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Celia Gelfman, a technician on the research team, threw down the gauntlet one day while I was photographing in the lab: Capture the beauty of bioluminescence. I followed Celia to the walk-in refrigerator where the tiny crustaceans called zooplankton are stored. Celia presented me with a big jug of water. I could see a few translucent critters about the size of a pencil tip swimming around. Then Celia poured some of the water over a sieve, and wow! For a few seconds after the pour, neon-blue Metridia lit up and raced around the mesh. The challenge was on to find a way to photograph these glowing animals.
The goal of this scientific expedition to the Bering Sea is to understand how a warming climate is affecting the food web. Research teams on the ship are studying phytoplankton (microscopic marine plants), copepods like Metridia, and krill (larger zooplankton that resemble shrimp). These “charismatic microfauna” are found throughout the world’s oceans, and they are food for other zooplankton, fish, birds, and even whales. Among the many zooplankton species that scientists have collected on this expedition, one has a very special trait. Metridia, when disturbed, give off a neon blue light like an underwater firefly. This is called bioluminescence.
I enlisted writer Helen Fields to hold the sieve over the sink and we started experimenting. First, we turned off the overhead lights and blocked the fluorescent light leaking out from under a counter. In order to record only the light from the copepods, I needed the room to be dark. Next I set up my Nikon D700 and a 105mm macro lens on a tripod and aimed it at the surface of the sieve (using a flashlight to manually focus on the sieve). I was assuming that, just like lightning, the neon trails of moving Metridia would burn bright lines into a dark background during a long time exposure. The first exposure confirmed that they would indeed show up. It took a few more tries to find the perfect shutter speed (four seconds) and the best way to hold the sieve (duct tape, of course!) Lastly, the Metridia had to make an interesting composition. It took about an hour to make this image.
Tonight (May 11th), we arrive in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where this journey began nearly six weeks ago. I’d like to extend a big thank you to our sponsors, the National Science Foundation and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, for supporting the most important and fulfilling work I have ever done. I would also like to thank the RESOLVE blog for helping me get the word out about climate change science in the Bering Sea. What’s next? This July I’ll be trading sea ice for mosquitoes when I travel to eastern Siberia to document researchers studying arctic rivers and lakes. Visit the Polaris Project to follow our adventures.
In addition to documenting the tools and techniques scientists are using to understand the Bering Sea ecosystem, my other mission here on the icebreaker Healy is to showcase the beauty of this otherworldly environment. A key part of that environment is sea ice. Sea ice is formed from the freezing of seawater, as opposed to icebergs and ice shelves, which are formed on land as compacted snow and ice and slide into the ocean. Sea ice ranges in thickness from paper-thin to up to ten feet. Most of the ice we have encountered has been between 1-2 feet thick. Seals and walrus use sea ice to nurse their newborn pups. Ice cores reveal brownish-green ice algae growing on the underside of the ice, which nourishes tiny animals, which in turn feed the rest of the web of life. Without sea ice, the Bering Sea would be a very different place.
You might imagine that ice pretty much looks the same-it’s all frozen water, right? Turns out that when water with salt in it freezes, it actually goes through a number of different phases, each one of them quite beautiful. While it’s hard to say which type of ice is my favorite (I’m an ice junkie; I love them all), I am particularly drawn to the broken up bits that mark the ice edge, where waves from the open ocean cause the floes to bump into each other and crack up into tiny jagged pieces, giving the ocean surface the look of a big jigsaw puzzle. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is a stormy place. Cloudy days and gray skies have been the norm. So I am often looking for scene-setting icescape shots at the edges of the day just after sunset and before sunrise when the sky glows blue.
One of the tools in a photographer’s bag of tricks is the ability to stop action or blur it based on their choice of shutter speed. One evening as I watched the broken up chunks of ice slide past the side of the ship, I got the idea to shoot ice in an impressionistic way that conveyed that motion. I set up my tripod and connected a cable release. My first attempts, using just a several second shutter speed, rendered the ice as long wavy lines streaking across the frame. It was interesting, but almost too surreal. I needed to see some definition in the ice while retaining that sense of motion. A little pop of light from a Nikon SB-900 speedlight zoomed to 200mm gave me what I was looking for. I set it to a slow, rear curtain sync mode and blasted away at the moving ice again and again, hoping that just the right shapes would come into view at the right time. After a few dozen tries this composition floated into my frame.
After 22 days photographing daily stories aboard a 420-foot ship, I can tell you that I’ve used up all of the obvious vantage points. I’ve climbed to the aloft conn, the highest point on the ship, for night shots of the ship moving through ice and low-crawled around the main deck to shoot instruments being hoisted into the air. There are very few places I haven’t poked my camera.
For one story we covered the seabird and marine mammal observers. They work in one of the most difficult places to shoot: the bridge. This is where the crew drives the ship. It is high up and lined with giant square windows from end to end, which let in a lot of light. Since this is the only light source, you’re faced with a monster contrast problem. Add to this the fact that these observers are, well, observing. That means that they are pressed up against the windows with binoculars stuck to their eyes. This leaves you with a rather predictable side shot or a very unflattering back-of-the-head shot, both with a washed out sky background.
As I was pondering this dilemma, I watched a bird fly by and I thought –- that’s it! I’ll shoot them from a bird’s perspective—outside the windows looking in. Well, it turns out that there is no way to look in those windows from outside unless you’ve got wings. Plus it’s a good 50 foot drop to the deck. However, there is easy access to the roof, which is also called the flying bridge. So I thought, what if I lowered a camera from above?
I decided to use a monopod to lower my camera to window level. I attached my Nikon D700, with a 14-24mm lens set to 14mm, to a Gitzo monopod using a Really Right Stuff monopod head. Then came the tricky part. We were steaming at about 10 knots when I took the shot, into a 20 knot headwind. That makes 30 knots of wind in my face (which is roughly 35 miles per hour). The air temperature was about 22 Fahrenheit, so the wind chill was in the flesh-numbing range. Yes, I could have done this in calm weather and better light, but I had just thought of it and that day’s story was due in a few hours. So I had to make it work.
I tied a line from the camera to a railing so that if anything went wrong I wouldn’t be dropping thousands of dollars worth of gear onto a very unforgiving deck. I prefocused the lens and set the exposure manually so that ambient light coming through the viewfinder wouldn’t bias the exposure. I set the interval timer to click off a shot per second. Laying on the deck, I gradually lowered the camera four feet down, until it was level with the windows below. I bracketed the composition by slightly turning the monopod as the camera clicked off the shots. The first attempt was a failure because Liz, one of the observers, couldn’t stop laughing when she saw the camera (which in all honesty, had the very unsubtle look of an Inspector Clouseau spy camera). On the next round I tried Marty, and he was so intent on his work he didn’t even notice the camera. Those were my best frames — they create a completely candid portrait of a bird observer at work.
After two weeks on an icebreaker in the Bering Sea, science writer Helen Fields and I have settled into a comfortable groove, cranking out photo essays every night for the Polar Discovery website. This is our process for turning out daily news with an ice-bound, two-person team.
The goal of the Live from the Poles project is to tell stories about how scientists study the polar regions. Our stories fall into two broad categories. If something unique happened during the day, the photo essay will be a “Wow, this amazing thing happened today” narrative. To keep the website fresh and interesting for 40 days, we also sprinkle in stories that draw photos from different days, like the one we’re working on today about the different types and shapes of sea ice. So while I may be shooting for a “daily news” story, I will also have about a dozen other future stories rattling around in my head.
For example, I may be photographing a graduate student analyzing the contents of a mud sample from the seafloor. I’ll shoot not only the storytelling shots showing her doing the work in the lab, surrounded by mud and equipment, but also a few tightly cropped portraits for a possible future story featuring graduate students, plus some close-ups of her mud-covered gloves for a story about working hands. As I walk from the lab back to my stateroom, I notice a textbook example of newly formed sea ice glinting in the light of the setting sun, and I snap that for today’s post about ice.
Throughout the day Helen and I compare notes on our theme and the list of potential photographs that will illustrate that story. I typically take between 500 and 1,000 12-megapixel RAW photos during the course of the day. After dinner I download the images to an external hard drive and edit, deleting the junk and moving keepers into appropriately named collections using Adobe’s Lightroom software. This takes roughly two hours.
Once I have a collection of 20-30 photos, the haggling begins. Helen and I sit down and discuss what shots best tell the day’s story and the order in which they should appear. This means that some of my pet shots don’t make the cut because they don’t fit the story. Conversely, sometimes Helen has to do extra reporting so we can include a really outstanding image.
While Helen is writing, I do some basic tone and color corrections, size the images for the web, and email the photos to the editor and web designer back at our home base, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The entire process is usually finished by 10pm. Then I format the compactflash cards and head back out on deck to catch the last hour of light and some nighttime science operations. It always pays to work ahead because there are no days off until we get back to the pier on May 12.
It’s 11pm, and the sky has just melted into the electric blue of twilight. I’m covered head-to-toe in fleece but the wind is still sneaking chilly fingers down my back. Stretched out in front of me is 420 feet of US Coast Guard icebreaker, and at my back is the ice-covered water of the Bering Sea. The crew has just turned on the icebreaking floodlights, and the beams stab out into the night like dueling light sabers. All I need now is for the ice to cooperate. Too much sea ice, and the vibration of the ship’s hull crunching through it, will destroy my 6-second exposure. I wait, gloved finger on the cable release and my other hand on a tripod leg, until I feel the vibrations subside. The ship turns, the full moon slips behind a cloud… Click. Mirror up. Click. Shutter open. Thunk. Shutter closed, mirror down.
This first week has taught me that the best light in the Bering Sea happens after the sun goes down. For the first five days, we had nothing but lead-gray overcast skies. I can only do so much with a plain white, no-contrast background. Night to the rescue. As soon as it started to get dark on that first night, the deck lights came on and bathed the scientists and sea ice with beautiful light. Since then I’ve spent as much time as possible shooting the “available darkness” between dusk and dawn.
Speaking of dusk, it’s getting late, the ship is stopped, and instruments are about to go in the water. It’s time to zip up the exposure suit, pull on my waterproof, steel-toed boots and hard hat, and hit the deck with shutter blazing.
The fifth Live from the Poles expedition starts on April 3 and runs through May 11, 2009. Science writer Helen Fields and I will be joining a large research team studying the impact of climate change on the Bering Sea ecosystem aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaking ship Healy.
The Bering Sea is one of the most productive regions of the world’s oceans, accounting for nearly half of the total U.S. fishing catch. Climate models are forecasting substantial warming for the southeastern Bering Sea shelf region, which will dramatically alter the distribution of species of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. Understanding this ecosystem and how it will respond to rapidly rising temperatures is of critical importance to both commercial and native fisheries. The 40+ researchers aboard the Healy will be deploying instruments and collecting samples in round-the-clock shifts for six weeks straight. Our two-person media team will be in the thick of the action, whether it’s collecting cores of sea ice or lowering high-tech plankton microscopes into the icy water.
In addition to the still photography, I plan to spend more time collecting professional-quality audio during this expedition. Although I have collected ambient sounds during previous trips (see the Polar Fun pages on the Polar Discovery website under each expedition), for this trip I plan to add interviews. I will continue the time-lapse photography I experimented with on the last few expeditions and perhaps even dabble with videography.
All of the photographs I take on this expedition will be tagged with the latitude and longitude using a GPS tagger, which will make them particular useful to the science team. But the core objectives of the project will remain the same—to deliver cutting-edge polar science to the public online through professional still photography and science writing.
Ultimately, my goals as a photographer are to communicate three things: the process of doing science, the excitement of science as a career, and the beauty of the earth’s most remote places.
The “Live from the Poles” project has given the public a glimpse into a world that very few people will ever experience — the inner workings of major polar research expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. I believe that the “behind the scenes” moments of overcoming logistical hurdles, deploying instruments, and just plain surviving in the polar regions are all important stories that are seldom covered by traditional media. Let’s face it, working at the edge of the map is adventurous, and I shoot the expeditions like any other adrenalin-soaked activity like mountain biking or climbing. Which relates to my second goal…
I believe that scientists have suffered from a branding problem. What do you think of when you hear the word “scientist”? At least when I was growing up, it conjured images of white-bearded men scribbling obtuse formulas on blackboards or huddling over bubbling test tubes. While this stereotype may have some basis in fact, it doesn’t accurately describe the scientists I know. My colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and other earth science research institutions often brave punishing weather conditions to collect their field data, on glaciers, mountains, oceans, and volcanoes. I have photographed oceanographers working in the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras in winter, when waves up to 30 feet high threw our 177-foot research ship around like a child’s toy. I have trudged alongside glaciologists as they explored miles of rugged terrain on the Greenland Ice Sheet. These people are as tough as nails and determined to the core. With my photographs, I am hoping to create a new image of active, adventurous scientists. By extension, I hope that our audience, particularly kids, will develop a stronger interest in science as a career.
My final goal, to document the pristine and otherworldly environment of the polar regions is, in some ways, the easiest task and in other ways the hardest. Obviously, these places are incredible locations for landscape photography. There are no tripod holes from previous shooters here — in many cases I am seeing landscapes that no other human eyes have looked upon. But to get the very best shots, you need to give up certain comforts, like sleep. Often, the best light for landscape photography in the Arctic and Antarctic occurs in the middle of the “night.” During our final week on the Greenland Ice Sheet last summer, the entire sky flushed pink for an hour every night at about 2 a.m. Sleep becomes a luxury in conditions like that; I pushed myself hard every day to document the science, napped for a few hours, shot until 5am, then repeat. I just tell myself, you can catch up on sleep when you get back.
Check out the rest of this series from Chris Linder, who went from writing grants as an oceanographer to getting NSF grants to visually document scientists. His insights range from grant writing to this post about packing for the extreme conditions of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Also, you can register now for Chris’s upcoming webinar live from the Bering Sea.
The simple answer to the question, “How much gear do you take?” is, “As much as I am allowed.” Each expedition has presented a different sort of logistical challenge. For a ship-based expedition, like the trip aboard the Swedish icebreaking ship Oden, there was really no limitation to what I could bring. A 400-foot-long icebreaker is like a small floating city, and typically you can walk your gear right onto the ship.
For other trips, like shooting in remote Antarctic field camps, I was severely weight-limited. Everyone traveling to McMurdo Station (the largest U.S. base on Antarctica) is allowed only 85 pounds of personal luggage on the C-5 flight from Christchurch to McMurdo (not including carry-on). When you factor in the heavy weight of parkas, cold-weather gear, and boots, there isn’t much room left for photography equipment. So for that trip I loaded my heaviest gear into a small carry-on backpack and packed the rest of the lenses, tripod, and accessories into socks, long underwear, and parkas, and stuffed them into a combination of hard and soft cases.
Generally, while traveling I carry a small backpack with essential camera gear plus two hard-plastic Pelican cases—one for laptops, chargers, and hard drives, and the other for extra photography and communications equipment. Often the cases will be sitting out in the rain or snow for hours at a time in transit, so waterproof hard cases are essential. On a typical expedition, I will bring:
On location, I prefer to work out of a waist-belt system made by ThinkTank. I carry one body with two lenses in a Digi Holster 50 and the rest in lens cases strapped to a heavy-duty waist belt. This system allows me to quickly swap lenses without slowing down, while also preserving my spine. Since 99% of my photographs are not posed, being ready to grab a shot at a moment’s notice is critical.
Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What’s was the hardest lesson you ever learned about packing or traveling with gear?
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.
When I wrote the “Live from the Poles” proposal with the WHOI Director of Communications, this was our justification and plan for the embedded media team:
“Insightful writing and compelling images are the heart of every successful publication. The core of this project is support for a professional science writer and field photographer to join each expedition. Scientists are frequently working around the clock when in the field, and have little time to describe their fieldwork with written dispatches and photography. They also cannot be expected to have the training required to produce professional photographs and video clips. To ensure that the groundbreaking research conducted during this historical period [International Polar Year] is properly documented, support for the writer/photographer team is critical to this proposal. The team will be responsible for filing daily dispatches including science updates, logistical challenges, team member profiles, and life at sea (or on the ice). The team will also coordinate real-time phone patches from PIs [Principal Investigators] in the field to museum audiences, National Public Radio stations, Scholastic magazine, and manage student Q&As with scientists. An experienced shore-based team at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) will manage Web updates from the field, and prepare publication of photo essays and articles in Oceanus magazine, which receives 30,000 visits online each month.”
To summarize, we were cognizant of the lack of quality photographs coming out of scientific expeditions and saw an opportunity to assemble a professional team to tell visual stories from the field. The trick was to do it daily from some of the most remote places in the world.
So why photograph science fieldwork? There has never been a more important time to understand how our planet works. Glaciers and Arctic pack ice are shrinking at an unprecedented rate. Rising temperatures are causing profound shifts in ecosystems. In the October issue of Scientific American, John Holdren, a Harvard physicist and President-elect Obama’s White House science adviser, wrote that “the ongoing disruption of the earth’s climate by man-made greenhouse gases is already well beyond dangerous and is careening toward completely unmanageable.” According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a consensus of the world’s scientific experts, we (human beings) are causing unprecedented changes to our climate.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a doom and gloom kind of guy. Despite the challenges that rising global temperatures will present in the coming years, I believe in human ingenuity and resilience. And scientists are out there in some of the harshest places on our planet, like the Greenland Ice Sheet and Antarctica, collecting data on past and present changes so we can better predict future conditions.
I’m an idealist; I see science as a noble, selfless profession. By photographing scientists in the field, I am hoping to communicate a deeper understanding and respect for the scientific process and profession, and to urge people to use scientific knowledge of the world to help sustain it.