In this week’s entry, we’re sitting down with Pro Team photographer Joshua Holko to discuss the background on this stunning image of penguins in Antarctica. We’ll delve into his thought process, gear and tips for aspiring wildlife photographers
I’m quite struck by this photograph of penguins. They’re marching along in the foreground and make up a very tiny portion of the frame. It looks like they’re on this journey and yet everything around them is moving and massive giving this real sense of scale to everything.
That sense of scale that you touched on is really really important when photographing wildlife in their environment especially with something so small like a penguin. Also, if you’ve got the opportunity to show it in the environment and put the animal in context and provide scale, then I think it really elevates the photograph to a higher level.
With this photo, would you have known the route of the penguins beforehand and kind of have it visualized beforehand?
This shot was sort of serendipity. I was standing on the bow of the ship and could see the penguins in the distance walking on the ice. This moment occurred where one of the penguins started to lag behind and of course, they’re beautifully backdropped by these big blue icebergs. Soft blue icebergs, almost like ice cream. And the moment that little penguin lagged behind, I realized there’s a story here ya know he’s trying to catch up.
Then, it simply became a matter of trying to capture them in a way in which the animals were in context. So I wanted some ice around them to show they were walking on the back ice and I wanted the icebergs. For me, it was a very easy decision on how I wanted to shoot this. It could have been very easy to make a mistake and use a lens that was too long. And just show the line of penguins with no context such as the ice and icebergs. But that’s what really helps to frame them.
So in many ways, wildlife photography is a bit serendipitous in that you need to get a bit lucky with what the animals are doing. But at the same time, there’s a large element of skill because you have to know what you want to capture and how you want to capture it and that’s thinking about and knowing the story you want to tell. And I’m always thinking about that with my photographs “what am I trying to say with this image?” “What story am I trying to tell?” and “How do I inject emotion into the image?” If you have something with emotional impact, then it’s an extremely strong photograph. If it makes you feel something, then it’s a photograph that’s strong and succeeds. If it’s just a pretty picture, then someone will just look at it and move along quite quickly. All of that goes into my thought process as I take a picture.
That kind of reminds me of that quote “The more I practice, the luckier I get”
So in reference to the part where you said a mistake could have been using too long of a lens. Do you remember what sort of focal length and distance you were at here?
I was using the Canon EF 200-400mm with the builtin 2x teleconverter. I had it zoomed to about 280mm which allowed me to show the top of the icebergs without clipping them off whereas if I’d gone to 400mm, it would have been too tight.
So with 280mm on the 200-400mm, I’ve also heard some people say that you only want to go to about 80% of your zoom range because that’s about where the sweet spot for sharpness is. Did that factor into your composition or choice of zoom range at all?
No. I never even consider it. People worry far too much about sharpness. Ansel Adams said it best you know “There’s nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy idea.” What it should be is a sharp idea and it doesn’t matter if the image is a bit fuzzy. If it’s a great photograph, it’s a great photograph.
I’m never afraid to shoot any of my zoom lenses anywhere in their focal range. Likewise, if it takes f16 to get the required depth-of-field for a shot, then I’ll use f16, even if that’s diffraction-limited. For me, it’s about getting the shot, not worrying about it being not quite as sharp as it could have been because I shot it at f11 instead of f5.6. I don’t even consider that. I mean, I try to work at optimum apertures, and a lot of the time, I am shooting very close to wide open, especially with my large telephoto lenses to get a clean background. The background is so important in wildlife photography.
For the beginners out there, what type of exposure settings would you use when capturing something like this?
I’m always shooting in manual so if I walk outside, I can look and think “it should be at 1/500 second at f8.” I’ve been doing this for so long that I can usually be within half a stop just from guessing. I’ll set my controls accordingly, shoot an image, and then look at the histogram and if I need to make an adjustment, I will. Then, I don’t need to make any changes on my camera unless the light changes so I can just focus on the composition which is really really important.
For someone who doesn’t want to shoot in manual and is working in a snowy, icy environment, what you can do is spot meter on the snow and set your camera to +1.5 or +2 EV because the camera’s sensor and metering system will try to make the whites 18% grey so it’ll naturally underexpose the image and you need to compensate for that. So if you just do this, your exposure is going to be spot on every time and that’s a really easy way to shoot in aperture priority or shutter priority.
I think it’s really important to get past the camera. We don’t want to have to be technicians in the field. If your brain is working on f stops and shutter speeds, then it’s not working on being an artist and thinking about composition. I want people to think about composition, what they’re trying to photograph, and the story that they’re trying to tell. Camera controls should be muscle memory. You should be able to pick it up and make adjustments without your brain having to shift into that technician role because the second you do that, you’re no longer being an artist.
So I’m curious about the example you just gave about walking outside and knowing that you might need to be at 1/500 second and f8 is that you being able to read the light and meter by eye or are you using an offshoot of the sunny 16 rule?
There are two factors. When I grew up learning photography, I was shooting chrome film slides. With slides, if you were ⅓ of a stop off on your exposure, you had to throw that slide in the bin. It would be too dark or too blown out so I learned in camera to get it right. Because if you didn’t get it right, it went in the trash and slide film was expensive. It was way too expensive to be throwing away because you got it wrong. So getting the exposure right in camera is something I still focus on today. So through that learning process and spending a lot of time photographing outdoors in different lighting conditions, I’ve gotten quite good at guessing what the exposure should be without having to meter it and I think that just comes through experience.
I’m hoping to get there one day. I’ve never been to or shot in the polar regions and as I’m seeing these rich blue hues that can sometimes be a little difficult to convey in a photo, I’m curious. Would you have to use a polarizing filter or is that how it looks in real life?
That’s usually how it looks. I tend not to use polarizers very much. I’ll use a polarizer to take the sheen off the water sometimes. For example, if there’s an iceberg and I want to show the parts of it underneath the water, then I’ll use a polarizer to take the sheen off the water, allowing the iceberg to be visible through the water. I’ll use a polarizer for that. But that’s about it. I find that a polarizer especially in the arctic and antarctic can create a bit of an unnatural look. It just takes all the sheen off things especially if you dial it in all the way so I’m not a big user of any filters to be honest. I’ll use a graduated neutral density filter to shoot landscapes now and then if I need to maintain the dynamic range, but polarizers not so much.
They also cost you about 1.5 to 2 stops of light which isn’t a good thing when you’re shooting wildlife. Because if the wildlife is probably moving and if the light is good, it’s probably low-level light so you’re always looking for more and more shutter speed. Throwing away shutter speed by using a polarizer is usually not optimal.
Those are some really good insights. Lastly, with how many places you’ve been, is there still anywhere in the world that you’re looking to go to?
I have not as of yet been to Ellesmere Island up in the Canadian Arctic. I’m very keen to go there and try to photograph the white Arctic Wolves. I had planned to go there early next year but decided to push that back to 2022 now due to the pandemic.
Joshua, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today and sharing so many insights about this photo with us as well as all of those tips.
Of course. I look forward to doing it again.
Follow the Gura Gear Journal for more conversations with professional photographers. We’ll be providing valuable insights into how they plan, shoot and process their images.
Is there a topic you want us to cover? Let us know by sending an email.
To see more of Joshua’s work, visit his website here.
When working in these challenging environments, Joshua only takes the best camera bags with him, which you can shop for here.