Nick Rains: Russian Far East – Mist and Mystery

A recent assignment took me to a little-visited part of the world where the only access is by ship or by aircraft.

One of my commercial clients is a company that owns and operates an expedition cruise ship called the MV Orion. It’s called an expedition ship because it’s small (only holds 100 passengers), can operate in remote areas like the Antarctic and is fully equipped for landings by zodiac rather than needing to dock. It’s maneuverable, robust and very, very comfortable. I relish the assignments I get because not only do they take me to exotic locations to shoot their brochure images, but life on board is no hardship at all.

Last year I flew up to Japan to join the ship on a trip up through the Kuril Islands to Kamchatka – the ship departed from Otaru, heading for Petropavlovsk where I would depart. In between were ten days of wild and remote exploration.

The Kuril Islands are an actively volcanic chain of small islands stretching northeast from Japan to the Kamchatka Peninsula – not unlike the better-known Aleutian Islands. It’s quite a ways north and being on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, the weather can be very bleak with mist and fog being extremely common. With this in mind I packed my warmest and most waterproof clothes and invested in a fully waterproof backpack  – one of those roll-top bags with shoulder straps – to keep my Leica S2 dry and safe. This proved to be a good move, as we shall see later.

For this assignment I took a full range of S-System lenses – 30mm, 70mm, 120mm and 180mm – because I did not know what to expect. The newly announced 30-90mm zoom and the new 24mm would have been even better but, sadly, whilst I knew they were coming I also know that I’d have to wait to see them.

Shooting travel brochure images off a ship like this poses interesting challenges. The destinations need to be the actual places visited (of course), and the images need to be as good as possible (again, of course); however, you have no control at all over the timing of visits to the various places on the itinerary. Tides, schedules and weather are all far more important than some photographer who wants to be onshore in the beauty light!

What this means is that you need to be totally open to the opportunities as they arise and try not to be frustrated by any opportunities that are inevitably missed. It is tough sometimes to be looking back at a fantastic scene with the light just developing perfectly as the ship heads off to the next destination knowing that if you could have just had another half an hour ashore…

One classic case of this was the mysterious Broutana Bay on Simushir Island. This is the site of an abandoned Russian naval base. It was abandoned in 1994 after being home to over 3000 Soviet servicemen. It was left partially intact and the place is strewn with relics from before the Iron Curtain came down. We found gas masks in cases, a hospital complete with beds and dentist chair, log books, manuals and an elaborately mural-decorated ironing room. The whole place was in the sort of mouldering state of disrepair so beloved by photographers, myself being no exception. I could have spent days there but ended up with a scant 3 hours, hardly enough time to scratch the surface. I still have mental “snap shots” of photographs that I missed or had to walk past as I hurried back to the ship.

The other big challenge is operating out of zodiacs in rough seas. Getting ashore in heavy swell onto a windswept beach with one’s camera gear fully intact is not for the faint hearted. Hence the waterproof backpack. I bought one from a company called OverBoard who specialize in this sort of gear. It proved to be perfect for the task. You just cram in what you need, already in its own cases, fold down the top, roll it up and clip it down. It’s then 100% waterproof and will even float.

One of our other destinations, Chirpoy, was a flooded volcanic caldera, which we were very keen to access. Unfortunately the weather turned on us and the swell built up until it was too dangerous to board the zodiacs from the ship itself. When we eventually found a sheltered spot in the lee of the volcano, it was late and the tide was low. Crossing into the caldera meant going over a sand bar and these are the most dangerous places when the swell is up. The zodiacs tend to “surf” in and if they slew sideways it’s quite common to take a wave broadside. This is not a problem really, because all that happens is that everyone gets wet – that’s what waterproof jackets and trousers are for – and people can of course dry off later.

The problem is that normal camera bags cannot cope with being swamped – they can only handle spray and splashes – and cameras really do not like salt water. I can attest to this fact from my days as a yachting photographer back in the 1980s. The S2 is very well weather sealed, and I think it would have been fine if it had caught a bad splash but better to be safe than sorry.

Locking away your gear in high-tech cases and bags is fine for peace of mind, but there is a bit of a conflict here . On one hand, I want to keep my gear safe but I also need to actually take photographs. This can be a tough call but in my experience, whilst there can be some dramatic shots to be had on the zodiacs, they would always be of a more reportage style. Ultimately, such shots would be of no use to anyone because the client is hardly going to use any images in their brochure that show how bad the conditions can be! So keep the camera dry.

There’s the lesson in all this – shoot the images that your client needs, not the ones you think will just be cool photos. Resist the urge to document absolutely everything and try to be fussy. Travel photography these days is about capturing fine images, not just “covering” the trip. It has taken me many years to really come to terms with sometimes not getting my camera out and shooting stuff just because I can.

-Nick Rains

Author’s note: To see these images in far higher quality that the web can deliver, I have released a new Russian Far East portfolio for my iPad app Photique. In it you can view many of the attached images at 4000px  wide rather than the more usual 800-1000px wide on the net. The iPad’s retina screen helps with the experience too, in fact images displayed properly on an iPad can look even better than high end photographic prints. 

To see more of Nick’s work, check out his website or drop by his Facebook page.