Unexplored Territories - An Interview With Adventure Photographer With Kirill Umrikhin

Nikon photographer Kirill Umrikhin recently explored a sparsely populated and largely unexplored part of the world - The Commander Islands. Travelling via yacht, Kirill and his team evaded several storms to reach the islands and become the first documented group to kite surf the waters of the Bering Sea. Kirill also saw some amazing wildlife, including beaked whales and orcas, rare seabirds and over a quarter of a million seals…

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 had been to before.

Growing up in Russia, I had heard about the Commander Islands – one of the most unique and unexplored territories of our country. There were three things about this location that interested me most. 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 island’s seal trade. Today, approximately 800 people live in the small village of Nikolskoe. 

Second, was its wildlife. The islands are a haven for many species of animals, including 350,000 seals, orcas and rare seabirds.

Finally, was the opportunity for action sports – nobody has ever kite surfed here, so it gave me a chance to shoot something no one has captured before.

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How much planning did you have to do for a trip such as this?
Finding a remote and unexplored location is great, but it means there is very little information available to help you plan. Whereas some might have been put off, this made me want to visit the Commander Islands even more!

I contacted local travel advisors and the Komandorsky Nature Reserve, who were incredibly helpful in getting as much information as possible for me in advance. I also needed a boat, so was put in touch with a captain based in Kamatcha who had visited the islands four times before. We had a crew of seven in total, all full of excitement (and with similar levels of apprehension) for the journey we were about to make.

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What challenges did you face during your trip?
The weather on the Commander Islands is extremely temperamental – you can be enjoying the sunshine one minute and then suddenly you’re facing torrential raining. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived, but we ended up being incredibly lucky. In fact, many of the locals told us it was the best summer they had ever seen. 

With the weather somewhat on our side, it was other, perhaps more unexpected challenges that we had to manage. 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. Luckily, I had the robust camera line-up of the Nikon D850, Nikon D5 and the new mirrorless Z 7, which made my life a lot easier.

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What did you learn from your project?
It sounds like a cliché, but with photography trips like this you have to expect the unexpected. We had limited time on the islands, so the environment dictated what we were able to capture each day.

As a sports and action photographer, what initially attracted me to the Commander Islands was the potential for kite surfing on waters no one had ever surfed before, but it turned into something more than that – a look through the lens at a lost world in 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 but feel inspired to capture more of in the future.

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What equipment did you use throughout your trip?
The Nikon D5, Nikon 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. 

The D850’s 45.4MP 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 also the first opportunity I had to put the new mirrorless Z 7 system to the test, but the similar ergonomics to DSLRs meant it was intuitive to use. It was also incredibly lightweight and quiet - great when you’re a travelling adventure photographer.

Lens-wise, while I took a mixture of fisheye, zoom and prime lenses, my go-to is always the AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR - its super-fast f/2.8 aperture means it never lets me down.

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What advice would you give to other photographers looking to carry out a similar project?
While preparation is key to success (especially when travelling to remote and potentially dangerous areas of the world), you also need to be flexible. While you may have an idea of how you want things to unfold, when you’re working in such an unknown landscape, nature and wildlife will dictate your trip for you. I’d also advise bringing a diverse range of camera bodies and lenses, so that whatever the setup, you know you have the right combination to capture it in the best way possible.

Anyone who has been inspired by my journey to the Commander Islands can find out more here.