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My first Arctic expedition was also my first foray into digital photography. This was 2002. The D1, with a whopping 2.74 megapixels, was Nikon’s flagship camera and lower priced bodies like the D100 had not yet hit the market. But the premise of our project was that we would be updating a website daily with images and text, so Woods Hole sent me out with a 5-megapixel Nikon point-and-shoot as a supplement to my film SLR gear. I had never used a digital camera before and had only rudimentary experience with Photoshop. The learning curve was steep. I practiced with the camera before the trip but there were huge limitations compared to using an SLR system: the zoom lens had a small range of focal lengths, creative control of aperture and shutter speeds was limited, and, perhaps worst of all, the camera responded very slowly (both in terms of shutter lag and frame rate).
Yet, shooting with that first digital camera opened my eyes to the power of digital. I could see my results immediately — I knew when I had the shot or didn’t. Using a small point-and-shoot with a tilting LCD also allowed me to get some really candid shots that would not have been possible with a huge DSLR. The following year, I upgraded to a D100 and said goodbye to film.
A more important lesson I learned (and continue to learn) was how to photograph scientists. This may be patently obvious, but scientists do not have training as models. A surefire way to destroy a really intense moment, like a group of researchers discussing a recent result, is to wave a huge SLR in front of their faces. More than anything, I learned how to get the shots I needed while at the same time preserving the scientists’ respect and trust. Remaining unobtrusive is key. I always keep in mind that the fieldwork I am photographing is the result of years of hard work to get funding and prepare for an expedition. Time is a precious resource when you’re in the field, so I make it a point to never interrupt their work to stage a scene.
Everything I shoot is completely natural and unscripted and sometimes quite raw. Which isn’t to say that I wander about aimlessly hoping for lucky shots. I apply the same patience I learned from the grant writing process to carefully researching my subjects. This means I know what is going to happen (like when and where an instrument will be brought on deck) and will wait for the players and light to come together, sometimes for hours. I usually spend this observation phase with the camera ready but down, out of sight. As the hours and days go by, I eventually fade into the background, and voila, I’m invisible. Of course, it’s also essential to do your share carrying boxes, washing bottles, making dinner, or otherwise showing that you’re part of the team and not afraid to get your hands dirty doing real work. When you’ve earned the respect of the team—when you become a member of team—it’s a lot easier to get the shot.