The Reality of Tough Conditions in Polar Regions
The polar regions are incredible! They are filled with amazing wildlife and inspirational landscapes. They are definitely a phenomenal environment to photograph. That being said, the conditions can be notoriously tricky.
Whether you are seeking out the colossal icebergs in Antarctica, or the Arctic Ocean’s pack ice, both may involve tricky shooting conditions. Harsh lighting, constant winds and sea salt are only some of the things you need to be ready for. If you’re lucky, you won’t experience all at once, but the reality is – you have to be prepared for whatever nature throws at you.
So what kind of problems might you face? And what do you pack on your next trip?
Denis Elterman – Professional, Award Winning Landscape and Wildlife Photographer
Wildlife and Landscape Photographer and Filmmaker, Denis Elterman has spent the last 8 years documenting some of the world’s most rugged and beautiful locations. Having worked on all 7 continents, I have learned about what it takes to “capture the shot.” I also received an award and special mention for my work in the prestigious International Photography Awards (IPA) 2020 out of over13,000 worldwide entries into the awards this year.
This article will detail what equipment I use (and what he recommends) for the best polar expedition photography and filmmaking experiences.
The Gear I Use For Expeditions
I take two camera bodies with me on every expedition. I have been a longtime Nikon shooter, and do the bulk of my work with a Nikon D850. I use it primarily for high-resolution landscapes and fast-moving wildlife. This camera is capable of astonishingly fast bursts of up to 9-fps (with the additional grip).
I use a Nikon D750 as my second camera body (and as my backup). The Nikon D750 is a 24 MP body and offers a happy medium between file size and image quality. On a normal day in the field, I will mount a telephoto lens on one camera and mid-range lens on the other. I will usually alternate between the two, depending on the subject I am trying to capture.
If you’re using a camera body with interchangeable lenses, I suggest you bring a range. Anything between 24mm and 300mm is ideal. In my experience, photographers that bring their point-and-shoot cameras on a trip end up wishing they brought a better camera and a longer lens. Bring whatever you have in your disposal, from wide-angle to telephoto lenses.
Of course this will be a personal decision for everyone!
That being said, don’t feel like you need to spend a fortune on a new gear to get the photos of your dreams. If you have a camera rental shop near you, I suggest renting a desired camera/or lenses for the duration of your trip. But make no mistake – get to know your gear at least a few days prior to the trip to avoid any missed shots.
I bring a 24-70mm lens, a 70-200mm lens and a 200-500mm lens on each trip. I like this combination because it allows me to cover an entire range. I recommend bringing lenses that have better weather sealing, and at least one that extends to at least 200mm.
Essential Accessories For Polar Photography
My backpack itself is a F-Stop Gear Tilopa 50 L. Look no further. It’s built to last and is also ideal for camping and mountaineering. Suffice to say I know at least 3 other professionals who swear by it. My second carry-on bag is The Pelican Series 1535 Air hard case on wheels, which I use for passing through airports. It’s built like a tank and gives me peace of mind whenever I’m close to the water. If it’s locked, I know my gear will be safe and dry no matter what.
Waterproof Camera Bag Additions
If you already have a camera bag that you are happy with, but are looking for more reliable and waterproof solutions to protect your gear – I recommend an Arc’teryx Carrier duffel bag. Over the years, I’ve packed my camera bag inside this duffel bag to keep it dry. It can be worn as a backpack and has one zip for access.
Another invaluable piece of equipment that I carry with me everywhere is a tripod. But we all know how heavy and cumbersome they can be. Every bit of weight you can save helps when it comes to traveling. I personally use the Benro FTA28AB1Travel Angel Tripod. It’s lightweight, compact, but also robust and stable. When facing the cold temperatures and high winds in Polar Regions – you need something you can rely on!
Of course you will need lens filters. I highly recommend buying UV protection filters to protect your lens from scratches. It’s easier to replace a filter than repairing the lens itself. Using a Circular Polarizing filter (CPL) is also a must. A CPL helps reduce overwhelming brightness, cut out and manipulate reflections, and bring out the details and colours of icebergs and glaciers. I would even go as far to say that a CPL filter is one of the most important accessories in your backpack.
In regards to memory cards, I tend to go with reliable brands such as Sandisk, Lexar or Sony. Because I photograph a lot of wildlife and take videos, I can easily fill up to 2 memory cards in one day. 64 GB and 128GB memory cards are my go-to size.
Another cheap, but rather important accessory – is a round silicon eye-piece that covers your eye completely. It cuts down any light or glare from the outside. And allows you to see precisely what’s in the frame.
Other Essentials To Consider For Polar Regions
There are all sorts of camera accessories! When traveling to Polar regions you should consider bringing enough of everything. Before you leave, think through as many potential scenarios in advance. The polar regions are incredibly remote – you will be hard-pressed to find any shops that offer camera batteries and chargers. So double up on everything.
I always carry at least 4 camera batteries, two battery chargers, two card readers, and a handful of memory cards.
When the temperatures drop and you need to shoot outside, there is nothing worse than having to do it with freezing/frozen hands. Having hand warmers available can really save your day. Keep a few in your camera bag, and use them when needed. It is great for hands, and if needed – for your feet! Hand warmers are also great for keeping your camera or flash batteries alive so feel free to put them in the camera bag as well.
On the same thought – gloves are incredibly important (obviously). But, be mindful about which gloves you choose to work in. With standard winter gloves it’s hard to do anything functional like pressing buttons, moving wheels or changing batteries.
I recommend a pair of thin (but warm) gloves, that will allow you the fine motor movements needed for your camera and also for your phone. In the polar regions, I use a combination of thin “liners,” and hand warmers.
When not shooting I wear thicker waterproof gloves. Keep them close to you body to retain some warmth when not using (if your coat has an inside / map pocket this can be great)
Need To Prepare For Your Trip?
Check out the gear I mentioned above:
- PELICAN 1535 Air Carry on Case – Click Here
- F-STOP GEAR Tilopa 50L Camera backpack – Click Here
- F-STOP Camera Bag Insert – Click Here
- List of Additional Gear – Click Here
Feel free to ask questions in the comments if I have missed anything you want to know. I can either update the post or you may find the answer in other posts on the website.
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Check out his work Here.
Great tips! I always look forward to photography tips to learn more in this area. This post highlights so many good points to take care of while photographing in the polar region. Very useful!
I am a beginner and have since ditched the bulky Nikon for the compact Sony mirrorless. I was less looking for gear to use and how to make settings work for harsh or no lighting. This is really helpful. I have to find a way to get to the polar regions.
Linda (LD Holland)
We have had problems in wet and sandy areas when we travelled. But so far have not travelled to places where real cold was an issue. Yes that means we are wimps! A filter is a great idea especially with bright white snow and ice.
These tips are so helpful! im still trying to master photographing in regular non-polar regions first (LOL) but some of these tips will be helpful in the snow and mountains!! One day i’ll get there
Wow this is very interesting, thanks for sharing all these insights. A friend of mine works on a ship that often goes to Antarctica, hoping to join her later this year or next year on a trip there. Would be amazing.
I’ve read this wonderful post with some kind of yearning. Way up high on my bucket list is Antarctica. Since it’s not exactly around the corner, I’ll still have to wait – however, I’ll keep this post for creating great memories and getting the most from my pictures.
Such helpful tips for heading the the arctic or antarctic. Do you have any reccomendations for the northern or southern lights?
Love these types of tips. Unfortunately I haven’t had the luck to travel to any polar regions yet, but when I do I’ll be ready, I will have to try these in winter snow at home first.
I love to photograph both wildlife and landscapes, so I really like your tips. Polar Regions are still on my bucket list; I would love to photograph penguins in their natural habitat.
I definitely had these challenges when I visited Antarctica but didn’t have all the lenses and gear. When I go back, I want to make sure I have the right gear to capture the beauty of the polar regions.
I had no idea how one would prepare for taking photos under such extreme conditions. I have a new respect for people who are willing to go to such great length to bring back these unbelievable images.