the resolution, I decided that every shot I took should have some geology in it, something that either pertained to my research or would illustrate something geological for a future lecture, if I made it as a professor. It took tremendous discipline, parsimony to the max, and it has influenced my approach to photography ever since (ever since, that is, until I started shooting digital, where instead of every push of the shutter costing 75¢, the more you shoot the less each shot has cost when divided into the original price of the camera.) The other thing that I took with me that trip was a 100-300 mm zoom lens, a huge barrel of a thing, that a fellow grad student had offered to me for $25 just before I left. When I got home I was sold on zoom lenses and fed up with the screw mount. At about that time, the 3/4 size 35 mm SLR’s were coming onto the market, and I bought a Pentax MX, which I have used ever since. With thru-the-lens metering and everything else manual, I found it to be the perfect field camera, lightweight, tough, and easy to use even when wearing gloves. Given the kind of research that I do, which involves a lot of strenuous hiking, sometimes on steep terrain, I quickly decided that I didn’t have time to take my camera out of my backpack every time that I wanted to shoot a photo. The old style parkas issued by the U. S. Antarctic Research Program offered a solution. Complete with genuine, wolverine ruff and a tunnel hood, these garments had a buckle across the front attached to elastic straps. I was able to wear my camera around my neck while hiking, and to keep it from swinging by putting it under the elastic buckle. I kept the camera in its carrying case, and had an extended cover with a zipper on it for zoom lenses. This arrangement worked well except that I still had to change lenses between wide-angle and telephoto shots.

Camera in carrying case under elastic buckle.

Pentax MX with 70-150 mm zoom lens with zippered carrying case.

Finally (in the mid 90’s, I think it was,) Tamron offered a 28-200 mm zoom lens that was about three inches long, liberating me from the need to change lenses ever again. I bought a holster case that I strapped firmly on my chest, hung my camera around my neck as always, and kept it snugly in the case ready to be pulled out at a moment’s notice. To me this is the ideal camera system for doing fieldwork under extreme conditions. If you are a climber, belly tight against a rock, it doesn’t work. But for anything short of this, it frees the hands completely, and is ready instantly when the next photo op presents itself.

Holster case with shoulder straps.


So what have I learned about photography in the Transantarctic Mountains? Never take a cold camera into a warm space for fear of condensation, which will freeze when the camera goes back out into the cold. Always take about three times more batteries into the field than you expect to need, and in the old days, several more rolls of film. Low light never being a problem during the Antarctic summer, my film of choice was Kodachrome 25 (alas), which rendered snow close to its true white, unlike Ektachrome et al., which invariably developed too blue. I have always used a polarizing filter, never backpacked a tripod. To me, landscape photography is simply a matter of perception, of being ready when all the elements of a scene align. The only advice I ever give is to be sure to look into the corners of the frame before you push the shutter.

Gallery – Pressure Ridges

The terminus of the Ross Ice Shelf connects Ross Island with the Transantarctic Mountains across McMurdo Sound. North of the front of the ice shelf is the realm of seasonal ice, which on a given summer will be open water more and less farther south. Close to the ice shelf and around Cape Armitage by Scott Base, the New Zealand Station, is a stretch of seasonal ice that seldom breaks out. Sustained movement of this ice against the shoreline has produced a beautiful set of pressure ridges. A series of cylindrical folds takes up most of the shortening, but in a line parallel to the shore a shear zone has ripped the ice for a distance of at least a kilometer.

Rolling pressure ridges, some fractured along their crests, collide with Ross Island.

Shot to the right of the previous photo, the shear zone extends beyhond Scott Base.