Polar Photography Made Simple #1
Creative gear solutions in response to a changing environment
Part of the allure of Antarctica is never knowing what will surprise you behind the next tabular iceberg, acclimatising to the weather's sharp bite, cathedrals of shattered ice and chance encounters with bountiful wildlife. For a photographer, the very scale and remoteness of the continent is a significant part of its challenging appeal.
Being prepared can help make an expedition successful, both visually and in personal terms. I, like you, am constantly learning and developing my practice - sometimes through trial and error or by deliberate design. In future posts I will continue to explore just some of the useful hints I've gained through experience or generously shared wisdom from fellow photographers.
There is a degree of stewardship and responsibility felt by those who have the good fortune to visit the white continent - to tread lightly in this pristine habitat. In the Antarctic, regulations are developed and managed by IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) who actively advise on best environmental practise. This advice, in turn, can often affect how photographers operate in the Polar regions and can also dictate the equipment we need.
Image - Sue Flood - Neko Harbour
Most recently IAATO responded to the global outbreak of Avian Influenza (bird flu) to proactively protect Antarctica's wildlife. Since November 2022, Operators have strengthened their biosecurity protocols with the aim of reducing any possible contamination to species here. Particularly in the context of individuals during shore landings and their interactions with wildlife.
The Antarctic Wildlife Heath Working Group agreed on the following measures:
"Not sitting, kneeling, or lying down on the ground or snow, or leaving any equipment on the ground or snow, close to animal activity or faecal matter (e.g. within a minimum of 10m of nests or breeding adults, wildlife transit pathways, haul out sites)."
"If visitors are approached by wildlife, visitors must take appropriate action to ensure the advised minimum distance of five metres is maintained where it can be safely done."
Image - Ian Dawson - Alexander Land
Prior to leaving your vessel, several decontamination steps are required before ever setting foot on land or ice. Hoovering clothing and equipment (including camera bags etc.) Sterilising all items that will be in contact with the ground, with Virkon baths for boots, tripod feet etc. Sterilisation by this method is not a practical option for most camera bags.
Once on land, choosing not to sit, kneel or lay down is a straight forward decision. Eager to achieve a lower angle image? Then crouching is an acceptable alternative, as long as only the soles of your boots are touching the ground. Likewise, maintaining a 5 or 10 meter distance from wildlife is simply achieved.
Generally, in terms of equipment, I will take a camera body with a telephoto zoom and another with a wider zoom over each shoulder. This will 'usually' cover most eventualities. Inevitably, a photographic opportunity will present itself that demands a change of lens, usually from the depths of my camera bag. Juggling bag and camera while changing two lenses has, at times, been quite a comical sight and I will usually resort to asking for assistance, if it is available - which is not always guaranteed.
Thankfully, there appears to be a simple, lightweight solution - the camping stool. Here you can place your bag safely on top and not in contact with the ground. Its legs can be easily disinfected, it's packable and adds very little bulk or weight. Should you choose to, you can even sit on it!
I'll be testing a couple of different brands during my next voyage to The Ross Sea this February, and I will report back if I have any particular recommendations. Until then, I'll be working on several posts looking at the practicalities of shooting in the cold and also equipment that just makes life easier.
If there is something specifically you would like advice on, please don't hesitate to leave a comment here and I'll get to work on it.
Thank you once again,