Guest post: My year in Antarctica

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Todays’s guest post “My year in Antarctica” is by Stefan Christmann ( 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:


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

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