FLYING OVER ANTARCTICA
I never dreamed that I would see the awe inspiring expanse of the Antarctic continent from the air, and I probably never would have had the opportunity without the fortune of winning a competition hosted by camera equipment retailer CR Kennedy and Sigma Australia.
Qantas Airlines and Antarctica Flights pair several times a year to offer the 12-13 hour flight, with around 4 hours of that flight time directly in view of the many geological marvels of Antarctica, including ice shelves, shards of the frozen ocean splintering under the unrelenting summer sun, and of course the mighty Transantarctic Mountains which divide Antarctica’s East from West.
The flight paths for each flight are based on what will be the best viewing given the weather conditions of any given day. Areas with too much cloud cover that restricts viewing is avoided as much as possible, although I found some of the interaction between cloud and mountain ranges to be quite beautiful and dramatic, as some of the photographs will attest.
Above: The first glimpse of Antarctic conditions, as we fly over the coastline of an island off the coast of Antarctica.
With Sigma as our host, we also had a chance to use a range of Sigma lenses. With an entourage of camera gear lovers on board they were in demand! From what I saw, the new generation of Sigma lenses are very beautifully made, with a clean, matte black aesthetic beauty to them. This isn’t the Sigma I knew of 5-10 years ago. But a commercial flight is no place for lens review, so I won’t go into that too much further other than to say the range looks very impressive and worth investigating on the ground.
Above: The coastline and ocean offer opportunities for abstract compositions.
There were a number of challenges shooting from on board the aircraft. Fortunately we were in business class, so seats along the edges of the plane had around 3 windows each. This gave everyone the opportunity to move around the cabin and change viewpoints. There was a community feeling among the passengers where windows were shared and features of the landscape discussed in awe. I was seated in the middle of the aircraft, and as someone that likes staring out plane windows this was a little difficult, but not too much of a hindrance while we were over the continent as we were all moving around. However I imagine in economy where there is tighter seating, the seat rotation the airline puts in place becomes far more important and sharing a bit more difficult due to the restricted space. In that instance I would want to ensure I had a dedicated window seat for half the flight.
Above: First glimpse at Antarctica.
The other major challenge is the quality of glass used in commercial airlines is made for the purpose of hurtling through the air at 1000kmph, rather than being optically sound. It’s fine to look through but for those wanting pin sharp captures, I found you had to work that much harder. There are some spots in the windows to get a clear shot, but shooting at angles or off center causes some interesting distortion and lack of clarity. In some instances I would focus on an element center of frame, and found the sharpness off to the side. In others there was what appeared to be motion blur, but I believe that was an optical effect of the glass rather than movement of the aircraft – which was similar for my shots both sharp and lacking. So my advice there would be to shoot many frames of your favorite sights on the trip, and if you find you’re missing focus or sharpness, re-evaluate from the center of the window.
Above: The plane will fly around key features in such a way that both sides of the plane get a look, and it also offers the opportunity to see different angles and directions of light.
Antarctica Flights also recommends bringing sunglasses on the flight. As someone that left mine in Brisbane because I was too busy organising my gear, make sure this is up there on your list. Although you may not shoot with them on, they do offer some respite in between. The 24 hour sunlight hitting white snow and ice is at times quite overwhelming. I know I had to take a small time out in the middle of the aircraft just to rest my eyes from being bombarded with so much light. I could even close my eyes and see where the windows had temporarily burnt themselves into my vision!
Above: So bright! Floating ice interacts with the sunlit ocean.
A few other technical shooting tips;
- The longer the focal length, the more movement is going to show up through the lens when you are zoomed in. So make sure you have a faster shutter speed to account for that.
- Get your lens close to the window. the closer you are the less any dirt on the window is going to show up.
- Remember to turn your flash off if you’re using a camera with one inbuilt. It’s not going to be useful for anything and will just light up the window, ruining your photo.
- You are already far away from the subjects you are photographing, so you can open your aperture a little, which you can then use to have an increased shutter speed at the same exposure. Most of the shots here were at f2.8 which is really ample when you are far away from everything.
- Although a circular polariser is often used to shoot remove or reduce reflections when shooting through windows, I didn’t find it necessary to use it, and it caused some funky optical discolorations through the aircraft windows anyhow.
Above: Glaciers and their crevasses can make interesting subjects.
The service throughout the flight was excellent, with multiple meal and drink options available, Qantas in-flight entertainment, and experts in collaboration with Antarctica Flights providing information on key geographical features throughout the fly over, as well as offering an insight into being stationed at an Antarctic base. Having these experts on board is a great touch and the passion they have for the white continent is evident in the reverence with which they speak of it. Part of the fun was hearing them get excited about some of the great viewing on offer!
Above: Sea ice breaking up.
Probably one of the most compelling reasons for the trip, beyond the obvious visual nature of it, is the contrast between where we take off, and what is observed.
Australia is the only continent in the world without a glacier. Our snow is seasonal and relatively mild. We also have to drive or even fly to see snow, the closest I’ve seen to Brisbane being a six hour drive to what was an extremely rare weather event – a storm from Antarctica. Although there has been some closer at Stanthorpe. Frozen geography like this is such a foreign concept in this burnt land of ours, and yet we along with the Chileans and New Zealanders are closest to it. The only thing that would come close is the Greenland Ice Cap, which speaking from experience is a good 30-40 hours of flights and transfers from here.
Above: Massive icebergs from Antarctica’s glaciers.
If you have the money, set aside the day and do it. Even more so if you are unable to make the trip to Antarctica by boat. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget and I have to once again thank CR Kennedy and Sigma for that opportunity. Keep scrolling for some more photographs of the fly over!
There is plenty of opportunity to create dramatic black and whites in Antarctica.
Antarctica… being out here you are among the furthest people in the world from civilisation.
Interaction between cloud and continent can be quite beautiful.
Glacier meets ocean.
As a final message I wish people to know that Antarctica with its freezing temperatures, mighty blocks of Ice and grand mountain ranges is fragile. The effects of global warming are beginning to be felt at the Southern reaches of our world. Right now there is a crack, the size beyond our human comprehension, forming in the Larsen C Ice Shelf (not somewhere seen in flight). When the crack reaches the other side of the shelf, it will form the largest ice berg ever recorded and likely trigger the collapse of the rest of the shelf and glaciers behind it. You can read more about this by finding your own reputable news sources via google or New York Times has a decent article describing what is happening. What is happening around the world cannot be denied. We need to make positive change, embrace clean energy, and make responsible decisions about how to maintain billions of people while minimising destruction.
I hope you enjoyed the photographs!