Category: Travel

The Seventh Continent: Antarctica in Photos

Panoramic of Portal Point, Antarctica

I recently traveled to Antarctica spending about 10 days aboard the Ocean Nova, a Danish-built vessel with an ice-strengthened hull. The journey took us across the Drake Passage and along a segment of the Antarctic Peninsula. There’s so much to share about the Seventh Continent that I’ll break the content into a couple blog posts. This one covers the big picture in photos. The next couple posts will cover some of the portraits I made of expedition staff and things you should know when visiting Antarctica, especially with photo gear.

I’ll preface this post by saying I have more photos from this trip than any trip I’ve ever taken, and these images only scratch the surface of what I experienced.

Two special thanks: First, the crew and expedition team of the Ocean Nova and Antarctica XXI. They kept us safe, well-fed, educated, and exploring. Most importantly though, a special thanks to Lina for dreaming big with this trip and making it a reality.

Penguins mate for life (sort of) photo.“Why Antarctica?”, most people ask. Going into the trip I didn’t really have a clear answer. In some ways I still don’t — At least not in words. Articulating an experience with language is not my strong suit, but more importantly words don’t do the Seventh Continent justice — For that matter, neither do photos.

Looking back on my trip (which took place in the last two weeks of November this year), I tend to remember the experience as a series visuals and feelings that are difficult to translate. It’s hard to describe a place with language when it’s so vastly different from anything else that I (and most people) have experienced. Most places are comparable to somewhere else in the world — Antarctica is not.

When I try to talk about Antarctica, it mostly comes out as a unsorted list of my experiences, facts, and feelings. There are too many things to cover, and all of them feel so important — I feel like I’m always leaving something out. Nothing I saw is more important than anything else and I have no specific “favorites” from the trip because everything stood out. Everything was so different and impactful.

Hiking to the view point at Port Lockroy, AntarcticaAntarctica is more than just a place to visit, it’s a self contained experience. Visiting is like entering a different world, much like an extraterrestrial visiting earth only for a short time, knowing that you cannot interact with its inhabitants and you cannot leave any evidence of your own existence.

It’s an entire ecosystem of animals, land, sea, and ice joined together by the serenity of a frozen paradise undisturbed by man — An homage to what the planet once was before we made our presence felt. Words don’t do it justice, and neither do photos from a single trip.

I did my best to curate a selection of photos that convey how vast and impressive the land and ice is, and how much fascinating wildlife there is to see. Here are just a few of the images that I captured:

Penguins: They are everywhere. They come up to greet you with curiosity when you land on shore. Though absolutely adorable, their colonies are smelly and most of the penguins are covered in communal excrement. They are fascinating to watch — Their colonies feel like a complex civilization with social constructs, partnerships, and subgroups. I don’t know enough about penguins to say for sure what’s going on in any of the moments I captured with the camera, but it is very easy to personify them and imagine up back stories for their actions.

Mates for life: Two Gentoo penguins keeping warm.
Two Gentoo penguins mating during a snow storm
Penguins watching the ocean during a snow storm
Chinstrap penguin trying to stay warm with his colony
A Gentoo penguin defends its next from a skua.
Chinstrap penguins charging into the water at Deception Island, Antarctica
Chinstrap penguin retrieves a rock to woo a mate.
Elegant Gentoo penguin.

Whales: They appear without notice and leave just as quickly. As beautiful as they are spontaneous, they are difficult to photograph and exciting to watch.

Humpback whales fluking in Foyn Harbor, Antarctica
Whale fluking at Deception Island, Antarctica

Orcas: Followed the ship just to figure out what it is. We spotted a group of rare “Type D” Orcas (shown below) that have only been spotted in nature 13 times since they were discovered in 1955.

Rare Type D Orcas Spotted in the Wild

The Continent: When no person is moving and the snow stops crunching under your feet, there is the most deafening silence you’ll ever know. The landscapes are vast and dramatic. The weather changes from clear to stormy within minutes.

Sunrise at Half Moon Island Antarctica
Warm weather and a dramatic landscape at Port Lockroy, Antarctica
Snowshoeing back to our zodiac boat at Pleneau Bay, Antarctica.
Full moon as we pass through the Lemaire Channel
View point of Whalers Bay after a long snowshoe trek at Deception Island
Abandoned whaling station at Whalers Bay, Deception Island

Icebergs and Sea Ice: The ice is dynamic and moves quickly. Icebergs glow like emeralds below the water. They play an important part in Antarctica’s ecosystem, from the microorganisms and krill in the water all the way up the food chain.

Adelie penguins drifting at sea on an iceberg
Adelie penguins on an iceberg as we pass them on our ship, the Ocean Nova
Adelie penguins dive off an iceberg into Antarctic waters
Zodiac cruising through the Christiania Islands
Zodiac cruising through the Christiania Islands
Iceberg in Foyn Harbor, Antarctica
Icebergs at Portal Point, Antarctica

Seals, Sea Birds, and Other Critters: They go about their business as if humans aren’t even a factor. Something I’ve never witnessed before in the wild.

A Blue-Eyed Shag
A skua patrolling for food. Deception Island, Antarctica.
Wandering Albatross, largest wingspand in the world, flying in the Drake Passage
Weddell Seal waking up from a nap at Portal Point, Antarctica.

Iceland Photo Travel – Part 2 and Travel Advice

It goes without saying, Iceland is a beautiful place with an endless diversity of landscape and scenes to photograph. Ten days wasn’t enough to capture everything I wanted to capture. Without a doubt, I’ll be going back to Iceland. In fact, I’m going to give the following disclaimer: Everyone should go to Iceland, not just once, but at least twice. You should visit Iceland when there is snow on the ground, and then go again when there is moss on the ground. There is nowhere else on earth like it, and if you plan right, you won’t regret visiting. The landscape is only half of it. During my time there I met some of the most fun and interesting people I’ve happened upon while traveling. They really know how to party while talking about topics ranging from globalization to climate change. Also, from a food and beverage perspective, Reykjavik is nirvana. Almost all the food I had was delicious, including the Minke whale (not endangered at all), and they have a surprisingly strong and diverse microbrew scene (I recommend the Lava Stout). I highly recommend Íslenski Barinn (Icelandic Bar) for their beer selection and food.

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon at sunrise.

That being said, during my ten days in the land of fire and ice, I was challenged both photographically and meteorologically — That is, at several points the weather was terrible if not frightening. This posed a number of logistical challenges, like staying on the road during 50mph winds and trying to photograph the aurora on overcast nights with no change of weather in sight.

However, this is part of the excitement and challenge of Iceland! After my experiences during those ten days, I feel like a better, more competent photographer — not necessarily from a technical standpoint — but from the standpoint of planning, logistics, and adaptation.

Which leads me to my five lessons for wintery Iceland. These are five things I recommend everyone visiting Iceland in the winter do to make the most of their experience and photos. Some of these things I did from the beginning, and took for granted, but some of these lessons I learned the hard way. This list isn’t exhaustive, but for me they’re the five main points I want to tell everyone visiting Iceland between November and April.

Tour busses pass on the road on their way to view the marvels of the Northern Lights at Thingvellir.1. Rent a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Snow, ice, rain, wind, and dark. All these things work against you, especially if you’re driving far from Reykjavik. I started my journey in a two-wheel drive Chevy Opel. This was a bad idea. I got stuck twice, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me out (there’s plenty of this type of kindness in Iceland). If you plan on going far, even on the ring road, you’re much safer in a 4WD vehicle. Not to mention, you can drive at normal speeds more often with 4WD, rather than inching along hoping to stay on the road. Even with 4WD, there were times that me and my travel companion felt we were in dire straights. At one point we faced a complete white out, couldn’t see the reflective pylons, and ended up driving partially off the road (4WD got us out). The crazy thing was that the skies were completely clear (we could see the stars). The problem was the wind, blowing an insane amount of snow across the road, completely blinding us. This leads me to my second lesson:

2. Travel with a friend (and cell phone).
All I can say, is that the weather is very unpredictable and having a friend along makes the experience much more enjoyable, especially in those moments of doubt. Just as important, is a working cell phone. GPS and emergency calling are two things you’ll need if you get stuck. It’s dark 18 hours a day and towns/cars are very far in between, so if you get stuck somewhere, you’ll likely be waiting a long time if you don’t have a phone. Also, you’re much more likely to be adventurous if you have a friend along to make sure you make it back to civilization in one piece!

Northern starting to to show above the Gerdi guest house near Jokulsarlon.3. Do go off on your own, don’t rely on tours to show you the best that Iceland has to offer.
Bad weather shouldn’t stop you. You just need to plan for it. If you have a good car, a friend, and a cell phone, you should get out there and see the country for yourself. Check the weather warnings and heed them closely (e.g. If the forecast says winds of 150kph, don’t go out). However, sticking with a tour bus severely limits your ability to see some of the most interesting sights in the way that Iceland intended them to be seen: In solitude. The cathartic nature of viewing the aurora while hearing nothing but the wind blowing, is greatly diminished by the swarms of tourists that stick to the busses. With your own vehicle and plans, you’ll be able to see and photograph things that the less adventurous don’t get to see.

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, with the glow of the Bardarbunga volcanic eruption over the horizon. 4. Talk to the Icelanders. Get advice along the way.
There’s no substitute for the experience of those who have spent significant time living in Iceland. In an ideal world, I would have spent weeks or months traveling the island, making multiple attempts to capture images, mainly because there are so many ways to get the shot and so many times that weather gets in the way. However, since long term travel is not a practical reality for most people, the quickest shortcut is to get the advice of locals. They often know when to go out, what is most scenic, and what spot to photograph from. Tour books don’t really convey this information. In Reykjavik, they also know the beset places to eat/drink, and how best to experience the night life. In short, make friends in Iceland! They also make great models, which helped me to do a number of photoshoots, which I will show images from in my next Iceland post.

5. Most importantly, spend more time than less and be flexible to leave room for weather situations.
I think my main take away is that if there’s an image you really want to capture, then plan on needing more than one day to get it. There are times I got really lucky and everything came together okay (cloud cover, wind, northern lights activity, etc.), but there are other times where I was left twiddling my thumbs in a snow storm hoping for something to work out. You often cannot plan for the weather more than a few hours in advance, and you shouldn’t underestimate the desire to spend more time in one place. If you book too many things and have too many hotels lined up, then you’re going to constrain yourself and limit your experience (and feel rushed). Sometimes you can’t, or shouldn’t, rush the trip. It’s better to take your time driving, and savoring the moment. Not to mention, in the low season it’s really easy to finding lodging accommodations that same day using Kayak or TripAdvisor (one more very important reason to have a working cell phone).

And now, the photos. I placed these generally in chronological order, starting off from my last post in Snæfellsnes, heading to Jökulsárlón and Vatnajökull (located about 5 hours from Reykjavik), and finishing with images of the aurora at Thingvellir.

The drive from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón/Vatnajökull

Leaving the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Leaving Snaefellsnes peninsula.Lighthouse on the southern coast of Iceland outside of Grindavik.
Sunsetting and snow blowing near Raufarfell
Burning daylight on the way to Jokulsarlon.Sunset near the town of Vik.

Jökulsárlón and the Northern Lights. Jökulsárlón is a glacier lagoon formed from the icebergs that break off from this outlet tongue of Vatnajökull, the largest icecap in Europe. The icebergs float out of the lagoon to sea, washing back ashore as the waves and tide bring them in.

Northern starting to to show above the Gerdi guest house near Jokulsarlon.
Aurora above Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon.  Icebergs floating below the glow. The Aurora begins to fade.
Aurora above Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon.  Icebergs floating below the glow. My friend Bryant also photographing the icebergs in the lagoon.

Jökulsárlón’s beach and icebergs the next morning.

Jokulsarlon's beach where icebergs are washed back ashore.
A large iceberg washing ashore at Jokulsarlon.

This ice cave was formed by a natural glacial river flowing beneath Breiðamerkurjökull, and outlet glacier that’s part of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. Based on the rate that Breiðamerkurjökull has been receding, this particular ice cave will most likely not exist past next summer.

Ice cave at Vatnajokull.
Ice cave at Breiðamerkurjökull, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull.

The aurora blooms at Thingvellier, located about one hour north of Reykjavik. It’s a great spot for capturing aurora images because of it’s lack of light pollution and close proximity to the city. These were captured on my last night in Iceland, and I was lucky that the weather and aurora was favorable that day.

The aurora blooms at Thingvellir. A weather station is seen center bottom.
Tour busses pass on the road on their way to view the marvels of the Northern Lights at Thingvellir.

Other photos along the way.

Birds are some of the few animals that live in Iceland.
Jagged cliffs just outside of Vik.
Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, with the glow of the Bardarbunga volcanic eruption over the horizon.
Light haze of the aurora above the road near Jokulsarlon.
Seljalandsfoss waterfall located just off the ring road.

Iceland Photo Travel – part 1

A couple months ago I visited Iceland for the first time. I loved it. I loved it so much in fact, that I promised myself that I would return to spend dedicated time photographing it. The island is tiny compared to the size and population of many U.S. states, but there is so much to do and see.

Right now I’m in Iceland, carrying out that promise. I’m here for 10 days photographing as much as the winter landscape as I can fit in. It’s cold, and much more snowy than I anticipated, but there’s something about this country that’s otherwordly. Being here it’s not hard to imagine why over half of Iceland’s population still believes in hidden elves (seriously).

The first part of my trek has brought me to Snaefellsnes, an iconically beautiful part of the country (which says a lot since it’s Iceland). One of the highlights of Snaefelsnes is Kirkjufell (not pronounced how it looks), a pointy mountain located half-way down the peninsula on its northern edge. Part of the reason I’m here now is to photograph the Northern Lights, and Snaefelsnes makes a great location for this.

The problem is, the weather has been sort of horrible the past two days, with gail force winds and snow pummeling the roads. I spent the day watching the cloud cover, convinced that there’s no way that the skies would be clear enough to see the aurora. After dinner, I went back to my room ready for sleep. I looked out the window and didn’t see anything. Then, on a hunch I picked up my camera and did a long exposure — There it was, bands of light green across the sky. I hauled ass in my Chevy Spark (very tiny car) back to Kirkjufell and captured this image:

Snaefellsnes with the Northern Lights.

Seeing the aurora was pretty awesome, and I have about 7 more days here to photograph the landscape and people. Which is a good thing, because shortly after capturing this image, what I can only describe as a frightening blizzard descended upon the area (wind is between 30 an 40 mph as I write this). Here’s some video of that.

Here are a couple other images, one of me posing with Kirkjufell, the next of my trusty Chevy Spark and the aurora, and finally Kirkjufell during day light (which there isn’t much of):

My trusty front wheel drive Chevy Spark with the Northern LightsSelf-portrait with Kirkjufell just outside of Grundarfjörður.
Kirkjufell in the day time.

Here are some other images from my drive from Reykjavik to Stykkishólmur in Snæfellsnes:

Drive from Reykjavik to Snæfellsnes.
Icelandic horses are somehow better looking than other horses.
Lonely, icy drive to Snæfellsnes.

Travel Photos: Thailand and Cambodia

These are long over due but luckily travel photos don’t go out of vogue :-). Late last year, my wife and I traveled to Thailand and Cambodia. We began in Bangkok where we were met with heavy rain before flying over to Angkor Wat, Cambodia, to see the famed temples of the UNESCO world heritage site. We then flew up to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand which is known for it’s cuisine, cooler climate, and city life. Finally, we went down to the Andaman Coast of southern Thailand where we relaxed on the beaches of Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, and Krabi.

Sunset from the summit view point on Ko Phi Phi.

Thailand is such a wonderful country, from the hospitable nature of it’s citizens, the delicious culinary options, the dirt cheap (and amazing) massages, and the beauty of the country’s landscape. I definitely want to go back because there is so much more to do than two weeks can afford.

Here is a selection of some of my favorite images, even though there are so many other images that serve as a small reminder of all we experienced there:

The upper terrace of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Angkor Wat at dawn from across its moat.
A metal worker arc welding in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Inside of Chiang Mai temple.
Alley way in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Empty lot in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Dusk in Phuket, Thailand.
Ko Phi Phi beach.
Baby monkey at Monkey Beach, Ko Phi Phi.
Monkey seeking food at Monkey Beach, Ko Phi Phi. Monkey eating in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand.
Beached boats in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand.
Sunset in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand.
Sunset at Railay Beach, Krabi Town.
Dusk at Krabi Town, Thailand.

One of the Best Views of NYC (Not from a 102-story skyscraper)

I always thought you needed to be a hundred stories up to get a great view of the NYC skyline—well, I was wrong.  Last month the very awesome Sofia Samrad showed me her sick SoHo rooftop view of the NYC skyline.

Though the building is only a few stories high, it gave just the right vantage point to see the main iconic structures of the NYC skyline, mixed in with the surrounding rooftops of SoHo.  It felt more like I was eye-to-eye with the city, rather than looking down on it.

The shot (above) was taken well after sunset.  It took some time for the ambient colors of dusk to take effect.  Meanwhile, someone started using a wood-oven or something, because a plume of smoke came up on the left to add some great texture to the skyline.

Here’s a shot of the street view to give you a sense of how far up the rooftop is—It’s also a cool shot of SoHo from on-high.  I (very cautiously) laid on my stomach and leaned over the edge of the roof to get this shot.

Thanks again to Sofia for being such a gracious rooftop host!  Follow her on twitter @SofiaSamrad or check out her clothing line Digitalebas.

View of NYC from the Highline

This classic view of New York City includes the Empire State Building as seen from about 10th Ave at 18th st. It mixes NYC’s iconic monolith with lower lying markers of the city’s architecture, including a water tower on the left and a small glimpse of the Chrysler Building tucked between buildings in the center. Time of day was about 10 minutes before Sunset.

This view is from the Highline, a park built on a historic freight rail line on Manhattan’s West Side. The first section of the park was built in 2009 with another section just opening in 2010. The whole thing runs from about 14th to 30th st.

I was really excited to check out this space and the views—it didn’t disappoint. The park is open from 7am – 11pm daily, but I recommend going after 7:30pm for the best lighting (in the summer, which is about 45 minutes before sunset).

Thunderstorm from 30,000 feet

This photo was taken at 30,000 feet (on my flight from New Orleans, connecting to Atlanta, back to DC).  It took me a little while to realize there was a wicked thunderstorm going off in the distance.  By the time I got my camera out we were right next to it. 

I’ve never really seen a storm from the outside looking in like this before. It was pretty crazy, with lightning going off every other second at the height of it.  Hard to tell how many miles across the storm cloud was covering though. I’m glad that we weren’t in the middle of it!

New Orleans on the Go pt. 2

I haven’t had a chance to edit or upload other photos from New Orleans, and this “on the go” post is coming much later than I expected.  My original plan was to edit via iPad on the plane, and post during the lay over in Atlanta, but mechanical issues kept us on the ground an extra hour and almost made us miss our connection!

For now, here are a few shots from NOLA with others to come.  I had such an awesome experience there with the food, music, architecture, history, and people.  New Orleans has such a unique culture that some have called it “America’s most foreign city” (and this is meant in the best way).  Anyway, here’s a few shots with more to come!

Dusk at Jacques-Imo's Restaurant and the Maple Leaf Bar


Beignets from Cafe du Monde
Boudin balls for brunch at Elizabeth's
The Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band playing at Tipitina's
The Apple Barrel bar on Frenchman Street, located just below Adolpho's

New Orleans on the Go

I’ve been experimenting with my travel photography workflow to make it less cumbersome (less gear, fewer things to worry about) and faster (to get photos up while traveling, and spend less time indoors and more time exploring!).

These photos are the product of my Canon 5D Mk II, iPad and camera connection kit, and Nik Snapseed for editing (with a little help from Photogene for spot edits). The workflow is working out nicely! The iPad is much more useful on the go than I had ever imagined and its been well worth the investment. No more days of lugging the MacBook, powersupply, and external hard drive around.

As for New Orleans—it’s a blast! You can google it and find millions of positive reviews but here are the take aways from day 1: AMAZING food, great music, friendly people, classic architecture. Three more days to go.

Partying on the balconies of Bourbon Street
Amazing grilled oysters at the Acme Oyster House
Pecan cobbler at the Acme Oyster House
St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square