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A guide to photography in the Polar regions

Get kit advice and top tips for photography in Antarctica, the Arctic and the polar regions.
Written by: Helen Pettitt, Digital Content Manager and Polar Expeditions expert at Explore
Published on: 3 May 2023

It's not every day you get to visit the polar regions of Antarctica or the Arctic, so you'll want to capture it so that you can remember it forever. Don't miss those once-in-a-lifetime moments by not being prepared with your camera equipment, or by not knowing how to get the best photos. Read on for a full guide to photography in the polar regions, from how to compose your photos to what camera kit to take (if you want to take more than just your phone).

What photography equipment to take to the polar regions

Be prepared with the best kit for the photography you plan on capturing. If you're planning on taking a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you'll need to think about your choice of camera lenses. Of course you'll see lots of unique wildlife, for which you'll need a zoom lens, but you'll also be blown away by the untouched panoramic landscapes, which warrant a wide angle.

Depending on what your budget allows and the sort of photos you want to you want to capture, consider all or some of these lenses:
  • A wide angle lens for landscapes, something like a 24-70mm
  • A lens with a range in focal length, like a 70-200mm or 70-300mm. This range is useful for when you're out on Zodiac trips and won't be able to swap lenses easily, allowing you to capture both landscape and wildlife photos. When you're out on Zodiac landings, like at a penguin colony, the wildlife largely isn't too far away and curious penguins often approach you so you don't need a very long zoom.
  • A long zoom lens, like a 100-400mm, 150-500mm or 150-600mm. Consider the weight of this as they can be very heavy and bulky. Whilst the longer the zoom the better, it won't be any good if you can't manage the weight handheld. This zoom would be great for whilst you're on the ship and spotting wildlife, or while you're out on landings if you're able to carry it, but it could be too cumbersome while you're out on the Zodiac.

You may want to consider a second camera body if budget and weight allows so you can easily swap between wide angle and telephoto, and in case one is affected by the cold or runs of our battery while you're away from the ship. You can get around this by charging batteries in advance and having spares on hand (we'd recommend at least two spare batteries as the cold causes them to drain faster), and by protecting your equipment (read on for more tips on this).

We know all of this kit can cost a lot of money, and you may be getting it for your once-in-a-lifetime polar expedition and then be unlikely to use it much again. If this is the case, have a look into hiring lenses, or buying them used from a reputable camera retailer.

You'll obviously need a way to carry all of this equipment so get a good camera daybag for your trip. You'll likely want to access your kit frequently and quickly so easy-access sling bags or bags that open at the side or back are best. If you can, try and get one with a little extra space for other things like hat, gloves and sunglasses.

Whatever DSLR or camera kit you end up taking, practice packing it altogether in your bag and take note of the weight. If you're doing a fly/cruise and you plan on taking it all in a camera daybag, there may be a tight weight restriction on the flight.

Of course you don't necessarily need to spend thousands on expensive camera equipment, it's also possible to get great photos just from your mobile phone - make sure it's fully charged before you go out on Zodiac trips and that you have enough storage space.

Practice with your camera kit

Whichever camera equipment you decide on taking, make sure you purchase it well in advance of your trip and spend time practicing with it and getting to know the settings.

Get your camera set up right in advance of going out on Zodiac cruises or landings, with your SD card loaded, your preferred settings sorted and turn off camera sounds and flash.

Protect your kit from the elements

The weather can change quickly in the polar regions. Be prepared out on Zodiac trips with a waterproof camera cover or a ziploc bag and elastic band to fit around the lens. If you plan on taking photos or video on your phone, a waterproof and transparent phone pouch with a lanyard to go around your neck is a good way to have it on hand and keep it safe. With some, you can even take photos through the case without having to take the phone out.

Get a waterproof camera bag for when you're out in the zodiac, or at least water repellent one with an accessible rain cover. Or put your kit within dry bags in your bag.

Take a microfiber lens cloth out with you for clearing water droplets or condensation from your lens. Also make sure you've got lens hoods for extra protection from splashes or rain.

When it comes to backing up your photos, have multiple SD cards with you in case one fails or fills up. If you can, it's best to back up your photos during your trip - by taking a a laptop with you, transferring to your phone or by using the ship computer to back up to your cloud.

Finally, make sure your kit is fully insured for the duration of your trip.


A camera equipment packing list for a trip to the polar regions

In summary of the above, here's a packing list to consider for your once-in-a-lifetime polar expedition:

  • One or two camera bodies
  • A wide angle lens
  • A medium telephoto lens
  • An super-telephoto zoom lens
  • Lens hoods
  • Spare camera batteries
  • Battery charger (and plug adapter if required)
  • Spare SD cards
  • Lens cleaning cloths
  • Filters (UV filters and polarizing if required)
  • Waterproof camera cover, or Ziploc bag and elastic band
  • Small drybags
  • Camera daysack, waterproof or water resistant with rain cover
  • A laptop for backing up photos (optional)

Camera settings and composition tips

You can have all the most expensive camera equipment, but what matters is how you compose your photography and the way you set up for the shot.

Play around with exposure

With such a white environment of snow and ice, you'd expect images to be overly bright, but actually you can often find the opposite, especially when the skies are grey. You'll likely need to play around with your exposure and take lots of different shots at different levels, as it can be hard to tell what works on your small camera screen. Make sure you know how to change your exposure (EV) on your camera before your trip and practice with dialling it up or down. Remember to change it back again when your composition changes to avoid all your photos being over or under exposed.

ISO and shutter speed also affects how much light that goes into your camera sensor and how bright your photos come out, so it would be handy to have at least a basic understanding of these photography principles and settings before you leave.

You may want to consider a polarizing filter, which fits onto your lens and helps reduce reflections and increase colour saturation, great for bright skies and shining icy landscapes. However, these filters will darken your shots and so can be difficult to use - you'll need to understand how it works and practice lots with the filter, if you don't then it can cause frustration and hinder your photos. Also, a polarizing filter will only be useful on very bright days, they won't be much use if the weather is dull and will only darken your photos further.

Go for a quick shutter speed for wildlife

Animals generally move quickly, particularly seabirds which you'll likely see many of, so go for a fast shutter speed and put it on burst mode to capture a lot of photographs at time to capture the best position as the animal moves.

When you're out on landings, stay still and let the wildlife (namely inquisitive penguins!) come to you. Be patient and let them display their different poses for the best shots. Almost be mindful of the guidelines around how close you can get to the wildlife, you'll be well briefed on this when you begin your voyage. 

Go wide angle for scale

When on wide angle, look for elements in the picture to help you portray the sheer scale of objects like icebergs. Use people during landings, or things like animals, kayakers or Zodiacs while at sea.

Think about your composition

Keep your distance from wildlife and use your zoom instead, this is better for the animals but also gives you more flexibility. You can get the best photos by going lower and capturing wildlife at their eye-level, as opposed to taking the photo from above - this is best for capturing their character, focusing on the detail to get a sharp photo and setting up the best background.

If you don't already know it, read up on the rule of thirds before you go. This composition guideline places your subject in the left or right third of an image, leaving the other two thirds more open. This helps draw the viewer's eye into the image and places more emphasis on the subject.

Go for different angles for the most interesting backgrounds

You can have the most fascinating animal in your shot but the photo can still be lacklustre with a bland white background. Make your photos pop by moving around your subjects to get the most interesting background. Even when blurred out by the aperture, more interesting colours in the background than white can make the foreground pop more.

Get advice from your on-board photographer

On many polar voyages there is an expert photographer as part of the expedition crew. This is a brilliant resource for budding photographers, so take advantage and ask them questions and get advice. They may also do lectures on-board.

Remember to put the camera down sometimes!

Our last tip is arguably the most important for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the polar regions - have fun and make sure you put the camera down sometimes! There is nothing more breath-taking than watching huge icebergs float by with your own eyes, or spotting a polar bear hopping over ice floes or a whale breaching. And whilst you'll want to capture this for your memories long after you've gotten home, the camera will never quite do it justice, so enjoy it while you're there!


Ready to go?

Discover our once-in-a-lifetime polar voyages, from fly-cruise expeditions to the Antarctic Pensinsula and wildlife-filled visits to the Falklands and South Georgia, to polar bear watching in the Arctic and bucketlist sailings of the Northwest Passage.
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