Extreme environments offer memorable images, when perfect and when chaotic. Photographers need to be both patient and ready, seizing the moment in ephemeral conditions. For those dreaming of the photographic expedition of a lifetime, some advice: Choose the right expedition, and once onboard, be willing to be patient and ready for opportunity, know your gear, be weather-hardy, and be willing to pull out your camera in challenging conditions.
For 20 years, I’ve led Antarctic expeditions; my job is making those moments of opportunity when photographers can create the best images of their careers. Because Antarctica is one of the most spectacular and wildlife-rich environments in the world, this is easy, even guaranteed, in good weather conditions. Phrases like “once in a lifetime” and “the ultimate destination” are our stock-in-trade, for good reason; the landscape and wildlife overflow with superlatives. However, Antarctica is as extreme as environments come, and conditions can change from glorious to critical in a moment. Both expedition leader and photographer have essential roles in the expedition’s success.
Choosing the right expedition for the best possible photography means looking carefully at the ship and itinerary; a maximum of 100 passengers are allowed ashore at a time, so if the ship carries more, you’ll be required to wait and rotate ashore. The ship can be a fantastic platform for photography, but nothing beats time on land and in Zodiacs for composing landscapes and getting close to wildlife. Though longer itineraries are rare, and more expensive overall, itineraries that don’t rush deliver more shore time, thus more value. This is especially critical to the first-time photographer, whose senses will be overwhelmed by frenetic wildlife activity, changing light and many subjects to choose from. Zodiac cruising can be a particularly fantastic platform for photography for such subjects as penguins on ice; be sure the expedition brings enough high-quality expedition staff that you’ll have boats driven by naturalists who connect with what you need as a photographer. Ideally, the expedition will have enough Zodiacs and expedition staff who all can be out in boats at once.
If wildlife photography is your focus, there’s no better place than the island of South Georgia. Here, penguins, seals and albatross populate a landscape of jaw-dropping proportions. Be prepared to slow down; the photographer who moves fast will push animals around, causing disturbance and eliminating natural moments. Those who find a good spot and sit quietly will catch moments of animal personality.
The prepared and inspired photographer will bring home glorious, storied images. In the field, where weather can punish people and gear, prepared means knowing your gear and traveling light while ashore with systems requiring minimal lens changing. This doesn’t mean leaving your big lens at home; a big lens can be fantastic, with extension tubes for close-up detail work on a curious penguin’s neck. But most days you’ll be happiest and most able leaving all but a couple of lenses onboard ship. The perfect setup is a wide-angle and a sharp mid-range zoom (i.e., 100-300mm) on two bodies. Especially if landing operations are rough or weather is challenging, travel light for speed and safety. I regret to say that the single largest cause of injuries we’ve seen is from overloaded photographers trying to wield heavy packs across difficult terrain. Don’t forget the little details. Bring a dry bag to protect camera gear while on the Zodiac—salt water and electronics make an unhappy mix. Bring multiple pairs of thin Windstopper® gloves that are comfortable to photograph with, and waterproof overgloves to wear in wet and cold conditions. And if you want to work eye-level with penguins, bring knee pads and a willingness to scrub off the stink at the shoreline afterward.
Antarctica has become far more accessible than it was when Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris started voyaging south. In this time, we’ve added elements like onboard photo critique sessions and postprocessing workshops to enrich the time at sea, but the heart of the matter remains: the fantastic images come home with the photographer who does his or her homework beforehand, and who has the eye and the motivation to pull out a camera when conditions are challenging. But beware: That once-in-a-lifetime expedition can become addictive, leading you to look south again from the moment you disembark at voyage’s end.
Ted Cheeseman is owner and expedition leader for Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris, a 35-year-old wildlife expedition company specializing in high-quality photography and nature tours. Visit www.cheesemans.com/antarctica.