Antarctica: The spectrum of white

Classic Antarctic Peninsula


He wanted to be the first person in history to surf a wave in the Antarctic. The crazy Tasmanian. It was towards the end of the expedition and time was running short to find a good wave in the zero degree water. As we entered Deception Island through the famous Neptune’s Bellows we saw what looked like might be a surfable wave at a place called Bailey’s Head – a notoriously difficult landing on the peninsula.

It was decided that the landing was too dangerous for lots of people, so it was just me, John Luck the photographer and the crazy Tasmanian who jumped into an inflatable zodiac and motored toward the beach. Getting in was relatively easy though somewhat terrifying as we crashed onto the black-sand beach amid chunks of ice, a huge wave drenching us over the bow. We then all flew off the zodiac and ran up the beach before the next wave so the boat driver Juan could get away and stand off beyond the breakers during the surfing attempt.

John and I set up and got ready to shoot. Taking turns to keep an eye on boisterous fur seals who were none too happy with us being on their beach and assumed we were after their women! A freezing hour later and having repelled a number of seals, the Tasmanian had still not caught the wave, which formed off a rocky headland before rising up and smashing straight onto the beach. Today was not his day. It was time to get back to the ship, but in the hour we had been there the wind had got up and the wave size and power increased.

The zodiac came in and we attempted to push it out into the freezing water. On every attempt we got smashed back onto the beach. The freezing water filled my boots and ran down my neck. Aside from being uncomfortable and wet we were also starting to get dangerously cold. John’s face was blue, his lips pale. There was no more bravado and joking going on. We wanted to get off the beach. It was then that the Tasmanian saved our asses. ‘OK, everyone stop what you are doing, lets count waves!’ We started to count and worked out that after every 5th wave there was a window. We counted and waited. Go! Pushing the boat out much farther this time, I was up to my chest, the water burning my skin. We hauled ourselves in and the driver, Juan, gunned the motor. For a split second it felt like we would end up on the beach again. The zodiac ramped the roaring on-coming wave, and for a second we were airborne. When the spray cleared, pouring off us, we could see we’d made it. 20 minutes later the story was being recounted over coffee, the bravado had returned, the anxious moments forgotten.

This was the most nervous moment I have spent in the Antarctic after 8 seasons of filming there, but there have been others that have come close. Its my favourite place on the planet and has taught me more about filming, than anywhere else.


Filming Larson B Ice Shelf break-up from the ship

It was a revelation to me 6 years ago, standing on the bridge of the MV Ushuaia as we made our way through the Le Maire channel with Yo Yo Ma’s Bach Chello Suites playing in the background.

The captain, George, had a great taste in music and the bridge was a place you could immerse yourself in the Antarctic mood.

Filming in the Antarctic is tough. There is no way to sugar-coat it. Its cold and often very windy. When its snowing you get spots on your lens and when the sun is out everything dazzles and makes exposure difficult. Being new at filming in these conditions I was having as many successes as failures and often my shots would either be under exposed or over exposed. It was frustrating.

I was speaking to Captain George about this when he said something very simple which changed how I viewed the Antarctic. “But don’t you know that white is not just one colour? It is a spectrum.” I’d been thinking about it all wrong, and with those simple words it suddenly made sense. White is a spectrum. In any given shot I could now see that spectrum and suddenly exposing was easier. Amazing how such simple realisations can be game changers. Suddenly I could feel how the shot would translate, I could see the spectrum, it clicked.

I think the notion of ‘learning to see’ in a particular environment is pertinent for shooting anywhere. In rain forests for example, the dense green which looks so wonderful to the eye just does not translate when you shoot it. When you finally find out what works and can see how it will translate, that is half the battle won.


Hanging out with Gentoo Penguins

The Antarctic is unparallelled in the visual opportunities it affords to photographers and videographers who venture there. That is a very nerdy, technical way of saying it is a truly magnificent place. Often in every direction you look there is an amazing vista or a delicatly beautiful close up. On top of that there are always seals and penguins prancing around on the landing beaches. Standing in one spot you can be presented with 30 or 40 possible shots. It is paralysing.

On my early trips I made the mistake of trying to capture it all in a sort of shooting frenzy, often not holding shots long enough, rushing compositions, missing focus etc. It was probably in the Antarctic more than anywhere else that I learned perhaps the most important lesson of being a freelance cameraperson: Do one thing well at a time! When faced with an impossible choice of more shots that you can possibly shoot – choose one, and shoot it well and properly – make it as good as it can be. Rather come back with 5 great shots than 40 mediocre shots. I think this applies to most things in life. Just take a deep breathe and begin in a methodical, precise and un-rushed way. That is not to say that you will not get faster with more practice. Now the one thing that can change this is when you throw a high maintenance director into the mix…. but that is a post for another day.


No one does it better than the BBC. I’ve just finished watching Frozen Planet and in a word it is amazing. Here is the trailer. Be sure to watch the on location piece at the end of each episode.


I’m heading to the Antarctic in March again with polar explorer Robert Swan. Robert has been advocating for the protection of the Antarctic for over 20 years. If you want to follow us while we are down there or find out more about Robert’s organisation go to


About kyleodonoghue

Environmental and Adventure Filmmaker
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