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Ice Queen: Julieanne Kost’s Adventures in Antarctica

By Jordan Kushins

When an opportunity arose to photograph Antarctica, Julieanne Kost booked herself a spot—a full two years in advance of the expedition.

Because Kost is busy. As the principal digital evangelist for Adobe Lightroom CC and Adobe Photoshop CC, the mega-creative woman spends many of her waking hours helping people who make photographs master the products that will help them craft their vision. She travels often for work, so her schedule is super tight.

Sure, committing so early was a way to accommodate her hectic calendar, but this particular journey was something different—something decades in the making. “I’ve always wanted to go there, ever since I was a little kid,” Kost says. “So it was more like a lifetime of waiting.” 

The long lead time allowed her to equip herself for the epic adventure mentally, logistically, and creatively. “I did some historical research, but more visual research,” she says. “There’s so much beautiful cinematography that’s been done there, in movies and shows like Antarctica: A Year on the Ice and Frozen Planet. I also looked at a ton of still imagery; partly to see what was in store for me, but also to see things other people had shot.”

Though Kost began to develop a mental picture of what she wanted to capture, she made sure to go in with an open mind. “I knew I’d only see a small part of the region,” she says, noting with no small amount of glee that it meant she could earnestly report back, “I only experienced the tip of the iceberg.” 

So she kept her expectations in check. “I tried not to be too attached to the idea of getting one particular image,” she says. Part of this was practical. The weather in Antarctica is temperamental at best—with cloud covers and algae blooms rolling in within minutes—and downright aggressive at worst. Basically: You never know what you’re going to get. “One pragmatic thing I was anxious about was the extreme wet and cold,” she says. “I’m okay with being miserable, but it does shift how and what you’re able to photograph, and your process in general. I was nervous that it would be sleeting or raining the whole time.”

After flying through Chile, she arrived at the Ocean Nova exhibition ship with 15 other photographers, and the reality that greeted her was mercifully manageable. “We were so, so fortunate,” she says. “It was between 20 and 30 degrees the whole time.” While the temperature was consistent, afternoons spent on the Zodiac boats—two ultra-durable, inflatable vessels Kost and crew used to navigate the freezing waters—offered a diverse selection of Mother Nature’s moods. 

“It could be very windy on the Zodiac,” she says, “and things could change dramatically within 15 minutes.” Because of these shifts, Kost had to be ready for anything. “I always brought two camera bodies with me—a Canon 5Ds and a Canon 5DMark III—in case one of them failed.” She also packed Canon 16-35 f2.8 and Canon 70-200 f2.8 lenses. Bringing both was a strategic move to push herself beyond her comfort zone. “I tend to stick to one lens,” she says. “But before I went I put together a general shot list. Basically, I wanted to make sure I had a variety of images; that among all the detailed ice pictures, I didn’t forget to get frame-of-reference images to give some perspective.” All of this gear went in a waterproof bag that she toted around. (She also had “tons” of batteries—they lose power faster when it’s cold—and memory cards at the camp.) 

Out on the Zodiac, Kost experienced a mix of sensory overload and sensory deprivation. “I appreciated when it was foggy the most; and not just because on sunnier days the contrast was tough to control,” she says. “The silence of the fog was surreal—eerie, and almost terrifying—and made me feel insignificant; like I didn’t belong there.” Despite sounding like some kind of southern hemispheric nightmare, Kost embraced the vibe. “It wasn’t a bad thing! It was just—it’s constant life or death out there. I was totally out of my element. Any wrong move on the Zodiac is a major emergency. And the wildlife! We saw killer whales feasting on seals. It’s so dramatic, but it’s a calm drama. ”

In fact, she was a bit surprised by what consistently caught her eye. “I thought I was going to want to spend a ton of time with the penguins,” she says, “but the ice fascinated me. I never stopped shooting.” Massive, mythic, and occasionally how-can-it-even-be-that-blue blue, these frozen figures were the major highlight. “We would go fast between one iceberg and another. When the boat was moving, everyone would sit inward, facing each other; once it would stop, the row of people closer to the iceberg would turn and kneel, so the others in back could see.”

In the evenings, everyone would download their haul and share their favorites with the rest of the group. The results were surprising, considering the photographers’ close quarters. “Everyone sees things so differently,” Kost says. “You’d look at someone’s pictures and think, ‘Where was that?! I didn’t see that!’ It was inspirational, and it’s why I’m never uneasy when there’s a bunch of people taking photos in the same location. Plus, seeing the way other people were shooting encouraged me to try new things.” 

Apart from those pow-wows, Kost was blissfully disconnected, by necessity—there was no wi-fi—and by choice. “This trip was like my little treasure. I wanted to keep it close to me while I was there before I started posting things. And time can be a great editor.”

Kost is a big believer in transforming images after they’ve been taken. “There is a huge amount of power in post-processing. It’s the second half of the equation. After you capture a moment, or a gesture, or lighting, the question becomes, How do you craft that raw data to tell a story? It’s all about storytelling.” Kost heavily processed her images, but not to create false drama. “It’s so calm down there. I want people to see these pictures and know that humans are having a serious impact on our planet—and I wonder how that’s going to work out for us. It’s really important to reconnect with nature.”

Once she made her edits, Kost uploaded a selection to Adobe Spark. “I’m not a designer. Spark allows me to put together a story: I pick the theme, it makes the grids, I sync my images and add text, and it gives me a URL. I’m like, ‘I love you.’” This software is also a bridge between generations. “Sending emails with multiple attachments never works. With Spark, I send my mom a single link and she can see everything at once.” For sharing with a larger audience, Kost likes the built-in network and active creative community at Behance

The 2016 trip was run by Antarctica XXI and organized by her friends and fellow photographers John Paul Caponigro and Seth Resnick, who regularly lead similar photo-centric, in-the-wild workshops around the world. 

Exactly one year after the trip, Kost is still enamored of Antarctica, but she encourages everyone to look around them, because compelling details are all over the place. “I was so fortunate to go on this trip, but there are photos to be made and stories to be told everywhere,” she says. “Sharing those images and talking about those images with other people is a great creative strategy.”