Photography gear for a trip to Antarctica

Photography gear for a trip to Antarctica

Antarctica has been on the top of my bucket list since my early twenties, and recently I finally ticked it off. Words cannot adequately describe this place, nor the experiences I had on an expedition style cruise. Before I even left, I had to navigate the dilemma of what photography gear to take for nature photography. Plus a long international flight, followed by smaller ones, then zodiac landing and cruises during the cruise. All with different weight restrictions and logistics to manage, including extremes of weather.

What photography gear to pack?

Being a serious nature photographer and passionate about landscapes and wildlife I had to be pragmatic in my choices. So I needed to take a mix that was going to provide me with the most flexible shooting options.

Camera and Lenses

After a lot of research and receiving good professional photography advice, I settled on taking two camera bodies, and three lenses. I shoot with Canon so took my Canon 5D Mk III for landscapes and Canon 7D MkII for the wildlife. The latter being my go-to for all wildlife images as its able to shoot up to 10 frames per second.

The lenses

The three lenses were a wide-angle lens, Canon’s 16-35mm f/2.8 L series – for the 5D body for landscape photography. I also took a standard zoom lens, Canon’s 24-70mm f/2.8 L series, again for the 5D body but for landscape photography from the ship. The last lens of choice was my Canon 100-400mm f/5-5.6 L series telephoto for the 7D body and wildlife photography.

At the time I didn’t have a mid-range telephoto lens like a 70-200m, if I had the chance to go to Antarctica again, I would add this to the kit. During the trip I found there were times that I was so close to some of the wild life. Having a mid-range telephoto lens like this would have enabled me to compose shots differently. The challenge with multiple bodies and lens is the logistics of carrying this equipment and changing lenses in the field. Particularly in the harsh extremes of the Antarctic Peninsula where you are faced with wind, rain and sometimes snow. 

A clear but dark waters with pancake ice floating in the foreground and a large glacier on the horizon, under stormy skies
Paradise Harbour – Canon 5D Mk III, with EF 16-35 mm f/2.8L III USM Lens – handheld from a zodiac
Five Adelie penguins resting on top of an iceberg amongst icy rubble
Adelie penguins – Canon EOS 7D Mk II, with EF 100-400mm 5-5.6 IS II USM lens – handheld from a zodiac

Bags and tripod

When it comes to bags, I have one all-purpose bag, a F-Stop Lotus Backpack with their Large Intensive Care Unit. It fits all my gear as well as accessories which I’ll touch on later in this article. This bag held up well on the trip as its weather proof. However, on occasion I did pop its rain cover for extra protection. Which was serendipity as I happened to take a small wave over the bow of the zodiac on one landing. I can’t say I fared as well as I had both my jacket and water proof pants vented. Which meant I was not waterproof in places. 

Janet Scott walking on the steamy Wjhalers Bay beach at Deception Island
Me on the steaming beach at Whalers Bay, Deception Island

The bag

For the majority of the zodiac trips I had my backpack stowed in a 60-litre dry bag, which was passed onto an off the zodiac as I got on and off. This also a handy option when on zodiac cruises as I could have my backpack open at my feet yet sheltered from the elements within the confines of the dry bag.

The tripod

I did take a light travel tripod, I use a Gitzo Traveller 1, with a Gitzo traveller centre ball head. I took it ashore a couple of times but quickly worked out that I didn’t really need to use it as I was on the move regularly. Although others on the trip did, so it comes down to personal preference. I never used a tripod on deck on the cruise ship because of the vibration of the engine and movement from the sea.

Batteries, Straps and other essential accessories

On most days the ambient temperature was about minus two, however with wind chill factor the temperature dropped below this. I went in late November so often on landings we were navigating knee deep snow and the occasional snow flurry, so managing battery life was always front of mind. I carried a spare battery for each camera body in the inside pocket of my jacket, so they were kept warm with my body heat. This held me in good stead and I never ran out of battery power.

Take a dry bag

Once on shore I usually took both cameras out of my backpack choosing to carry my then very light back pack on my back as it had additional warm gear and rain covers in it. My dry bag was left with the buckets used to store the life jackets while we were on shore. To carry each camera, I used two different types of straps, one that was a sling over one shoulder and the other, that was similar but had a shoulder harness, a Blackrapid Sport Breathe. I found this strap the most comfortable, it did a did a good job of distributing the weight of my large lens and 7D camera body. It also didn’t slip off my shoulder and was comfortable with my backpack on.

Rain covers

In the event of inclement weather, I carried two rain covers from OP/TECH, which are a thin plastic disposable rain sleeve. Although I encountered light snow and drizzle on a number of occasions, I got away without using them. However, I was glad that I had them handy just in case the conditions worsened. If you don’t want to invest in something like this then a plastic bag with a whole cut into a corner can be slipped over your lens and held in place with an elastic band.

A gentoo penguin heading back to the rookery along a penguin highway in the snow in a snow flurry
Gentoo Penguin – EOS Canon 7D Mk II, with EF 100-400mm 5-5.6 IS II USM lens – handheld

Knee pads

Another piece of kit which was invaluable was a pair of knee pads. I just used some cheap foam ones from the hardware, but they were fantastic, easy to get on and stayed in place when I was down on my knees in the snow, on pebbly beaches and in the zodiac on zodiac cruises. None of these surfaces are kind to knees.

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