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Question of the Month
December 2011

What Gear do you need for a trip to Antarctica?


Mary and I have now co-led four trips to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands, and prior to that we had spent multiple weeks leading photo tours to the Falklands alone. We are frequently asked about what gear is necessary for this trip, and since this location is popular, and we'll be returning ourselves in 2013, I thought it'd be a great question to address now, since we just returned from our fourth trip.

First off, you do not need a big lens. On the last two trips two different photographers carried Canon's 800mm, with one hoping to capture a unique perspective since he'd been there many times before. He rarely used it, and wouldn't do so again. On the prior trip, that photographer was continually frustrated because other photographers walked in front of him, simply because NO ONE looks that far back to see if they are in the way!

Mary and I have always carried 500mms, and while they did come in handy for some shots we found, on this latest trip, that are much smaller and lighter 400mm f5.6 lenses were quite adequate. Others have been very happy with a 100-400, another light weight lens or a heavier 300mm f2.8 with 1.4X and 2X converters, when needed.
Recommendation: A light weight telephoto -- no larger than a 400mm, either via converters or a zoom.

Far more handy is a 28-300mm zoom lens which will cover virtually every shooting situation. Canon and Nikon (now) have this lens, as do off-brand manufacturers. This lens, although perhaps not as razor-sharp as a zoom with less of a range, or a good prime lens, is still sharp enough for all your needs. Sharpness, by the way, is something photographers are obsessed with, yet it is actually a somewhat silly obsession. Looking at an image at 100% in a RAW converter will reveal subtle, or sometimes significant, differences in lens sharpness, but on a printed page, or displayed on the web, or made into a print, these differences become negligable.

penguinA short zoom lens is also very handy, and we prefer the 16-35mm range. For crop-factor cameras, 10-24 or equivalent would cover the same range. The neat perspective and wide view, if done right, really makes these lenses shine.
Recommendation: If you're doing this expensive, big trip, seriously consider a 28-300.

On my latest trip I borrowed a 14mm rectilinear fish-eye, and some other photographers had a zoom fisheye (Canon now has a 8-14). Personally, I didn't see enough difference between 14mm with the fisheye and 16mm with my 16-35mm zoom, and I really was annoyed when I found myself wanting to zoom tighter for some shots and having the fisheye on instead. These lenses are fine for special effects but will have limited use.
Recommendation: Don't bother unless you really love the look, and you already own one.

Both Canon and Nikon make Tilt/Shift lenses, and I've carried one with me on previous trips. I rarely used it, but they could make a difference for greater depth-of-field shots, although the same might be accomplished via Photoshop or Helicon Focus.
Recommendation: The 90mm would be most useful but after using one once I haven't bothered carrying one again.

Flash: On the last trip I used flash very, very infrequently. I did not use a tele-flash (Better Beamer) because of the wind, nor did I use the flash off-camera on a bracket. I love using flash but I just didn't see the need to use it more often.
Recommendation: Nonetheless, I'd still bring the state-of-the-art Nikon or Canon flash for the times you might use it. If you leave it behind, you'll find several occasions when you should have had it!

Camera Supports: We have always carried Gitzo tripods on our trips, topped by a Really Right Stuff ballhead. Although we love the Wimberley gimbal action head for this trip we needed more versatility, since the Wimberley (or other gimbal heads) require a lens collar mount. Some photographers have gotten around that by mounting a smaller ballhead on a quick-release plate so that they can mount a short lens/camera combo on the ballhead and then on the Wimberley. I think that's extra work and weight.
We tested a Gitzo Monopod (GM5561T) on this trip and we're seriously considering only bringing a monopod along next time. The only advantage a tripod has is when you are doing very slow shutter speeds, to capture wave or water action, or when using VIDEO for rock-steady shots. If you don't shoot either, a monopod may suffice.
Recommendation: Bring a ballhead, either Really Right Stuff's BH40 (if your combined weight isn't much) or the BH55. A Monopod might be all you need.

zodiacPacks and Bags: We love our Kiboko backpacks. Check that out and if you have enough gear to justify its size (and for an Antarctica trip you should) that's the pack, period. However, make sure you also have a DRYBAG to place the backpack in when you're taking zodiacs to shore. It is entirely possible that a wave will wash over your zodiac when you're landing, especially on South Georgia. For trips going only to the Antarctic peninsula a drybag may not be essential, as the seas are generally less rough. Nonetheless, I wouldn't go there without one. Also, you can buy a much smaller drybag that will cover a camera and zoom lens, and this will be handy when commuting about on a zodiac, as you may do for icebergs, seals, or macaroni penguins.
Recommendation: Get a drybag large enough to fit your backpack or gadget bag, especially if your trip includes South Georgia.

Wetgear: Rain, spray, and snow are an issue here, and we protected our big lenses with a camera attached with FotoSharp lens covers.


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How, Who, and Why? The story behind our new web site.

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