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Top 10 Tips for Packing Your Polar Photography Equipment

by Neill Drake Blog

The most common question I receive from passengers before they leave for an Arctic or Antarctic expedition cruise is, “What should I bring?” It’s a very broad question, and the answers will vary based on the needs of each individual. However, there are a few key points that can apply to virtually everyone.
Top 10 Tips for Packing Your Polar Photography Equipment

The “less is more” approach to photography packing

The most common question I receive from passengers before they leave for an Arctic or Antarctic expedition cruise is, “What should I bring?”

It’s a very broad question, and the answers will vary based on the needs of each individual. However, there are a few key points that can apply to virtually everyone.

For starters, I’m a huge believer in “less is more,” especially when it comes to polar photography. It is easy to get caught up in the mindset that you need to have every piece of gear available for every possible situation.

I felt the exact same way when I made my very first trip south, and I’ll tell you from experience, I brought way too much! I envisioned every possible scenario playing out and packed for each of them.

It was a big mistake. Too much gear can become extremely cumbersome; reducing it down to the bare essentials will considerably improve your trip in many aspects.  

In the spirit of having the best experience possible, the most important thing is striking a good balance between time spent taking photos and time spent without your camera – existing fully in the moment.

I’ve seen it too many times with my own eyes: Some guests live their entire trip through the viewfinder of their camera.

On my first trip, I believe I took somewhere around 6,000 photos and over five hours of videos. I don’t actually remember a lot of what I saw with my own eyes. My second trip, I brought one camera with one lens and took less than 300 photos the entire trip. I enjoyed my second polar expedition much more than my first.

I also found I had come home with much better photos. Each photo was carefully thought out before-hand. I was studying the light, the lines, and the behaviors of the wildlife to get the right shot. It showed both in the quality of my photos and the quality of my experience.

Now, every trip I take, I make it a point to bring as little as possible.

As follows, this is the first lesson I teach in my workshops onboard: “The value of your experience in Antarctica or the Arctic does not hinge on the quality or the quantity of your photos when you get home, and ten good photos will always be better than one hundred mediocre ones.”

Below you will find my 10 detailed suggestions for a photography packing list.

I am a big fan of individual prime lenses. You can’t beat their sharpness when compared to a zoom lens.

However, when moving around in Zodiacs with splashing water, rough seas, and other guests on board, it can be difficult to change a lens. Rain, snow, and sea spray can easily get onto your sensor and lens element during a lens change.

Packing two versatile zoom lenses will not only help keep your gear safe, it will offer more versatility when you have rapidly changing conditions.

You could be cruising in a Zodiac, taking wide angle pictures of some stunning icebergs or brash ice, when all of a sudden a whale begins to breach in the distance. A lens change could cause you to miss the shot or potentially risk dropping a lens overboard during change.

I often suggest guests look at two zoom lenses in the 24-70 or 24-105 range, paired with a 70-200 or 70-300 depending on which camera brand you use.

I’ve found that 24-70 can fulfill 90% of the shots I take on my expeditions, most being right around 35mm. A longer lens like 70-200 is great especially around February and March, when the whales tend to be more densely populated.

If you’re keen to pack a third lens, I would suggest a 16-35 or any wide angle prime for walking about on land. Ultra wide lenses give a great dramatic view of the vast landscapes in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Nowadays, small compact cameras like the Sony Rx100VI pack a pocket-sized 24-200mm built in telephoto zoom lens. I love to keep one of these with me at all times. Not only do they take amazing photos, they are also incredibly versatile during those “in-a-pinch” moments.

Each traveler’s memory card needs will be different. However, I cannot stress enough how important it is to bring backup cards.

Cards get lost, corrupted, and filled up. If you think you have enough memory cards, buy three more. You can find good quality cards online for less than $20 each. I always suggest bringing multiple 32GB or 64GB cards instead of one larger 128GB card, for example.

If one large card goes bad, you are out of luck. Having numerous smaller cards offers you the security of multiple backups. I stick those cheap extra cards all around my gear. Backpack pockets, pants pockets, jacket pockets…

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten on a Zodiac and went to take a photo and realized I left my main memory card in my laptop card slot during lunch.

Thank goodness I always have backups stashed around.

Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents probably stashed batteries in the refrigerator to help them last longer?

That old trick holds for alkaline batteries, but the opposite is true for lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries, which are found in modern-day cameras.

The cold weather conditions can drain a battery before you’ve even had the chance to use it in your camera. I always keep 2-3 spare batteries in my jacket breast pocket or somewhere close to my body so the heat can keep them warm; this will prevent unwanted discharge.

Additionally, I always have two batteries fully charged in my room, but never left unattended while charging in my cabin for safety purposes.

You can purchase third-party batteries with a charger online for sometimes one-third the price of your OEM batteries – and I find they work just the same.

Just be sure to read the reviews carefully before buying any non-OEM equipment.

My opinion on tripods is that you will almost never need one.

Unless you’re taking incredibly high-res bracketed photos to merge in post-processing later, creating time lapses, or filming documentary-level video, the lighting conditions in Antarctica and the Arctic are almost always well-lit enough for shutter speeds high enough to not require the use of a tripod.

If you feel you need one, it’s best to look for small travel tripods or spend the money on ultra lightweight carbon fiber tripods.

Carrying tripods in the Zodiacs can be a bother, and walking in the deep snow is challenging with the extra weight. Tripods also pose bio-security risks and must be thoroughly cleaned before and after each landing.

After four seasons in Antarctica, I’ve only ever used my tripod once. It’s best to leave it at home unless you know for certain you’ll need it for a specific task. You can consider bringing a small tripod like a Gorilla Pod or Manfroto Table Tripod.

Microfiber cloths, lots and lots of them. You will undoubtedly deal with more water droplets on your lens than you could ever imagine.

I can’t say it enough: Bring a lot of microfiber cloths. You can buy these for less than $1 USD a piece at any local camera store or online retailer.

You can also pair them with a nice alcohol wipe to clean the salt off.

I suggest bringing 2-3 “lens pens” of whatever brand you can find. These are the best at getting any residue off your lens to make sure you get the sharpest images possible.

The type of camera bag you use is personal preference, and there are hundreds of different styles and brands on the market now.

However, I would suggest you look for one that is waterproof, or at the very least, water repellant.

I also cannot stress enough how important it is to also find a dry-sack/dry-bag that your entire camera bag can fit inside. The weather is always changing, often with very little notice, and Zodiac rides can get very wet.

Your best defense from ruining your camera equipment is a waterproof bag.

A CPL filter is used to block unwanted reflections of light and add more saturation to the sky in brightly lit photos.

Most of the time, the Arctic and Antarctica have very harsh lighting conditions, and a CPL is great for managing these difficult lighting scenarios. However, not knowing how to use a CPL is much more destructive to your photos than not having one.

If you feel you want to bring a CPL with you, you can find many detailed tutorials on YouTube teaching you the proper use of one.

Be sure to invest in a good one, especially with expensive lenses. Stick to brands like Hoya, Gobe, and B&W. These brands are known for creating high quality glass filters for a reasonable price.

Almost nothing is worse than realizing you’ve already run out of space!

If your computer or your cards fill up, it’s always great to have a backup hard drive. Not only is it great for you during the trip, but you can also rest assured knowing your photos will be backed up for a lifetime. 

Even if you put them on a cloud when you get back, a hard disk is a great additional safety precaution.

As a general rule, I never trust factory camera straps. Not only do I find that they hurt my neck, but they aren’t comfortable to wear with a life jacket, and the cheap plastic tabs are prone to breaking during rugged use.

The best way to protect your investment is to consider purchasing a high quality camera strap. Brands like Peak Design and Rapid Strap make all sorts of various styles for different camera systems. I prefer to use a backpack clip style from Peak Design.

It keeps my gear close to my body so I’m always ready to shoot, and also makes it much more comfortable to hike or snow shoe with a camera.

You wouldn’t think this would be on the list of photography gear, but I find a good pair of polarized glasses is one of the most important things to keep in my bag.

Constantly scanning for a beautiful landscape or for wildlife means staring for hours at an environment with harsh reflections and scattered light bouncing off the ocean or snow.

This UV light is not only damaging, but will certainly cause visual fatigue and discomfort after awhile. If you want to be able to always stay on the lookout for a great shot, you need to protect your eyes.

Investing in a high quality pair of glasses is just as important as investing in a good lens for your camera.

There are endless brands out there that create high-quality glasses, but I’ve become very fond of the Glacier Glasses by Northern Lights Optics. They were specially designed for the conditions we will encounter in the polar regions.

They also look pretty funky and remind me of the Shackleton days.

One last word about Antarctic photography packing

Well, there you have it: the top ten most important things to consider when packing your bag for an Antarctic expedition cruise.

This list is of course a suggestion and by no means the final say, as guests will have their own needs.

The most important thing is to worry less about what gear to bring to Antarctica and just enjoy your time there! The best camera is the one you already have with you. 

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