Welcome to Antarctica

Our sea journey that started in Ushuaia on Sunday night around 9 pm ended sometime in the middle of the night last night, when we pulled into Paradise Harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula. We had seen nothing but fog yesterday, so it was lovely to look out the window of my cabin just now and see this:

Today we’ll get to explore the place a bit. We’ll get on Zodiac boats this morning and go tooling around the harbor, and then after lunch we’ll visit Dorian Bay, where we go onshore. There’s a colony of Gentoo penguins there. Think I should take my camera?

A Few Birds from the Drake Passage

We’re at sea on the Drake Passage, which has been relatively calm—a good thing, because the Drake is legendary for its rough seas. It takes about two days to get from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula, and while there’s plenty to do on board—attend lectures, chat with fellow passengers, eat the terrific food—there’s not a lot to photograph.

But we do go through areas from time to time where you can see seabirds going about their lives not far from the ship. Yesterday there was a lot of bird activity, and I had a lot of fun hanging out on the deck trying to photograph them. I thought I’d share a few images with you.

First, a bird we saw not on the Drake Passage but back in the harbor at Ushuaia: a kelp gull.

I’m told we may see kelp gulls again in Antarctica.

Perhaps the most common bird we were seeing Read more

More from Buenos Aires

This morning, while the majority of the passengers were still in the air en route to Buenos Aires, I took a cab over to Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve and spent several hours strolling with my camera. The reserve has an interesting history—it had been a dumping ground for construction debris, and then nature decided to take over, and now it’s an amazing green space in the shadow of the city’s skyscrapers.

I saw a lot of birds I couldn’t identify, but was lucky to encounter a couple of guides who looked at the images on the back of my camera and told me what they were. I haven’t had a chance to sort out the info they gave me; maybe I’ll post more about that another time. The coolest bird I was able to photograph was the one I’ve posted at right—I knew it had to be a bird of prey, but that’s about it. The guides told me it’s a chimango caracara. I did a Google Images search and am not convinced, but I’m sure they know their birds—especially the local ones—a heckuva lot better than I do.

By the time I got back to the hotel, the passengers on the trip were starting to arrive in large numbers. The scene in the hotel lobby Read more

Kim Yuhas Gets Us in the Antarctic Mood

In looking for Antarctica images to use in my onboard photography lectures, I poked around on Flickr and elsewhere, and I also thought about friends who’ve been to the Antarctic and who might give me permission to use some of their photos. One such friend is Kim Yuhas, a Penn State grad who’s now an attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission and who went to Antarctica in November 2015. Her Facebook album from the trip is loaded with terrific images. In addition to using a bunch of her photos to illustrate points in my PowerPoint onboard, I also thought I’d share some with you here.

Kim Yuhas in the Antarctic, November 2015.

What’s especially cool for me is that Kim was an intern at The Penn Stater at the time I was getting ready to host the Alumni Association’s 2002 Antarctic trip—and, though I didn’t know it at the time, my trip planted a seed with her.

I learned this when I complimented her on her Facebook photo album back in 2015. She responded: “I have been meaning to tell you that it was YOUR trip that piqued my fascination with the continent. I remember thinking, Wow, you can go there?! I’ve always wanted to say THANK YOU for the inspiration! It was a longtime obsession and dream come true to finally be able to make it happen.”

The other day I asked Kim to tell me how the trip finally came about. It turns out Read more

Antarctica Dreaming

I spent a little time yesterday looking in detail at where, exactly, in Antarctica we’ll be going. I looked at the itinerary and did a little Googling about each of the places we’ll visit. Then this morning I got out the Antarctic Explorer map that our editorial assistant at the magazine, Barb Fries, got me for Christmas and tried to plot our path. I’ve got it all figured out! So much so that I’m sure the captain won’t mind letting me steer the ship.

We really don’t go deep into Antarctica—we spend all of our time around the Antarctic Peninsula, a tendril-like slice of land and islands that extends about 800 miles north from the continent. Most of our stops are on islands; only once, I think, do we actually set foot on the mainland.

Below is a section of my Antarctic Explorer map that zooms in on our first few stops (I’ve underlined them in red):

At Port Lockroy, our first stop, we should be able to see the skeleton of a blue whale, as well as Gentoo penguins and blue-eyed shags (the latter being a bird I took for granted on my last trip, but do a Google Images search and you’ll see just how beautiful they are). I think this is also where Read more

The Countdown is On

In just a few days it’ll be Christmas, but less than 10 days after that, I’ll be jumping on a plane—OK, a series of planes—to Argentina, the starting point of the Penn State Alumni Association’s “Expedition to Antarctica.” I think I have the Christmas to-do list pretty much under control, but the Antarctic to-do list? Not so much.

Getting ready for any trip always seems to be a mixture of equal parts sweet anticipation and pure panic, doesn’t it? On the one hand, there’s a non-negotiable deadline—that plane out of State College is leaving with me or without me. And there’s so much to do between now and then: Round up my camera gear, run errands, pack, clean the house for the house-sitter, write my column for the next issue, back up and erase my camera memory cards, pay bills, find my passport, lose 20 pounds….

I’ve also given myself an extra set of to-do items, or, as a wise friend of mine calls it, self-inflicted stress: In addition to being host to the Penn State travelers, I’ve volunteered to be one of the lecturers on the ship. There are eight lecturers altogether, most of them people with Ph.D.s in fields like biology and geography and astrophysics, and then there’s little ol’ me, who’s going to talk about taking better pictures. I’m going to take the PowerPoint I’ve used in teaching “Travel Photography 101” in OLLI classes at Penn State, and rework it to be specific to Antarctica. In other words, “Here’s how you can take better photos on this very trip.” I’ll offer tips for photographing Read more

Dreaming of the Drake Passage

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Alumni Association’s Antarctica trip that I’ll be hosting in just over three weeks (!!!). In particular, I’ve got the Drake Passage on my mind.

Our trip, like most trips to Antarctica, is a cruise: We board a ship in Ushuaia, on the southern tip of Argentina, then go through the Beagle Channel and head south. As you can see from the screen grab I took from Google Maps, there’s pretty much nothing between the southern tip of South America and the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula—just 500 miles of open ocean, an area called the Drake Passage. It takes two days to cross the Drake Passage in each direction, and the potential for seasickness is legendary. Many people consider it the roughest ocean on the planet; one blogger called it “the least enjoyable part about a trip to Antarctica.”

But I’m actually excited about the Drake Passage. That’s because it’s also a great opportunity for bird photography. There are a number of seabirds down there that you’re not likely to see anywhere else in the world. They tend to either follow or fly alongside the ship (I guess they’re trying to catch the ship’s updraft?), and as a result, they can get close enough for some good photography.

Cornell University’s “All About Birds” website has a good article on the birds of the Drake Passage, pointing out how hardy they have to be to spend their entire lives at sea, and how graceful they seem in the face of winds and waves that humans would have a tough time surviving.

I remember on the 2002 Antarctic trip spending a lot of time out on the deck, where you could always Read more

It All Started With My Dad

Dad and me at some national park—Petrified Forest, perhaps?—in 1963.

I recently was asked to speak to a group of local photographers about “getting to the next level”—more specifically, about my lifelong experience with photography and how I’ve grown and learned as a photographer. The idea was to pass along some wisdom I’ve acquired over the years that other photographers might find useful. It was an interesting challenge, and a fun one.

I won’t subject you to the entire presentation here, but anytime I talk about my photographic roots, one person comes to mind immediately: my dad.

Dad was a photography enthusiast for a very long time. There was a cupboard in the TV room at our house that was stuffed with his various cameras, not only still cameras but movie cameras and projectors as well.

My favorite in the cupboard was a tiny spy-camera-looking-thing called a Minox—it was called a subminiature camera, maybe the size of a pencil case, and its negatives were unbelievably small. I was fascinated by it. At left is a photo I found on Flickr of a 1963 or 1964 Minox that looks identical to the one Dad had. I also remember his Polaroid camera, which would spit out the photo instantly, but you had to give it a certain amount of time to develop before peeling off the paper to reveal the photo. And with the early models, you had to Read more

10 Online Resources for Nature Photographers

If you’re looking to get better at nature photography, there’s an amazing universe of internet resources available—many of them free. Case in point: I subscribe to a weekly e-newsletter from the respected photographer Art Wolfe, and about a week ago, the email carried an announcement of an upcoming online critique session he’s offering. Next Monday, Nov. 27, from 9 a.m. to noon Pacific time, he’ll be looking at user-submitted images and talking about what he thinks works in each one, what doesn’t, and how the image might be tweaked in Lightroom or Photoshop to maximize its potential. Anyone is welcome to watch, and he’s doing this for free.

(I won’t be able to watch it live, as I do have a day job! But I paid 19 bucks—very reasonable, in my mind—in order to watch it later on my own time. From the website, I can’t quite tell if that $19 “watch it later” option is still being offered, but you should take a look.)

I don’t know if I’ll submit an image in hopes that Art will critique it. It’s not required. And to me it doesn’t matter—I know I’ll get a lot out of it just by listening to him critique other people’s images. It’s a great way to learn.

It got me thinking about how many other internet resources are available for photographers who want to learn. Below are 10 of my favorites: Read more

Beautiful Birds of Prey

I want to share with you six images of six gorgeous birds of prey that I was lucky to photograph up close at the NatureVisions photography expo a few weekends ago.

The expo is a nicely organized collection of opportunities for people who want to learn about photography: There’s an all-day lecture on Friday by a respected nature photographer, followed by a large array of choices for shorter seminars on Saturday and Sunday, mixed in with chances to do some actual shooting. This year they offered a session where you could do flower photography, a chance to photograph macaws and other parrots (I wrote about that last week), and a session featuring birds of prey brought in for us to practice on.

There’s a wooded area right outside the performing-arts center where the expo took place, so the guy who provided the raptors, Deron Meador—more on him in a moment—would just bring a bird out of one of the cages and position it on a tree branch at the edge of the woods, giving us a nice natural backdrop for our images. (The birds were tethered, so they weren’t going anywhere.)

Deron had a whole bunch of cages with him, an incredible variety of raptors. Below are the ones I was able to photograph before I had to scoot off to an image-critique session I’d signed up for. First, an American kestrel, a small, colorful predator that you sometimes see on power lines along Pennsylvania roads:

Next, a barn owl, which impressed me with its big round face: Read more