Amazing South Georgia 2012 (Podcast 368)

by | Apr 16, 2013 | Art Talk, Podcast, Workshops | 0 comments

Having finally uploaded my favorite shots from my visit to South Georgia and Antarctica to my portfolios site, today I’m going to talk about some of my favorites from South Georgia, and tell you a little about that wonderful place.

In November and December 2012, I was working with Aurora Expeditions, teaching photography to a small group of passengers on three consecutive expeditions, the first of which took us to South Georgia before we went on to the Antarctic Peninsula. We’ll get into Antarctica next week probably, but this week, I wanted to look at 12 images from the first voyage. I flew first to Santiago in Chile, then on to the Falkland Islands, and we then sailed for three days, 1,390 kilometers (864 miles) east-southeast of the Falklands to the beautiful Southern Ocean archipelago of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

If you didn’t already check out the 10 minute video slideshow that I released as last week’s Podcast episode, I’ve embedded the video into the top of this week’s blog post too. It might not be for everyone, but I’m happy with the way this video turned out. It’s full 1080p HD video too, so if you have enough bandwidth, hit the cog wheel in the player and watch fullscreen in the highest quality. Turn up your speakers too, as I matched the photos and video to a nice peaceful soundtrack.

To pre-empt a few of the questions you might have, note that there was no ice in the sea on the way to South Georgia, the footage we start with of the ship breaking through sea ice, was shot in Antarctica a few weeks into the expeditions. This was a little bit of artistic license on my part, but I thought it kicked off the video really well. From a photography project perspective, I’m finding more and more that I like to get some video footage as I travel, to really liven up this kind of presentation.

We’ll look at a few images in a moment, but I also wanted to mention that around six minutes into the video you’ll sea wonderful blue ship, called the Polar Pioneer. She’s an ice strengthened Russian vessel and was home for the five weeks I spent on these expeditions. It wasn’t the first time I’d traveled in the Poloar Pioneer, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. She’s a beautiful ship, full of character and fond memories.

I answered a few other questions on the original slideshow blog post, and I may touch on a few more when we talk about Antarctica, so we’ll leave it there for now. If you’d like to take a look, the blog post is at Now let’s look at some of the photos from South Georgia.

This first image is the opening shot from the slideshow video. I was amazed at the size of the King Penguin colonies at Salisbury Plain and a few days later at Gold Habour. I’ve seen this sort of colony in documentaries, but I honestly hadn’t expected to see them on this voyage.  The wider angle shots, a few of which I’ve included in my portfolio, don’t really do this spot justice. I found it better to get in a little closer, and use shallow depth-of-field to emphasize the number of penguins.  This was shot with my 300mm f/2.8 lens stopped down just a little to f/4.

King Penguin Colony

King Penguin Colony

As you can see, I’ve focussed on the young chick, but this is really about the group of adults walking and standing around. The colors of these magnificent penguins are absolutely stunning. The chicks are quite ugly really, looking a little bit like Cruella Deville, from 101 Dalmatians. Another thing the video and photos don’t put across is the smell. You get used to it, but a colony of penguins like this is pretty ripe. You’re clothes actually smell of rotten fish when you get back to the ship, but it’s all for a good cause.

This next image is from a few days later at a place called Fortuna Bay, where there are substantially sized Elephant Seal and Fur Seal Colonies. I remember feeling significantly afraid as I tried to get close enough to this guy to get the shot I wanted. I was with my friend Ade, who had joined the expedition, and we were walking up and down the beach, trying not to get trapped by the fur seals that can be quite vicious. There was also a slightly younger male elephant seal swimming around behind us, trying to find a spot on the beach, and this guy was partially reacting to him, and also reacting to me, to a degree, I’m sure.

The Morning After

The Morning After

The rule is that you aren’t allowed to get closer than 3 meters, or stand in places that cause these guys to change their behavior, but this guy was so vocal there wasn’t much chance of me getting any closer than this, which I shot at 420mm, this time at f/6.3, to get a little more of his bloody neck in focus than a shallower depth-of-field would have given me. Not super deep, but a nice balance of sharpness and pleasing background bokeh in my opinion.

The following day we spent a good chunk of time at Grytviken, an old whaling town that is now home to a museum, a church, and a small graveyard that houses the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s grave. The main group gathered around the grave as I was doing some long exposure shots, but as I made my way up to the grave later, I felt a huge wave of emotion at the braveness and determination of the man that did so much down here in South Georgia and Antarctica.

The legacy of the town though isn’t one us humans can be particularly proud of, when you see the wrecked Petrel, a whaler still with the harpoon gun proudly positioned on the now rusty bow that we can see in this photo. This is a longish exposure, at 25 seconds, so there’s a bit of cloud movement and the sea has pretty much smoothed over, but leaving a little bit of texture.

Abandoned "Petrel"

Abandoned “Petrel”

I like to use Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2 for long exposures, and I have a few black and white shots from here in the set too, but for this shot, I liked the rust color and the greens in the rugged environment, so I enhanced the texture a little in Color Efex Pro 4. By the way, if you haven’t heard, Google have now put the entire Nik Software package of plugin’s out there for just $149! I’m not sure how long this will last, but at the moment, my code MBP15 is still active, giving you a further 15% discount, taking the price to a staggering low $126.65, so if you’ve ever thought about buying these plugins, now is a great time to do it. If you enter my short-link (Sponsored by Google) into your browser, the code should be entered for you automatically, but otherwise, try entering MBP15 on checkout, and see if that still works for you.

When you shoot as many images as I did during my five weeks at sea on these voyages, it can be a major task in itself just to work through your images and make your selections, so I try to keep on top of this as much as possible during my time in my cabin and on sea days etc. I spent a few more days going through my images at the end of December, after finishing a private tour that I did straight after getting back from Antarctica, and pretty much had my selection down by the start of this year.

One thing I love to do though, is to revisit the original RAW files a few months after a major trip like this, to see if there’s anything I overlooked in my initial frame of mind. I think we develop certain expectations while in the field, and they affect our editing decisions if we do them quickly after any particular shoot. This is why I like to leave my final decision on what to show people at least a week or so after the shoot, but it’s always great to look back six months or so down the road. As I was going to create the slideshow video and update my portfolio Web site, I didn’t  wait quite six months, but I was close enough to go through this exercise before doing these recent tasks, and one of my favorite shots now is this next one, which I originally left out of my selection.

Grytviken Wreck

Grytviken Wreck

It’s another wreck at Grytviken, this time a 36 second exposure at f/14. Again, this is a Color Efex Pro 4 enhancement, as I wanted to keep the rust colors, and the green of the weed attached to the remains of the hull of the ship, as well as the red in the mountains on the other side of the bay. The two dark figures in the sea in the foreground are actually a couple of fur seals that where lying around as I made the shot.

I’m not sure why I originally didn’t like this. It was probably the iron structure on the beach in front of the wreck, as that still bothers me a bit now, but not enough to leave this out of the selection.

The day after Grytviken, we went to the second major King Penguin colony at Gold Harbour. This place again was incredible! It was here that I got another of my favorite shots from the trip, of a pair of King Penguins cuddling up. The tenderness in this shot really moves me. I was lucky enough to have witnessed this at a spot where there was a fresh water stream of melted snow running behind the penguins, so I could get some beautiful balls of sparkling bokeh in the background.

King Penguin Tender Moment

King Penguin Tender Moment

Surprisingly, I’d actually stopped down to f/9 for this shot, but because I was pretty close for 420mm, I still got a nice shallow depth-of-field. In fact, if I’d gone much wider at this distance, the background would have been so soft I’d have lost much of that effect, so it’s a fine line.

I wandered along the beach for a while too, and got some shots of the King Penguins going out to sea, and here’s one of them that I quite like. I cropped this down to a 1:2 aspect ratio, to emphasize the distance between the forerunner and the guys at the back. They often go out to sea like this, waiting for one brave penguin to go first, because if there are any predators in the area, it’s safer to go after someone else.

Testing the Water

Testing the Water

It was another amazing day, that I didn’t think could get any better, and then, it started to snow, as you can see in this next image. You know how much I love snow, and this was just the icing on the cake for Gold Harbour. I was like a kid in a candy store, running back to some of the locations I’d shot earlier using the fine snow to effect. I shot this at f/8, again at 420mm, just singling out a group of penguins, but the compressing effect of the long lens accentuates the number of penguins in the colony behind this group and also enhances the effect of the snow in the air.

King Penguins in Snow

King Penguins in Snow

We went back to the ship at around 11am on this day, after a magical landing, and then in the afternoon went out for Zodiac cruise. With the fine snow still falling, I got this shot of an Arctic Tern in flight. These are small but truly beautiful birds, and again here, I love the feeling of suspension that the snow affords the image. The tern actually splays his tail feathers out like that when they are hovering and moving slowly, then fold them into a two pronged fork like a swift when they are flying at speed, so we can see here that he’s suspended to a degree. There’s wing movement though, even at 1/400 of a second and although that often annoys hard-core birders, I love to see a bit of wing movement in a shot.

Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern

Towards the end of this Zodiac cruise, I shot this regal looking Fur Seal, again, in the fine falling snow. You often see just one or two fur seals up on the rocks like this, and I imagine they are guarding their territory, though I might be wrong. I actually learned to seriously dislike these guys while on this expedition. They will run along the beach to come and try to bite you, and a number of times, especially at Grytviken, I had to use my extended tripod to ward them off. We’re in their world of course, so I feel bad for feeling this way, but I wouldn’t be too concerned if I never got close to a wild fur seal again. Unfortunately, I believe there will be a colony or two in Africa when I’m there next month. Hopefully they’ll be better behaved than the ones we met in South Georgia. 🙂

Fur Seal in Snow

Fur Seal in Snow

The last five images were all shot on November 17, and this was to be our last day in South Georgia before sailing down to the Antarctic Peninsula. The grand finale though, was a Zodiac cruise and then a wonderful sail around the Drygalski Fjord in the Polar Pioneer.

In this shot again I used Color Efex Pro to bring out the amazing texture in the sky and water. This is one of those shots that really needs to be viewed large though, as deep in the image, close to the horizon of the water to the right is a Zodiac and the Polar Pioneer. If you look close enough to the largest sized Web version of this (click to enlarge), you can see them, but they aren’t obvious at first. They give you an idea of the scale of this place though.

Polar Pioneer in Drygalski Fjord

Polar Pioneer in Drygalski Fjord

The dramatic skies and grandeur of the Drygalski Fjord will make the couple of hours we spent cruising around on Zodiacs one of the fondest memories of my life. Again, it’s hard to do justice to the scene with a wide angle shot like this. However much you might get from this shot, believe me, it’s only a 100th of the actual awesome beauty of these locations.

Again, to me, the longer focal lengths capture the feeling of this place better than the wider vista. This next image, shot at 75mm showing the face of a glacier in the fjord with the magnificent rugged mountains behind, captures the spirit of Drygalski for me much better for me. As a highlight of South Georgia, the captain of the Polar Pioneer took us right up to the face of a vast glacier, and although in reality we were still a way off, it almost felt as though we could reach out from the bow of the ship and with a longish arm, touch the glacier directly.

Drygalski Fjord Glacier

Drygalski Fjord Glacier

Everyone on board knew that there was a certain amount of risk involved, but as the light faded at the end of our last day in South Georgia, with the entire passenger list congregated on the bow, I don’t think anyone was going to complain. It was another memory of a lifetime.

To finish with, let’s look at one last image, a sunset that I shot on one of the first days in South Georgia, as we sailed around the island to a new location, just as the sun poked through the heavy clouds. This is a slightly ore subtle use of Color Efex to bring out detail in the sky to the right of the sun, as I had exposed this to keep some details in the foreground water, allowing the sun to blow out but also letting the right side of the sky get pretty bright too. Using Color Efex I was able to balance this out, bringing the right side of the sky under control a little, and also bring out more texture in the bottom line of cloud as the dark area ends.

South Georgia Sunset

South Georgia Sunset

I’m going to finish with this shot as it feels like the end of this part of the voyage, and that is how I used this image in the video, before we move on to Antarctica. I also included a bit of video footage of the Polar Pioneer in a storm, shot from the bridge, on the highest deck, which is I think deck 6, and we still took had water from a wave washing across the bridge windows, so it’s quite impressive to see. I had the tripod taped to the hand-rail for that video by the way.

Anyway, that’s it for South Georgia. I expect to be back here in the coming years, hopefully with some of you, but for now, I have really enjoyed reliving the week in South Georgia through my photos, as I put the video together and updated my portfolio site. After this, we sailed for three days across the Drake Passage, arriving at Penguin Island on the Antarctic Peninsula, and were to spend three days, before heading back to Ushuaia in Argentina, ending the first of the three expeditions. We literally picked up a new set of passengers, and turned around and went back across the Drake, meaning I spent six days on the notorious Drake Passage between the first and second, and the second and third expeditions. Part of my job was to gather photos for a slideshow in the lecture room on the last night of each voyage, and gathering images for the ships log, so although crossing the Drake is like a weekend for the staff, it was a busy one each time, but a lot of fun too, seeing the photos that the passengers took.

Next week I’ll walk you through some of my favorite shots from Antarctica. If I can’t fit them all into one episode, we’ll run for a few more weeks, but I have other stuff that I want to move on to, so I’m not sure yet. Either way, if you are interested, do take a look at the video, and to see most of the shots at your own pace, the portfolio site is the best place to go.  I’ve actually got the top page set up to cycle slowly through all of the South Georgia and Antarctica shots at the moment, so if you go full screen it can be quite an immersive experience.

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Show Notes

See my full gallery of South Georgia and Antarctica images here:

Or view the images full screen on the top page, for the time being, here:

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