Photography Gear for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands

Antarctica, Falklands, South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Recommended List of Photography Equipment for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands.

Brash Ice, Antarctic Peninsula

Brash Ice, Antarctic Peninsula

Following is what I took on my recent trip, along with comments about how useful it was and how I will change for my next trip. Yup, I took too much, but most people do and next time I’ll have it dialed in. Weight and bulk are an issue on this sort of trip, and one wants to be nimble on shore without too much gear. By March 2010 I should have linked to several example photos taken with each piece of gear, but as of now I am just beginning my edit. Take note of my comments about 300/500 vs. 200-400 below.

  • Canon 1Ds Mark III — primary body. I love this thing. You can have it when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
  • Canon 1Ds Mark II — used for time lapse sequences, and as back up body. Just a few years ago this was the standard by which other 35mm digital cameras were judged, and mine is still going strong after probably 200,000 frames.
  • Canon 5D Mark II — used for video, and as a landscape body. Attached 24-105 remained on camera the entire trip to minimize dust issues. This is something of a toy camera, it just does not feel right, too light and plasticy. It does NOT have the ability to withstand harsh weather that the 1D series bodies have, so be careful with it in the rain, snow and spray! The files, however, are quite nice and I am going to have a lot of fun with the video capabilities of this thing.
  • Canon 500 f/4 — great for portraits, and for isolating subjects due to its narrow field of view (almost half of the view angle of a 300). I used this for portraits of penguins, and for many subjects in Falklands. Once at South Georgia and in Antarctica, this length was no longer needed. I even used it handheld with 1.4x (700mm equivalent) for photographing Wandering albatross in flight, since they rarely came near to the boat. Granted that is quite a load to handhold on a moving boat, but it was the only way I could fill the frame with those distant birds. The images are quite sharp.
  • Canon 300 f/2.8 — most useful of the prime telephoto lenses, crazy sharp on its own and still very sharp as a handheld flight lens with the 1.4x converter (420mm equivalent). If I were to take just one prime telephoto, this is the one.
  • Canon 70-200 f/4 — probably the most useful of all lenses for this trip. Great for much of the wildlife and many of the landscapes. You want the f/4 version due to its lightness since it makes handling two lenses easier. With today’s high ISO camera bodies there is little need for the f/2.8 version, which is rumored to be softer than the f/4 version anyway. I love this sharp little lens.
  • Canon 24-70 f/2.8 — brought this along as a back-up in case the recently purchased 24-105 failed to live up to expectations. I only used this lens for a few time lapse experiments. For a trip on which weight is an issue, this lens is too heavy and not as versatile as the 24-105. Next time it will stay home.
  • Canon 24-105 f/4 — kept it permanently attached to my 5D Mark II. It performed well, although like the 5DII this lens is not well-suited to wet or harsh environments. But it is so light, small and sharp that, provided it is cared for properly, it has a place in my gear bag in the future. It does have some barrel distortion at 24mm.
  • Canon 16-35 f/2.8 II — this is often too wide but I did break it out a few times in ice or when we had clear or dramatic skies. Sharper and with less distortion than the 17-40 f/4, but heavier too.
  • Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye — ok, if you don’t understand why you want a fisheye in Antarctica, you need to rethink being a photographer.
  • Gitzo 1327 Tripod with RRS BH-55 ballhead and Wimberley Sidekick. The Wimberley Sidekick was used only for the 500 and will be left at home next time. The RRS BH-55 ballhead is strong enough to handle a 300/2.8 or 200-400/4. I may bring a light monopod next time, as many times I would have preferred that. But a tripod is needed for 500 or longer, or when shooting time lapse, video or in low light.
  • Think Tank Airport Acceleration v2 Backpack — this thing performed wonderfully in the airport and in the field. I had no problems with it at all. I was able to pack even more stuff in this pack than my huge Lowepro, so much so that my pack was damn-near too heavy on the flight down to Ushuaia. This pack comes with a rain cover but I did not use it in the field since the pack sheds rain and snow so well. This is what I packed on the trip down: 1DsIII/1DsII/300/500/70-200/16-35/1.4x/harddisks/laptop/couple chargers/spare clothes. (The 5DII/24-105/15 went in a small second bag.) That’s a lot in one pack.
  • NRS 3.8 Liter Heavy Duty Dry Bag. I used a really big, strong dry bag from NRS. It was large enough that I could slip my entire backpack into it, along with spare sweaters, shoes, jacket, whatever. I would leave it at the landing site and return to it if I needed to exchange gear, or remove clothes if it got too warm, etc. This thing is built like a tank, reinforced at all stress points with double thick material on the boat for abrasion resistance. Be warned: this particular bag is big. I needed a big bag to put my big backpack in, and I am big enough to heft it around. You may want to go with a smaller dry bag, especially if your camera backpack is small.
  • Laptop computer, three Seagate Freeagent Go 500gb portable drives and one Hyperspace Colorspace 320gb photo storage device. My computer (a very small Sony Vaio) is used for writing, playing movies and downloading images. I do not do any serious editing while traveling. The Seagate Freeagent Go drives are great, so tiny and light and they do not require their own power source (using USB power from the computer). The “Colorspace device” is much faster at downloading images than a computer, but is less flexible when it comes to doing a quick review in the evening. The Hyperspace Colorspace, while not a full-fledged computer, is sophisticated enough that it can be configured to read/write to my 500gb external hard disks which is helpful if the computer were to die during the trip. Probably the ideal solution, for someone who did not want to bring a computer, would be to bring two Colorspace devices (two backups is safer than one).

I always had the 5DII / 24-105 with me, as well as the 70-200 mounted on a body. The only question was, do I have along a longer lens (typically in Falklands) or a wider lens (Antarctica). South Georgia had so much variety that I ended up carrying more gear there than anywhere else.

NOTE: One major change I will make next time will be to leave the 300 and 500 lenses at home in favor of the Nikon 200-400 f/4, probably on a D300 crop body (equivalent 300-600mm). I owned a 200-400 and D3 briefly and just loved that combo, but could not justify the expense at that time and sold them after one shoot. The 200-400 is so absolutely perfect for this trip that I simply must have one in spite of the fact it is not quite as sharp as a prime, and loses a bit more quality with crop bodies which I avoid whenever possible. But on this trip the versatility of the 200-400 is enough to make up for it, and it almost doesn’t matter whether it is paired with a crop body (D300) or fullframe (D3/D3x/D700). I would guess that bird photographers will want the D300 for tighter bird stuff. Carryon luggage can be an issue on this trip (special thanks to the arbitrary and capricious ticket agents at Aerolineas Argentina when flying between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia!) and exchanging two big primes for one big zoom will ease my carryon situation a lot.

Note also that I do not carry high-speed bodies. I just don’t feel a need for them. I have used most of Canon’s bodies and have never really been satisfied with the image quality of the 1.6x crop bodies after becoming accustomed to the full frame quality. And the only shooting situations I have found that absolutely required high frame rates are photographing surf and action sports. Perhaps the 1D Mark IV will tempt me if the AF is good enough, but for now the 1DsIII and 1DsII were more than enough to handle the AF and frame-rate situations I encountered on this trip.

Conclusion, the ideal setup for me would have been: 1DsIII and 5DII with 15 / 16-35 / 24-105 / 70-200, and D3/D3x with 200-400.

Next: Black-Browed Albatross at Sunset
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Trip Index: Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
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Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia

Antarctica, Falklands, South Georgia Island, Southern Ocean

Trip report and photos from Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, the South Orkney Islands and the South Shetland Islands on the icebreaker M/V Polar Star with Cheesemans Ecology Safaris.

I have just returned from a one-month trip during which I joined the most recent Cheesemans Ecology Safaris voyage to the Falklands, South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. (Note: the Cheesemans are repeating this trip in December 2011, many cabins are already reserved.) This was one of the few trips I have experienced that can honestly be called an “expedition”. There are a variety of tour operators that conduct trips to Antarctica, somewhat fewer that include Falklands and South Georgia as well. The Cheesemans claim to fame with this trip is that they get their guests ashore as much as possible. Did they? Absolutely! In spite of serious challenges presented by poor weather, expedition leader Ted Cheeseman and his crack staff really delivered, doing their utmost to work safely with the captain and crew of the M/V Polar Star to get us ashore. We made 29 landings with a total of about 130 hours ashore. That is in addition to the many hours we had both in zodiacs and on the deck of the M/V Polar Star admiring the scenery and wildlife of the wonderful Southern Ocean waters.

Chinstrap penguins at Bailey Head, Deception Island.  Chinstrap penguins enter and exit the surf on the black sand beach at Bailey Head on Deception Island.  Bailey Head is home to one of the largest colonies of chinstrap penguins in the world, Pygoscelis antarcticus

Chinstrap penguins at Bailey Head, Deception Island. Chinstrap penguins enter and exit the surf on the black sand beach at Bailey Head on Deception Island. Bailey Head is home to one of the largest colonies of chinstrap penguins in the world.
Image ID: 25456
Species: Chinstrap Penguin, Pygoscelis antarcticus
Location: Deception Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica

I am not too keen about traveling in large groups. Usually I make my own plans, arrange my own accomodations, and do my own thing once I arrive somewhere. However, travel to Antarctica and South Georgia Island is sufficiently difficult that getting there on one’s own is just not feasible. The economies of scale and logistic realities make it necessary to join some kind of group, either a lay-group of travelers or a scientific party. A few years ago Bob returned from the 2007/2008 Cheesemans Antarctica trip and stated very simply that it was the greatest trip he and Rosie had ever experienced. Coming from a couple who spends 6-8 months a year traveling and who has been literally all over the world, his recommendation required that I sit up and take notice. So I decided to give Antarctica a try. I researched operators and scrutinized comments on the web by other travelers who had taken this sort of trip before. What influenced me most was a series of short conversations I had with Ted Cheeseman. Ted repeatedly stressed that the Cheesemans’ itinerary placed great emphasis on getting people ashore. I really did not want to find myself trapped on a boat after investing so much time, effort and money to get to Antarctica. I wanted to be ashore, among outdoors people who enjoyed long days with their boots on the ground, experiencing the wonders of these places first hand. Ted’s attitude about maximum time ashore made my decision simple, and I joined the recent 2009/2010 Cheesemans 26-day trip to Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula.

Hiker looks down on Stromness Harbour from the pass high above

Hiker looks down on Stromness Harbour from the pass high above.
Image ID: 24582
Location: Stromness Harbour, South Georgia Island

The trip was wonderful and I hope to do it again, with Cheesemans, in the future. I’ll have lots more to say about the trip in coming weeks. For now, suffice it to say that the Cheesemans staff was superb both in the field and in the many presentations they made during the course of the trip. From Doug’s morning wake-up call to Ted’s after-dinner daily recap, the staff’s attitude was always positive and energetic, not easy to maintain on such a long and fatiguing trip. The ship M/V Polar Star was a good choice by the Cheesemans for this trip, being comfortable, accomodating and seaworthy. The group? It was a good one. This sort of travel is self-selective in the sense that the very people who choose to visit Antarctica and South Georgia are the most enjoyable sort to travel with anyway, so it all works out well. Some had been on many past Cheesemans trips elsewhere in the world, others were first-timers like me. It was a pleasant assemblage of relatively experienced travelers who were comfortable in the sometimes-uncomfortable environs we moved through and were laid-back and enjoyable to be with during our many hours on board together. Weather? OK, the weather could have been better. But this is the Southern Ocean, one of the most turbulent climates on the planet, so challenging weather is to be expected. We just smiled and rolled with whatever Mother Nature handed us, having a great time in spite of the wind, snow and rain. Photography? It was great, and next time it will be better now that I know what to expect and how to best gear up for it. I shot over 30,000 photos that should provide plenty of blog fodder in the coming months. Thanks Cheesemans!

Posts related to this trip, most recent to oldest:

Photography Expedition to Antarctica, South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands
The Drake Passage
Hannah Point, Livingston Island, South Shetland Islands
Humpback whales in the Gerlache Strait
Neko Harbor, Antarctica
Cloudy Morning in Paradise Bay, Antarctica
Peterman Island, Antarctica
Lemaire Channel, Antarctica
Port Lockroy, Antarctica
Cuverville Island, Antarctica
Cierva Cove, Antarctica
Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica
Brown Bluff, Antarctica
Devil Island, Antarctica
Zodiac Cruising in Antarctica
Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica
Nature’s Best Photography Cover Shot
Pack Ice at the Edge of the Weddell Sea
Shingle Cove, Coronation Island, South Orkneys
Coronation Island, South Orkney Islands
Scotia Sea, en route to South Orkney Islands
Cooper Bay, South Georgia Island
Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia Island
Godthul, South Georgia Island
Prion Island, South Georgia Island
Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island
Grytviken, South Georgia Island
Hercules Bay, South Georgia Island
Stromness Harbour and Shackleton Hike, South Georgia Island
Fortuna Bay, South Georgia Island
Right Whale Bay, South Georgia Island
Approaching South Georgia Island
En Route to South Georgia Island
Steeple Jason, West Falklands
Carcass Island, Falkland Islands
Westpoint Island, Falkland Islands
New Island, Falkland Islands
Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus, Southern Ocean
Cerro Cinco Hermanos, The Five Brothers, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Tierra del Fuego National Park, Argentina
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Sunset Arch, Southern Ocean
Black-Browed Albatross at Sunset
Photography Gear for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands
Equipment List for Antarctica, South Georgia and Falklands
Penguin Encounter, Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula
Cheesemans Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia
Sunset Cruise Through Antarctic Ice
All “Southern Ocean” entries