Antarctic visions: making the most of digital imaging

Antarctica remains very isolated, accessible only to relatively few people. But from the earliest years of its exploration the images brought back from this remarkable place have captured the imagination of people who can never hope to go there. In Captain Cook's time the media were watercolour and rough pencil and ink drawings. Photography opened up new possibilities exploited with consummate skill by the pioneers of classic Antarctic photography, the Australian Frank Hurley and Englishman Hebert Ponting.

Since the birth of ANARE in the 1940s expeditioners and professional photographers have produced some unforgettable images of man and nature in this ice-world. In the process, they have captured moments in time of great value to science. Pictures of subantarctic glaciers from the 1950s are showing scientists the extent of glacial retreat (an important climate change indicator); early images of bird colonies reveal fluctuations over time in species numbers (an indicator of ecological changes).

Panorama of an emperor penguin rookery (Mawson)
Panorama of an emperor penguin rookery near Mawson

The technology of the World Wide Web takes Antarctic photography to the world. The classic panoramas seen here were created using a combination of conventional photography and digital image technology. The original images for the 360° panoramas were taken in portrait (vertical) mode using a 35mm film camera on a special-purpose tripod head. The 18 images for each panorama were then scanned into a computer at high-resolution and 'stitched' together in a special software program before being re-touched digitally to eliminate seams and other irregularities. They may also be viewed as 'QuickTime-VR' images - 'virtual reality' pictures, often a full 360° as these are - which can be explored by panning around and zooming into the scene. Such images have wider application in training, security, pre-visit orientation and other needs. A series of QuickTime-VR images of natural and station views in Antarctica can be seen at the AAD website. A historical panorama of Australia's Atlas Cove station on Heard Island is currently being prepared.

The AAD holds a huge archive of Antarctic pictures dating back to the time of Hurley and Ponting. A total of 350,000 still images - colour and black-and-white, glass plates, prints, slides, negatives, and digital images - cover subjects as varied as micro-organisms to people, ice crystals to aerial and satellite images. In addition, the Multimedia Library holds high-quality videotape records of historical and current movie film, fully shot-listed and recorded on database, amounting in film terms to around 500,000 feet. The collection has been showcased at Australia's Parliament House in Canberra for the past seven years, to audiences of over 100,000 people each year.

Digital cameras, now permanently available at each station and aboard ships, make it possible to send Antarctic images to Australia and other parts of the world almost instantaneously. Such photography has wide application in every aspect of human activity. As a research and publicity tool the digital camera is unsurpassed. X-rays and other medical digital images can be flashed to Australia to enable a diagnosis to be back at the station within an hour. Families can exchange photographs of their respective lives across great distances.

The AAD has taken a leading role in converting traditional images to digital media for these and many other purposes. The conversion has enabled a much higher degree of security for original images because of reduced handling, as well as provision of 'loss-less' duplicates. Its database of historical and current digital images and film footage has been greatly enhanced by former ANARE expeditioners, including the first AAD director, Dr Phillip Law, who have freely given their knowledge and expertise to identify images.

The AAD Multimedia Unit has added value to its image library by creating posters for science conferences - a valuable publishing medium for scientists - and for other professional and promotional purposes. Many of the scientific posters won plaudits and awards at international meetings for their authors and designers.

Peter Boyer
Information Services Manager,
Australian Antarctic Division