The making of… Amongst the ice clouds

Antarctic Skua amongst the ice clouds
Laubeuf Fjord, Antarctica
This image is one from January’s Antarctic expedition that tends to make people do a double-take. Is that a bird upside-down? Are those clouds? Where’s the horizon?
I’d like to “draw back the curtain” and tell you some of what went into making this image.

It was just after lunch, south of the Antarctic Circle (at 67° 15.528’S, 67° 51.635’W to be precise) and I was on the observation deck at the front of the ship (above the bridge) as the ship slowly moved north into the region known as “The Gullet”. The scenery was constantly changing as the ship moved, and I had two cameras with me: an EOS 5DmkII with 24-105mm/4 lens, and an EOS 40D with 100-400mm lens. I was almost in a frenzy, with so many scenes opening up before me and disappearing again. I’d pick up one camera and shoot a wide-angle sequence, then see a detail I wanted to capture and switch to the other. It was an amazing experience (one that I was getting used to: Antarctica is amazing!) and to cope you need to get into “the zone”, slowing down and pacing yourself. To give you some idea of the environment, on the right is a photo I made with the 5DmkII, literally about 30s before the Skua photo.
With the light being constant (no clouds in the sky) I had the cameras in Manual exposure mode, having taken a couple of test frames to check the exposure before I started. That way as I panned around the exposures were going to be consistent, not affected by how much white ice/snow or dark water was in the frame. I was of course shooting everything in RAW.
Up ahead I saw a bird standing on one of the pieces of ice, and decided to grab the telephoto and watch what the bird did. The ship was going to pass fairly close to it, and I knew it was going to move soon. I had the camera in continuous focus (AI Servo in Canon terms) and tracked it in the viewfinder as we approached. My idea paid off: the bird took off and flew low across the water as we approached. I took a string of photos of it as it flew (by pressing the shutter button multiple times, not by holding the button down and praying: the 40D’s buffer would have quickly filled) and later when editing the day’s take on my laptop this particular frame struck me as having an interesting arrangement of bird, ice, and water. I may have “chimped” at the time and looked at the 40D’s LCD after shooting to double-check what I got, but I don’t remember for sure. I do know that less than a minute later I was taking photos with the other camera of the reflection of a glacier field, so I didn’t stop for long.
The only processing this image has had (other than fixing the white balance using a photo of a grey reference from about the same time) is to crop it slightly to remove some distracting ice pieces at the edge of the frame. Unfortunately once the bird had decided to fly away from us it was never going to look back, so its head is obscured in this image. But I like to think it doesn’t matter. From my position high on the ship looking down onto the water, the background was simply a reflection of the sky (and the bird/ice). The “horizon” is way above this frame, and the result challenges many viewers’ assumptions.
By the way, the GPS coordinates were recorded by a GPS unit in my pocket, and later downloaded to the laptop and used to geo-encode the day’s photos inside Lightroom (I checked the camera clocks each day to make sure the timestamps on the photos would match the GPS). This is a standard procedure for me, as it makes it simple later to check against maps and sort out the accurate information such as place names.

Final shooting data: EOS 40D, 1/500s, 100-400mm at 400mm, f/8, ISO 100

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