Pole to Pole: How Colby Brown Found Photographic Success Amid Life-Altering Climate Change

Pole to Pole: How Colby Brown Found Photographic Success Amid Life-Altering Climate Change

Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live.
 —Marcus Aurelius

When travel and humanitarian photographer and G-TEAM Ambassador Colby Brown landed on the shores of Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic, he expected late autumn conditions. The polar bears he came to photograph for expedition company Frontiers North would be gathered near the water, making for relatively straightforward work conditions. Only twenty or so people per year get permission to visit this 33-kilometer area of the nature park, and Colby expected to walk away with mountains of glorious footage.

That didn’t happen.

Winter came two and a half weeks early, and it came with a vengeance. Colby stepped into roaring sideways storms and -60°C conditions — temperatures cold enough to render much of his regular photo and computing gear inoperable. The weather also forced away any wildlife. The bears he’d come to photograph had lumbered across the newly frozen ice shelf to seek their seal prey elsewhere.

Colby had fought for months to piece together all the help necessary to make this excursion a reality. Now, staring into brutal, white emptiness, it looked to be a complete bust.

Salvage and Success

As it turned out, nature is resourceful, and even the harshest conditions can offer rich opportunities to those who come prepared. Once the Canadian Arctic winds calmed, Colby ventured out and used his keen eye for landscapes to spot scenes of otherworldly beauty. He also found ingeniously camouflaged ptarmigans and plush-bodied hares. He found captivating time-lapse vantages and stunning macro subjects. He didn’t find the footage he’d anticipated, but, gradually, he plucked beauty from what at first seemed to be disaster.

This success was possible because Colby had come prepared. He’d brought different clothes than usual. He’d carted in special warmers for his lithium batteries and range of Sony α7 and α9 cameras, which normally wouldn’t function in such conditions. He picked his lenses, in part, based on how they would perform in extreme cold. With so many precautions in place, he wasn’t so much at the mercy of his environment. Instead, he could adapt to it.

“When capturing in the wild, find solace in creating a narrative or story wrapped around what’s actually happening rather than trying to force the narrative you arrived with,” Colby says. “You have to let go this pre-conceived notion of what’s going to happen, stop trying to control everything, and make the best of what you can create.”

Naturally, Colby had also come prepared with flexible storage and a workflow to match. Once he ventured from the protection of the heated Tundra Buggy encampment, Colby made a regular practice of copying his memory cards onto G-DRIVE mobile SSDs. He knew that he only had moments to expose his computing equipment to the elements, so fast transfer times were critical. Colby selected these compact SSDs for their 2TB capacity, reliably fast performance, and extreme ruggedness (IP67-rated) for withstanding such vicious conditions.

Once back at his basecamp, Colby transferred the contents of his G-DRIVE mobile SSDs onto one of 8TB and 14TB G-DRIVE with Thunderbolt 3 units he’d brought. Again, durability figured into choosing this solution, but his main concern rested with balancing high capacity and fast transfer times. Colby’s workflow and attention to protection demands that he have four copies of his files in the field: SD card, G-DRIVE mobile SSD (he brings up to six of these to never run out of capacity), G-DRIVE with Thunderbolt 3, and his laptop. If the laptop starts to get full, he’ll spill over into lightweight G-DRIVE mobile USB-C hard drives. For the return home, he spreads these drives across as many bags as possible, just to be safe, and he takes every measure to avoid deleting anything, even from SD cards, until the job is finished.

“I know these small G-Technology drives can handle rough travel yet still be big enough capacity-wise to transfer huge data sets with ease and speed in situations where it’s incredibly cold,” says Colby. “If I can’t plug in my laptop, battery life can be an issue with cold and lithium batteries. So, the speed with which I can back things up becomes much more significant in places like the Canadian Arctic.”

He had to trust these compact drives to keep their contents safe for the thousands of miles necessary to return home. Only once at his office in Virginia could he transfer everything off to his 48TB G-SPEED Shuttle with Thunderbolt 3 and get down to intensive editing and post-production. Because still photography comprises most of Colby’s work, he still has plenty of room left on the G-SPEED Shuttle, so the RAID can double as his first-tier archive. Never content to let his data and livelihood be at risk, Colby uses two additional archive tiers for extra backup: a network storage drive and remote cloud-based backup. As 4K and higher video continues to gain prominence in his work, though, Colby foresees the need to complement his G-SPEED Shuttle with additional resources, such as a daisy-chained G-SPEED Shuttle XL with Thunderbolt 3.

A Tale of Two Poles

The Canadian Arctic would be one of only many stops on what became Colby’s “Pole to Pole” adventure, which also encompassed Iceland, Norway, South Africa, Patagonia, the Falkland Island, South Georgia, and Antarctica, which he was covering on assignment from expedition firm One Ocean along with several other conservation and marketing campaigns. Like everyone else, Colby is no stranger to evidence that the world’s climate is changing. The question was not if he would encounter extreme weather, but how we would handle it.

For instance, just as the Arctic had sprung winter prematurely, South Africa saw rains strike before their usual season. Normally, photographers target one of the region’s sparse watering holes during the dry season because the hot weather forces wildlife to stay close to the water, which makes finding animals easier but makes for brown, lifeless backgrounds.

Colby recalls, “I was able to be there during the first rains, which allowed me to not only see the foliage that all the herbivores rely on burst into bloom. It was also baby season, the time when baby lion cubs and baby hippos and baby warthogs and all these things come together. I could get these amazing images of things like elusive leopards against lush backgrounds, which was quite rare and special.”

And so it went, a strange, thrilling adventure from pole to pole, with every stop yielding some new evidence of nature bending to adapt. Colby saw some penguin rookeries collapse because of unusually warm temperatures while gentoo penguins saw their numbers explode, because gentoos nurture their eggs on rocky outcroppings, which are easier to find when snow and ice recedes.

Day seven of first trip, morning at Salisbury Plain, afternoon at Grytviken. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann on 1/5/19) Shot with a NIKON Z 7, Aperture Priority, SUNNY white balance, ISO 200, 1/640 at f/7.1 in multi-segment metering, -0.3 EV, Nikkor lens at 38mm, focus mode of AF-C and Picture Control set to 0300STANDARD. Photo copyright Reed Hoffmann.

Looking back on his travels, Colby can’t help but see the parallels between nature and his own creative career. Everything changes. Everyone struggles to adapt. Some succeed better than others. Sometimes, success stems from luck, but more often, it’s about the assets one brings to meet the change. The preparation. The selection of reliable, versatile gear with which to survive.

Watch Colby’s Pole to Pole video, learn about his photo gear, and more…right here.

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Pole to Pole: How Colby Brown Found Photographic Success Amid Life-Altering Climate Change