Camera Kit for Antarctica
Written in 2007
I went to Antarctica in December, 2005. I went on a small trip with Quark Expeditions. We were on the Professor Molchanov which was originally, according to rumor, a Soviet spy boat. It was a wonderful trip, with just 33 passengers, making it possible to do a lot. 10 of us kayaked about 2-3 hours per day, and about half the group camped on Antarctica one night. It wasn’t stabilized, and we had a fairly rough passage of the Drake. I was sick one day in each direction. No biggie. I took some drugs and slept. Actually, I was kind of glad we got some rough weather. I wanted to experience the Drake in some of its glory.
You can see some of my photographs http://jfiddler.smugmug.com/Antarctica. You can also see an amazing encounter that we had with some Minke whales at http://youtube.com/watch?v=1slYOxaS7V4, which may help put some of my comments in perspective. Watch the whole thing – it was very cool.
I’ve been asked by a few people about what equipment I took, and seen a number of discussions about it on various on-line forums, so I decided to write it up. This is what I took and how it worked out for me. Take it for what it’s worth in deciding what’s right for you.
The equipment I took was:
- A Nikon D70 – Worked well. I’ve since gotten a D200, which would definitely be better for three reasons. It focuses faster, it has a bigger RAM buffer, and it’s more weatherproof. The focus and the limited RAM in the D70 caused me to lose shots, particularly of the whales – not so much the minkes that are in the video, but another day when we were around a bunch of humpbacks that were moving much faster. When I used the continuous mode to shoot one of them sounding, I always seemed to miss the best shot when the camera paused for a second while offloading to flash. Focusing, particularly on the birds, was tough with the D70. More megapixels in the D200 would also have been nice, but less important for me.
- 18-200 Sigma lens – I didn’t plan to use this much – I took it mainly to leave it in the ship as a spare (see below) – but I wound up using it quite a lot. It’s really hard to change lenses in the snow, in a Zodiac, or with gloves on. It’s impossible to change lenses in a kayak. So, this lens was really great to have. The Sigma was pretty good, but I’ve since replaced it with the Nikon, and it’s better. I’d strongly recommend taking a broad range zoom like this one.
- Nikon 18-70 lens – I planned on using this a lot, and wound up leaving it as my spare.
- Nikon 70-300 – Mostly useful for birds, especially in the Drake Passage but also in Antarctica.
- Sigma 10-20 lens – I’m REALLY happy I took this lens. Check out the photos in my Paradise Bay / Petzval Glacier gallery for some examples. The scale of Antarctica is huge, and sometimes you’re too close to capture it with anything but a very wide lens. I’d highly recommend taking one.
- A spare Nikon D70 body– I borrowed a spare body and left it and at least one lens on the ship all the time. If I had a camera disaster, I didn’t want to be camera-less in Antarctica. Luckily, I never needed it.
- Pentax WPi – This is a small waterproof point & shoot. I kept it in my pocket almost all the time. When I kayaked, I clipped this to my float vest so it was always accessible, and kept the Nikon in a dry bag to pull out only when things were stable. It did quite well and took some really interesting photos. Look at my Petermann Island gallery. The main problem with it was that it has no viewfinder, and it was nearly impossible to see the LCD in bright sunlight, so I was often pointing and praying. Still, I think the waterproofness outweighs the disadvantage of no viewfinder.
- Nikon flash – useful on the boat.
- I took a small tripod and monopod, and never used either one.
- I used my lens cleaning pen A LOT. Sometimes, when it was snowing, I’d clean the lens with it for nearly every shot. Even so, I lost some shots to water drops on the lens. Highly recommended!
- I carried all my stuff in a LowePro Dryzone Rover, which has a waterproof compartment. You get in and out of Zodiacs a lot, and it gave me great peace of mind to know that my gear was safe, even if dropped in the water (it never was). A sling bag might have been more convenient, though. It’s a judgment call.
- The weather wasn’t very cold, maybe a low of about 28¥ F. Still, extra batteries are helpful and you should keep them warm, inside your coat if possible. Also, think about gloves that can be used with your camera.
- I took on-line manuals for my cameras, flash, etc. since I had my laptop. I’d recommend taking manuals, but also know how to use all of your gear well before you go.
- I took a laptop to offload to, and also a small portable USB hard drive, and a bunch of blank DVDs. Some of us on the boat loaded all our stuff onto each other’s drives, or gave each other copies of DVD’s, for redundancy in case something didn’t make it home, as well as just for sharing purposes. I’d recommend this.
I considered taking an incident light meter but didn’t, simply to have one less gadget, and I didn’t miss it. I did take an ExpoDisc and used it sometimes for white balance and for quasi-incident measurement, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you already have one and love it. The light in Antarctica is different, and it can be tricky to get white balance correct. I would definitely recommend taking some sort of spectrally neutral gray reference, like http://www.whibal.com/products/whibal/index.html orhttp://www.calumetphoto.com/item/BG6500/ or, my favorite, http://www.sjphoto.com/graycap.html. I like that one because it’s small, cheap, and you just stick one on each lens cap so you’ve always got it with you. You just photograph one periodically, when the light changes significantly. Then, on your computer, you can use it to automatically set the correct white balance MUCH better than the camera can do it, for all photos taken in that light condition. (DON’T use one of the old 18% grey cards for this. They’re not spectrally neutral.)
There are two things I didn’t take that I wish I had. The first would be a rain shield, something like http://www.kata-bags.com/product.asp?p_Id=269&Version=Photo. It might have made it easier to work in the snow. The other is a sensor brush likehttp://visibledust.com/. It would have saved me a bunch of dusting in photoshop.
This may sound like a lot of stuff, but when I left the ship I traveled pretty light. Simplify as much as possible, because you’ll be wearing heavy clothing and gloves, getting in and out of boats, and sometimes walking on uneven terrain. DON’T take so much gear, or get so wrapped up in it, that it gets in the way of your Antarctica experience. You’re there to enjoy a unique and amazing experience, not to be an equipment mule.
Unrelated to photo equipment, but I read a bunch of books of all kinds. For me, the best was The Crystal Desert, by David G. Campbell. If you only read one book, this would be my choice, but of course some of the exploration books are really fun as well. Also, you might want to look at Eliot Porter’s Antarctica book, for some great photographs. There are some good photos on-line at http://www.pbase.com/chris67/antarctica_the_crystal_desert and http://www.pbase.com/jeanmcc/antarctica.