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Here Be Dragons

Documenting the wild world in expeditions that go to the ends of the earth

King penguins at sunrise, St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia, Antarctica.

It’s 2 a.m. at 80º north of the equator. The midnight sun glares off puddles in the pack ice. Here, in the high Arctic, summer is one long day, and the sun won’t set for another five weeks. Through my binoculars I can see three creamy dots walking on the ice, making occasional leaps between floes. The size difference and behavior suggest a mother and two cubs. Jackpot!

Leopard seal on ice floe, Gerlache Strait, Antarctica.

Like a giant blue iceberg, the National Geographic Explorer pushes slowly through the ice as the bears move closer. I take a series of deep breaths and steady my Canon DSLR and long telephoto mounted on a monopod along the rail of the ship, which keeps me mobile. Observing polar bears in the wild is thrilling, and with so much adrenaline pumping it’s easy to get overly excited and make mistakes. I double-check my settings: auto-focus engaged, image stabilization on, aperture priority at ƒ/8, ISO 400 and exposure compensation at +1.7 EV to keep from underexposing the white ice and creamy bears. It’s time to observe, be patient, and wait for the moment.

As the animals come into range, the mother bear tests the ice edge by pushing down with her paws, a clue that she may make a jump across the open water. I prefocus at the ice edge. Seconds later, she makes a sudden leap. Ready for action, I blast away in continuous burst mode, hoping to capture the entire sequence from takeoff to landing. The cubs follow. I continue shooting with the long 500mm lens, making tight portraits, but soon they’re too close and I switch to my second camera body with the 70-200mm medium telephoto. Not knowing what to make of the ship and the paparazzi peering over the rail, mother bear turns and leads her cubs away, quickly disappearing among the ice hummocks. Catching my breath, I wonder, Did that really happen? It did; I have the images to prove it.

Many wild places in the world are best visited by making oceangoing expeditions on small passenger ships. Among the best places to be explored by ship are in the polar regions. Circling the top of the globe, polar bears are best observed by ship in Norway’s high Arctic Svalbard archipelago, stretching to within 600 miles of the North Pole. At the bottom of the world, expedition ships sail beyond South America’s famed Cape Horn, taking travelers to visit the thousands of penguins living on the remote island of South Georgia and the white Antarctic.

Young male Atlantic walrus, Cape Lee, Edge Island, Southeast Svalbard Nature Preserve, Svalbard, Norway.

The Right Ship
There’s a wonderful sense of freedom sailing on the high seas onboard a small expedition ship. The prospect of finding wild animals in their natural environment, the adrenaline rush of the first sighting and the challenge of getting the shot make every trip an epic voyage. No two expeditions are ever the same.

Small expedition ships not only are a great way to travel, but they also make a great platform for photography. In relative comfort, you can venture to the ends of the earth in search of wildlife and wild places. Photography takes on a new level of enjoyment as you shoot amazing scenery and, sometimes, surprisingly close wildlife encounters right from the deck of the ship. Choosing an expedition that has an emphasis on photography will help improve your chances of being in the right place at the right time.

Courtship display of wandering albatross, Prion Island, South Georgia, Antarctica.

Standard equipment on most expedition ships are inflatable Zodiacs®. These rubberized craft provide a safe means of getting ashore for wet landings through the surf, and are great for photographing at water level, as well. And for the more adventurous, some ships carry sea kayaks for an even more intimate experience.

The best thing about expedition travel is that once you embark, it’s the ship that moves you from location to location, so there’s no constant packing and repacking as when on safari in Africa. These are true expeditions, where it’s uncommon to visit another port until you return, as opposed to more tame “cruises” that travel from port to port. And for polar travel, it may require flying halfway around the world just to reach the port where your journey begins.

The serious nature of ocean navigation makes it important to travel with an experienced adventure company operating state-of-the-art vessels. No matter with whom you travel or how you get there, you still need to plan your trip carefully. A quick Internet search yields dozens of companies offering voyages to the poles. Larger ships carry more passengers, so keep in mind that your time ashore may be limited, since operating guidelines require groups of 100 or less. I frequently travel aboard the National Geographic Explorer, which carries only 148 travelers, but many ships carry 200 or more. Booking a polar expedition is a big investment and a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so do your homework and choose wisely.

It’s important that you take time to learn your camera’s features and limitations—before you leave home. A good understanding of your camera, lenses and accessories will help you respond quickly to fast-changing photo opportunities that happen in wild places. If you have the time, consider taking a workshop or attending a local seminar. Give yourself an assignment to help you practice. Photograph your dog running in the backyard, birds flying at the feeder or close-ups of garden flowers. Practice and make mistakes in advance, rather than during your trip.

In addition, research all there is about your destination and the potential for wildlife encounters. Strive to become an expert. The more you know about natural history and animal behavior, the better you’ll be at placing yourself in the right situation for making great images.

Shooting From Ships

Expedition ships are a great platform for photography, but there’s no single “best place” onboard to set up camp. You have to be mobile.

While underway at sea, the stern or aft deck is best for photographing seabirds drafting along with the ship. I especially enjoy crossing the Southern Ocean to Antarctica and the dreaded Drake Passage, looking for wandering albatross effortlessly skimming the tops of the waves. For shooting reflections of icebergs, I prefer to be as low as possible at the ship’s bow. In contrast, for shooting patterns in the pack ice and polar bears at a distance, it’s best to be as high as possible on the top deck. But when the whales or bears are close, put me on the rail where I can follow the action.

Image-stabilized lenses and a fast shutter speed are important for making sharp images shooting from the moving ship or Zodiac®. Every ship has its own unique motion and vibration. You still can shoot in rolling seas by firing in the troughs between waves when the motion is at a minimum. It’s not uncommon to shoot at ISO 400 or higher if that’s what it takes to get shutter speeds greater than 1/1000 sec. If subjects are at a distance, I use a wide aperture (ƒ/2.8-ƒ/5.6) to maximize shutter speed. When depth of field is needed, I bump up the ISO and stop down to a smaller aperture. With noise-reduction improvement, ISO is now a creative control, so don’t just set it and forget about it. With changing conditions, vary the ISO as you do with the ƒ-stop.

Lastly, the polar regions are famous for variable and even stormy weather. In fact, bad weather can be a great time to make images, so be prepared with good foul-weather gear for both yourself and your equipment. Often, the most dramatic light is when the storm is clearing, so dress properly and get out on deck.


Polar bear, Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway.

Equipment And Getting There
What to pack? My answer is always the same: Bring only what you can carry, but bring the arsenal. Less is more when it comes to equipment, especially if heavy lenses and tripods bog you down, so it’s important to be efficient.

For most ship-based expeditions, you fly to the port of embarkation, so be sure to research the type of aircraft you’ll be flying and any weight restrictions. Do what’s needed to get there, then reconfigure your gear once onboard. I fit as much camera gear in my carry-on as possible, which usually is a rolling bag that fits in the overhead bin. This includes two DSLRs and an assortment of zoom lenses. My laptop computer, external hard drives and other important peripherals travel in a soft shoulder bag with divided compartments inside, which is my personal item. Extra equipment like battery chargers and spare lenses are packed in a hard-sided Pelican case that fits inside a waterproof duffel for checked luggage. In a second larger rolling duffel are my tripod, monopod and camera backpack packed with clothes, foul-weather gear and other essentials.

For navigating airports with my luggage, the computer bag slips on the handle of the rolling camera bag, and the waterproof duffel rides on top of the rolling duffle. It takes strength, but I can move all the gear by myself from the curb to check-in—not a perfect system, but it works.

Once at the ship, I reconfigure my gear from the rolling bag into the backpack for hikes and the Pelican case for Zodiac® cruises. The tripod is used when going ashore and the monopod when shooting on deck. I also travel with a beanbag neck support that doubles as a camera support on the ship’s rail. To protect gear from splashes and foul weather, it’s critical to have a good camera backpack with a raincover. It’s also a good idea to have rubber boots and a protective dry bag for getting you and your gear ashore dry.

Essential Gear For Ship-Based Expeditions

Gimbal head for long lenses
Two camera bodies, with extra batteries and memory cards
Wide-angle zooms (16-35mm ƒ/2.8, 24-105mm ƒ/4)
Medium zoom (70-200mm ƒ/2.8)
Long telephoto zoom (100-400mm ƒ/4-5.6)
Long telephoto fixed (300mm ƒ/2.8 or 500mm ƒ/4)
Tele-extender (1.4x)
Off-camera flash
Rain hood for cameras and lenses
Camera backpack with raincover
Laptop computer
Two 500 GB external hard drives

Live In The Moment
The wake-up call comes at the uncivilized hour of 3:45 a.m. It seems particularly early, even for a sunrise landing on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. I don my thermal layers and rain gear, pulling on rubber boots for a guaranteed wet landing.

By the time we hit the beach, the dawn sky is glowing pink. It’s time to get to work. There are photo opportunities in every direction. King penguins porpoise through the surf, then come ashore in bunches in their formal black-and-white attire. There’s the symmetry of penguins lining up like bowling pins, and reflections off the water as the surf is pulled back out to sea.

Looking back on this experience, the light was incredible, and it was one of the best couple of hours I’ve ever had in photography. As I recall, I filled every memory card I had before going back to the ship before breakfast!

Certainly, not everyone wants to go ashore at sunrise on their vacation, or stay out late missing cocktail hour or even dinner. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to give yourself a chance by getting up early, being observant and staying out late. As a photographer, it’s up to you to make the most of every opportunity. Start by spending as much time as possible out on deck. The more time you spend looking, the more you’ll see to photograph. There’s always interesting subjects to shoot, from seabirds to waves and seascapes. Make the most of every shore landing. If at all possible, never miss a landing, no matter what the weather.

Most importantly, live in the moment. Living in the moment is about learning a personal approach to the art of nature photography. To truly be in the moment requires you to be thoroughly familiar with your equipment. For me, it’s a process that goes beyond the search for the perfect image, to a more mindful way of being in nature. Being mindful keeps me ready to click the shutter at the decisive moment, the moment it all comes together in the viewfinder.

The reward for living in the moment is developing the knack for being in the right place at the right time. This is where practice, preparation and patience pay off. Like the big fish that got away, missed moments haunt nature photographers. Follow your passion, and see every situation through to the end while staying open to serendipity.

Ralph Lee Hopkins travels to the world’s wild places with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. His latest book is Nature Photography: Documenting the Wild World. You can see more of his photography and workshop schedule at

Travel Companies Offering Polar Expeditions

Abercrombie & Kent
Aurora Expeditions
Lindblad Expeditions
National Geographic Expeditions
Quark Expeditions