Antarctica is a place like no other and the cost, time and effort to get there makes it a once in a lifetime experience for most travellers. It’s not an experience you want to ruin by being unprepared and one of the most common planning questions is “what photography equipment do I need”?
The answers depends on what type of photographer you are and what you want to do with your photos, but take something. Even if you don’t usually take photos when you travel, you will find yourself constantly snapping away at wildlife and landscape that is difficult to put into words.
Some of the things to consider include:
DSLR v Point and Shoot?
Having a new and expensive camera is not a pre-requisite to capturing great photographs. You are more likely to return home with great images from a point and shoot camera you are familiar with than a new DSLR that you don’t know how to use.
But if you have been considering upgrading your equipment, would like more creative control over the images you produce or intend to do more with your photographs than simply show them to friends and family, a trip to Antarctica is a perfect excuse to upgrade your equipment.
If you decide to buy a new camera for your adventure, just be sure to unwrap the packaging before you go and learn how to use it.
Plan for the worst and hope for the best. There are no shops in Antarctica, so avoid the potential heartache of returning home without any photographs by packing a backup option. If you are shooting with a DLSR, a second body that uses the same lenses is a good idea. A point and shoot is also useful as it can sit in your jacket pocket during zodiac rides just in case a whale comes out of the water in front of you when your main camera is safely packed away in your waterproof bag!
My Packing List
Canon 7D (backup) *
Panasonic Lumix Point & Shoot
* I bought a used Canon 7D before I left and as Canon and Nikon products hold their value quite well, was able to sell it for almost the same price when I returned home
A backup camera is essential. Rain during our first landing at the Falkland Islands caused my 7D to stop working for 24 hours, so having my backup body prevented a panic attack and allowed me to capture the charismatic rockhopper penguins on the second landing of the day, an experience I would have missed photographing otherwise. I wasn’t the only one who experienced camera malfunctions during the trip – unfortunately it does happen.
My Panasonic Lumix was always in my pocket and whilst I didn’t find myself using it much in the zodiac, I did get some great social shots from the bar!
The GoPro was a popular camera with kayakers and worth considering if you are adding some adventure options to your itinerary.
One of the highlights of Antarctica is the diversity of your surroundings: sweeping landscapes, icebergs of all shapes and sizes and wildlife on the ground, in the sea and in the air. If you shoot with a camera with changeable lenses, you will want a variety of lengths to capture this diversity at its best. For example:
Wide-angle lens for those sweeping landscapes
Mid-range/standard lens for general use
Telephoto lens to capture wildlife from a distance.
My Packing List
I packed the following lenses to use with my Canon 7D:
10-22mm wide-angle lens
24-105mm mid-range lens
Whilst I found myself using the 24-105mm and 100-400mm the most, I still found the 10-22mm essential for capturing the vast landscape and some of the large icebergs in Pleneau Bay. I was happy with all three lenses and would pack the same again.
There was a 600mm and a 800mm lens on board that found themselves in as many photographs as they took but the 100-400mm was probably the most popular amongst the DSLR photographers. I found this perfect for capturing wildlife.
Everything I read about photographing Antarctica before I left included one consistent piece of advice: bring more memory cards than you think you will need…and you will use them all.
And it’s true!
A laptop is not only a useful tool to backup your photos, but it allows you to organise and improve your images along the way. Having my laptop let me spend time on the ship critically reviewing my images in Lightroom, get advice from other photographers onboard, identify what I was doing wrong and use the wealth of available wildlife and landscape subjects to try again.
Having a backup camera avoids the potential disappointment of not being able to take photographs. Having a backup storage option avoids the potential disappointment of losing them once you’ve taken them. I backed up my photos after each landing and at least once a day, on both my laptop and a portable hard drive. I also carried a USB stick ‘just in case’.
My packing list
Memory cards – three times more than usual!
Portable hard drive
You need at least one backup storage option and back up on a regular basis.
There were three shared computers on board that could be used to transfer photos onto a USB for those who didn’t have their own laptop. But there were some photographers who didn’t bring a laptop and regretted it. It really comes down to personal taste and how you like to spend your spare time, but a laptop for me was essential.
4. Camera Bags
As you are planning your trip, you will find yourself asking: how do I carry my equipment on the plane without incurring excess baggage charges? How do I keep it safe from salt spray (or capsizing!) whilst on the zodiac? How can I carry my equipment on shore so that it is both comfortable and accessible? I read so many different pieces of advice on this subject that I realised it really just came down to personal preference. But two key pieces of advice include:
– Don’t check in any camera equipment on your flight, it is just too valuable to risk. Store your camera and lenses in your carry-on bag, find out the baggage limits before you fly and be prepared to pay excess charges if you need to.
– Bring a waterproof bag to store your camera during the zodiac rides to and from the ship.
I’m yet to find that perfect camera bag, but I was happy with my Lowepro Slingshot during my Antarctica trip. I’ve since changed to a Lowepro Pro Runner which I would also have been happy with in Antarctica. Although wheeled carry-on cases are easier to drag around airports, a backpack is the best option as you need your hands free for the zodiac rides to and from shore.
The waterproof covers that come with the Lowepro bags proved adequate for the majority of the zodiac rides, but we experienced relatively calm conditions. I had a dry bag in which I placed my camera bag for zodiac rides to and from landing sights and this gave me piece of mind during our first Falkland Island landing when a lot of water came into the zodiac.
One of the challenges for photographers heading to Antarctica is the carry-on allowance on local airlines who fly to Ushuaia. I was prepared to pay excess if I had to, but my luggage was never weighed and I never had an issue.
Other considerations / tips:
I kept changing my mind about bringing my tripod and in the end I left it home – and I didn’t regret it. The light in Antarctica is incredible and a tripod is not much use on a moving ship. The only people I saw using one were those who were shooting video.
There are two key risks to shooting in sub-zero temperatures:
1. Cold weather can reduce the normal life of a battery
…and you will be taking more photos than you normally do. To avoid the flashing battery icon appearing just as a penguin appears in front of you, take spare batteries. I carried one in the warmth of my inside jacket pocket and left one in my cabin. I found myself continually charging batteries.
2. Returning to the warmth of the ship after being outside in the cold can cause the chilled camera to get covered with condensation
This didn’t appear to be a major problem on our expedition, but wrapping the camera in a plastic bag or towel whilst outside and then letting it warm slowly inside before unwrapping it, can help combat condensation if it is an issue. Ziploc bags are also useful to have in your pocket in case it rains in the Falkland Islands or to avoid water spray during zodiac cruises.
A polarising filter can help cut down the glare off the snow and water and increases the intensity of the sky, so it is useful but not essential. I had one with me but didn’t use it very much, although this varied between other photographers on board.
The same cleaning equipment you would carry on any trip should be fine for Antarctica.
My Packing List
Camera & Lens
Canon 7D (backup body)
10-22mm wide-angle lens
24-105mm mid-range lens
100-400mm zoom lens
Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot
Memory cards (lots)
Two spare batteries and battery charger
Laptop, portable hard drive and USB stick
Memory card reader (for both my SD and CF cards)
Cleaning fluid and cloths
Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW
Sealline Boundary Drybag
Ziploc plastic bags
What I left at home:
ND & Grad filters
Have you been to Antarctica? Do you have any different or additional photography advice?
Kellie travelled through the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica for three weeks in Dec 2012 & Jan 2013 with Quark Expeditions and is sharing this experience in a four-part series here at We Said Go Travel.
For more Antarctica stories and photographs, visit her at Destination Unknown.