I’m frequently asked for my advice and recommendations for what camera gear to take on a polar safari to the Arctic or Antarctica. I’ve been travelling to the polar regions since 2009, including season contracts with SilverSea Expeditions and as the Tour Leader on many photo tours. As with most of my advice, simplicity is key. Don’t overburden yourself with excess kit and work out a clothing system that best suits your own body thermostat.
Camera Gear: DSLRs
I always recommend at least two camera bodies – one for a telephoto lens plus another as a grab camera/backup paired with short telephoto zoom (70-200mm) or a wide-angle lens. Dust is rarely an issue in the polar regions, as long as you don’t change lenses downwind of the ship’s exhaust towers.
Even if you have to a hire a 2nd body, I would recommend it. I’ve seen plenty of cameras wrecked by salt water spray or inundation. If you’re on a polar safari and your camera is damaged… If you have a 2nd, at least you can carry on shooting while your other camera body dries out. It would be a tragedy to go all that way and invest all that money without a contingency, should the worst happen.
It really doesn’t matter whether your cameras are crop-sensor or full-frame, as there are pros and cons with both. What is critically important is that you know your camera and practice with it, before you arrive.
Even if it is only the weekends leading up to the tour, get down the park and familiarise yourself with the controls. The worst mistake you can make is turning up (to any safari) with a brand new camera body and not know anything about it.
Super-telephoto lenses are great for polar safaris, for the wildlife and the epic seascapes. If you have crop-factor cameras and don’t mind cropping the image, then a 300mm lens will be ok for the majority of situations. Polar bears are often seen from the zodiacs and the from the main outer deck of the ice-rated vessels. Pelagics, like Albatross and Fulmar, often approach very close to the vessel as they slipstream the air wake. They’re large birds and it’s far easier to photograph them in flight with a model 200-300mm focal length.
You can even have surprisingly close encounters with walrus, reindeer and arctic foxes. However, be aware that there is generally a 30m rule that restricts AECO tour operators from taking passengers too close. So, 30m is usually as close as you will get, but fortunately for us, foxes and penguins apparently can’t read, so will happily scamper and waddle about amongst people.
Bearing the Arctic’s 30m rule in mind, a 500mm+ lens will give you greater options to isolate individuals, focus on interaction, and create more intimate portraits. When encountering other seals and polar bears, it is impossible to predict how close you will be (hence the recommendation of two bodies).
My philosophy for the Arctic is: “The longer the better!” I’ve experienced plenty of polar bear encounters where even a 600mm with a 1.4x teleconverter was just about enough for a ‘contextual’ view. If you don’t currently have access to a 500mm+ lens, teleconverters can give you that extra reach. With 24 hour daylight, low-light is rarely an issue, so you don’t have to about the loss of just the 1+ or 2+ stops with the teleconverter. You can also rent high-end lenses from LensesForHire and Fixation – two of the best rentals in the UK.
A telephoto zoom is incredibly useful as a landscape lens, especially when you’re bound to a ship’s deck for days at a time. The narrower field of vision means you can crop out the acres of featureless water and isolate glaciers and mountains with dramatic light. If the ship is anchored and relatively stable, you can use a tripod to stitch a panoramic – often a better option than taking a single frame with the wide-angle and cropping off most of the image.
A wide-angle lens in the range of 14mm to 40mm is a huge asset for jaw-dropping vistas of the polar wilderness, especially if you include the bow of the ship for context. I used to shoot with a 24-70mm, but it wasn’t quite wide enough and have switched to a 16-35mm and a 20mm prime.
In Antarctica, you can venture out on the ice and land in safety as there are no marauding polar bears looking to make a meal of you. There is still a distance rule in place, especially around Hooker’s sea lions, elephant seals, and leopard seals. They are immensely powerful animals with a lethal bite.
If you visit Antarctica with one of the regular polar safari tour operators, you’ll be restricted from ‘entering’ a penguin colony. You can sit on the outer edge, but not walk through the nest sites. This is simply because the disturbance will be too great with 100+ brightly clad tourists tramping through.
Actually, it’s not something I have ever missed. Using a telephoto, you can capture great shots of the colony. Besides, the penguins within the colony are usually messy, with guano and mud on their bright white fronts. Much better to sit between the colony and the open water and photograph them as they emerge from the surf – all shiny, clean and white.
Your wide-angle will come into its wildlife element. Most penguins are extremely inquisitive and gregarious. They will come right up to you and peck your boots, if you’re in their way. Penguin colonies are vast, truly epic, with hundreds of thousands of penguins massed together. Use the wide-angle to capture incredible ‘massive nature’ penguin rookery scenes and the incredible wildlife in its environment.
In the Arctic, you can shoot ‘close-up and wide’ scenes of the tundra flora and, on occasion, maybe even a polar bear (from the safety of the expedition vessel, of course!) as it comes close to investigate you. In those special encounters, fish-eye lenses can create eye-catching ‘curvature of the earth’ and ‘ends of the world’ style images.
Polarising filters can dramatically reduce glare and deepen/saturate the blues of ice and sky. They may prove particularly useful when photographing whales through the water and accentuating the blues of sea ice, fast ice, and icebergs. Graduated neutral density filters will help to correctly expose bright skies with darker foregrounds. You may also want to try 6+ stop ND screw-in filters, so you can shoot with a slow shutter speed and blur birds in flight, waddling penguins, or fighting seals.
Fill-in flash can be a very useful tool for close-up wildlife in harsh light to relieve contrast (especially for black-faced auks and penguins) or add punch in overcast conditions. I would highly recommend off-camera flash and work with a photo-buddy and take turns in photographing and angling the flash. Wireless triggers are available practically everywhere these days.
Working From Zodiacs
The majority of ‘excursions’ from your ice-rated expedition vessel are via a Zodiac inflatable craft. These seat up to 15 passengers, plus the pilot. The most common is the Mark 5, with the pilot positioned at the rear, handling the outboard engine from a tiller. The larger Mark 6 has a centre driver position and steering wheel and is more stable due to its size.
Learning how to photograph from an inflatable is one of the hardest tasks you’ll face on a polar safari. If you’re lucky, the water will be calm with just a gentle rise and fall. Time your shots for the top of the rise and trough of the fall – this is when your platform is most stable. Commonly, the water is rather choppy, with salt spray, especially when travelling at high-speed (up to 16knots).
In my opinion, the bow (front) of the zodiac is the best position from which to photograph. Unfortunately, it’s also the wettest, particularly when travelling at speed or in choppy conditions. When I’m working as a guide, I’m generally sat with the pilot at the stern so I can converse and get us in the right position. I might stay nice and dry, but I can’t see/photograph very much, and I’m constantly breathing in the exhaust fumes. It’s not great.
When the zodiac is in position, the row of passengers on the near-side to the subject will be asked to kneel and rest their cameras on the outer pontoon. Those on the far side can then stand and shoot over the top. If your pilot is experienced, they will pass the subject(s) several times, changing directions so that both sides have the opportunity to photograph with support and standing up. It’s sometimes very cramped, so you will need to show respect for others and have patience. Above all else, avoid bumping others and just standing up in front of other photographer’s lenses. You will not be popular!
Camera Tripods & Support
Tripods are highly recommended for polar safari landings and can be used on the viewing decks of the vessel. Please be respectful and consider safety regulations and fellow passengers, i.e. don’t block the gangways!
Tripods are neither practical nor advisable within the confines of the zodiacs due to the number fellow guests (8-15) sharing the space. Besides, it is much easier to kneel and rest the lens on the outer pontoon of the inflatable craft. If kneeling and contorting is an issue, then go with the monopod. It will need steadying and careful timing, to photograph with the rise and fall of the waves.
If you are using a super telephoto lens, then consider your tripod head options very carefully. The best option, by far, is the gimbal head. These enable you to move heavy lenses at ease with minimal effort, making tracking birds in flight far easier. If your goal is landscapes and wildlife in context, then a ball head is a great option. I use a levelling-base so that I can set-up a tripod quickly without fiddling with the leg lengths for level shooting.
Image Storage & Backup
You should always consider bringing a small notebook computer and backup hard drive for storing, reviewing, and editing images. Power is never an issue with plug sockets all over the vessel.
The sooner you can check your images during the course of the voyage, the better, just in case there is a fault with your camera or lens. I work on a 15” MacBook Pro™ and always travel with a high-speed image downloader that I carry on my person at all times, plus card readers and a high-capacity portable hard-drive to back up all my images.
Many of the tourists vessels have a media room these days. A couple of PCs or iMacs for everybody to use and edit their photos. It’s a nice touch, but I prefer the privacy of my cabin and my own Lightroom workflow.
Depending on the image file size that your camera produces, use high-capacity memory cards, each clearly numbered. I use 32Gb cards and carry several of each. Yes, there are 64Gb to 512Gb cards available, but I always feel that is a lot of images to lose! I might be just paranoid. Anyway, It’s a good idea to number your cards, if you wish to preserve an exceptional encounter or if you accidentally erase images. If the card is numbered, you can make a note of it and place it to one side. Software is available that may retrieve accidentally deleted files – Card Raid Photo Recovery and SanDisk’s RescuePRO® are just two options.
8x Binoculars, your regular camera kit cleaning stuff, splash-proof covers for cameras and lenses (salt spray is not fun for electronics), high-quality sunglasses (not polarised if you wish to look through the viewfinder of an SLR).
Polar Safari Expedition Clothing
I will be publishing a full article on polar clothing. For now, here’s a summary:
Technical clothing is strongly recommended. Even though you will usually visit the polar regions in summer, the weather can change with surprising immediacy – the Arctic is definitely more weather-friendly than Antarctica in this regard. Bad weather in the Arctic Summer generally means fog and rain and perhaps a few snow flurries. In Antarctica, it can mean storms, rough seas, hurricane force katabatic winds… you get the picture. A technical 4-layer system is the most versatile enabling you to strip-off and apply layers as the weather conditions change. Ideally, you every day your dress like an onion – in layers:
- A technical synthetic thermal under layer wicks moisture away and keeps you drier than cotton. Synthetics also dry quicker when you need to wash your undies!
- A windproof fleece and thermal lined weather-proof trousers will keep you warm and toasty. This is my ‘go to’ gear for onboard the vessel.
- If you really feel the cold then a quilted ‘puffa’ jacket is the warmest option. Make sure it’s long enough to cover your backside. You don’t want cold winds on your back and lumber.
- Expedition rated waterproof/windproof jackets and over trousers are often supplied by the expedition vessel, but check with your travel agent.
Light footwear is suitable for onboard most polar safari expedition vessels, but waterproof trekking boots, or Wellington’s (I prefer Muck ‘Arctic Sport’ Snow Boots) are the general requirement for landings. Some clients prefer to wear their wellies for the zodiac ride, then change into walking boots for the land excursions. It’s a personal choice. Muck boots are extremely warm and comfortable, so I don’t feel the need to double up on footwear.
Again, some polar safari tour operators issue wellingtons (or some other boot) onboard and are complimentary. If you bring your own, be sure they have high-grip soles. The terrain is often uneven, very slippery, and treacherous under foot, so good grips and ankle support are essential. Riding ‘Hunters’ are to be avoided! Layering with two pairs of socks – a thin liner or wicking sock with a thick heavy-crew sock – will definitely keep your toes warmer and drier.
Layered gloves will jeep your hands warmer. Using a fleece, silk, or polyamide liner with a waterproof/windproof shell means that you can pull your hand out to use your camera while still maintaining some protection against the cold. In severe weather (not a common event in the Arctic Summer), a fleece-lined balaclava will protect your face.
High quality wrap-around sunglasses are recommended to prevent glare and headaches commonly encountered with the strong sunlight and reflective surfaces of ice, water and snow. The sunlight can be extraordinarily strong and can quickly burn. You will never see me without a hat and a good layer of high-factor 50+ sunscreen!