Blue icebergs, white-capped mountains, porpoising penguins in Antarctica, Polar bears in the Arctic, whale flukes and everything starkly beautiful about the Polar regions excites the budding photographer in all of us.
Here are some basic tips that can help you get the job done – and maybe graduate your photos from the family scrapbook to a wall-worthy moment.
While the Polar regions may present you with once and a lifetime photo opportunities, our most important advice is to be sure not to spend your whole trip looking through the viewfinder. Leave your camera in your bag from time to time and fully take in the sights and sounds of the incredible Polar landscapes.
At the bottom of this post you will find links to recommended photo gear and online photo courses.
What camera should I take?
This depends on what type of photos you are hoping to get, what you plan to do with the photos and how much you want to carry. You will see passengers using everything from cell phones to pro DSLR’s and everything in between.
Photographers looking to capture the most details in different light conditions, zoom in on wildlife, make large wall-prints and have the most flexibility with post processing will want a DSLR or a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses.
Go Pros are popular for shooting video, underwater footage and time lapse.
Cell phone cameras are getting better and better. Some people that just want to post landscape photos & videos to social media or make smaller prints without much editing are happy just traveling with their light weight camera phones. We suggest having a waterproof case for your phone to protect it while in the Zodiac.
If you are in the kayaking program, a waterproof point & shoot and a small carabiner to strap it to your lifejacket is a good idea for easy access when out paddling and for unique underwater shots.
Whatever you decide to use, be sure you are comfortable with it. The last thing you want is to end up missing photo opportunities or with blurry photos because you’re not familiar with how your camera operates. If you do plan on purchasing a new camera before the trip, be sure to get in plenty of practice with it prior to the voyage so you already understand the ins & outs of the settings.
Be sure to change the time zone on your camera once you arrive to your embarkation point.
Important – passenger use of drones is not allowed on any Antarctica or Arctic voyage. Please leave your drone at home.
How many cameras should I take?
It’s a good idea to have at least one backup camera. Compact cameras or even cell phones make for good backups if you don’t want to travel with 2 full size bodies. Serious photographers typically travel with at least 2 camera bodies.
What’s the deal with crop sensor vs full frame cameras?
Crop sensor cameras make the standard 35mm lens 1.5-1.6 times the listed mm on the lens. That means a 300mm lens on a crop sensor is really at least 450mm. Crop sensor cameras are good for getting that extra reach, especially when shooting whales, polar bears or seabirds from the ship. Your biggest challenge with a crop sensor is usually with wide angle, not with telephoto, because a 28mm wide angle is now nearly 42mm – and that’s not very wide! You may want to add a wide angle lens to capture the huge expanses of the Polar regions.
Full frame cameras use the standard 35mm film size sensor and therefore have a wider angle of view. They are known for superior image quality, especially in low light situations and at higher ISO settings. These are usually the go to body for landscape photographers.
Which lenses should I take? Everything I have, or just pick a couple?
This is also dependent on the photographer, their photo goals & budget. Zoom lenses covering a wide range or having multiple bodies with different ranges is recommended as changing lenses frequently is not ideal in the Polar regions.
We recommend a good telephoto lens – 70-200mm, 100-400mm are popular choices. The Polar regions are vast and often your subject is far away. Image stabilization helps for those big zoom lenses. Huge glass over 400mm is typically not necessary for Antarctica but can be for the Arctic.
Also a 24-70mm or 24-105mm lens is great for telling the story of your trip. Showing the landscape, ice, groups of wildlife (penguins, walrus, bird cliffs), and pictures of your fellow passengers.
Ultra-wide angle lenses (like 16-35mm) only work well when you have an interesting subject in the immediate foreground (king penguins at South Georgia, whale bones on shore or interesting sea ice from a Zodiac) but they will make everything in the distance appear smaller, so you may not get a lot of use out of it from the ship.
All-in-one zoom lenses such as a 28-300mm are very convenient as they cover most of the range you will need without having to change lenses.
Decide what images you are interested in capturing and then pick what fits your budget and goals. Whatever lens choice you make will surely yield great images.
Be sure to bring & use your lens hoods!
Do I need a back-up batteries & memory cards?
Yes, it’s important to take extra batteries and memory cards! Don’t forget the battery charger and adapter (if necessary). If your batteries are a few years old, update them with newer batteries that charge faster, hold charges longer, and aren’t as affected by cold. We recommend multiple smaller capacity memory cards vs 1 large card. That way if there is an issue with your memory card, you will have backups.
How will the cold environment affect my camera, since most digital cameras are rated at 32 degrees F?
The cold isn’t as big an issue as you might think since trips are during the Polar summer. That means it’s typically around or just above freezing. Even so, lower temperatures and condensation can present challenges, and salt water spray is a bigger problem than the cold. A little salt water on the right button of a digital camera can render it useless.
For chilly, wet and windy days, carry cameras and batteries close to your body, but not too close! Keep them inside your coat, pockets, or outer layer, and take them out when you’re ready to shoot. Make sure all your batteries are fresh, and take extras.
Condensation is caused by abrupt temperature changes, so NEVER breathe or blow on a cold lens! Instead, use a lens brush to dust off any snow or debris. If your lens fogs up, wipe off the excess condensation with a special lens cloth vs your shirt sleeve.
Another tip: Try wrapping the camera in a scarf or something insulating that won’t hold moisture. Then, place the camera in a cooler part of the room, where it can warm up more slowly.
How many pictures do most people take on these trips?
A lot!! Thousands.
What do I use for photo file storage on the trip, since I’ll probably take a lot of pictures?
Many memory cards store up to 64 or 128 GB of data, which is a lot of pictures. Take at least 2 or 3 memory cards, depending on their size.
A small laptop & external hard drive works well for downloading photo files & editing while onboard. It also gives you something to do on your long flight back home.
Many of the ships have computers onboard to share photos; so we recommend bringing a USB drive (16GB is a good size) for downloading some of the shared photos.
Photo file format affects how much storage space and memory you need. Shooting RAW versus JPG is a personal preference, but RAW format uses more memory than the JPG format. If you use a photo editing software (like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop) and want the maximum available pixels to optimize your photo, plus the ability to adjust the white balance, then RAW format is for you. If you’re simply shooting pictures that you plan to tweak slightly and print out for friends and family or don’t have the time to edit all of your photos, then shoot JPG.
How do I transport my camera gear to shore in snowy, cold and wet conditions?
Zodiacs aren’t necessarily tech-friendly, since salt spray or water can permeate tiny buttons and crevices and render your camera useless. Unless you’ve stopped for a photo op or the driver says the conditions are okay, keep your camera gear tucked away safely when you’re traveling from ship to shore. You can hold the camera in front of you covered up on your lap, or set the gear on top of your boots.
There are many waterproof bags on the market these days, including some designed specifically for cameras. Pick one that suits your budget and gear needs.
It’s safer on shore, though you still have to deal with the logistics of lugging your gear around. There are several options including shoulder bags, waist packs, and backpacks. Camera straps that attach to your backpack or harnesses work very well for easy access to your camera without having the strain on your neck.
How do I stay warm while taking photos? Do gloves get in the way?
It can be hard to take pictures with gloves on. Try polysynthetic glove liners when shooting outdoors. You can always wear them under your thicker waterproof gloves. Flip Mitts are a great option that allow you to have warm mitts covering your fingers when you need it and then flip the mitt and you have fingerless gloves.
Should I take a polarizing filter?
Polarizing filters work well to take the glare out of water shots, like whales and other animals swimming or porpoising. Other than that the use of polarizing filters is not often used in these environments.
Bring a UV filter to protect your lens from the elements.
How can I take pictures of animals in the snow?
The reflective qualities of white snow make shooting in the Polar regions a challenge. It’s really important NOT to overexpose the picture, as it is easy to do with such a harsh white background. Bracketing works and it’s easy. You might even increase the usual range of ½ to 1 stop above and below to 2 or even 3 stops, just in case. Spot-metering is excellent for reducing overexposure. The price of a memory card is much less than another trip to the Polar regions.
Understand the histogram feature on your camera. Take a picture, look at it, and then adjust the exposure accordingly.
Should I take a tripod?
Only if you are used to traveling with and shooting with a tripod. Most passengers shoot handheld, but a tripod can be a good idea if you’re inspired to take artsy close-ups of lichen, macro photography, long-range telephotos of the landscape or wildlife or Northern Lights (September in the Arctic). You can find compact and lightweight tripods with retractable legs, and even tripods that convert into monopods. Monopods can work well and double as hiking sticks. A small bean bag is a useful alternative for propping up your camera.
When shooting from the ship, it’s not a good idea to rest your camera on the railing. The engines can create vibration. Use a bean bag or even a pillow to reduce the chance of a shaky shot.
How much gear is too much?
That depends on how much Sherpa you have in you, plus how much you want to pay in extra baggage. Fly cruises do have strict weight limits that all passengers need to stay within.
Remember – you’re on a ship in a remote area. Don’t count on buying more memory cards or equipment at the local discount store.
Should I put my photo equipment in my luggage, or as a carry on?
It’s always scary to stuff expensive and fragile equipment in a suitcase and send it off to unknown and potentially unsafe parts of the world, such as the bowels of an airplane. We recommend packing your camera gear (including your battery charger) in your carry on.
One tip overrides all the others when photographing in the Polar regions… Respect your subject. Keep a respectful and safe distance to prevent stressing out the wildlife. Guidelines regarding distance from wildlife varies. Your naturalist guides will give you the specifics before your landings.
Links to Photo Gear & Online Classes:
Online Photo Classes – including courses on iPhone photography:
Waterproof Camera Bags & Backpacks:
Waterproof Cell Phone Cases:
Gardening knee pads: