Essential tips for the Antarctic photographer

For us the final leg across the Drake Passage provided time for reflection on the sights and experiences we had had. It seems that everyone who makes the voyage across the Drake Passage starts it with some trepidation that the winds and weather will provide a tough ride. This time someone was smiling benignly over us and the crossing was much less difficult than our earlier experience from South Georgia.

drake passage

Returning home is always bitter sweet – it is good to be back and see everyone and be able to finally empty the suitcase, but it is also sad to leave behind people you have met and the places and adventures you have had.

This whole voyage was simply amazing. Admittedly, we were blessed with some superb weather which allowed us to land at all of the most significant places. But the itinerary, facilities on the ship, expedition team’s professionalism & knowledge and the scenery & wildlife were altogether awesome.

We do have Simon at Antarctica Bound to thank for finding us the exact itinerary that we wanted – all our wishes and none of the things that we did not want to do. For an expedition like this it is essential that you are taking a ‘package’ that fits with what you need and this is something that Antarctica Bound was unbelievably good at finding for us.

The voyage on a ship like this is not something we would automatically want to do. We are much more likely to try and undertake trips on our own. But it is not possible to go to Antarctica on your own, so be aware that you are going to be with a large group of people (almost 24/7) for the entire voyage. It was clear that Quark and the expedition team understands that there are many people who generally avoid group travel and want to have their own space and solitude and this was provided on many of the landings – it really is nice to get away from your fellow travelers some of the time and enjoy the serenity of the surroundings, even if the penguins don’t always provide peace and quiet!

Reflecting on the whole experience we have tried to think about anything we would do differently. The main consideration has to be what you want to see. If you are interested in wildlife – penguins, seals and sea birds – then the essential places to visit are the Falklands and South Georgia. These provide wildlife and birds in abundance whilst the Antarctic Peninsula has relatively few.

If, on the other hand, you have more interest in seeing ice – icebergs, glaciers and snow landscapes, then it is the Antarctic Peninsula that should be top of the list. For us the mixture of both wildlife and ice was the draw and we cannot fault the opportunities we had. 

A few other thoughts and tips: (As mentioned previously) Quark provides each passenger with a wonderful warm and heavy duty Parka jacket (OK so it is bright yellow….) and this is yours to keep. Unfortunately, very many of our fellow passengers had to leave theirs behind because there was no way it would fit in their luggage. We had read about this before we left home and packed a fold up duffel bag which was big enough to fit both our jackets for the journey home. A great reminder of the trip, if not entirely fashionable.

Whatever your good intentions you will eat way more than you think you should! There is food available almost all day long and meal times become both a social event and a time regulator. Without going to excess, it is important to make sure you do eat well. The landings can be physically challenging and just keeping warm burns up calories.

Keeping warm is also very important – and the old adage about layers is exactly right here. Prior to every landing it is important to work out what you are going to be doing (sitting with a penguin colony or hiking up a mountain in deep snow) and layer up accordingly. Once you are ashore there is no going back and carrying excess clothing because you are too hot is a pain.

Waiting to get off the ship is also a necessary evil. Landings are done by group and you need to be ready as soon as you are called. Very often this meant sitting in the cabin (there isn’t enough room for everyone to wait by the gangway) with many layers of clothes on, including gloves and hats and life jacket and just waiting. It sounds awful, but you get used to it and soon manage to time exactly when to put layers on depending on when your group is going to be called.

Of course there is going to be downtime. Sailing from South Georgia to the South Shetland Islands is between two and three days and although the expedition team do fill up some of this time with lectures there is also a great deal of time when there is nothing organized. This is perfect time for downloading photographs, catching up on sleep or reading – and actually it doesn’t seem like there is lots of spare time. Unfortunately, the Sea Adventurer doesn’t have really good communal spaces to sit. The bar/lounge is not set up particularly well for either lectures or socializing and the only other area is the library which was small and most people only used it to check emails. Perhaps this is why we all spent so long in the dining room at meal times!

Finally, don’t forget that your whole trip is weather dependent. And the weather in the Southern Ocean changes literally hour by hour. This can mean that the whole days plan has to be rearranged at very short notice and you might not be able to land (or even get to) some of the places that were on the itinerary. In this regard the expedition leader on our voyage worked incredibly hard to fulfill the itinerary and, where this was not possible, to find alternatives which provided similar experiences. But it is important to be flexible and accept that the ship’s crew and the expedition team aim to provide the best experiences but only when and where it is safe to do so.

Would we do it again?  Now we have been bitten by the bug (you really can’t see too many penguins!), we can’t wait to go back.  Walking round Ushuaia after disembarking the ship, we commented that it would be quite easy to get back onboard and take our chances with the Drake Passage once more just to get to Antarctica again.

Photo reflections

antarctica photography

Here are some final reflections on the photo experience and an overall summary of equipment choices and issues.

What we took (for two of us):  Four digital SLR bodies (including two with super-fast frames per second burst) two Canon 1D3s; six lenses (two 100-400mm, and one each of 28-135, 24-70, 16-35, and a 8-15 fisheye); waterproof point and shoot; two monopods; circular polarizers.  One of the 100-400mm lenses failed on the first day but we were fortunate enough to find that the one and only lens in Port Stanley was a 70-300 that fit Canon bodies.  Not as good but it did the job. 

What did we use: all the bodies and lenses got a work out although our usual gear during landings was three bodies between us, two with the telephoto lenses and one with the 28-135 or 24-70.  While I love shooting wide angle landscapes, the 16-35 didn’t actually work out very often.  The immediate foreground on many shots is not so interesting.  As a result the wide angle perspective of a 16mm actually becomes too much.  We found that 28mm or 24mm (on a full frame / uncropped body) was usually more than sufficient.  The polarizer was used quite a lot, although the angle of sun during the long days often meant that the benefit obtained was not as extreme as normal.  It was helpful in cutting down glare / reflections off the water at times and I would certainly take one again. The monopods were not really used at the end of the day.  There wasn’t much in the way of whale watching times from on board therefore the benefit of a monopod to hold a heavy lens/camera combination at the ready wasn’t really needed.  The rest of the time it would have been a hindrance.

Take plenty of batteries.  You’ve probably heard it before but it bears repeating.  We experienced relatively mild temperature s and had very little problems with batteries draining out during landings or zodiac cruises but they were still losing power quicker than in warm climates.  Some people on the trip managed to miss photographing the pilot whales that swam around the ship because their one battery was on charge.

Think about how you are going to carry your camera during landings, zodiac cruises, and on board.  We each took a shoulder strap (by Joby) that screw into the tripod mount of the camera body and is worn like a sling.   The extra camera for each landing was carried in a holster type bag slung over the other shoulder.  The Joby straps were a revelation.  Carrying a heavy camera (with built-in motor drive) and lens round the neck or held on one should by its normal strap can be problematic or dangerous (particularly when walking on difficult terrain).  The Joby straps redistributed the weight burden considerably, kept the camera instantly at hand, and felt very safe.

There are lots of ancillary pieces of equipment you should take and some you shouldn’t!  We took multiple waterproof covers and towels and, at the end of the day, had almost no need for them.  We were, however, lucky with the weather.  As noted before, it does change rapidly and we felt much happier knowing that we had the protection available in case it did turn bad.  Regardless, having a drybag for transporting camera equipment while on zodiacs is an absolute must.  You have no control over what sort of soaking you are going to get on any one journey and your expensive electronics won’t thank you for being a little bit blasé about it! 

Cleaning kits for lenses and sensors are a must.  We helped one fellow traveler out who had managed to get significant marks on his sensor early on in the trip.  While we tried very hard not to change lenses in the field, we were constantly cleaning lenses and viewfinders after each excursion. 

If you have a lens with a removable tripod mount (e.g. Canon L-series and most Nikon telephotos), take them off and save the weight and inconvenience by leaving them at home.  As we noted before, use the lens hood (the right way round) and keep caps on the lenses.  We don’t advocate using UV or skylight filters but if you are going to keep the lens hood on backwards and not use a lens cap, be prepared for the front element of the lens to get smashed at some point!  One passenger was very lucky that his accident only resulted in a broken filter but that could have been avoided.

Be prepared to download and back-up your images as you go.  We downloaded images from cards onto portable hard drives every day (and sometimes after every landing) to make sure we weren’t subject to card failure or loss.  It is surprising how many shots you can get through (you actually can’t have enough penguin pictures, we decided!).  Despite having almost 1/3 of the trip in conditions where there was very little to photograph (other than waves crashing over the bridge of the ship!), we still managed to take almost 23,000 images and video clips which equated to approximately 400 per person for each landing or cruise – and we were trying to be selective! 

Finally: take some time with the camera away from your face.  The penguins aren’t going anywhere so the need to take the picture “before the moment has gone” is not as great as in many other destinations.  The chance to really experience and appreciate what is before you, however, is relatively fleeting and once you have returned to “normal” life, can’t be repeated.  Make sure the sights and sounds (yes, and the smells!) are captured in your mind and heart not just on a memory card.

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