What Worked – What Didn't
Cloud and Arch. Fish Islands. Antarctica, January, 2009
Sony A900 with Sony 70–300mm f/4.5-5.6 G @ ISO 200
A two week long photographic expedition to Antarctica means putting a lot of planning and preparation into what equipment one brings. Airline carry-on limitations being what they are, size and weight are serious issues. So too is reliability and appropriateness of the gear chosen. B&H doesn't deliver to Antarctica, and if you find yourself there without the right lens or accessory, or a suitable backup body when your primary one decides to take a bath in the Antarctic Ocean, you'll end up s///t out of luck.
So, as I often do after a major shooting trip or workshop, I like to report on what worked and what didn't, my own as well as other people's gear.
With that as preamble I'd like to make a special mention of Michael Tapes, the man behind Rawworkflow.com and the Whibal white balance card system. Michael was gracious enough to provide every member of the expedition with a key chain sized version of the Whibal. This proved to be extremely helpful to everyone in trying to achieve accurate colour balance in the bizarre light conditions of Antarctica. Thanks Michael, from all of us.
A word of thanks is also due to Kevin Raber, Phase One's Vice President of Sales and Marketing for North America. Kevin is a long-time friend and an ardent and talented photographer in his own right. He has been on my previous two Antarctic expeditions at his own expense. He came this time with the support of his company, and he provided other members of the expedition with an opportunity to use and borrow a P45+ and a P65+ back along with Phase One 645 cameras and lenses during the voyage.
Many people took advantage of this offer and were exposed to medium format digital for the first time. The ten Phase One owners who happened to be on the trip also had the opportunity to test the new P65+ back, as did I. I know that at least six of this group are now going to be upgrading to the new back based on their shooting tests, as will I. My review of the P65+ will appear here in the days ahead. Thanks Kevin and Phase One. Your contribution was much appreciated.
Cameras and Lenses
Since I purchased a two-body seven-lens Sony A900 system some months ago for long-term testing this was my main squeeze for this expedition, and was used for more than 4,500 of the roughly 6,500 frames taken during the three weeks in Argentina and Antarctica.
Both of the cameras and all lenses performed flawlessly, without any hiccups, in all sorts of weather and shooting conditions. I won't write much more about the A900 as I have already written more than enough on these pages about this exciting new camera over the past couple of months. My overall impressions continue to be very positive, but with a couple of caveats.
Though the DxOMark database now confirms that the D3x has a one stop advantage at higher ISOs over the A900, which was also verbally confirmed on this trip by one of the industry's leading authorities on raw processing, I still sometimes end up seeing higher noise from the A900 than I would care for. It's strange, because I have some ISO 800 frames (see below) that are essentially noise free, and yet others at ISO 200 that seem to have a bit more texture to them than they should. Curious.
Sony A900 with Sony 70–300mm f/4.5-5.6 G @ ISO 800
The Sony and Zeiss lenses continue to please, and the Sony 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G was my most used lens by far, for shooting not only from the ship but also from Zodiacs and onshore. This is my personal favourite focal range, and this lens is about as fine as I've used at these focal lengths. I also had along and occasionally used the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G, and while a very fine lens I found that I used the slightly longer 70-300mm not only because of its greater range but also lighter weight.
I had along the Sigma 12-24mm and 50-500mm and will have a separate review of them here soon. The shorter lens didn't get much use, but the 50-500mm was used extensively from the deck of the ship for distant vistas, and when combined with the in-body stabilization of the A900 performed very well indeed in this role.
In addition to the Sony gear I was loaned a Phase One 645 camera, a couple of lenses, and the new 60 Megapixel P65+ back. Frankly, I was expecting just a higher resolution P45+, which I have owned and used for some time. But the P65+ once again raises the image quality bar by a significant amount. I'll have a full field report here as well within the next couple of weeks.
Canon had loaned me a 5D MKII which my business partner Chris Sanderson intended to also use to shoot a video documentary on our trip, but regrettably it failed in the rain on our first day ashore. Chris will report on this experience soon. Regular contributor Nick Devlin was along with his own new 5D MKII, which worked in the rain and humidity on this trip without problem. His report will appear here soon as well.
Just prior to leaving home Nikon came though with a D3x for my use and I will again have a report here in by mid-February. Briefly though, it performed flawlessly, and image quality is superb.
Finally, along with about 30 other trip members I had along a Canon G10 as my pocket camera, and used it quite a bit while we were in Argentina, as well as aboard ship for snapshots. It didn't disappoint.
I noted as well that quite a few people had the Canon underwater housing for the G10 and were happily dunking their cameras in the ocean whenever we went on Zodiac cruises, as well as were using them on deck the ship during high seas and in salt spray. Needless to say I now have one of these housing on order and will test it while snorkeling on a trip to Costa Rica in mid-February.
Other People's Cameras
With 77 photographers and instructors onboard there were naturally-enough a lot of different cameras and lenses to be found.
Shooting conditions were mostly benign, though we did have light rain on a couple of days early-on during some shore landings, and salt spray was always an issue. Temperatures were moderate, ranging from about +2C to -3C during our two weeks at the Peninsula. Since it was -30C in Toronto for a few days during that time, Antarctica was positively balmy by comparison.
About 70% of the expedition members and instructors were shooting Canon, and some 30% were shooting with Nikons. Lots of D700's among the Nikon crowd. Of the Canon shooters a surprising 50%, a total of 26 people, had the new 5D MKII, while among the Nikon shooters there was just one D3x (other than the test sample I was carrying).
There were also ten Phase One backs on a mix of Hasselblads and Phase One / Mamiya cameras, and one Imacon (Hasselblad) back. I was the sole Sony DSLR shooter, and there were also a Fuji GX 617, a Hasselblad Xpan, and a Contax 645 system shooting film, along with one Panasonic G1 and a bevy of Canon G10's.
There were unfortunately a number of camera and lens failures. Weather was the culprit in some cases but salt spray and hard knocks in others.
In a summary session on the last day at the Peninsula I asked everyone to report on any equipment failures. Here's the tally.
The top LCD on a 5D MKII spontaneously cracked; Another 5D MKII had a jambed on lens caused by a loose screw, a 1Ds MKIII reported intermittent problems; a 1D MKIII kept reporting Error 99; one Hasselblad reported electronic lens connection problems; two Canon G9's failed (no G10s had any reported problems), and a Nikon 80-400mm lens came apart. No Nikon bodies (mostly D700s) failed in any way.
The largest group of failures through were among the Canon 5D MKIIs. Of the 26 samples of this camera onboard, one quarter (six) failed at one time or another, and while three recovered, the other three never did. In all cases it appeared to be water or humidity damage. Of particular concern were two cameras which stopped working while completely protected within Kata rain covers during a light rain ashore. They came back to life the following day though and were mostly fine for the rest of the trip, but one died permenently just before the end of our voyage.
Several people noted that when returning to the ship after working in light rain 5D MKIIs with vertical battery grips tended to collect water in between the grip and the base – something that may have been the cause of some of the failures.
I should note that the 5D MKII's are not rated as weather resistant, but then neither are the Sony A900's. I deliberately allowed both of my A900 bodies be exposed to the rain for two days ashore to see how they would stand up. There were no operational difficulties. I also have used the Sonys back here in Toronto in snow storms, (unprotected), both before and after the Antarctic trip, with no ill effects. Though also not claimed as weather sealed, they appear to be as well protected as any other camera I've ever used.
As for the failed Canon 5D MKIIs, I hope that expedition members will report back to me with what Canon service has to say about what happened to them. As for the loaner that we had, Canon says that it was a unit that had been in circulation for testing prior to coming my way and it might have suffered some water damage previously.
I don't know what conclusions should be drawn from this high percentage of 5D MKII failures. All I can do is report on the facts of the matter. As for the weather during which most of the failures happened, it was no worse than a drizzly day in winter in New York or Berlin. Nothing Antarctic about it at all.
Phase One 645 with 75-150mm lens and P65+ back at ISO 100
My bag on this trip, as it was on my September, 2008 workshop in Botswana, was the new Kiboko backpack from Gura Gear, Andy Biggs' new company. Once again this proved to be the ideal pack for serious international travel and moderate hiking. It held both A900 camera bodies along with six lenses, a flash, various filters, accessories, flashlights, cleaning tools, rain covers, and more. Fully loaded it topped the scales at more than 30lbs, but since it fits in an airplanes overhead compartment I had no issues traveling with it. Also, because of its excellent harness system, it carried very comfortably during shore excursions and moderate hikes.
I also carried a shoulder sack style bag for my 15" Macbook Pro, hard drives, and various personal items such a wallet, passport, books etc, for when flying.
My duffle bag contained my light-weight Gitzo tripod with RRS head. I would have preferred to carry my Induro and big RRS head, but with getting on and off Zodiacs a couple of times a day, and some longer hikes, I decided that I'd forgo the extra mass. As it was I only brought the tripod ashore once.
I brought along my 15" Macbook Pro and two 500 GB portable drives. I downloaded cards to both drives simultaneously using Lightroom and when traveling home carried the drives in separate bags. No issues.
Interestingly, though Macs represent only some 5% of the total computer market, at least 60% of the photographers aboard were using Mac laptops. A few people didn't bring their computers though, instead using Hyperdrives. Adobe Lightroom was by far the most popular image processing software, used by probably 90% of the expedition members. A couple of people used Bridge and Camera Raw, and a couple were using Nikon Capture NX.
As always, I carried too much stuff. Prior to a trip it's all too easy to look at what might be required and then to figure – I just might need this, so I'd better bring it along. My guess though is that I had 50% more gear with me than I needed to, notwithstanding the fact that I was field testing a bunch of new equipment.
I had six lenses for my A900 system, but in reality only used three of them. I had two primary bodies, and used both all the time within different lenses attached, so the second body served as more than simply a back-up in case of failure.
I enjoyed having a pocket camera (the Canon G10) along, as did most others trip members, because it allowed for shooting snapshots and casual videos when our main cameras were back in the cabins.
The Gura Gear bag did its job admirably, but I have to say that for airport trekking I think next time I'll bring a rolling cart, which I noted that a number of others with this same bag did.
Camera files keep getting larger, and more and more storage is needed. Two 500GB drives did me fine for this trip, but I'm pleased to note that 1 Terabyte portable drives are now starting to appear, as are 32 GB cards. The space race continues – and just in time.