Capturing The Perfect Photograph - The Fortress

We welcome this guest post from the amazing mind of Joshua Holko (www.jholko.com)

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.