Polar Photography Tips

Or, why I’m so cavalier with my gear and how it sometimes bites me in the ass.

1. Condensation is a function of dew point, not a matter of temperature change, so the humidity is what matters, not the cold.  In the polar regions, unless its actively raining it’s probably going to be pretty dry, both inside and outside the ship. Therefore going to the trouble of putting your camera and lenses in ziploc bags before bringing them inside is probably not going to be necessary; I’ve always just left them in a closed-up camera bag for an hour or so and I’ve never had a problem with condensation.

2. You’d be surprised how wet your gear can get with no ill effects. I’ve shot in drizzle countless times and never had any problem with anything getting fogged up or shorting out. That being said, it’s good to have some kind of rain cover with you at all times in case it starts really coming down. Sometimes, a ziploc bag with a holes cut for the camera strap is enough. Sometimes you want one of these rain covers. When it’s just spitting, you can get by with adding a lens hood and keeping a chamois handy to dry off the front element and the barrel of the lens.

Wandering Albatross in the snow

3. Bring backups. There are no camera stores on the Antarctic peninsula. I rarely keep my lenses in any kind of bags or cases (aside from the camera bag itself), and while I was reorganizing gear in my camera bag one day, one of my lenses rolled off the bed and hit the floor. The filter cracked and the filter ring was so bent by the impact that I could not get it off. Good thing I had a backup – I just tossed that lens into a drawer, grabbed the backup and I was good to go. Once I got home I took it in to a camera store and they got the filter off. The front element was fine; the filter took the impact… which is why every one of your lenses should have a filter on it, especially on a boat.

4. On a moving ship, an image-stabilized lens is a lifesaver. My recent trip to Antarctica is the first time I’ve really shot with one, and I was amazed at how sharp some images were – even of birds flying behind the ship.

Giant Petrel

5. Don’t be afraid to change lenses. Yes, every once in a while why you’re doing that some bits of dust are going to blow in and get on your sensor. It happens. Just don’t be that guy on my recent trip who only ever seemed to have his 100-400mm on his camera. You will miss shots that way. You’ve paid all this money to get there, now you’re missing shots cause you don’t want to change lenses. It’s a cryin’ shame. At one point, one of these long-lens guys commented; “I just gotta wait til that iceberg is a little further away!”

6. Bring sensor cleaners.  When you get a bit of dust in there on your sensor after changing lenses, you can use one of these swabs to clean off the dust. They work like a charm and are easy to pack.

7. Bring some really thin gloves, eg: liners like these, and slightly heavier gloves like these: both enabled me to tweak controls on my camera with gloves on, which was essential. I really found I rarely needed more than one of these on anyway – it was not as cold as I’d expected.

8. Stay out on deck.  I spent hours on deck just watching the landscape roll by, and it enabled me to get a lot of great shots I would not have gotten otherwise. When you spy that great iceberg from the lounge, its too late. By the same token, carry your camera with you to meals. It can be a bit of a drag in a crowded dining room, but when they spot that whale it’s great not to have to run down to your room to grab your gear.

Iceberg

9. Bring two camera bags. To Antarctica I brought a backpack (and dry bags) for our shore excursions because you need to have two hands free to get in and out of the zodiac. At the last minute I decided to bring my regular shoulder bag too. I was so glad I did — it’s so lightweight and easy to have at your side all the time while on board.

10. Look at your pictures (especially to check for spots on the sensor), but don’t really edit during the trip. You want to take enough of a look to figure out if you screwed something up, or have some setting wonky on your camera, but you don’t want to get so deep into editing that you miss additional photo opportunities while you’re doing that. There’s gonna be plenty of time to edit once you get home.

11. The last zodiac is the best zodiac. On most of our landings, I was one of the last people back to the ship.  Given how changeable the weather is down there, you really never know what is going to happen. One day on South Georgia, as I was slowly making my way back to the landing site, the sun started to come out, and sea turned a light turquoise blue. It was gorgeous. The expedition team literally had to chase me into a zodiac so we could leave for the next location. But the pictures I got in those last few minutes are great.

South Georgia. St. Andrews.

 

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