The Nikon Ambassador Special Project Programme offers the opportunity for Nikon Ambassadors – consisting of talented and influential photographers from across Europe – to realise their dream projects. And this project from Nikon Russia Ambassador Kirill Umriikhin is the definition of a dream fulfilled.
Driven by a thirst for adventure and an instinct for discovery, Kirill’s work over the years as a professional travel and sports photographer has taken him to many a ski slope and waterfront. In fact, his images have secured award wins in national photo contest ‘Best of Russia’ in 2013 and 2014, with his avalanche station photo featured as one of Russia’s top ten images captured in the last decade.
However, it was a desire to discover somewhere truly ‘off-the-grid’ that led Kirill to a sparsely populated and largely unexplored part of the world in the Aleut region of Russia: The Commander Islands.
Here, we learn from Kirill first-hand how the Special Project Programme took him to a place where few travel, action or wildlife photographers have been to before.
A place waiting to be discovered
“Many have asked me how I came to know about the Commander Islands, but my method was simple. I opened Google maps and used satellite images to explore locations I didn’t know existed. It was then when 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.
“Steeped in history, wildlife, and with a landscape perfect for action sports, I knew this place would help me take my photography and love of adventure to the next level. What’s more, as far as I could tell, nobody had ever kite surfed there. It gave me the chance to shoot something totally unique that no one else would have previously captured.
“It was now just a case of getting there…”
Given the remote and largely unexplored nature of this location, there was very little information available for Kirill to plan his adventure.
“I contacted local travel advisors and the Komandorsky Nature Reserve to get as much advance information as possible, but they all told me what a challenge it would be to get there, let alone surf its waters. Ironically, this made me want to visit the location even more!
“I needed a boat to get there, so I got in touch with a captain based in Kamatcha who I knew had visited the islands several times before. In total we had a crew of seven, all full of nerves and excitement to start the expedition.”
Embracing the elements
The Commander Islands only get 10 days of sunshine each year, and the weather can be temperamental. However, Kirill and his team were lucky enough to be treated to one of the best summers the Islands have ever seen.
“While it was great to have the weather on our side, there were still plenty of challenges that came into play. 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, consisting of beaked whales, orcas, rare seabirds and over a quarter of a million seals!
“Photographing from a boat is 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 a whale to jump. It took a lot of time, patience and sturdy kit, but moments where we were literally in the water surrounded by the seals, capturing their curious faces, made it all worthwhile!”
“While I was keen to discover the island’s elements through surfing and sailing, the unique wildlife and people that call these islands home offered a new perspective, testing my talent as a wildlife and documentary photographer.
“Of course, being able to call ourselves the first people in the world known to kite surf the waters of the Bering Sea was incredible. It showed me the world is not just getting smaller; there are still places of mystery and adventure to explore, marvel at and document.”
Preparing for every eventuality
Equipment-wise, Kirill opted for Nikon D5 and Nikon D850, alongside the latest Nikon Z 7.
“The unbreakable Nikon D5 was perfect for the extreme kite surfing shots, with its 153 focus points and 99 cross-type sensors meaning it could keep up with any speed of shooting.
“The Nikon D850’s 45.4 MPs of image quality, paired with my favourite AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens, was my go-to combination for 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, which was pretty cool.
“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 very intuitive to use. In fact, its ISO capabilities are just as good as the Nikon D850, which I didn’t think could happen!
“Whether battling tricky waters via boat, hiking for miles on the Steller Peak or sharing the surf with whales and seals, the combination of these three cameras and my NIKKOR lenses meant every feasible shot was possible.
Kirill’s trip serves as inspiration for any photographer, traveller or even athlete looking to experience something completely new.
You can find a full list of the equipment Kirill used below.