Planning for Antarctica (Part 4): Photography Equipment

Last night I had a dream (or rather, nightmare) that I arrived in Antarctica without my camera.  With only 13 sleeps until I head to the airport, it’s time to revisit my photography checklist.

The aspect of my upcoming Antarctica trip I am most excited about is the unique photography opportunities it will present.

I discovered my passion for photography less than three years ago when I returned from a career break looking for ways to combat the struggle of being back in the 9-5 office job rut.  When I bought my first DSLR it was love at first sight and I ignored the irony that I was beginning this love affair after a round-the-world trip that included some of the most photogenic locations in the world, as I threw myself onto a steep but motivating learning curve.

Photographing Antarctica will be my most exciting and most challenging destination yet.

Whilst I never say ‘once in a lifetime’ when it comes to travel, the chance my bank account will stretch to more than one Antarctic adventure is slim.  This isn’t an experience I want to threaten by being unprepared so I have been soaking up photography tips and information like a cactus absorbs water in the desert.

 And this is what I have learned:


1. The Weather


Will the cold weather impact my camera?


There are two key risks to shooting in sub-zero temperatures:

–          Cold weather reduces the normal life of a battery

–          Returning to the warmth of the ship after being outside in the cold can cause the chilled camera to get covered with condensation


To avoid the flashing battery icon appearing on my camera just as a penguin poses in front of me, I will be taking a number of spare batteries, one of which I will carry in the inside of my jacket to be warmed by my body heat.  The other will be safely stored in my cabin, just in case.


Wrapping the camera in a plastic bag or towel whilst outside and then letting it warm slowly inside before unwrapping can help combat condensation, so I’ve added plastic bags to my packing list.


2. Equipment


Do I need new equipment?


A travel adventure to Antarctica is a great excuse for upgrading equipment or adding pieces to your kit.  But what is the point of improving the tools you have at your disposal if you don’t know how to use them?  You are more likely to return home with great images taken with a point and shoot camera you are familiar with than a new DSLR that you don’t know how to use.


If you are looking to upgrade your equipment (and I can’t think of a better reason to do so than a trip to Antarctica) be sure to unwrap the packaging and use it before you board the ship.  I’ve added a 100-400mm lens to my kit for this trip and I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to take it out a few times over the past few months.  It is a heavier lens than I’m used to and has a pull/push zoom mechanism that takes some getting used to.  I didn’t want Antarctica to be my training ground.


3.     Lenses


What lenses do I need?


One of the key attractions of Antarctica for me is the diversity of what I may see: sweeping landscapes, icebergs of all shapes and sizes and wildlife on the ground, in the sea and in the sky.  If you shoot with a camera with changeable lenses, you will want to bring a variety of lengths to capture this diversity at its best.


I don’t want to miss capturing an image in front of me because I have left a lens at home, so I will be bringing:

–          A wide-angled lens for those sweeping landscapes

–          A mid-range lens for general use, the one I expect to use the most

–          A zoom lens to capture the wildlife I need to keep my distance from

4.     Backup Plan


What if my camera stops working?


Can you imagine standing on Antarctic soil, penguins around you, seals bathing on the ground, icebergs providing a mystical backdrop and not having a camera to capture the moment?  Well I can!  It happened to me in Iceland when I dropped my camera into a glacier lagoon.  There are no camera repair shops on Antarctica: hope for the best and pack for the worst.


I learned my lesson in Iceland, so this time I’m not taking any chances.  In addition to packing my common sense (and not dropping a camera in a glacier lagoon) I’ll be adding a backup body to my kit in addition to a compact digital point and shoot.  One of the great things about Canon products (and Nikon) is their re-sale value so I have my fingers crossed that I won’t need the backup and can sell it when I return home – and yes, I now realise I’ve just jinxed myself by saying this out loud!

5.     Storage


How many memory cards should I take?


As many as possible!  Everything I’ve read about photographing Antarctica includes one consistent piece of advice: bring more memory cards than you think you will need…and you will use them all.


Memory cards are tiny and easy to pack, so I’ll be bringing LOTS of them.  I am always paranoid about losing images when I’m travelling, so my backup storage will be via my laptop and portable hard drive.  I also carry a USB stick because they are so small and useful.


6.     Luggage


What is the best way to carry my equipment?


This has been my most challenging question.  How do I carry my equipment on the plane without incurring excess baggage charges?  How do I keep it safe from salt spray (or capsizing!) whilst on the zodiac?  How can I carry my equipment on shore so that it is both comfortable and accessible?  I have read so many different pieces of advice on this subject that I’ve realised it really just comes down to personal preference.   But there are two recurring tips that I keep coming across:

– Don’t check in any camera equipment on your flight, it is just too valuable to risk.  Store your camera and lenses in your carry-on bag, find out the baggage limits before you fly and be prepared to pay excess charges if you need to.

– Bring a waterproof bag to store your camera during the zodiac rides to and from the ship.


Although wheeled carry-on luggage is easier to drag around airports, I don’t have the luxury of excess space on this trip.  So I will be using my Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW for both my carry-on bag and my every-day bag whilst shooting.  It has the comfort of a backpack, the convenient accessibility of a shoulder bag, and the 302 AW has enough room for my larger zoom lens.  It also has space for personal items that I may want with me on the plane.  And it follows Packing Tip #3 in that it’s something I’ve used a number of times, comfortably.


After dropping my camera into the lagoon in Iceland, I’ve learned the hard way that cameras can’t swim!  My plan is to store my Lowepro SlingShot in a drybag for the zodiac rides to/from the ship to shore.  I’ll rely on my point and shoot camera for shots on the zodiac, which I’ll keep in a Ziploc bag in the pocket of my jacket.  A popular drybag I had read about was the Sealline Boundary Pack but I was concerned about its size and bulk.  The first time I tried it out however, I was pleasantly surprised that it transformed into a reasonably sized backpack that would leave my arms free for getting in and out of the zodiac.   It also rolls up in my check-in luggage, solving my problem of how to carry another backpack in addition to my SlingShot.

7.     The Extras


What have I forgotten?!


Common advice is that a polarising filter can help cut down the glare off the snow and water and increases the intensity of the sky, so it is useful but not essential.  The more conflicting advice I’ve read is whether a tripod is necessary. Although a tripod helps reduce camera shake, it won’t be useful on a moving ship.  Is it worth the effort and packing space?

Other extras worth taking include lens cleaning fluid and soft clothes, and waterproof covers.


Cleaning cloths are always in my camera bag and as polarising filters are small,  packing one won’t require the sacrifice of something else.  A tripod is a different story.  As I write this, I still can’t decide whether to take mine or not.  It may come down to whether it fits in my bag when I finalise my packing next week!


To prevent my dream (nightmare) last night becoming reality I’ve made a list “and I’m checking it twice”:

Camera & Lens

Canon 7D

Canon 7D (backup body)

10-22mm wide-angle lens

24-105mm mid-range lens

100-400mm zoom lens

70-300mm (a small lightweight backup lens in case my zoom becomes too heavy, especially for shooting bird-life from the ship)

Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot


Polarising filter

Memory cards (lots)

Spare batteries and battery charger

Laptop, portable hard drive and USB stick

Memory card reader (for both my SD and CF cards)

Cleaning fluid and cloths

Tripod (Gitzo Traveller 1542T) – maybe!


Lowepro SlingShot 302 AW

Sealline Boundary Drybag

Ziploc plastic bags

Are you a photographer? Have you been to Antarctica?  Do you have any last minute tips for my photography equipment packing list? 


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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at


  1. Great tip about the condensation…while I have never had my camera out in such extremes (my fingers give out before my camera does)….I love the tip. As for the tripod…take it! If you want it, you will regret leaving it behind. I’ve done that far too many times!

  2. Antartica is one of my dream destinations. You’ll have a blast and I look forward to seeing the photos. I’d definitely take a tripod. Be great for when you’re on land photographing the penguins. I’d also consider a wireless shutter release so you could setup with the 10-22mm lens on the tripod, back off and see if the penguins come to investigate, then snap off some close up shots remotely. Also nice to not always have to hold the weight of the 100-400mm. Perhaps some hand warmer pads, hear its good to keep your spare batteries with a hand warmer as the cold can really attack their battery life. Oh I’m jealous, have fun!

  3. Christine Gau says:

    Hi, I was lucky enough to visit Antarctica two years ago with Quark on the Vavilov, and still have flashbacks to the best trip I have ever made, I did hte same 21 days that you are planning to do, and I would say the tripod is a must, you will have times that you can set yourself up and enjoy the wildlife around you. As for battery power, I know that I did not have any problems and friends that I made on the trip were lucky enough to not suffer any issues iether, my expereience would be that as long as your batteries are not generic copies, and are not too old they will hold their power, and the way they do the landings wyou will have time to recharge any batteries in plenty of time for next siting of the penguin,whale,albatross, turn……the list goes on. Very jealous, but have a great time.

  4. I went on the quark expedition in 2013, a polarized filter is essential to cut down on the glare. I did not bother with a tripod. That is a non-essential. Binoculars are also great to have! Quark gives you a coat. It is quite warm. I wore ski pants. It is the wind that gets you more than the cold. No jeans allowed while on the continent. I took a big piece of luggage to check in and a backpack. Bring dramimine and a good book to read going over. I did the polar plunge – it is a must – Once in a lifetime experience! Have a great time!!! It is a great trip and a good tour!!!!

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