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