A Practical Guide to Shooting in Antarctica

Posted by on Dec 21, 2016 in Behind The Scenes, Epic, Travel | 2 Comments

Information and Tips for Photographers and Cinematographers heading South. 

“Men Wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”   — Ernest Shackleton (1874—1922)

The cold, mysterious White Continent. Penguin colonies one hundred thousand strong, glaciers made of ice kilometres thick and weather conditions so harsh that few would dare to venture…

Antarctica is a place that’s hard to describe to people who haven’t been there. The photos you often see, despite being mind-blowingly incredible, never do the place justice. I know that’s a lot of hyperbole, but Antarctica is the one place I’ve been where it’s actually true. The majesty of seeing a 10,000 year old chunk of crystalline blue ice break off a glacier that’s 20 stories high, dwarfed by the mountain behind it that’s 800 stories high, is something that shakes you to your core (metaphorically and physically). You are constantly reminded of how small you are in Antarctica, how wild our planet is and how helpless you are at the total whim of Mother Nature and all her might.

Above: Spot the 12 story cruise ship…

How to Get There

There are two ways to get to Antarctica: ship and plane. The planes can only land on the main continent, as there are no settlements big enough on the peninsula combined with no air strips and rugged terrain.

The vast majority of the ships only visit the specific region of the Antarctic peninsula. Why? This is the shortest distance from the mainland—in this case the bottom tip of South America. Most of the expeditions leave from an end of the world town known as ‘Ushuaia’, which is located in Argentina. Ushuaia is the lowest human settlement on Earth, and truth be told, it feels like the end of the world.

I have never flown to Antarctica, so I won’t talk about that. What I can talk about, is how to get there via ship. There are two options, both pricey. You’re either on a rugged no frills freighter or icebreaker, or a luxury cruise vessel. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of mid ground (if you actually want to go ashore anyway; some cruise ships just do scenic runs). For both my trips, I was fortunate to be on the luxury cruise vessels, and both started at around $20,000 USD per person, before flights.

I’ve been fortunate in my travels to have now shot in Antarctica twice. In 2013 I ventured forth with the Silver Explorer, an older luxury passenger expedition vessel operated by Silversea Cruise Lines. This was a small ship that carried around a hundred passengers. The second time I went was in 2014 with the Seabourn Quest. This too was a luxury passenger vessel, albeit a much larger and more modern one holding roughly 500 passengers. These numbers are important, as the ships are only allowed to bring 100 passengers ashore at a time as per the current globally recognized Antarctica Treaty. What this meant for our Silversea trip, was that the entire ship could disembark at the same time. For the Seabourn trip, there were shifts and time limits. Consider this carefully when booking for yourself!

To be clear, I have only been to the Antarctic peninsula, never to the main body of land. It is extremely difficult and challenging for ships to get there, as most of the year it is ice-locked and unreachable. During the small window it’s not, the constant moving ice floes provide extremely dangerous challenges for even the most seasoned of captains. The weather in Antarctica is vicious, and can change extremely fast. I’ve had days consisting of blue sky, followed by complete white out conditions. This is all part of the majesty and allure of it though—the harshest and most violent conditions on Earth, but also the most beautiful.

How Cold Is It?

So how cold is it [on the peninsula]? If you go in the summer it’s actually not that cold… relatively speaking. I visited both times around December, Antarctica’s high summer, and the temperature was averaging around -2 to -5 degrees Celsius. Granted, this isn’t taking into account the wind chill, but it’s not the -20 Celsius you get in the winter (coldest temperature on record a mere -89 degrees Celsius… Brrr). I found the weather cold but manageable. If you layer and dress like you would to head out on a ski trip, you’ll be fine. Wearing a tube/buff is recommended, as well as gumboots. Why not snow boots? Because you will be embarking/disembarking via zodiac and all of the landings are wet. You will need waterproof boots or your feet will freeze off. Get a good pair of wool socks for insulation and you’ll be fine. On both the voyages I partook in, boots were offered via the ship outfitter. I recommend you go with theirs as big boots are a pain in the ass to travel with and I 100% guarantee they will be covered in penguin poo when you’re done.

Remember: there’s no such thing as cold weather, just improper clothing.

Fun side story: Looking to go for a swim in Antarctica? I did! How can I describe it? Imagine jumping into paralyzing ice cold water and having a million tiny razorblades raked down your body while being punched in the stomach. That’s the sensation of an Antarctica polar dip. It was so cold that I almost instantly lost feeling in my arms and legs before I was dragged out by a tether tied around my waist [for safety in case I instantly seized]. Sounds fun eh? Actually it was! It was exhilarating, scary and memorable. An opportunity presented itself one day while on the Silver Explorer, so I rose to the challenge. I can successfully say that never again will I need to prove myself in a polar bear swim anywhere – this one trumps them all.

What’s the wildlife like? Penguins?!

The animal life is absolutely spectacular and oh so abundant. You will see various species of penguins, whales, seals and all manner of seabirds. While there I witnessed penguin rookeries of 100,000 strong—a truly breathtaking sight to behold… and smell. They are like little children, clumsily waddling about and squawking at each other. It’s endearing and adorable.

The one thing that really makes Antarctica special though, is that these animals have rarely if ever seen humans before. Everywhere else in the world wild animals are generally cautious and keep their distance- not so in Antarctica. Penguins and seals have no natural predators on land meaning their guards are completely down when out of the water. They exhibit genuine curiosity and show no fear whatsoever. This makes for some very special and intimate moments with the wildlife. The penguins will walk right up to you within a foot or less and check you out, before waddling away. It is incredible to get this close to wildlife and makes the photography a piece of cake.

What are shooting conditions like?

Cold, challenging, physically demanding and utterly incredible. I can say without question it was the best experience of my entire life.

Yes, it was tough. Hauling the camera and tripod around in the harsh weather and deep snow was gruelling at times, but you’re on such a high from the wildlife and ice formations that you won’t even notice. The terrain is rugged and unforgiving. Ice, snow, rocks, and freezing cold sea water are all abundant.

Often times things like changing lenses prove incredibly difficult- you have to take off your gloves for a few precious seconds to make the swap, and your hands get bitingly cold and lose their dexterity. Invest in good gloves that allow you to operate your camera while making sure you bring all 10 fingers home. I came across these, used by the German Special Forces and they are hands down the best I have ever used. 

Though the conditions can be challenging, there were also days that were idyllic. When the sun is out Antarctica really delivers. Bring sunscreen and strong neutral density filters.

Pro Tips from Experience:

  • Snow/water collects on the front of your lens almost all the time, so it’s mandatory to have abundant (and dry) lens cloths handy.
  • Bring zoom lenses: It’s tough (or even impossible) in bad weather to swap lenses in the field. Good zooms will treat you well out there. Think efficiency.
  • Waterproof your bag. It will get snowy and thus wet. Protect your gear. I used a rain cover that you would traditionally use on a large camping backpack. Worked like a charm.
  • Insane snow blindness: When the sun is shining in Antarctica, it’s BRIGHT. Bring good, solid sunglasses and sunscreen. Make sure you have strong ND filters for your camera. You will need them 100%.
  • Sunscreen: Goes with the the last comment. I was more tanned on my Antarctica trip than my Mexico one. The sun reflects off every surface down there so you will get plenty of sun exposure. Protect yourself.
  • Keeping your camera clean/dry: You will need a solid rain cover for your camera. It won’t rain in Antarctica, but it will snow. Protect your gear and make sure to dry everything off once you get back to the ship. Also, when shooting near the penguin rookeries there is penguin poo everywhere… and it gets all over your clothing and gear. Clean your stuff well!
  • Bring lots of spare batteries. The cold demolishes battery life.
  • Light: If you visit in Antarctica’s summer (Dec-Feb), there is around 23-24 hours of daylight. The sun doesn’t really set, and if it does it just barely dips below the horizon. It will generally hang low in the sky all day which creates these incredible multi hour sunsets at times. It’s pretty special to be up at 4AM in the morning with perfect daylight conditions. It makes shooting easy. I cannot speak for the winter months, but the opposite happens. There are times when there is 24 hours of darkness.
  • There are no ports in Antarctica (there are only small research settlements). This means that 100% of the time you will be disembarking your ship via zodiac. Don’t overburden yourself and bring a protective rain cover to stop your camera from getting sea water on it.
  • Physicality: Make sure you have proper fitness before heading here. Hauling camera gear through the snow, up mountains, on and off zodiacs etc… is demanding. You’ll be doing all of this in puffy snow gear too, which only hinders the process.
  • Bring an insulated water bottle. It’s tough work hauling gear and you’re going to get thirsty out there. Make sure it’s insulated or it will freeze! Alternatively…

Final Thoughts: 

Shooting Antarctica will be one of the most rewarding shooting experiences you will ever have. It was for me. The scale of everything around you will shake you to your core. I realize I’m using a lot of hyperbole here, but it’s true. It’s tough to draw comparisons as it’s truly unique in this world. You will understand once you visit it for yourself.

If you have any questions regarding gear, tips, travel, etc, reach out to me and I’d be happy to help.

Enjoy the most epic trip of your life.

– Chris

Above: Not recommended Antarctica clothing. 😉 

Below: The two films I produced for separate companies in 2013 & 2014. The Seabourn video was awarded a Gold Magellan Award in 2014 by Travel Weekly. 

 

2 Comments

  • Nice article. Good tips that will be very useful. I am heading there next February…..on tall ship. it is though but the advantage is a relatively small group of people compared to classical cruise.

    • Awesome! We actually saw a tall ship while we were down there. You are in for the trip of your life. I can honestly say it was the greatest peak travel experience I have ever had. Let me know how it goes!

      – Chris

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