Arctic Photography: Facts and FAQS
What’s the point of going to the ends of the earth if you don’t have the pictures to prove it?
Besides… blue icebergs, white-capped mountains, porpoising penguins, predatory polar bears, and everything starkly beautiful about the polar regions excites the budding photographer in all of us.
Here are some basic tips that can help you get the job done – and maybe graduate your photos from the family scrapbook to an Ansel Adams, wall-worthy moment.
What camera should I take?
This depends on what you plan to do with the photos – show them on a website to friends, publish them in a magazine, or make big wall-size prints.
Use whatever you have and whatever you’re comfortable with. That said, remember that the Arctic and Antarctica present photo opportunities of a lifetime. Though the camera doesn’t make the photographer, take reliable equipment with proven results.
Film and digital cameras both work well. Both come in Single Lens Reflex (SLR) varieties that let you see exactly what the camera sees. These are great for taking photos in nearly any situation because of their accuracy, size and weight, affordability, flexibility, and quality.
The newer digital cameras are excellent choices because of their improved quality and convenience. When digital cameras first became popular, they had a delayed response time between clicking and taking the photo. They didn’t take good action shots. New digitals have a quicker click to shot response time, so you can capture whales breaching or glaciers calving.
Digitals let you take unlimited numbers of pictures as long as you have enough photo cards, which are re-usable and easier to handle than film. Enjoy instant gratification by viewing your pictures after you take them. Delete the bad ones to make room for others, or off-load the photo files to a storage device or laptop. Photo editing software lets you manipulate the photos later, in case your prize penguin is just a blip on an iceberg. Then you can easily share your photos over the web or via email.
Four mega-pixels or more can produce acceptable results, especially when a good camera is matched with a good lens (like the Panasonic cameras with Leica lenses). If you want to make big prints (16x20 or larger), you need at least 4 mega-pixels, and 6-8 minimum is better. Of course, megapixel quality can vary by manufacturer, so it’s always helpful to read camera magazine reports and ask questions in your local camera store.
If you do happen to take a film camera, make sure it accepts a variety of film speeds. 100 ASA works for sunny days and 200-400 for cloudy days and telephoto shots. You might go lower than ASA 100 for some particularly bright days on the snow. Also remember that print film has a much broader latitude exposure-wise than slide film.
Do I need a back-up camera, just in case?
Yes, if you’re serious about your photos. Compact cameras make perfect back-ups.
It’s even more important to take extra batteries, battery packs and digital camera cards. Rechargeable batteries are a great idea, so don’t forget the battery charger and adapter (if necessary). If your batteries are a few years old, update them with newer batteries that charge faster, hold charges longer, and aren’t as affected by cold.
How will the cold environment affect my camera, since most digital cameras are rated at 32 degrees F?
The cold isn’t as big an issue as you might think since it’s summer when you go there! That means it’s typically above freezing. Even so, lower temperatures and condensation can present challenges, and salt water spray is a bigger problem than the cold. A little salt water on the right button of a digital camera can render it useless.
For chilly, wet and windy days, carry cameras and batteries close to your body, but not too close! Keep them inside your coat, pockets, or outer layer, and take them out when you’re ready to shoot. Make sure all your batteries are fresh, and take extras.
Condensation is caused by abrupt temperature changes, so NEVER breathe or blow on a cold lens! Instead, use a lens brush to dust off any snow or debris. If your lens fogs up, wipe off the excess condensation with a special lens cloth vs your shirt sleeve.
Another tip: Try wrapping the camera in a scarf or something insulating that won’t hold moisture. Then, place the camera in a cooler part of the room, where it can warm up more slowly.
How many pictures do most people take on these trips?
A lot!! Hundreds or even thousands. That’s why digital cameras are so convenient. You can review your photos and manage space on your cards or storage devices while on the ship. If you’re using film, take as many pictures as you can and bracket – you never know how they’ll look until they’re printed.
What do I use for photo file storage on the trip, since I’ll probably take a lot of pictures?
If you have a full-size Digital SLR and want to review your pictures on the fly, you need some storage capability. Many Digital Media Cards store up to 4 GB of data, which is a lot of pictures if you’re shooting in JPG mode. Take at least 2 or 3 memory cards, depending on their size.
A small laptop works well for downloading photo files. So do the new photo storage devices like the Epson Photo Fine, which has 40-80 GB of storage, takes Compact Flash or SD Cards, and lets you review your pictures. Again – you can always delete bad shots to make room for more.
Photo file format affects how much storage space and memory you need. Shooting RAW versus JPG is a personal preference, but RAW format uses MUCH more memory than the JPG format. If you use a high-end Photo Editing software (like Adobe Photoshop) and want the maximum available pixels to manipulate and optimize your world-class photo, then RAW format is for you. If you’re simply shooting pictures that you plan to tweak slightly and print out for friends and family, then shoot JPG.
How do I transport my camera gear to shore in snowy, cold and wet conditions?
Zodiacs aren’t necessarily tech-friendly, since salt spray or water can permeate tiny buttons and crevices and render your camera useless. Unless you’ve stopped for a photo op or the driver says the conditions are okay, keep your camera gear tucked away safe when you’re traveling from ship to shore. You can hold the camera in front of you on your lap, or set the gear on top of your boots or on the floor of the Zodiac.
There are many waterproof and floating bags on the market these days, including some designed specifically for cameras. Pick a case or bag that suits your budget and gear needs. Even a Zip-Lock plastic bag works, especially if you place the camera and bag inside your day-pack.
It’s safer on shore, though you still have to deal with the logistics of lugging your gear around. There are several options including shoulder bags and backpacks. A camera bag that attaches to your waist instead of on your shoulder or back makes your camera more accessible. That’s a good thing when you’re taking wildlife shots. Just make sure you wear the waist bag in front of you while riding in the Zodiac, to protect it from sea spray.
How do I stay warm while taking photos? Do gloves get in the way?
Here’s the scenario: The wind is howling, the temps are below freezing, and two Adelie penguins are dancing like Fred and Ginger on an iceberg off your bow. You don’t want to get frostbite or become hypothermic. Stay inside and shoot through the ship’s window – not the best choice since your photo might be a little blurry. Or, take your chances with the elements and wear the appropriate layers of warm clothing. Remember – layer, layer, layer! And “cotton kills” in wet and cold conditions, so polypro and fleece are your friends.
It can be hard to take pictures with gloves on. Try polysynthetic glove liners when shooting outdoors. You can always wear them under your thicker fleece or ski-type gloves. You can also use the gloves that feature “flip back” fingertips. Your fingers probably won’t stick to the camera, but if you’re worried just attach some tape or felt or something similar to any metal areas or eyepieces that might touch your skin.
Hats help keep your entire body warm, since we lose most of our heat through the tops of our heads. Some people swear by baseball caps because they keep your eyeglasses and sunglasses out of the spray. Pull a hood over the top of the cap for a warmer and more effective photographing experience.
Should I take a polarizing filter?
Polarizing filters don’t always work well in Antarctica or the Arctic. Only experts are adept enough to use a polarizing filter to take out the glare and darken the sky without ruining the rest of the photo. Even then, it’s best to take a split image filter – half and half for sky effect.
Do bring a skylight filter to protect your lens from the elements, but leave the other “creative” color filters at home.
How can I take pictures of animals in the snow? Should I use a grey card, take a light meter, or bracket a lot?
The reflective qualities of white snow make shooting in the polar regions a challenge. It’s really important NOT to overexpose the picture, as is easy to do with such a harsh white background. Bracketing works and it’s easy. You might even increase the usual range of ½ to 1 stop above and below to 2 or even 3 stops, just in case. Cameras with built-in spot-metering are excellent for reducing overexposure, and using a flash to fil in the person or animal in the foreground works nicely. The price of the film or the photo card is much less than another trip to the polar regions.
Most cameras have a built-in light meter, so you don’t need to take an external meter along. Whether you use an internal or external light meter, take a reading on your hand or a neutral piece of clothing. That usually works as well as grey card. Light meters operate in extreme cold – just make sure you use fresh batteries.
If you have a digital camera, understand the Histogram feature on your camera. Take a picture, look at it, and then adjust the exposure.
Which lenses should I take? Everything I have, or just pick a couple?
Definitely take a good telephoto lens. The polar regions are vast and often your subject is far away. Image stabilization helps for those big zoom lenses. Also take a standard 50-100 mm lens for most of your other shots of cute penguin chicks on the beach and fellow passengers navigating in and out of the Zodiac for the first time.
With the popularity of digital cameras and their new optics, as well as photo-editing programs like Photoshop, it’s not necessary to lug a huge glass telephoto lens. 70-200 and 70-300 lenses are reasonably priced and not much bigger than the old 90mm lenses sold just a few years ago.
Digital cameras make the standard 35mm lens 1.4 times the listed mm on the lens. That means a 300mm lens is really 420mm in all digital cameras except for the professional full-image digital SLRs. Your biggest challenge is usually with wide angle, not with telephoto, because a 28mm wide angle is now nearly 40mm – and that’s not very wide!
If you’re gear-crazy, add a wide angle lens to capture the huge expanses of Antarctica and the Arctic.
Should I take a tripod?
A tripod is optional, but it’s a good idea if you’re inspired to take artsy close-ups of lichen or long- range telephotos of the landscape or wildlife. It would be shame to get home and discover that half your photos are blurry. You can find compact and lightweight tripods with retractable legs, and even monopods that double as hiking sticks. A small bean bag is a useful alternative for propping up your camera.
When shooting from the ship, it’s not a good idea to rest your camera on the railing. The engines can create vibration. Use a bean bag or even a pillow to reduce the chance of a shaky shot.
How much gear is too much?
That depends on how much Sherpa you have in you, plus how much you want to pay in extra baggage. Don’t forget the sweat factor. It’s around 98% humidity in Buenos Aires and lugging 40 pounds of carry-on gear might not be fun, especially when going through airport security.
Remember – you’re on a ship in a remote area. Don’t count on buying more film, cards or equipment at the local discount store.
Should I put my photo equipment in my luggage, or as a carry on?
It’s always scary to stuff expensive and fragile equipment in a suitcase and send it off to unknown and potentially unsafe parts of the world, such as the bowels of an airplane. Professionals pack their cameras in hard-case boxes that are specially approved and can only be opened by TSA folks. Plus, they have the insurance to cover damages. Regular tourists on a budget lug the camera on board in carry-ons.
You’re the best person to carefully maneuver your gear through the travel gauntlet. If you’re concerned about the hassle and the weight, ship it Fed-Ex a few days early to an agent in the departure city for your cruise. It’s not a good idea to ship to cities like Ushuaia or other remote towns since not all of these places have consistent service. Make sure you tip them when you pick it up!
Will the x-ray machines at airports hurt my film, photo cards, etc.?
Will the dog eat your homework? Maybe. But probably not. It’s rare for anyone to report a problem with modern airport security machines.
For extra safety precautions, ask the airport security folks about your concerns. They’ll probably have some answers or solutions.
[TRIP TRIVIA: One tip overrides all the others when photographing in the polar regions… Respect your subject. Whether it’s a penguin or fur seal, keep a respectful and safe distance to prevent stressing out the wildlife. IAATO Guidelines regarding distance from wildlife varies. Your naturalist guides will give you the specifics before your landings.
In general, stay back from penguins a minimum of 20 feet and even more, if you’re photographing nesting penguins. For seals, it’s a minimum of 50 feet – though fur seals can cover that distance in about 3 seconds!! Penguins don’t read the rules either – they’ll waddle right up and introduce themselves. There are no trees in Antarctica, so it helps if you get down near the ground instead of towering over the animals.
You’re guests in their house. Maybe even in their dining room, as you’ll quickly find out if you’re too close to a hungry polar bear!]