Capturing The Perfect Photograph - The Fortress

We welcome this guest post from the amazing mind of Joshua Holko (

It is a very rare occasion in my photography when I click the shutter and instantly know I have managed to capture something special and out of the ordinary. It has probably happened to me only a few times during my photography career.

I recall one such moment, which took place more than a decade ago when I was swinging on a rappel line high above the ground at the You Yangs National Park. I was photographing my brother lead climbing a classic trad-crack rock climb. It was late afternoon and the light was soft with high cirrus cloud muting the usually strong contrast of the Australian sun. Facing a potentially serious fall, my brother slowly inched his way up the rock and into my viewfinder as I hovered in space above him. I was staring down the line of the climb with my camera, watching his every move. As he climbed into the frame, he paused for just a moment and, with muscles rippling, he lifted his head and winced as the summer breeze blew the chalk dust from his hands. The rope went slack as the belay fed out some line, and I fired the shutter. That was the moment. With a last effort my brother quickly stuffed a ‘friend’ into the crack in the rock for some protection and promptly fell off, utterly spent. The resulting photograph still hangs in my brother’s living room and is a reminder to me that photography is so often all about the decisive moment. Unfortunately, I long ago misplaced the transparency and my only record of this shot is now the ageing 16 x 20 Cibachrome.

Copyright Joshua Holko, 2010. Abandoned Blue Berg.

I experienced another of these decisive moments in Iceland in 2010 when I shot the large iceberg ‘Blue Berg’, which had washed ashore on the black sand beach at the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon. With a storm brewing on the horizon and the sun falling low in the sky, all of nature’s elements were in perfect alignment for a great image. I set my desired aperture and shutter speed, loaded the graduated neutral density filter, shot some frames and knew I had a great photograph that I would be very happy to hang over my mantelpiece. This photograph subsequently went on to win the 2010 World Extreme Environment Photograph of the Year People’s Choice Award and won a Gold Award in the Landscape category at the 2010 APPA Awards.

The truth is these kinds of opportunities are probably more prevalent than I realize. It is why the skill of just looking and really seeing is of such importance in photography. Failing to recognize the opportunity when it presents itself is a tragedy for the photographer, so it is important to train yourself to be always looking - even when you are not out with a camera.

On my recent trip to Antarctica I was fortunate to come across another opportunity of this type. It was somewhere around the Gerlache straight, and we were slowly cruising past gigantic stadium-sized icebergs in our ice hardened ship, ‘The Ocean Nova”. As our expedition leader Graham liked to put it “Just cruising in Captain Alexey’s zodiac”. The weather was overcast with soft, dim, moody lighting that I find ideal for photographing icebergs. Suddenly, we came across this massive, jagged iceberg with its precipitous peaks and hard chiseled surfaces. I was standing on the Port side of the ship chatting to my friend Andy Biggs about the Leica S2. As we drew closer I had to make a quick decision about what lens I was going to use to best capture and accentuate the iceberg’s characteristics. I use prime lenses almost exclusively, which meant I needed to make a decision on the spot as to how I was going to approach this particular opportunity. Whilst zoom lenses provide greater immediate flexibility for framing, I prefer the quality of primes for my work.

In this instance, I decided to use the Canon 17mm F4L TSE Tilt and Shift lens on my 1DS MKIII and scurried back to my cabin, dove into my Kiboko bag, and quickly changed glass. By the time I arrived back on deck we were already beginning to circle the iceberg and most of the other photographers were already firing away, whilst simultaneously staring in awe at one of nature’s most amazing wonders.

The decision to use the 17mm F4L TSE was an easy one for me, since I knew immediately I wanted some perspective control to stop the ice peaks from appearing to fall away from the viewer (a problem with wide angle lenses that are tilted when shot). Although perspective control is relatively easy to do in post-production, I prefer to try and get it right in the camera wherever possible (it means less pixel mangling later and I am first and foremost a photographer and not a Photoshop technician). I also wanted to use some lens shift to get me lower and closer to the water since we were shooting from several stories high on the ship. This was a delicate balancing act, since dialing in some lens tilt changes the plane of focus. Although I could have shot this close to wide open without any tilt and achieved adequate depth of field, the introduction of some lens tilt meant I had to be very careful to stop down enough to keep the top peaks of the ice in focus - in other words achieving infinite depth of field from near to far was no longer the issue. I had to achieve sufficient depth of field from top to bottom and this could only be done by stopping down the camera sufficiently - in this case F8 proved perfect. I also had to balance my ISO setting and shutter speed to avoid camera shake (tripods are out of the question on a ship), manually focus the lens (the 17mm F4L TSE is manual focus only), shield the lenses bulbous front element from the pervasive salt spray and get my framing right, all whilst on a pitching, and moving ship surrounded by other photographers all jostling for position.  There was a lot to think about and lots of opportunities for mistakes.

In the end, I shot about two-dozen frames with the 17mm F4L TSE lens of this iceberg while Captain Alexey circled it in the Ocean Nova. I was fortunate that there was some good moody cloud cover to soften the light when we came upon this iceberg. Direct sunlight would have made for much harsher shadows and less pleasing light.

Of all the shots I took of this iceberg only one has what I consider to be the perfect angle in combination with ideal lighting – and this is it. A shot I have titled ‘The Fortress’ for its castle-like precipitous peaks.

Copyright Joshua Holko, 2012. The Fortress.

When I sat down to start this entry I had in mind that I was going to talk about how I processed this photograph in Adobe Lightroom 3.6. However, I realized when I put pen to paper that I had really done very little to the RAW file at all. Basic corrections included setting the white and black points, adding some clarity (+25), refining the crop slightly and capture sharpening appropriate to the camera/lens/shot combination. I also added a graduated filter and vignette to darken the top of the sky; which I normally would have done ‘in-camera’ with the use of a graduated neutral density filter. However, due to the bulbous element on the 17mm F4L TSE it is virtually impossible to use filters. I decided after some tweaking that I actually preferred the white balance as set by the camera and left the temperature at 5650 and the tint at -2, as shot.

Antarctica is an incredibly surreal location for photography. The pallet of colours on display is quite literally unbelievable. No embellishment is required and as such this photograph was processed with zero vibrance and zero saturation. The shades of blue in the deepest crevices of the ice are naturally so intense that they already fall outside the gamut of some printers.

I would estimate that this iceberg was roughly the size of a football field (above water) and was about eight to ten stories high from the waterline with its jagged and precipitous peaks towering above our ship. Icebergs of this size are quite stable even in relatively strong winds and we were able to get quite close as we cruised past in our ice-hardened vessel. I had my 24mm F1.4L MKII lens on my 1D MKIV camera over my shoulder and although I took some frames with that camera and lens I was not able to fit the entire iceberg into the frame and as such those frames I feel lack the impact of this single image.

In the end, I could have shot this iceberg with pretty much any lens but decided in this instance that it was the iceberg in its entirety that was amazing to me. I deliberately included the distant shore on the left of the iceberg to put the iceberg into context and I also included the distant tabular iceberg on the right to balance the frame. Although I am still editing, sorting and processing my photographs from this expedition, the end result in this instance is a photograph that I feel may stand up as my signature image of this remarkable trip.

Sometimes Bigger Isn't Always Better, It's Just Bigger

Lenses are like shoes, or even better, cars for some people. We can’t define the line where utility ends and accumulation begins; though our spouses often try to define it for us. Sure, the camera companies don’t make life easy; there seems to be a new lens introduced monthly. Canon dangles a carrot on a regular basis for the wildlife photographer’s dream lens (EF 400 f/2.8L IS II) that rarely seems to find its way on to store shelves. When it does, we lurch like a rabid feral animal at its first meal in days. Wildlife photographers in particular are special beasts that feed on bigger glass. As we stare at our ever-growing collection of optics, the question begs, which one will come out of the bag and why?

Copyright Joshua Holko, 2011.

Often, the reasons are an interesting study in human psychology. When shooting in a workshop setting, group dynamics often come in to play; each person looking around to see what lens everyone else is shooting with and either pulling out the same lens, or a notch up longer for ego sake. But bigger isn’t always better, its just bigger.

There is nothing wrong with a long lens. Focal lengths from 300mm to 600mm are great for situations where focusing in on the subject is key to the frame. Sometimes background distractions are easily obscured with a longer focal length by virtue of physics and their shallow depth of field capabilities. (A great primer on depth of field can be found on Luminous Landscapes In the case of the dirty penguin shot by my friend, and phenomenal photographer Joshua Holko, the dirty details matter. It’s bath time for this little fellow.

In many instances, a long lens is the only ‘safe’ solution. This is often the case when shooting certain types of wildlife. Mammals like giraffes tend to have a wide safety zone where no man shall enter. Predators or prey in environments where humans don’t frequent also don’t tend to allow us to get close enough with that 50mm f1.4 prime we love. Getting closer to fill the frame is simply not an option, so out comes the bazooka.

The biggest downside to shooting with a burly 500mm f4 isn’t the weight, or the limitation in movement; it’s simply that it often forces us to ignore the bigger picture. Sometimes, when every one else is reaching for the big guns, we should instead look around and see what the entire scene in front of us has to offer. I think the photo below drives this point home very well. On his recent trip to Antarctica, Andy Biggs focused on using lenses that don’t find enough time in his hands. Shot with his 24-70mm f2.8, this photo of a penguin tells a story that only a wider perspective can tell.

Copyright Andy Biggs, 2011. |  Nikon D3, 24-70mm f2.8, shot at f6.3, ISO 800

Lens selection plays an important role in the photographic process. But ultimately, the lens itself is simply a tool. Understanding which lens to use when and why is important. Having a vision and knowing how to use the tools is more important than simply being able to say that you own them.

Joshua Holko's Antarctica Recap

Joshua Holko, who was on the Antarctica voyage with Andy Biggs last month, recently wrote about his experience and shared his thoughts about Gura Gear.

On the Way to the End of the World

From Joshua Holko’s blog:

In many ways this was the Gura Gear trip to Antarctica. I would estimate somewhere around 40-50% of all the photographers on this trip were sporting at least one Gura Gear Kiboko camera bag. And who can blame them? There is no such thing as the perfect camera bag for all occasions; but it was universally agreed amongst all those photographers I spoke with that the Gura Gear Kiboko is the best camera bag on the market and as close to perfection as possible. I am utterly convinced that the Kiboko is the number one camera bag on the market and it was great to be able to spend some time with Gura Gears founder and chief designer Andy Biggs to relay my experience with the Gura Gear product. One of the added side benefits of the Kiboko is that it has very much become the photographers ‘introduction tool’. With so many photographers choosing the Kiboko it has become a symbol for the travelling photographer and both my friend Martyn and I had conversations with several others at airports who recognised us as fellow photographers due to our Gura Gear bags. All good fun and a really great way to meet other photographers.

Gura Gear Founder Andy Biggs - Looking very ‘North Face’

This was the maiden voyage for the Gura Gear Chobe for me. If you read my pre-flight review HERE then you are already well aware that I had high hopes for this bag based on my initial impressions and thoughts on how I planned to use it. I am very pleased to report that the Chobe lived up to my expectations throughout the trip. In fact, the Chobe has convinced me that it really can serve as both an overnight bag and as a dedicated camera bag depending on your specific needs at the time. Given its ability to also carry a laptop, card readers, back up hard drives and other accessories it really can meet just about any demand. Whilst I wouldn’t do any serious  hiking with the Chobe (and it was never designed for this purpose) I would quite happily sling it over my shoulder and carry it in the field for an extended period. Quite a few other members of the trip were also sporting Chobe’s in addition to their Kiboko’s for additional camera gear, laptops and accessories – Gura Gear are definitely on a winner.

Penguin trying to nick my Kiboko

To read the rest of Joshua’s experience check out his blog HERE.