Kirill Umrikhin

Sports and adventure

It sounds like a cliché but with photography trips like this, you must expect the unexpected. I was photographing extreme sports, landscapes of incredible texture, portraits of people in the village and rare wildlife. I needed to predict the gear I'd need for every scenario, so I could adapt and capture fleeting moments of magic.

About the Special Project

Kirill Umrikhin voyages to the remote Commander Islands to reveal a ‘lost world’ of volcanic landscapes, rare wildlife and vast ocean.

Q: Why did you choose the Commander Islands for your Special Project?

I was born with a thirst for adventure so when the opportunity to pursue a dream project came about, I knew I wanted to visit somewhere off the grid that very few people knew about or had visited. My method was simple; I opened Google Maps and used satellite images to explore new places I didn’t know existed. I spotted a group of treeless, sparsely populated islands in the Bering Sea located about 100 miles east of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East - a lost world just waiting to be discovered.

There were three things about this location that interested me. First was its history - the islands were discovered by Commander Vitus Bering, whose ship wrecked on the uninhabited Bering Island in 1741. In 1825, the Aleut people were transferred to the island by the Russian-America Company to develop the islands seal trade. Presently, the island’s population is two-thirds Russian, one-third Aleutian, with only two people on the island still speaking the Mednyj Aleut language. Second is its wildlife. The islands are a wildlife haven and home to many rare species of animals, including around 350,000 seals – one-fifth of the world’s population. And finally, the opportunity for action sports – nobody has ever surfed or kite surfed here, so it gave me a chance to take my photography and love of adventure to another level and shoot something no one has captured before.

Q: How much planning did you have to do for a trip such as this?

Finding a remote and unexplored location is great, but means there is very little information available, so planning was pretty difficult. I contacted local travel advisors and the Komandorsky Nature Reserve in advance to get as much information as possible, but everyone I spoke to said what I had in mind would be challenging. Whereas some might have been put off, this made me want to visit the location even more! There are minimal images available of the Commander Islands, so we had little to no idea of the landscape and how accommodating the waters would be for the sailing yacht we planned to take there. In many ways we were going in blind, but we didn’t let this stop us from embarking on an expedition to learn more about the island’s people, wildlife and landscapes.

I of course needed a boat to make this happen, so I contacted a captain based in Kamatcha who had visited the islands four times before. During one of these trips the extreme weather conditions broke the anchor and destroyed his boat; however, he was keen to go back and explore. In total we had a crew of seven, all full of excitement (and with similar levels of apprehension) for the journey we were about to make.

Q: What challenges did you face during your trip?

The Commander Islands only get 10 days of sunshine a year and are often hit with huge storms. The weather is also extremely temperamental - you can be enjoying the sunshine one minute and then before you know it, it’s torrentially raining, so we had no idea what to expect when we arrived. However, we were incredibly lucky on our trip, with the locals saying it was the best summer they had ever seen.

With the weather somewhat on our side, it was other, perhaps more unexpected, challenges that came into play. Living conditions were harsh - it was extremely cold on the boat and most of us experienced sea sickness during the trip. Another problem was getting close to the island’s fascinating wildlife. Photographing from a boat can be difficult, as you need to be careful not to damage your equipment while trying to keep the camera as still as possible. You are also at the mercy of the creature itself – you cannot plan for a seal to look your way or for a bird to fly close-by. It took a lot of time, patience and a sturdy kit, but I am delighted with the images we managed to capture.

Q: What was your favourite moment of the trip?

It has to be when we came across the pod of whales. There were around 20 of them swimming together in the water below us and it was a real ‘pinch me’ moment. I followed them for a while armed with the Nikon D850, hoping to capture them jumping out of the water, but unfortunately they stayed submerged. Unlike humans, you cannot ask a whale to jump for you, so you must work with what you have.

Another fantastic moment was photographing the seals, when I (armed with the Nikon D850 in an underwater camera house) actually got in the water with them. There were hundreds of them all around me - a scary but amazing experience!

Q: What did you learn from your project?

It sounds like a cliché, but with photography trips like this, you must expect the unexpected. We had a limited amount of time on these islands, and the environment can make things difficult for you. For example, a journey on our boat took three days when we thought it would take one, but during that journey we spotted the whales – which changed the trip altogether! Although I planned for this trip to focus on extreme sports and surfing, it turned into something so much more than that - a look through the lens at a lost world which some incredible people and animals call home. Photographing people and wildlife has opened my eyes to a side of photography I had never really focused on before. I want to come back and capture more pictures of the whales and orcas living around these islands.

Q: What equipment did you use throughout your trip?

The Nikon D5Nikon D850 and the new Z 7 mirrorless system meant that whatever the shot or situation, I had the camera body to match. It’s no surprise that my trusty D5 was perfect for the extreme kite surfing shots - in my opinion, this camera is unbreakable, with its 153 focus points and 99 cross-type sensors meaning it can keep up with any speed of shooting.

The Nikon D850’s 45.4 MPs of image quality was my go-to for the wildlife shots. In fact, I used an underwater camera protector to help me capture the emotions and details of the animals from both above and below the water surface. There isn’t much this camera can’t do.

This was the first opportunity I had to really put the new mirrorless Z 7 system to the test, and I have to say, the similar ergonomics to DSLRs meant it was really intuitive to use. It was lightweight and quiet, and the image quality was seriously impressive, both for capturing small details but also in wider images. In fact, its ISO capabilities are just as good as the Nikon D850, which I didn’t think could be possible! 

Lens-wise, I took a mixture of fisheye (the AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D and AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED), zoom (AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED and AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR) and prime (AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G), as well as the new NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens, which was awesome. My go-to lens, however, is always the AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR - it just never lets me down.

Q: What advice would you give to other photographers looking to carry out a similar project?

Getting the planning, timing and equipment right is key to success. We prepared as much as we could in advance and made sure the camera and lenses we had were suitable for all weather conditions. Flexibility is also important - you may have an idea of how you want things to unfold, but when you’re working in such an unknown part of the world, nature and wildlife will dictate your trip for you - you’re on their turf, so you have to work on their terms.

Q: What does it mean to you to be able to do a project like this with Nikon?

This was a dream trip for me, and I feel honoured to have been granted the opportunity to realise it from a brand who has been with me every step of my career. It pushed me to my limits, not just as a photographer but as a traveller, project manager and even as an athlete. I have to give a shout out to my team who made the experience even better than I could have hoped - without their grit, determination and experience, it could have been a very different story!

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