NAME: Dan Westergren
BASED IN: Maryland, USA
KNOWN FOR: Nature and people photographs from some of the most exotic locations on earth
SHOOTS WITH: FUJIFILM GFX 50S Camera, X-T2 Camera, FUJINON GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR Lens, XF14mmF2.8 R Lens, XF35mmF1.4 R Lens, XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS Lens, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 LM OIS Lens
As a freelance photographer and former Director of Photography at National Geographic Traveler, Dan Westergren is exposed to some of the best travel and nature photography from around the world. Dan has had a lifelong interest in photography and has been lucky enough to shoot for the pages of National Geographic Traveler in locations as breathtaking as the summit of Mt Blanc and the North Pole. In this interview, he tells us about a recent trip to Antarctica and explains the reasons behind his switch to FUJIFILM cameras.
Tell us a little about the background to this incredible series of images.
In November of last year I was invited to serve as the National Geographic photography expert on an expedition to Antarctica and South Georgia Island. My job on these trips is to help the guests take the best photos they can on what is usually their once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For someone like me who loves cold weather and snow, this trip is one of the best I can imagine for making great photos. However, since this would be my sixth trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, I needed to think about an alternate approach for my photography.
National Geographic runs many trips to this part of the world and I get to see all the shots my friends take there. They are beautiful shots of a truly stunning location and its wildlife, but after a while they all start to look the same. I wanted to do something to make my pictures stand out somehow.
So you went with the mirrorless medium format FUJIFILM GFX 50S?
I have long been a fan of large and medium formats. Once, I even dragged an 8×10 Deardorff camera down to Antarctica. While planning for this voyage I thought that a digital medium format camera would be just the thing to help me shoot different images.
Luckily, FUJIFILM North America let me borrow the GFX 50S and a couple of lenses. I had already decided to take my own X-T2 and X Series lenses, so I limited myself to two GF lenses: the GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR and GF110mmF2 R LM WR.
I figured two lenses would be enough because I’m also a big proponent of limiting my choice of lenses, particularly when using a larger format system. In a place like Antarctica, if you have the same 400mm lens that everyone else uses, the chances are that you will end up taking the same pictures as them. Limiting your choices forces you to think creatively and leads, I think, to better shots.
How does having a medium format camera make a difference when you are shooting in Antarctica?
There’s nothing like having more than 50 megapixels for a shot like this. One effect is the smooth tonality. Another is the ability to show tiny details like the icicles hanging off the edges of this iceberg. These images really do look their best when displayed at full size.
But the primary reason I wanted to use a medium format camera is for what we always used to refer to in the magazine business as the ‘medium format look’. This is something that’s hard to explain, but for me it manifests itself in a couple of ways.
The first is the shallow depth-of-field that is the result of a larger sensor. It is different to the look created by using an F1.2 lens on a smaller sensor. It’s a much more subtle effect that makes the main subject seem to pop out of the frame, even at more moderate aperture settings.
The second of those great characteristics of medium format photography is that you can make the subject fairly small in the frame without any loss of detail. With a smaller format camera, I find myself having to shoot closer to maintain important detail in the image. With the GFX 50S, the 51.4 megapixel sensor allows you to frame much looser. You can give the scene more context but still maintain important detail in the secondary subjects within the frame, no matter how small they may be.
Medium format cameras used to be considered cumbersome and slow. How does the GFX 50S handle?
I find that as I look through my past images, the ones that I’m really happy with have a somewhat accidental framing. I like out of focus foreground elements; birds that just happen to fly into the frame; tiny imperfections that make the pictures a little more like a genuine record of a singular moment in time.
The GFX, when paired with the GF32-64mm lens, is the perfect tool for this. The autofocus and responsiveness are so good I could use it as I would a point-and-shoot camera – albeit one with far higher image quality.
I love to look at a scene and respond quickly with my gut, capturing the feeling of that unique place and time. I also love to shoot documentary-style portraits of people experiencing places in an unaffected way. And when I want to make shots that are a little more conscious, the 110mm lens provides a perfect viewpoint for that type of picture.
Traveling to Antarctica seems like a tough and serious undertaking, so it is interesting to see a more lighthearted moment like this. What is the story behind this shot?
This was taken in the evening at the stern of the ship, just after the snow started to fall. I was with a guest from South Africa who was trying to catch snowflakes with her tongue. It still seems incredible to me that I was able to get this shot handheld at 11:00PM using a shutter speed of 1/30 sec.
How did the FUJIFILM GFX 50S handle the weather in Antarctica?
I have exposed my XT cameras to countless indignities all over the globe and they just keep working. Those particular FUJIFILM X Series cameras are designed to be used no matter what the weather. However, I had no intention of mistreating the GFX in that way. I decided to be a little more careful than usual and tried to cover it up when things got bad. Even so, the weather-resistant build did what it was intended to do: both the camera and lenses performed flawlessly, even in this hostile environment.
This particular shot was taken one evening after dinner when a small inflatable boat approached our ship. On board were three occupants waving and pointing to their handheld radio. We slowed to let them board and they introduced themselves as occupants of the Ukranian Vernadsky Antarctic Research Station. They had been at the station by themselves for eight months and wondered if we would like to come over for a little vodka. This guy’s amazing outfit seemed to have been thrown together from random items he found in the storeroom and I thought it would make for an interesting image.
This is a very interesting shot. How did your chosen GFX lenses perform when it came to wildlife photography?
This is a shot of a colony of adult and juvenile king penguins that was shot on South Georgia island. This is the perfect example of how my wider choice of lens allowed me to frame a looser shot. A focal length of 32mm let me include plenty of context, but there is still plenty of detail in the penguin and its amusing reaction to our appearance.
This is a lovely, moody photo with a classic look to it. Did you have a chance to try out the Film Simulation modes on the FUJIFILM GFX 50S?
Yes, the final puzzle piece for me in trying to create a nostalgic look was experimenting with the Film Simulation modes. I found that CLASSIC CHROME and ACROS+R were perfect for the look I wanted. This particular shot was taken with the ACROS+R mode.
I find the slightly desaturated, classic-looking colors of CLASSIC CHROME to be exactly what I wanted. I actually had to keep reminding myself to not process out that wonderful look during post-production. The muted color palette seems a perfect match for this wild place where the weather can turn on a dime.
This particular shot is of Cape Valentine on the Antarctic Peninsula. Shackleton and his men camped here for two nights before Shackleton decided to sail to South Georgia to seek help from the whaling stations. He set sail with five other men on a lifeboat on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. They arrived at South Georgia 16 days and 800 miles later.
Dan Westergren is a compensated FUJIFILM X-Photographer.
To see more of Dan’s work, visit his website.