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Guest post: My year in Antarctica

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My year in Antarctica 13
My year in Antarctica 2
My year in Antarctica 9

Todays's guest post "My year in Antarctica" is by Stefan Christmann (http://www.nature-in-focus.de) who is working at the Neumayer III station in Antarctica as a physicist and was able to capture some amazing images with his Nikon D700/D800 cameras (click on images for larger view):

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It's 3am when my alarm clock rings. I am only half awake when I slide into my boots, covering myself with a thick jacket and putting on my beanie. Descending the stairs I can feel my body slowly waking up and when I open the door, a cold gust of wind blows into my face making the moisture in my nose freezes in an instant. The sky is pitch black with a million stars twinkling like holes punched into a backlit curtain. Soft clouds roll in the distant, starting to glow in pastel colors with a thin bright line visible along the horizon. My perception of my surroundings becomes crystal clear and I realize, that I am standing at the end of the world - Antarctica. While I walk to the Pistenbully, the solid-frozen snow shatters underneath my steps, sounding like cracking glass and spreading out in front of me. I turn on the block heater of the motor, since it will have to run at least 45 minutes before the machine can be safely moved. Coming back inside my glasses fog up from the warm air condensating on the cold lenses. It's 3.15am when I start packing my gear. I check all lenses, batteries, extra memory cards and loosen the knobs on my tripod, since they would lock up in the cold otherwise. Pouring my morning coffee at 3.30am I meet Lars on the hallway as he is getting ready for our trip as well. He's one of the few people I could always talk into getting up for a pre-sunrise tour to the bay. He's not quite awake yet, but I know he will be, as soon as the cold air hits his face when stepping outside. At 3.45am I start putting on my polar clothing. First of all a thin layer of long underwear and thick socks. Then another layer consisting of a thick fleece pullover and fleece pants. Moving already feels awkward when I slide into my red polar overall. It's not very fashionable, but I know it will keep me somewhat warm for 3-4h outside. Lars has joined me in the changing room. Together we make the last checks, get radios and GPS units and carry all our stuff outside. The bully weeps a few times before the engine finally starts.

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Kriechendes Licht
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It's a 45 minute drive, since the bully can only go 12 km/h. The ground is frozen rock-solid and every sastrugi feels like a pot-hole on an old beaten track. The glowing line across the horizon is getting brighter as we approach the edge of the shelf-ice. Far in the distance we can already see the peak of a tipped-over ice-berg, that we have called "sad glacier" for its funny shaped snow cave. Just like every morning it frowns upon us as we arrive at around 4.30am. The wind has picked up a bit and bites in our faces. A familiar chant reaches my ears as we descend the ice-ramp into the sea-ice. In about ten minutes we will be at our final destination. The emperor penguin colony of Atka-Bay. We are incredibly lucky to be stationed so close to one of the largest emperor penguin colonies of Antarctica. On our way there we are greeted by single penguins traveling towards the open sea in order to hunt for fish. The remaining birds are standing closely packed in the so-called huddle - the penguins' secret weapon against the wind and the cold. I look towards sad glacier and realize that our old friend has started to glow pink. The show has begun.

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The next four hours pass in an instant. The only reason for me to really tell that we have been outside for quite some time is the numbness of my face and my fingers. Also my toes have started to go numb, which is usually a good reason to pack up my stuff and head back to the bully. Back inside the warm vehicle a feeling of victory takes a hold of me. Again I have witnessed a marvelous sunrise in Antarctica, again I have won the battle against my alarm clock and again I have been stunned by natures incredible beauty, which just never fails to amaze me. I feel grateful and privileged to the utmost extent.

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Antarctica has been my photographic dream. Together with a group of eight other people I have lived here for an uninterrupted period of 14 months, nine of which we were completely isolated and only reachable via satellite communication. Our team consisted of four scientists, one doctor/surgeon, one communications engineer, one chef, one mechanic and one electrician and kept our research base and all the scientific equipment running throughout the Antarctic winter. Usually, people who travel to Antarctica visit the continent during the southern summer, when the Sun never sets and temperatures just barely drop below zero. During winter however, at our latitude of 70°40' South, the Sun did not even rise for six weeks straight and temperatures fell beyond -45°C. These are incredibly challenging conditions, for both man and machine.

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Obviously temperature is the most limiting factor when it comes to photography in Antarctica. Although I rarely had camera malfunctions, there were a few times when the lubrication of my lens' aperture or the camera's mirror mechanics was too sluggish to function correctly. Once my D700 stopped working after 45 minutes (at -42°C and 20 knots of wind) but every time it regained its full functionality after warming up again. With some 80k clicks the D700 has been my workhorse and I have really come to love this camera. The same is true for my D800, which arrived in the first plane after winter. The quick locks of my Gitzo tripod kept freezing up quite often though. For the most part of winter I had to decide up front if I wanted a low or a high tripod setup for the trip, since slight amounts of water in the threads of the knobs would freeze and block their movement completely. After visiting the penguin colony it usually took a whole day to slowly warm up my gear in my photo bag again. Of course I always put the memory cards in my pockets before entering our station ;).

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Aside from the gear functioning correctly, there were quite a few other pitfalls, which I had not anticipated. For example being able to move freely and quickly change positions is just not possible if your are dressed in your polar clothing. We approximately wore 7-9 kg of additional clothing when shooting outside and even if you're really fit, you will have to catch your breath after running 300 feet because you wanted the Sun to rise behind the pointy part of the iceberg. Combine this and the fact that every breath against your viewfinder will make it freeze up in an instant and you got yourself a real problem! ;) Of course you can easily clean it if you take off your gloves - it just costs you the top layer of skin on your fingertip. Or try to switch your ISO settings with gloves on .. I could go on and on and on!

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Please don't get me wrong. I am not trying to sound like a hero for coping with all these less than ideal conditions. In fact I enjoyed every minute of freezing my butt off and every numb finger I got. Besides, there were many things we did to make life easier. We built external battery adapters for our cameras so we could put the batteries into our pockets where they stayed warm and retained most of their original capacity while we were waiting for auroras. We also had gloves with heating resistors, that could be connected to the batteries of our skidoos. Most of the time solutions to our problems were quite simple to find and it was fun to come up with new ideas.

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I really hope that this article and my images can convey my deep fascination for this continent. It is still a mainly untouched wilderness and it needs to stay like that for as long as possible. To me Antarctica is ultimately the one single place on this planet where man is not shaping the landscape, but where the landscape is shaping man.

Mond über dem Meereis

You can follow Stefan Christmann at following websites:

Website: http://www.nature-in-focus.de
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/christmann.photography
Whytake: http://www.whytake.net/Profile/StefanChristmann/0000002097

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • at

    Amazing photos, great work and thank you for sharing!

  • joao luiz rosa

    Lindas imagens…q visual

  • Tony Bologna

    Easily the most inspiring web series i’ve seen to date. Thanks for sharing!

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ Nikon Rumors

      I agree – my favorite guest post to date.

  • Bill Pahnelas

    fabulous!

  • tertius_decimus

    Amazing post! Very impressive story and captures. Thanks for sharing!

  • Bkmy

    wasn’t there a Lars in ” the thing”? : |

    • Lars

      haha thanks bkmy, that anynody saw that threr is a “Lars” in the great story :-)

  • Joseph

    This is the BEST guest post on this site. SUPERB photos, great story, and an inspiring person. Great job!!!

  • Obtusia

    This is great work. Thank you for sharing.

  • Art

    Inspiring…..

  • Scott

    Awards! And a Nat. Geo. grant!

  • Shane Baker

    Great images – and what’s more, originality in shots of penguins! Well done.

  • Daniel

    Amazing job! Congratulations!

  • http://www.facebook.com/DeanneHolmer Deanne Holmer

    Wow what an amazing opportunity and what stunning, STUNNING results!

  • fergz

    I never bother to comment, but this made me comment. Wow.

  • NNinAZ

    Thank you for sharing! What an amazing opportunity and fantastic photos! Antarctica is one of my dream destinations. Someday…

  • Benoît

    Wow , thanks for sharing your experience and great work!

  • Steve

    Inspiring work! Thank you for sharing

  • http://www.facebook.com/barefootintactivist Barefoot Intactivist

    awe-inspiring photos and commentary… thank you

  • Bill

    Just breathtaking photos. Loved his website also. Awesome.

  • SJL

    I’ll echo what others have said. Probably the best guest post I’ve seen here. These are tremendous photos.

  • James

    Amazing images! So many places to see in the world. Better get saving.

  • aekn

    Wow, simply Wow!

  • Yves

    Wow! Great post, great story and above all great photos.

  • Denis Heinrich

    Nothing more to add, everything has been said already!!! Just GREAT!!!

  • Spy Black

    You are a fortunate man to have the opportunity to visit this place on earth. Someone recently sent me a link to a YouTube video of a compilation of beautiful places on earth from a BBC Natural History series, I’m not sure if the poles were left out, but it just reminded me of the little opportunities one has to see the world as such. You’ve had the opportunity to visit and photograph one such place, and you’ve done a great job of capturing the world there. For anyone who like to see the compilation video, you can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6v2L2UGZJAM

  • DigitalSprings

    Photos are fine but story is great…. I read the story many times and saw photos few times… Photos are brilliant but story is human…

  • guest9

    Congratulations Stefan!
    Excellent work!

    Admin, this is the way.

  • Chris

    Don’t breathe on your lens! :p

  • dida56

    Makes me want more. Not afraid of cold fingers. Beautiful pictures – thank you.

  • Alex

    Amazing images and inspiring story. Thank you.

  • Photographer 4

    Excellent

  • http://twitter.com/fabricerdz Fabrice Rodriguez

    Stefan, you’re a talented photographer and storyteller . You photos are stunning and I encourage everybody to visit your website to see the rest of your work. very good job, congratulation.

  • Robin

    Great post! I’d love to see more like this. Perhaps a weekly thing to introduce?

  • http://500px.com/yoan_mitov/ Yoan

    Fascinating!

  • Nick

    Wow.

    I also love the way it is set out – the string of pics of penguins and then the kicker of the textured iceberg, just to show you can do it all.

    Wonderful – I’d be in awe of the dedication, without the technical skill, and above all the eye!

  • Christophe

    Great pictures and lovelly story !

  • desmo

    great post and amazing photos, especially the one of the ” Huddle that appears to be all young birds” hadn’t seen that before

  • Greg

    Compelling narrative and amazing images.

  • Bill

    An excellent article and fantastic photos. Thank you very much.

  • Oz

    This is the best post EVER.

  • Rph1978

    It makes me feel cold just reading about this wonderful place. Beautiful photos. Good to know that the Nikon D800 can withstand extreme temperatures. A 35mm film camera would have done well in such cold environments.

  • david

    Awesome…story and pics..i agree, best guest post to date..heck, probably the BEST post period! Now where’s my fleece and camera, i’m heading out!

  • Maji

    Breath taking images and a superb story to go with it. Inspirational to say the least.

  • The Optimist

    Just like the post from the RV/yacht couple, this story demonstrates that despite their lack of certain lenses, and features, you can rely on your Nikons to bring back the images.

  • peterw

    “The remaining birds are standing closely packed in the so-called huddle -
    the penguins’ secret weapon against the wind and the cold.”
    Your picture of the huddle shows how it functions. great picture.

    compliments with your photostory on this, well, once in a liftetime?

  • Don

    Hey, thanks for making me feel like a lazy bum! Just kidding: great work! Keep it up.

  • Evan Spellman

    That is a Truly Inspiring Set of Penguin photo’s–the emotion captured here is nothing short of True Essence and Beauty !
    thank you for posting these photo’s here !

  • Katze Grelly

    Das ist der WAHNSINN ! Selten so faszinierende Fotos gesehen.

  • http://twitter.com/Ishcoaa Evan Krosney

    I think that the first few sentences were describing Winnipeg,

  • n11

    Awesome stuff. Jealous of the opportunity he has! And breath-taking photos he takes!

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