The veteran photographer talks about what he's learned over 30 years of shooting in environments that range from arctic ice fields to desert sands. Block tells us what he brings along on his global photographic journeys and how pictures of penguins are different from actual penguins.
Aimee Baldridge: Where have you traveled as a photographer?
Ira Block: I've traveled all through the world. Bags and airplanes are integral to my life. I've been everywhere except India and some of the African countries. Lately, most of my work has been in Asia, Southeast Asia, and South America. I do a lot of workshops these days—my own and through National Geographic. I do a lot of their Lindblad Expeditions. They do trips everywhere and usually have a National Geographic expert on board to help people with their photography. I've done workshops in Abu Dhabi, Bangkok, Singapore, and in a bunch of different places in the U.S. also.
AB: How do you prepare for a trip abroad?
Ira Block: I do a lot of research. If it's a place I've been to, usually I know people there. If not, I'll ask my colleagues who have been there who they know as a local fixer, and what are some of the problems that I may run into when I get there. And then I try to figure out what kind of equipment I need to take.
When I first started, there was no Internet and it was a lot more difficult. Now it's pretty easy to learn about a place and find out what's going on, although when you get there it's always totally different. As much research as you do, there are always surprises. But that's great. It's nice to be surprised. Usually.
AB: When you do workshops abroad with students, are they surprised by places that they’ve already seen in pictures and on television?
Ira Block: In some of the places, absolutely, because they’re so incredible that no matter what you’ve seen on TV, it’s different when you’re actually there experiencing the sounds and the smells. When we went down to Antarctica, there was an awful odor around penguin colonies, because they eat a lot of fish. Even though it’s awful, it kind of wakes people’s senses up to the fact that they’re in this incredible environment.
Penguins in Antarctica flee the awful odor. Copyright Ira Block.
AB: Do you have a standard travel kit, or does your gear change for every assignment?
Ira Block: It changes for every assignment, and a lot of the assignments I've been doing lately require lighting. So I travel with too much lighting equipment, and stands and backgrounds and grip equipment. It gets pretty expensive with all the extra baggage, so I'm trying more and more to rent things overseas.
I take all my cameras on the plane in a Roadie II Universal. I gave Tenba a lot of advice on how I thought that bag should be set up. I always have at least two or three bodies and six or seven lenses. I also bring along a Sekonic light meter that's a flash, spot, and incident meter all in one. I always bring a rain cover for the cameras, and tons of extra batteries and chargers. I bring a laptop and at least two 500GB drives, too.
Ira Block's Roadie II Universal roller, packed for a trip. Copyright Ira Block.
AB: What kinds of shoots do you need a lot of lights for?
Ira Block: I bring a lot of lighting if I'm doing a science type of shoot, where I'm lighting either archeological places or museum objects or scientists working. For example, there was a National Geographic story last year called Hothouse Earth. That story was mostly domestic, shot in Wyoming, Florida, and swamps down in Georgia and Carolina, along with trips to Bolivia and Nunavut. The arctic at one time looked like the swamps of North Carolina, so I shot a picture in the swamps, we made a huge print on canvas, and I had a man in Nunavut hold it.
AB: How many bags were you traveling with on that trip?
Ira Block: About six or eight, because I couldn't get anything local.
AB: How do you make the process go smoothly and ensure that your checked gear arrives undamaged?
Ira Block: There's no guarantee. I try to take direct flights so that the equipment doesn't have to be offloaded and onloaded and have a chance of getting lost. I let them know it’s lighting equipment. Some of the companies will give press and film crews a discount on excess baggage fees, at least domestically. It doesn't work internationally. One time coming back from China I paid something like $3,500 in excess baggage fees.
AB: If you’re going somewhere remote, what do you do for power?
Ira Block: On the last trip I made to Utah, I was always near a car, and even when I was camped out, eventually I would get back to a car. So I took an inverter with me that I could plug into a cigarette lighter. I’d plug chargers into the inverter while driving. I tried a solar blanket once, but it didn’t charge fast enough. Solar just isn’t there yet, to charge what I need to charge.
If I’m hiking and going to be camped out for a few days, I just bring a lot of batteries and memory cards. You can carry a bunch of them and stay out for seven days pretty easily. I’ve done hiking trips as long as ten or twelve days, and started to get a little worried about power. I’d do things like turn off the stabilization in my lens, because that eats through a lot of battery power.
In cold weather, forget it. The batteries are going to go really quick. There’s no way around it.
AB: Are there special things you pack for a very cold environment?
Ira Block: Obviously super-warm clothing. Gloves that you can wear and still operate the camera. And you’ve got to be careful in cold weather about bringing cameras inside and outside, so they don’t get condensation. You have to have plastic bags to put them in. I also bring those chemical heating packs for my hands.
When I was shooting that portrait in Nunavut, it was about -20C, so I put my Profoto pack inside a beer cooler. The pack produces some heat when it fires, and the heat stays in the insulated cooler and keeps the pack warm. I also taped hand warmers inside of it. I carved out a little piece of the cooler so that the wire could go out to the strobe head, and I used PocketWizards to fire the strobe, because I didn’t want to run another wire. You have to be careful about electrical wires in cold weather because they can become very brittle.
Ira Block's beer cooler battery pack insulator on location. Copyright Ira Block.
AB: What about the other extreme, when you’re shooting in the desert?
Ira Block: The cameras don’t need anything special there. But me, I’ve got to hydrate a lot. Especially in the dry desert where you don’t feel yourself sweating because everything gets absorbed and evaporates, you don’t feel like you’re losing that much moisture, but you are.
AB: I believe you took the Tenba Discovery Medium Photo/Hydration Daypack on a recent desert trip. Did it do the trick?
Ira Block: Yes, it has a built-in hydration system and big pockets on the outside for water bottles, so you can carry a lot of liquid in it. I was carrying about two and a half or three liters of water for about eight hours of hiking. You don’t want to run out of water in the desert. There’s no water out there. I took the sage/khaki version of the bag because I wanted a light color that wouldn’t absorb heat as much as the darker one. If it’s 112 degrees with the sun beating down, whatever you have in a dark colored pack will get really warm—cameras, food, water.
AB: You have many photos of expansive landscapes taken from a distant vantage point. How do you find those perspectives?
Ira Block: They’re from a helicopter. I like doing aerials because they give you a perspective that helps you get the sense of a place. If you’re doing a story on a culture or an ancient civilization, and you can get up there and see what the geography really looks like, you start getting an understanding of why people were living like they were, and why they picked that area to live in.
Helicopters are easier than planes. They’re slower and you can kind of stop them in one place. With a plane, you have to make big, wide turns to get back. With a helicopter, it’s much more controllable in terms of what you can photograph. You can hover over a place and really fine tune your picture. In an airplane, you’re zipping by at 60 to 70 miles an hour.
Obviously, you want to make the picture look attractive so that people are drawn to looking at it. If you shoot at a time when there’s ugly light, people won’t be drawn to it.
AB: What’s the best time for aerial photography?
Ira Block: Usually early in the morning and late afternoon, like with most landscape photography, when the light is cutting across and giving you more definition of the landscape because of the shadows. How you shoot and what kind of light you need depends on what you’re shooting, what the landscape looks like.
AB: What do you take on a helicopter?
Ira Block: I tend to use wider lenses and try to get lower, because if you use a long lens from further away you’re going to be shooting through more haze. I’ll try to bring a stabilizer or a gyroscope. If it’s really early, right before the sun comes up, or right after the sun goes down when the light’s really low, I have to shoot at a slower shutter speed. Right after sunset it’s kind of pretty. There’s still light in the sky, but it’s softer and gives you a little glow.
Islands in the Bering Strait, just after sunset. Copyright Ira Block.
You can visit Ira Block’s website to see more of his work, read his informative blog, and learn about his workshops.