Images from the End of the Earth: Behind the Scenes of Landon Curt Noll’s Antarctic Adventures
Having been afflicted with a chronic case of wanderlust for as long as I can remember, I was instantly hooked when one particularly interesting story ran across my desk a few months back: the story of Landon Curt Noll and his trips to Antarctica, where he searches for and studies meteorites. Though he’s a Cryptographer and Number Theorist by day, Landon traveled as the Expedition Scientist on TravelQuest International’s Expedition to Antarctica in January 2014. Landon and his team were the first people to tweet (@astronomytravel) while standing at the South Pole, which required the use of an Iridium satellite phone because of their remote location. They were also able to take some stunning images, capturing a small percentage of the South Pole’s many wonders. Since this chilly tundra is not your typical photo destination, I reached out to Landon and his photo-processing partner in crime, JC Dill, to share more of their story.
Tell us a little about yourself, including why you’re interested in photography.
Landon: The first complete sentence I spoke as a child of age 2 was, “How far is the Sun?” I remain an Astronomer to this day, focused on the inner solar system. I have made astronomical observations during total solar eclipses in the US, Turkey, Zambia, Australia, Antarctica, Libya, China, Eniwetok, French Polynesia, Australia and Antarctica – my first when I was just 10. While the totality lasts for only a few minutes, the journey is about visiting, learning about, and photographing the people and places along the way.
So what exactly are you doing at the South Pole?
Landon: Our research involves testing methods to search for meteorites resting just below the surface of the Antarctic ice. In the pure ice conditions of the interior, these Antarctic meteorites provide a rare uncontaminated view of material from outer space: uncontaminated by human contact or weathering from earth elements. Not only do we test methods for detecting meteorites below the surface of the ice, we actually find them! (15 in total from the 2011, 2013 and 2014 expeditions.)
What are some difficulties about photographing in Antarctica?
Landon: A lot of things, actually. The cold makes battery management problematic. Complex mechanical zoom lenses can fail. Point and shoot pocket cameras have a surprisingly high failure rate as their electro-mechanical functions jam, like when you turn on and extend a telephoto lens. Large body SLRs with large internal batteries seem to work best. With the nearest camera store on the next continent, taking a spare camera is a must.
Special care must be taken to avoid condensation and freezing of your camera gear. When moving from the cold outside into a vehicle, tent, or commissary, you have to place the camera into a breathable bag, leaving it inside until the camera is warm to the touch.
Ice dust is a constant problem. At those very low temperatures, fine ice particles act like dust. Unlike normal dust, ice dust can convert to water vapor, work its way through seals and deposit itself inside the camera. Ice dust on a sensor is particularly problematic.
Antarctica is under the ozone hole. Together with high altitude, UV radiation is a problem for eyes, skin and cameras. High quality UV filters are important. Without a UV filter, the bright UV will impact the quality of the image. To protect the eyes, one needs to use strong polarized goggles over dark sunglasses, and since most camera back displays are also polarized, unless you rotate the camera just the right way, you won’t see the image displayed very well. Due to problems with viewing camera back displays with polarized goggles and dark glasses, we opted for SLR cameras with optical viewfinders.
One of the most interesting things about photographing in Antarctica is deciding when to sleep and how to make sure you capture certain features when the light is coming from the direction you desire. Because the sun is up 24 hours a day, it traverses 360 degrees every day. You have the special opportunity to get light from any compass direction.
So Landon takes the photos, then JC processes them. Is that right?
JC: When Landon travels, he’s on the road for weeks at a time and comes home with thousands of images. I couldn’t begin to handle the workload without Lightroom.
This first pass is quick, I may have one to three thousand photos to evaluate and I need to quickly whittle down to the ones that will get edited. During the second pass, I concentrate on photos with three or more stars, and then I start to edit the images themselves – adjust exposure, batch process with similar photos in the same light, then crop and up-star the ones that stand out. Landon will make a pass through and indicate the two-star photos that help tell the story, but may not necessarily be exceptional photographs.
Lastly, we go to work with the detailed editing, which mostly includes using the tool available in Lightroom to show/enhance dust. Somehow the cameras manage to accumulate dust inside even when they are not opened during a trip. Taking cleaning tools and cleaning the sensor is problematic for a number of reasons, so it is not done on ice. This means that I have substantial dust spot editing to do to get those spots out of the snow and sky.
Big thanks to Landon and JC for answering our questions. We hope you enjoyed getting a glimpse into what it’s like to photograph in one of the most challenging environments on Earth. More of the team’s images can be seen below.
And what’s on-deck next for Landon? Well, later this year he’ll be on an astronomical and photographic expedition to Botswana, after which he’ll photograph the total solar eclipse above the Arctic Circle, near the North Pole, and then he’ll finish out 2015 with a return to Antarctica for another meteorite search. Best of luck and Godspeed, Landon…I, for one, wish I was riding shotgun on all these epic adventures.