Behind The Shot

Happy Trails

Mt. Erebus
Nikon D3, Nikon 70-300mm zoom lens @ F8, 1/2000s, 85mm

with Grant Sheehan

Grant, tell us about yourself and your journey with photography…

I was given my first camera aged 11, a Kodak Brownie 127. I think it was made of Bakelite. It had no settings at all, but it worked well if you used it in bright sunlight. It took 120 negative film. I accidentally discovered you could take double exposures simply by not winding the film on, and I had lots of fun taking a lot of multiple exposures. My parents weren’t very impressed with the results; however, I think it was this that helped spark my lifelong fascination with photography.

Ten years later, I became a survey draughtsman, working in the area of photogrammetry. Part of my job, for the forestry company I worked for, was to overfly their forest areas and take photographs for mapping.

The aerial photography company we used had a special twin aircraft engines aircraft with a large camera built into the floor. I remember the camera operator had been a reconnaissance photographer in World War II, flown hazardous missions in De Havilland Mosquitoes, and had many stories to tell. The camera we used shot very high-resolution 10 x 8“ negatives. Two prints from each negative were made, and it was my job, using a stereoscope and other devices, to make up maps and measure growth rates etc.

After a while, I grew tired of working in an office, resigned, bought a Pentax Spotmatic camera, which was considered an excellent camera at that time and took off overseas. It was while travelling, in the 80s, that l decided l wanted to do full-time photography, and I returned to New Zealand to set up my photography business.

Much of my work back then was for magazines, as well as for exhibitions of personal work. In the mid-90s, I started my publishing company Phantom House Books, which I run alongside my photography business, publishing a variety of books which include my own work and the work of other photographers and writers.

How would you describe your photography?

Despite decades of being a working photographer, the novelty hasn’t worn off. Photography still excites me as it did when I first started out. Rather than specialise, I have wandered all over the photographic landscape, as multiple subjects interest me. These include work in architecture and architectural heritage, landscapes, cafés and food, astrophotography, drone photography, documentary photography, experimental digital Al work and travel photography.

I am also fascinated by the ongoing technological advances in photography, from the fast-moving development of smartphones incorporating artificial intelligence to a new generation of artificially intelligent neural network-based editing programs.

As photographers, we are all on an amazing journey as to what is achievable tech-wise. ln a way, I suppose, photography has always been as much about technology as any other aspect.

What gear are you shooting with?

I have several systems, but the camera I use the most is a Nikon D850, with a Nikon 14-24mm 2.8 zoom. Other lenses include a 100-400mm Tamron, Tamron 150-600mm G2, Nikon 20mm 1.8, and Nikon 60mm macro. I also have two drones, a modified Phantom 4 pro and a DJI Mini 3 pro (which is surprisingly useful). My walk-around camera is a Nikon Z FC with a 24mm pancake lens.

Tell us about this photo…

I was invited to join a group of 40 or so people planning to hire a small Russian icebreaker to sail to the Ross Dependency in Antarctica. This meant that, to some degree, we could control our own schedule and itinerary and explore the subantarctic Auckland Islands on the way. For me, the timing was ideal as I was working on a New Zealand Landscape book, and partaking in the adventure meant I could include the Auckland Islands and New Zealand's Antarctic territories. Although the cost was high, it seemed the opportunity of a lifetime, so I sacrificed my motor vehicle and, three months later, arrived in Antarctica.

Like a percentage of landscape photographs, this image was serendipitous. As our small ship moved along Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound, approaching Scott Base, we encountered big patches of fast ice and were unable to proceed further. Some of us got off the ship to walk around on the ice. The weather was sunny, the temperature around -5℃. In the distance was Mount Erebus looking impressive, with a few clouds overhead. As we stopped to take some shots, seven adult Emperor penguins suddenly rocketed out of the water nearby, sliding along on their bellies before gliding to a stop, then, in an ungainly manner, stood up and waddled over to us, presenting an excellent photo opportunity.

After five or so minutes of hanging out with humans, they grew bored and dived back into the sea. Less than a minute later, however, they were back with another high-speed leap onto the ice. It turned out there was good reason. Just seconds later, an enormous black fin cruised past the ice edge. The penguins stayed on the ice for a while, waiting for the orca to lose interest, and then plunged back into the sea.

When I turned my attention back to Mount Erebus, I saw new layers of high cloud had formed at different heights, and a big puff of ash had appeared, presenting me with a fantastic spectacle, enhanced by the dust-free atmospheric conditions.
It was all about getting the shot while the view was clear and interesting before we were called back to the ship. The weather was very changeable, so speed was of the essence. And, of course, it was super cold, so there was no time really to linger. I took various focal lengths, but 85mm was the one I liked the most.

Of course, Mount Erebus has a special significance to many New Zealanders, being the site of our worst air disaster. It is also the southernmost volcano on our planet.

This photo first featured in my book ‘New Zealand Landscapes - Northland to Antarctica and reappears in my new book titled ‘In memory of travel’ which is about my experiences as a travel photographer and about the role that travel plays in our memory and our perspective. It’s also about the future of travel in the context of the changes we are now facing - from pandemic to climatic.

What editing did you do to the shot?

Very little editing was required, the usual raw file processing, a little burning here and there and a touch of colour correction. My aim, generally with landscape work, is to capture an image as it appears and avoid any sign of processing that interferes with the natural narrative of the image. It’s very easy to accidentally over-process landscape images with the tools available today.

What tips can you share with readers for achieving a similar shot?

‘Image vigilance’ is the key to landscape photography, it is easy to relax or focus on a single subject, but light, clouds and atmospheric conditions often transform from moment to moment. If you see a great shot, grab it straight away, so you at least have the image on your memory card. Then take the time to expand on the image. Look for other elements, such as interesting foregrounds, alternate compositions, and so on. Also, it’s a good idea to keep a full 360 lookout - good stuff can happen behind you.

What else should we know?

As photographers, most of us use our cameras to reflect what we see, feel and want to say. My book In memory of travel started as a memoir of my photographic travel experiences but morphed into a much broader work, a look at how we have travelled in the past and how we will likely travel in future.

Right now, there is a window where the opportunity to travel without great difficulty and expense is still there. But sooner or later, this window will narrow or, in some places, close altogether as the climate crisis begins to bite more and more.

Where can we see more of your photos?