It's a trip of a lifetime, after all. You'll to want to make sure you have the right gear with you when the bears start sparring or the leopard seals give chase to an unsuspecting penguin chick out for its first swim. I asked two experts in the field to provide their recommendations: Marius Coetzee, with Oryx Photo Tours, which operates in both northern and southern polar regions and Paul Zizka who runs his own photography workshops as well as working with OFFBEAT, running photo tours in the northern polar regions. I also guide with GAdventures, exploring Antarctica, and Frontiers North Adventures, leading adventures in Canada's sub-Arctic.
My Brief Recommendations For What Cameras To Pack on a Polar Expedition
In the past, I’ve travelled with Rebel-level Canons, a 20D, as well as various 5D, and 7D bodies. They’ve all provided great photographs. In fact, some of my favorite photographs I've ever taken were taken with a Rebel T2i. It's a bit different now, I'm shooting with a Canon R5. To be blunt, the R5's autofocus and my ability to crop in on 45 megapixels, even at relatively high ISO, has made me a more consistent photographer. The ability to see my exposure end result through the R5's electronic viewfinder means I'm never taken the camera from my eye. Even when I can barely feel my fingers, I can muddle about and see the results without losing sight of the action.
The Expert's Recommendations For What Cameras To Pack on a Polar Expedition
Penny Robartes, of Oryx Photo Tours, wrote an article strongly recommending two camera bodies. Robartes and Oryx note that with two bodies, you can mount a wide angle and telephoto lens on different bodies. This will help you secure great shots of close encounters with penguins while being flexible enough to photograph the epic scope of the polar regions without fumbling through a lens change.
The Experts Recommendations For What Lenses To Pack on a Polar Expedition
Paul Zizka's photography is marked by wide, sweeping scenes, often set at nighttime. Given his style, Zizka told me that the one lens he absolutely could not do without is his Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8L. For Zizka, the lens is durable, relatively light, has a wide aperture, and most importantly performs well in chilly weather, including taking filters easily regardless of temperatures.
Marius Coetzee explained that he travels with his Canon RF 600mm f/4L wherever he goes. Coetzee noted that he finds the lens superb for polar bears. More often than not, the polar bears in Svalbard are far away. A long lens like the Canon RF 600mm f/4L gives Coetzee the range to execute his signature style, focusing on strong intimate portraits. Coetzee also never travels to the polar regions without a wide-angle lens, currently the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8L, to capture the breath-taking landscapes.
My Brief Recommendations For What Lenses To Pack on a Polar Expedition
Similar to my experiences with older bodies, I've shot some incredible images with older model Canon lenses. Currently, my favorite lenses are a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L, with or without a 1.4x teleconverter, a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L, and a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L.
Like Oryx, I'd also recommend bringing at least two camera bodies fitted with a wide and a telephoto lens. This will save you from changing lenses in inclement weather, ranging from snow and rain to blowing gravel (look up katabatic winds). As Avian Influenza spreads to Antarctica, you can't even safely put your bag on the ground so as to avoid being a vector. Two cameras with two lenses makes the juggle much easier. Having a wide angle on one of your bodies will make all the difference in the world if something pops up right in front of you, you'll never be able to change lenses fast enough if a couple of bears wake up four feet from your Buggy.
Typically, I don’t like to shoot wide open, as I feel that limits my depth of field. Animals move quickly and f/2.8 is far too narrow to be able to get most of an animal in focus. On the other hand, trips to see the bears in Churchill are typically staged in fall. By the time the season wraps up, the sun is setting at 16:30 and travels a relatively shallow arc across the sky. At this point in the year, winter isn’t far off and the skies are often cloudy and grey. Similarly, going to the Antarctic circle on late season adventures will see the shallow sun set just after 19:00, losing about four minutes of daylight a day. When the light fails, you have no choice but to open your aperture. All that to be said, there are times when I need f/2.8. Of course, the shallow depth of field also helps me to push my viewer to a specific and isolated focus point if I can get the right angle.
Other Camera Gear To Pack For Expedition Adventures
Tripods and Monopods
I do bring a tripod, but you won't be able to set up a tripod on a ship or in a Tundra Buggy, there's just too much movement to get the benefit of stability. However, there is always a chance of shooting the northern lights in Canada's or Scandinavia's north. Here, a tripod is critical.
On the other hand, I do bring a monopod for mounting a GoPro to submerge in either the Churchill River to catch beluga underwater or the Southern Ocean to hopefully record swimming penguins, or, if I'm really lucky, a leopard seal.
It's difficult if not impossible for travelers to get a drone permit for Antarctica. Similarly, most of Churchill and the surrounding area is closed due to the presence of helicopters and National Parks. Consequently, I don't bring a drone with me, north or south.
Computing and Drive Space
Oryx recommends that you bring along a computer and additional hard drive space. When you see bears sparring, Arctic fox dipping in and out of the willows, penguins battling skua, orca, albatross in flight, or any other number of action packed scenes, you're going to push your highspeed shutter to its limit. If you can review your images and start to cull during downtime, you're not going to need as many memory cards. As a side benefit, you'll cut down on your culling time when you get home.
Bags or Better Yet, Drybags
I carry a robust LowePro backpack (that I'm an expert in carrying lightly in front of the flight check-in counter so as to avoid the dreaded weigh in). Alternatively, Oryx Photo Tours and GAdventures recommends a purpose-built drybag. Zodiac landings can be very wet. There is always a chance a wave can break right over top of the zodiac, drenching everyone and everything inside. I've been looking for something truly waterproof and camera specific, so I'll take recommendations in the comments.
Oryx, Frontiers North Adventures, and GAdventures recommends that you pack a pair of binoculars for spotting wildlife. I agree, sometimes the wildlife is too far away to photograph; a good set of binoculars will let you enjoy the experience. More so, a pair of binoculars will help spot wildlife at a distance, giving you the chance to maneuver closer for a shot. I bring along a pair of Diamondback Vortex; I'm satisfied with their quality and the warranty, in my opinion, is second to none.
Batteries and the Cold
Keeping your camera batteries warm is important. Although it may sound odd, if I'm going to be out shooting past dark, I'll actually bring handwarmers to keep my batteries warm until they go under load. For longer time-lapse images, I've actually taped hand warmers to my camera body to keep the battery charge for just that little bit longer.
Stay Warm: Hands
On the topic of warmth, Zizka has adopted a battery-operated G-Tech heated pouch for cold outings. Zizka has yet to find gloves that don't end up frustrating him. From Zizka's perspective the best compromise he's found for the moment is exposing his hands temporarily and then placing them into the pouch to warm up.
In a wet environment, I've shied away from a electric heat, and recently settled on a pair of ArcTeryx Venta gloves. They give me enough warmth to operate, while giving me enough flexibility to get to work in the cold. I recently wrote about these gloves, here.
Stay Warm and Dry
It's important to stay dry in wet environment. Given that your visit to Antarctica will mostly be by way of wet beach landings, waterproof pants are a must. I’m often up to my waist helping passengers on and off the ship or at a landing site, so I wear bib pants or even an immersion suit. Currently I'm favoring another ArcTeryx product, Sabre bib pants. That being said, anything that is truly water proof will do, just make sure it's waterproof, not just water resistant.
As Oryx Photo Tours points out, once you're onshore, you could be there for a few hours with no easy way back to the ship. Make sure you can dress up or dress down for the weather.
It's an often repeated piece of advice: there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices.
Zodiac cruises can be even colder, and nobody wants to be the wet blanket that makes everyone go back to the ship when there are photos to be taken. I'll repeat, layers, layers, layers.
In Churchill it's not much different, so it's no surprise that Frontiers North Adventures also recommends layering.
Although the Tundra Buggies are heated, if you have a great bear encounter, the windows will be open for an hour or more. The Buggy will get cold. It's best to be warm and dressed for the cold so you can be ready to shoot when the action starts. Check to see if you're operator rents heavy winter clothing. For example, Frontiers North Adventures rents a serious parka, insulated pant, and boot combo. If you're going to be out at night photographing the northern lights, you might as well be comfortable. For some guests coming from warm environments, buying expensive winter clothes that they won't need back at home is a waste of money. Similarly, GAdventures includes a parka in each Antarctic trip that guests even get to bring home as a souvenir.
It's a truism, but being outside is where you're going to see the wildlife. You're not going to get good photos through a window, so staying warm while exposed is key.
I also recommend packing a pair of ski googles. I've been ashore in blizzard conditions, being able to see where you're going along a trail to reach the wildlife is clearly necessary. Googles will also let you stand outside longer. Whether your outside looking for bears or on deck looking for whales and albatross, a good pair of googles will give you more time while wildlife spotting.
A great piece of advice from GAdventures and Oryx: double check your plugs and adapters. Most ships use 220AC electrical outlets, with European 2 pin round holes. Make sure you're able to charge all your gear. Buying an adapter in a port city at the last minute is going to cost a pretty penny.
In our chat, Zizka left me with a bit of good advice that I'd love to share: you should always know you're gear. Subzero temperatures are not the best time to be figuring out menus or how to change shutter speed. For Zizka, when his body heat is dwindling, it's all about efficiency out there. It really helps if you're hyper-familiar with your equipment so that you can complete routine operations almost blindfolded.
Can you suggest anything critical I've missed?
All photographs provided by the credited photographer.