Antarctica

Antarctic Photography

If you are going to Antarctica you will want to a make a record of your trip. Before you go on your trip think about what your goal is in terms of taking photos. Think about what you'll want to show your family and friends on your return. You can always show them a close up photo of a penguin from a book. There is no point disturbing the wild life for this. What won't be in a book is where you slept, how you got around, what you were wearing, the people you were with, and what the weather was like during your trip.

Goals

There are 2 different types of photographers in Antarctica. The most common is the person who wants to document their trip for family and friends. The other is someone that will make money from their photos.

If you're goal is to take some photos for family and friends the most important point is to make your photo taking experience as simple as possible, and spend more time enjoying the experience. However you don't want to compromise the quality of your images. These days it is easy to do both using digital cameras. I would not recommend using a film camera unless you have a compelling reason such as you've never used a computer, and ain't going to start now.

Sunset at Casey Station mid summmer

One of my favorite photos I've taken in Antarctica, sunset at mid night on mid summers day at Casey Station - just north of the Antarctic circle.

I think my combination of digital cameras is a good compromise between quality, performance, and ease of use. This setup would satisfy most peoples needs while not being overly complex. I always take 2 cameras with me to Antarctica in case one breaks. If I had to I could get by with either of them, but they have functionality that complements. I have reached the point where I would rather leave my camera behind and enjoy the experience rather than be burdened with a large cumbersome case and camera. However my little Canon PowerShot S60 (I would now recommend the S70 or S80) is small enough that I can keep it in an inside pocket where it never gets in the way and was cheap enough I don't worry about damaging it. It's biggest feature is that it has a wider angle lens than most point and shoot digital cameras. The environment of Antarctic is BIG, and you need a wide angle lens to capture it. The biggest down side to this camera is the lack of a long zoom for photographing animals. However this is where the other camera comes in. My other camera is a Canon PowerShot Pro 1. This camera is much larger and does not easily fit inside a jacket or pocket, but has the longer zoom. When ever I'm in a situation that carrying an extra bag isn't an issue, or when I know I want the longer zoom I use the Pro 1. If I'm hanging from a rope, in a boat, loaded down with bags, or crammed tightly into an aircraft, I use the S60. I almost always carry the S60, even when I've got the larger camera. Then it's a backup, or can be accessed quickly if the other camera is in a backpack or case. If I was going to only take one of these cameras I would take the S60!

Star trails at Casey Station with an aurora on the horizon above the station

One of the most difficult photos I've taken in Antarctica. Star trails with a prominent southern cross and an aurora on the horizon. Photos such as this and the multi exposure shot take significant planning and effort.

Recommended Setup

  • 2 Cameras, Canon PowerShot S80 and Pro 1
  • Laptop computer
  • Remote control for cameras
  • Spare battery for both cameras
  • Plug adapter for foreign power outlets
  • 4 2GB Extreme III Compact Flash cards (1 for each camera, and 2 spare)
  • Case for each camera
  • Optional. A small tripod such as Slik Sprint Mini with ball head

Most people go to Antarctica in the relatively warm months. On the coast where it is just below freezing in the summer it is easy to keep you camera gear warm by keeping it inside your jacket. The biggest problem you are likely to have is a battery going flat because it gets cold. Keep your spare near your skin to keep it warm. If you are having trouble with a camera getting cold put a chemically activated hand warmer in its case. For taking photos I simply take my gloves off. I have lanyards on my gloves so they won't blow away and are easily retrieved to put back on. Some people like having light liners under a heavier glove. I don't like this system as it is cumbersome and slows my hands warming up once I have my gloves back on (especially if wearing mitts, or balling my fingers into my palms). Condensation will form on your camera when you bring it inside because of the relatively warm humid environment it has been brought into. This can be reduced by putting it in a plastic bag before bringing it inside.

Film

I love film, but recently stopped taking my film cameras to Antarctica. It was an emotional decision:) I used to get asked for recommendations all the time. It's difficult as most people asking are emotionally attached to a camera already. No one (that already owns one) wants to hear I would never take a Pentax K1000 to the ice! Since almost no one takes film to the ice anymore, I'll just list my system just before I stopped taking it.

  • 2 Nikon FM2s, loaded with different films, usually Provia 100 and Provia 400
  • Fixed lenses 15mm f/3.5, 24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.4, 135mm f/3.5, 200mm (Nikon AIS)
  • Extender tubes for macro photography
  • Zoom 80-200mm
  • Shutter release cables
  • Lens shades and lots of filters
  • Bright Sunpak auto shoe mount flash
  • Polarizing filters for most lenses
  • Film cassette opener and film retriever
  • Changing Bag (light proof double bag with arm holes)
  • Some empty photographic paper (heavy light proof black plastic) bags
  • Gossen Digipro F light meter
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Duct tape, plastic bags
  • Hand warmers for keeping hands and equipment warm

I always shoot Fuji film, usually Provia and Velvia. I think the Fuji films reproduce the blues of Antarctica well. Who knows. If I was going to change something I would have changed one of the bodies to something like an FG. I would also add a mid range zoom (35-105mm), a faster 135mm, a 105mm Macro, a fish eye, and someone to carry it all for me.

I've only used things like the changing bag, and cassette openers a few times in the field but they paid for themselves many times over those few times! The usual reason is a film has snapped in extreme cold and needs to be retrieved while saving photos.

Cracked film due to extreme cold

Notice the lines at the top of this picture of the South Pole due to the film emulsion cracking in the extreme cold - about -50C.

Photography in the Cold

From my limited experience with digital cameras it seems that the main problem is power sources going flat. The only way around this is to keep the camera and batteries warm. Inside your jacket works for awhile and to some extent. The next step is to use a heating source. The chemically activated hand warmers work well for a few hours. At some point I think the only solution is to go to film photography.

I think the Nikon FM is the ultimate cold weather camera. I used a number of them stock standard to extreme low temperatures without too many problems. This a completely mechanical camera, and only uses a battery for the light meter. Of course any good photographer will know the sunny 16 rules and can work fine without a meter. At some point, at about 50 below, the weakness becomes the film. The film and then the surface emulsion becomes fragile. Wind on the film as slowly as possible. I have snapped a number of films and had the sprockets tear the side perforations. There is a common problem of lines across the film exposed at very cold temperatures. I have been told it was the emulsion cracking. But I suspect it may also be static discharges (though have seen jagged lines on the edges of film which I had taken to be caused by static and looks different). Either way it is almost impossible to avoid this problem and external heat sources are the only solution.

Tripods and Support

I always travel with a very small Velbon ULTRA MAXi SF tripod with a ball head. I love this tripod! This tripod takes up almost no space and I improvise by resting on any solid surface I can find. If one of your goals for the trip is wildlife of bird photography or landscape photography, or any photography requiring depth of field (3D photography), then a substantial tripod is essential and I would recommend the Gitzo light weight tripods if you can afford them. I've always wanted one of these but instead I use a mid range Manfrotto with a custom carry bag. It's a nice compromise of price and the case makes it reasonably easy to sling and carry. For wildlife, especially birds, I've had some success with a monopod. The monopod I have is a Manfrotto with "automatic" adjustment (PN 3245). The trigger grip for quick height adjustment is great for dynamic situations. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to take photos of Albatross from the heaving deck of an ice breaker.

Bags and Cases

I usually have 2 types of bags, one for transport, and the other for when using the cameras. I generally use a largish Pelican case for travel which stays in my room or cabin. For field use I like Lowepro bags and have used them for many years.

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