A Year in the Arctic

An ultimate test of a man and his camera

Meet Witek Kaszkin (pronounced V-teck Cash-kin) from Poland: an electronics engineer by education, a meteorologist, a mountain guide, and a ski instructor; for the last few years also an amateur photographer. As he says, he is never bored.

We first met on the Internet back in 2005; Witek was preparing for a year-long stay at the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean, a part of the Svalbard Archipelago, way north of Norway. He was going to work as a meteorologist at the Polish Polar Station there. He needed some advice on photographic equipment to take along and that's how we've got acquainted.

(All photographs in this article are copyright ©2005-2007 by Witek Kaszkin, Feel free to use them — but for personal enjoyment only.)

Clicking on any thumbnail will bring an XGA version of the image.

Now Witek is back, with some stunning photographs brought from his tour of duty, and I'm taking this opportunity to present him and some of his images to the visitors of this site.

I decided to do this as an interview, with questions, answers, and clarifications, if needed, exchanged via email. The translation into English in mine, so I bear all responsibility for any glitches.

Witek has his own gallery with about 150 pictures from Spitsbergen, but for this article we decided to use just twelve: six selected by him, and six by myself. I did the postprocessing starting from the original raw files, just to get the feel of the images. (The end result may be not always what Witek would like to see.)

Enough introductions, here is Mr. Witek Kaszkin and his pictures.

14-45mm ZD @ 23mm, 1/200s, F/9, ISO 200

Andrzej: What is your background in photography?

Witek: A long, long time ago I was given a Russian Smena camera, but I've got bored with it soon. (Just recently I dug it up after 18 years; maybe I should try it now?) Then a long break, occasionally using an Olympus Mju, and then I bought my first digital, the Olympus C-3000Z, mostly to be used on mountain hikes.

With the '3000 I learned how to enjoy photography; that's when I got hooked. This was a very handy camera: small, simple to use, just delivering nice pictures. Only with time, gaining experience, I realized I needed something "bigger". And then, when preparing for Spitsbergen two years ago, I acquired my first "serious" camera, the Olympus E-300.

Andrzej: How, of all the places, did you end up on Spitsbergen?

Witek: Actually, by chance. For seven years I had been working as a meteorologist at the Mountain Meteorological Observatory at Mt. Kasprowy in the Polish Tatras (1987 meters above sea level). That was where I learned about the Polish Polar Station at the Hornsund Fjord, Spitsbergen; one of my co-workers had spent four winters there. They need two full-time meteorologists on the crew, so I decided to take my chances and apply for the job.

The folks at the Academy of Sciences, who run the station, must have liked my credentials, as I was enrolled into the 38th Polar Expedition of 2005/2006.

Knowing the life over the Arctic Circle only from stories of those who've been there does not give you a real idea how it is. It is really worth it to go there, even for a short time, although a full year is much better.

Andrzej: How many people live at the station; what are the conditions?

Witek: During the summer months, July to September, a real crowd: more than 30 people at a time, mostly scientists. But the year-round crew, who winter there, is just eight people.

You spend most of the year with those people; you have to learn how to live and work together; this can be quite taxing during the long, winter months, but people cope quite well. I haven't experienced any problems here.

40-150mm ZD @150mm, 1/160s, F/8, ISO 100

40-150mm ZD @113mm, 1/1600s, F/4.2, ISO 100

300mm OMZ, 1/250s, ISO 200

Andrzej: Why did you choose an E-300 to bring along?

Witek: A good question. I've spent a few months doing my homework: market research, users' opinions, reviews, and prices; the last aspect important when you are on a limited budget. I did not want this to be a random choice.

My only previous digital was the C-3000Z, which has proven itself very well in my Tatra hiking — and I was not going easy on it. I remember using it when hiking Mt. Rysy (2499 m) in a heavy rain. The water was pouring out of the body through button sockets, but the thing just kept working. Near the end, the only operational control was the shutter release, even the zoom stopped working, but the camera kept taking pictures. After the hike I let it dry, and it was as good as new.

This time I needed a more advanced camera, at the same time capable of handling Arctic conditions: sub-freezing temperatures, snow, sleet, rain, and fog; it also had to be sturdy: sometimes you just toss it into your pack, no time for niceties. And, yes, the price.

This is how I limited my choice to the E-300 with two kit lenses: the 14-45 and 40-150 mm.

Andrzej: What other lenses and accessories did you bring?

Witek: First of all, two OM Zuiko lenses: the 300 mm F/4.5 (very useful, especially for shooting polar bears), and the 50 mm F/1.8 (this one I haven't really used). Then, a Belarussian Peleng 8 mm F/3.5 fisheye (in the M42 mount), which has proven itself above my expectations; it allowed me to shoot so many QTVR panoramas.

[Andrzej: these can be found on Witek's site; make sure you have a QuickTime or DevalVR applet installed.]

Also, a Manfrotto 718B tripod, and an old, manual Carena TZ250 flash. This one I had to modify a bit to make it work with the E-300. And, of course, small items: spare batteries, filters, memory cards.

Andrzej: Did you experience the known autoexposure problems with the manual-focus legacy lenses?

Witek: I am not sure, but I don't think so. In some cases I suspect my own exposure-setting errors were the reasons I had to adjust the scale when converting from raw; with the Peleng lens I was often shooting into the Sun which is tricky anyway.

What I was really missing is focus confirmation for non-AF lenses, especially with the 300 mm OMZ.

40-150mm ZD @150mm, 1/500s, F/9, ISO 200

40-150mm ZD @150mm, 1/640s, F/8, ISO 100

Peleng 8mm, 1/400s, ISO 100

Andrzej: Was the camera subjected much to the elements during that year? How did it fare?

Witek: A lot: it was used the whole year, regardless of the weather, in the mountains, on a glacier, or on the sea with high wave and strong wind. A number of times it was soaked in sea water; that looked really bad, but the camera never failed. I was also surprised with the longevity of batteries in Arctic winter temperatures. Either the batteries are so good, or the camera uses so little power; it worked even when shooting the aurora borealis: long sessions, very long exposures, really low, night temperatures.

Still, upon returning to a warm interior, with the temperature jump of 50°C (80°F), you have to take the battery out, and quickly store the camera in a plastic bag, preferably with a packet of silica gel desiccant. This will prevent water condensation on and inside the body and the lens. This is the least you can do to keep your gear working.

Andrzej: What do you have to keep in mind when shooting in the Arctic?

Witek: You have to have eyes all around your head. You cannot focus on just taking pictures, and forget of everything else. At any moment you may meet a polar bear who will not give you an advance warning.

[Andrzej: an aggressive bear loitering around the station had to be shot in 2002.]

On a glacier you have to watch carefully for cracks; in the mountains, for snow avalanches in winter and stone ones in summer. It is also important not to get lost, as finding your way back home in the fog without a GPS is not easy.

Andrzej: What did you like most in the E-300?

Witek: Frankly, I never thought about that. Perhaps the most important thing was that it never failed me during a whole year in the Arctic. It worked always, under all conditions — and I really took a risk not bringing along any backup!

Andrzej: And what did you like least?

Witek: My only complaint is about the high noise at very low light levels and long exposures, like shooting the northern lights (shutter times of 30 seconds and longer).

Peleng 8mm, 1/50s (-0.7EV), ISO 200

Peleng 8mm, moonlight, 30s, ISO 200

Peleng 8mm, 15s, ISO 400

Andrzej: How many pictures did you take over the year spent in the Arctic?

Witek: About 10,000 frames, of which I selected about 200 as worth showing. Of course, many were multiple takes of the same scene. Some were shot to be used in 360° virtual reality panoramas.

Andrzej: Were the other members of the crew also taking as many pictures, and with as good results?

Witek: Of course, some others were also taking pictures, with the year-round crew having most opportunites. Adam Nawrot, with whom we've spent the winter at the station, shows his images on the Web, too. Adam was using a Nikon D70.

Andrzej: Did the others experience any problems with their equipment?

Witek: I can recall the batteries in the D70 dying really fast, a cheap, plastic tripod falling apart, and a dial falling off an Olympus C-7070WZ, but that happened upon impact.

Andrzej: Are you tempted to go back?

Witek: Once you do it the first time, that's it; you have to come back. This June I'm joining the next expedition to spend another year on Spitsbergen. This time I'll work as the station administrator and an IT specialist, also responsible for remote meteorological equipment in the mountains and on glaciers. This means lots of outdoors work, so I hope to take lots of pictures.

Andrzej: Have you tried to have some manufacturer to provide you with equipment in exchange for pictures and publicity?

Witek: Not really, and I wouldn't hold my breath. Yes, this time I will spend a fortune on the gear, but that's the way things are: some hobbies tend to be expensive.

Andrzej: Frankly, if I were a camera manufacturer, I would be more than happy to send some equipment with you to the polar station in exchange for publicity and some premium shots. Take the moonlit beach covered with ice shards above, with the northern lights thrown in; do you need something better than this to show off?

Witek: ...

14-45mm ZD @14mm, 20s, F/3.5, ISO 400

300mm OMZ, 1/5s, ISO 100, cropped by 20%

Footnotes from the darkroom

Some images needed very little of postprocessing: just a little tonal adjustment and white balance, a five-minute job. Starting from the raw ORF files I could override the Auto WB setting with a manual one; usually between 4900 and 5300K. To keep the detail I had the contrast and sharpness settings tuned almost all the way down; the saturation was left at zero (default).

The Olympus raw plugin, used from the Corel Photo-Paint X3, was translating the raw data into 48-bit RGB, so I was able to do all tonal and color adjustments in 16 bits per color. If a picture does not need much adjustment, the difference is not significant, but for very dark or low contrast frames (like the polar bear in a snowstorm, or the northern lights shots) the 16-bit depth, even if it started from original 12 bits, makes a difference.

The night pictures, shot with auto exposure, were quite underexposed; they also used shutter speeds up to 30 seconds. Long exposures result in some noise, which was additionally amplified by stretching of the tonal range I had to apply. While the noise was still not too bad, I decided to use the Neat Image plugin to clean it. Applying a conservative amount of noise filtering in luminance, and a more aggressive one in chrominance I was able to avoid a visible loss of detail, The more I use Neat Image, the more I like it!

The most time I've spent on a single picture was almost two hours; that was the icy beach by moonlight. It is not because the image was tough to postprocess; once I boosted the highlights, everything snapped into place (well, almost); it was just hard to decide where I wanted to have the tonality of the foreground, how to move the mid-tones. The image is so enjoyable that I just wouldn't let it go; making myself a coffee, sitting at front of my obscene monitor, and saying wow! to myself; then getting up to fetch a brandy, coming back, and a wow! again.

My second favorite was the shack under the northern lights, a 30-second exposure with a ghost of a person (the photographer?). Of course, you have to see at least the XGA version to give it any justice.

The (static, dark-frame) noise reduction job done by the camera in the night pictures was very good. The bright speckles seen in the picture of the northern lights over a hill are all stars; there are no such spots outside of sky areas, and I could see the same patterns in series of pictures with slightly difering angles. Note that the static NR inflates the raw file from 13.2 to 16.6 MB; this indicates that the "dark frame" takes about 3.4 MB of space in Olympus 8 MP cameras.

The Peleng fisheye is quite OK for the job. It produces some chromatic aberration, which was visible practically only in the full pixel size; not too bad. Still, I handled that by drawing a narrow mask along the affected high-contrast edges, and desaturating the magenta or green component.

Relevant Web references

Witek's Web site contains some tasty morsels:

  • The Spitsbergen Photo Gallery, with about 150 frames;
  • You may be better off downloading a 50 MB executable, running as a self-contained slide show with music, under Windows, no installation needed. I was reluctant to try it out, but I'm glad I did.
  • 360° VR panoramas of Spitsbergen, showing the areas near the Polish station and near the island's main settlement, Longyearbyen. These are displayed in your Web browser if you have the DevalVR plugin installed (an excellent plugin, with just a 250 kB footprint, no advertising, and good performance; I would recommend it ten times over the QuickTime).

    Warning! This is very addictive; be prepared to spend a couple of hours going through these views!

Witek's site navigation is in Polish; that's why I'm providing links to individual pages. The pictures speak for themselves.

As mentioned before, another member of the Polish team, Adam Nawrot, also has a Web gallery of Spitsbergen pictures, shot with a Nikon D-70:

And then, some general information on the area:

Among the very few articles on photographying in polar regions, you can have a look at two by Michael H. Reichmann at the Luminous Landscape:

  • Antarctica 2007 by — focused mostly on equipment under adverse conditions (although the cruise took place in Antarctic summer).
  • Antarctic Quest 2007 a description of the cruise workshop (referred to as an "expedition") on which the previous article was based.

By the way, I always thought there used to be a difference between a ship cruise and an expedition, but maybe I'm wrong... Many cruise operators nowadays refer to their tours as expeditions; which, I believe, is grossly inflated...

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Posted 2007/03/23 Copyright © 2007 by Witek Kaszkin and J. Andrzej Wrotniak.