Polar photographer Brian Anderson from andersonimages gives us his ten most important tips for successful polar photography. Brian is an award winning photographer from the UK and has made 5 trips to Antarctica, the Geographic North Pole and to over 40 countries across the globe.
Know Your Camera and Equipment
Before setting off on your Polar trip, it is vital that you familiarise yourself with your camera, lenses and other photographic equipment. You need to be ready to “aim and shoot” as soon as you start your trip. You do not want to be fiddling with camera settings when an albatross flies by, a penguin comes towards you or a whale surfaces in front of you. Be ready!
Also bring your camera manual with you for help from others on the trip if you have problems.
Essential Camera Accessories
Whatever type of camera equipment you have, be it a simple digital ‘point and shoot’ or a semi-pro SLR body with interchangeable lenses, you will need to bring along some spares and accessories for your trip.
A decent waist pouch for your ‘point and shoot’ or a robust backpack for all your SLR gear is essential to protect your camera and equipment from the cold, wet and physical damage from knocks or drops.
Take plenty memory cards or back-up facilities such as a laptop or hard drives and the appropriate cleaning accessories for your equipment.
Condensation and Cold
It is vital to protect your camera, lenses and gear from the freezing cold and to avoid the risk of condensation whilst travelling in the Polar Regions.
Cold is the enemy of batteries. Take plenty spare batteries and keep them fully charged when you are on the ship (remember to take the appropriate electrical adapters). When outside keep all your batteries warm in pockets near to your body.
Condensation occurs when you take your camera gear from the cold back into the warm interior, and can cause fogging of lenses, eyepieces sensors, etc. Prevent this by wrapping your camera in a plastic bag when you are outside and let it warm slowly in the bag when you return inside.
If you take a tripod, be careful when opening and closing outside as the tripod joints can stiffen up or freeze up in the cold, so do not apply too much force.
Keeping the Photographer Warm
Probably most important of all is to protect yourself from the wet and cold. You may be outside for many hours on deck or onshore walking or sitting around taking photographs in the bitter cold.
Layers are the key. Wear plenty thin clothing layers to trap the warm air. You can always strip off some of them if the outside temperature rises.
Most important are gloves to protect your hands. Trying to take photographs or fiddle with your camera dials and buttons is almost impossible if your hands and fingers are frozen.
Opportunities for Good Shots
Your photography opportunities will start as soon as you get on board your polar ship and set off. There are great vantage points from the bridge and various decks, in fact, all around you.
Types of shots possible include wildlife, landscapes, people portraits, and abstract shots of water reflections, patterns on sea ice, icicles, etc. The list is truly endless.
Let your imagination go!
Zodiacs also offer the chance to take shots low in the water and this enables you to get close and impressive shots of icebergs and growlers. Including people and zodiacs in your shots helps give scale to glaciers and icebergs, etc.
Tripods or monopods are often useful, but if a ship is rolling in the waves it is easier to rest your camera on a bean bag placed on the ship’s rails.
Composing Your Shot
We all want to create great shots – images that are pleasing to the eye. So it is important to think ahead of the type of image you wish to create and to give some thought to the composition of the picture.
Composition is about rules, and sometimes experimenting and breaking these rules. The “Rule of Thirds” is a useful concept where you place key elements in your image on vertical or horizontal thirds up or down, or across your image.
For example in the following illustrations, key elements, the polar bears on the top shot, and the blue growler on the bottom have been arranged on horizontal and/or vertical thirds. In other words, they have not been placed directly in the centre, which can often create a boring shot.
The polar bears also give scale to the iceberg they are on.
Experiment too, use wide angle shots, and try placing objects centrally. With digital its easy, have a go and delete bad shots.
Exposing correctly in snowy and sunny conditions can be very challenging. Many modern digital cameras have settings for “snow” which makes correct exposure a bit easier.
Most digital cameras have histograms which allow you to control the exposure more accurately when photographing darker objects against snow. Histograms are charts which show the range of light and dark tones in your shot. The rule for a well exposed shot is to have the chart peak in the middle, as in the diagram above.
Everybody is in a rush these days. Often when you get onto the ice, or see your first albatrosses, polar bears or penguins, the temptation is to take hundreds of shots straight away.
In order to get the best shots, it is best to relax and sit down in a good position and just wait for the action or the “special moment’” to happen.
If you sit quietly the wildlife may approach you, or an amusing scene will slowly unfold, like in my two images opposite.
You could not set up such shots, they are the result of waiting quietly, sometimes hours, and just watching and enjoying the antics of the wildlife, until the perfect moment comes, then you take the shot.
The Emperor penguins chicks were adorable, but only two or three of us waited around, lying quietly in the snow in order to capture this shot. Fellow tourists had wandered off to where they thought there was better “action”. How wrong they were. Patience is indeed a virtue.
Focus Your Subject
Nobody wants to take an out-of-focus shot. The amount of an image in focus depends on shutter speed and the amount of light entering the lens.
A fast moving flying bird, you will need a fast speed to freeze the action and achieve focus. With a landscape shot you use a slower speed, and a tripod is useful.
Depth of Field (DoF) controls the amount of the image that’s in focus in front of the camera. All digital cameras offer automatic DoF settings using the symbols above. If you wish to throw the background out of focus, to enhance the subject as on the bottom penguin image, a short DoF is required, on a landscape a long DoF ensures everything in the scene is in focus.
Everybody wants to get near to the unique and amazing wildlife in Antarctica, to get the best close-up shots as possible.
In these areas it is vital to respect the comfort and welfare of the animals you are photographing. IATTO guidelines should be followed when in the Antarctic, and minimum distances from wildlife should be maintained, expedition staff will advise on this during pre-landing briefings.
Seals, penguins and their chicks tend to be very curious and will often come close up to you. So as I explained in Tip 8, sit still and quiet, and the wildlife may approach you.
Remember, in the polar regions we should ‘only take photographs and leave only footprints behind’.
We are in these unique polar wildernesses as guests, and should treat the wildlife and environment with full consideration and respect. This will protect these habitats for ourselves and for other travellers to enjoy on future trips.
For more information about Brian and to check out his stunning images visit his website at www.andersonimages.co.uk