Before I travelled to Antarctica and South Georgia I spent ages searching for photography tips and advice about the best camera gear for Antarctic photography.
I’m an experienced travel and wildlife photographer but I’d never taken photos in the polar regions before. I wanted to make sure I got advice from the experts not only on the best photography equipment to take, but also how to look after it in the challenging weather of Antarctica.
I read photography websites, gear packing lists from Antarctica expedition companies and travel blogs to get as much information possible about what camera, lenses and photography accessories to take to make sure I was fully prepared for whatever Antarctica might throw at me.
And then I went. And actually took photos in actual Antarctica. And discovered what gear I really needed, what I’d brought that I could have left at home, and what the websites had failed to tell me that I really wished I’d known before I came.
So here, with the benefit of my experience, is a complete list of what camera gear I think you should take on your Antarctic photography trip.
Note: Some of the links you will see in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you click through and make a purchase, I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.
Phone, compact camera, or DSLR?
They say the best camera is the one you know how to use. There’s no point in investing in a super fancy professional camera if you stick it on auto or are too terrified to get it out of the bag.
Plenty of people travel to Antarctica or South Georgia with compact or bridge cameras or just their smartphones and still manage to get some really fantastic photos. And if that’s good enough for you, then great! Just go for it, enjoy yourself, and maybe read my 60+ Awesome Antarctic Photography Tips to learn how make the most of your compact or smartphone while shooting in Antarctica.
But if you really want to get the best photos there’s no getting away from it – you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses.
Cropped sensor or full frame?
The jury’s out on this one. Wildlife photographers often prefer a cropped sensor, something like the Canon 7D Mark II, while landscape photographers tend to go for a full frame camera like the Canon 5D Mark IV.
If you have a cropped sensor camera you’ll gain in the amount of zoom you get, but you may lose image quality. It’s up to you to decide what’s most important to you.
Whatever you decide, if you buy a good quality DSLR or mirrorless you can’t really go wrong; just make sure you get familiar with the controls before you travel!
Bring two camera bodies
If you possibly can, it’s a really good idea to bring TWO bodies. In the often cold, wet and windy polar regions, changing lenses is not only a massive hassle, you’ll also risk getting something blown onto your sensor or damaging your equipment. Plus, if one stops working or you accidentally drop it in the sea, you’ll still have the other. So if you can, I highly recommend bringing two bodies.
Both mine are full-frame Canon 5Ds, and I must say I did regret not having the extra zoom advantage of a cropped sensor. If there’s a next time, I’d swap out one of the 5Ds for a cropped sensor body.
Prime or zoom lenses?
While prime lenses can give you really stunning image quality, Antarctica isn’t really the place for them. What you need is versatility. Things can change all the time – one moment you can be on a wide angle photographing a huge iceberg, and then suddenly a penguin can pop up right next to your zodiac. Plus as I mentioned above you really don’t want to be changing lenses all the time if you can help it.
Big range zooms are definitely your friends here.
Read more: 60+ Awesome Antarctica Photography Tips
Which lenses are best for Antarctic photography?
If you’ve got space for two, you could also think about taking an extra wide lens, like an 8-15 mm fisheye or the Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8 L. I did use this occasionally for big ice and iceberg shots, though I think I could have lived without it.
You’ll also definitely need a big zoom for close up shots of all that wonderful wildlife – and honestly the bigger the better. In fact I was surprised at how much zoom I needed, because I thought the wildlife would get so close that too much zoom would end up being an issue.
And it’s true, the wildlife does sometimes get close, but if it does, you can just step back or use your wide angle lens. But most of the time things were still pretty far away and I wasn’t always able to get the intimate close ups I would have liked.
I took a Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 L and a Canon EF 2x III Extender, meaning I could get up to 400 mm if I wanted but also have the benefit of the gorgeously fast f/2.8 on the 70-200 – but in reality I almost never took the extender off.
Of course taking all these lenses is a lot of weight to lug around, and some people don’t like doing that. If you’re one of them, consider a lens with more versatility. You can get lenses with fantastic reach, all the way from wide to extreme zoom – like the Tamron 16-300mm f3.5-6.3. You do lose some image quality with a lens like this, but you gain massively in flexibility and lack of weight. If you’re only taking one camera body to Antarctica, a lens like this is ideal to prevent you having to change lenses all the time.
Do I need super fast lenses in Antarctica?
Photographers talk a lot about the importance of fast lenses – ones that have a large maximum aperture. These are great because they allow you to shoot in low light conditions or get fantastically shallow depth of field, creating lovely soft backgrounds.
BUT – I don’t think you need a super fast lens in Antarctica. You’ll be travelling in summer when there are more than 18 hours of daylight and the light is always bright with lots of ice and snow to reflect it. When you shoot landscapes it’s generally better to use a narrow aperture anyway. As for wildlife, I find something like f/4 or f/5.6 is plenty wide enough to give that soft background while still giving you a chance of getting the focus right if the animal suddenly moves.
I rarely went lower than f/4 on any of my Antarctica photos.
Should I take an extender?
If you only have a 70-200, then yes. It hardly takes up any room in the bag and will double your zoom range to 400. I took my Canon EF 2x III Extender and almost never took it off.
Do I need a tripod for Antarctic photography?
The generally accepted advice is no. I didn’t, and I didn’t miss it at all. I took a gorilla pod just in case and didn’t take it out of my suitcase the entire time.
You’ll be moving around a lot, carrying gear, getting on and off zodiacs, and frankly a tripod will just get in the way. Unless you’re a serious landscape photographer who likes to do lots of long-exposure shots or bracketing with filters, or you’re shooting video, leave the tripod at home.
A decent strap is really important
This is something I didn’t know, but wish I had. When you land on Antarctica or South Georgia you will often end up walking around for two hours or more, wearing a padded parka, often a life jacket, and carrying your camera backpack. In many places you’re not allowed to put your bag down and even if you can, you wouldn’t want to as the ground is often covered with penguin guano.
If you’re carrying a heavy DSLR body with a big zoom lens – or worse, TWO! – round your neck, you’ll get tired pretty quickly. I also found the straps often got tangled which was really annoying.
If you’re only taking one big camera, a nice padded strap like the Op Tech Pro strap will definitely help. I have one of these and it’s much more comfortable than the strap that comes with the camera.
If you’re taking two bodies, I highly recommend having a dual camera harness like the BlackRapid Breathe double harness. I didn’t have one but some other photographers on my trip did and I will definitely be buying one for next time. A harness will support the weight of your cameras across your shoulders and ease the pressure on your neck. Some can be quite pricey but it’s important to get a good one – you don’t want it breaking!
How many batteries do I need?
I took four, and that was plenty. Excursions and shore landings tended to last no more than 3-4 hours and one battery per camera was enough – though you may need more if you’re shooting lots of video.
I charged one over lunch and both in the evening or overnight. Remember that in the cold your batteries may run down faster than usual – if this is happening put them in an inner pocket to keep them warm. The usual advice is always to take more than you think you’ll need just in case!
Do I need filters in Antarctica?
While filters certainly aren’t vital, it’s generally a good idea to protect your lenses from scratches with a good-quality UV filter.
A circular polariser (CPL) is also worth taking. They’re good for bringing out the blues in the sky and icebergs, and if you’re photographing an iceberg or a whale in the water, a polariser can help cut reflections so you can see more of the part that’s under the surface.
How many memory cards do I need?
As with batteries, more than you think you’ll need! I had a 32GB CF card in each camera, and two spares. I downloaded and backed up my images at the end of every day and then erased the cards, so that was enough for me. If you’re not planning to back up every day, then obviously you’ll need a lot more.
There are two important rules with cards:
- It’s better to have more, smaller cards than one big one. I probably wouldn’t go bigger than 64GB because if you have all your images on a huge 128GB card and then it gets corrupted, you could lose the lot.
- You need your cards to be fast! There’s no point having an expensive camera and then scrimping on a cheap, slow card. In Antarctica the writing speed of your card is really important because you want to be able to shoot high-speed bursts of jumping penguins or diving whales without the camera seizing up after a couple of seconds.
I’d go for something like the Sandisk Extreme Pro CF (or the equivalent SD card if that’s what your camera takes). With a writing speed of 160 MB/s you should be able to fire away happily with no trouble at all.
Should I bring a laptop to Antarctica?
This really depends on whether you want to back up or edit your images as you go along. You’ll have plenty of time on sea days to do it if you do. Personally I never travel without mine, and having it enabled me to sort, backup and edit all my images before I got home which meant that for once I didn’t get home with 5000 images to wade through!
What about hard drives?
If you’re going to back up as you go along, make sure you don’t forget hard drives. You’ll need at least two – one main one and a backup in case the first gets lost or damaged – and make sure they’re big enough to hold all the images you’re going to take! I recommend something like the Maxtor 2TB portable hard drive or the more rugged Lacie 2TB portable drive.
What sort of backpack do I need for Antarctica?
It’s absolutely vital that you take a waterproof or at least water-resistant backpack to carry your gear in. You’ll be taking daily trips in a small zodiac boat, exposed to the wind, rain, and the waves that may slosh over the side. You’ll need to put your backpack on the floor of the zodiac which will almost certainly be wet. So having good protection for that expensive camera gear is vital!
After a great deal of research I bought a Mindshift Gear Backlight 26L backpack which was great – it was a good size to hold my two bodies and three lenses with lots of extra pockets for accessories and extra bits and much lighter than the other bags I looked at.
However, on about the third day the waterproof cover blew into the sea and sank and for the rest of the trip I had to use a giant binbag I begged from the ship’s restaurant! So here’s my top tip: make sure your bag has a waterproof cover that actually stays on!
Think about a camera rain cover
Some people had rain covers for their cameras. I didn’t, and although my camera is weatherproof and came to no harm, there were a couple of wet days when I wished I’d had one. Next time I’ll buy something simple like an Op/Tech rainsleeve or a more durable rainsleeve for Antarctic photography emergencies.
Do I need a proper dry bag?
Personally I found that the water-resistant backpack/cover (binbag!) combo was enough. We rarely went out on the zodiacs in really bad weather, and when we did get a bit wet, the waterproof cover on my backpack did the job. I wasn’t able to find a dry bag that would fit all my kit in it anyway, so I decided against it. And when we went sea kayaking the company provided dry bags – though if you’re planning something like this you might want to check if your expedition company will supply one.
What about condensation?
I worried a bit about moving between the cold outdoors and the warmth of the ship, and whether condensation might damage my camera gear. To prevent this I took several large plastic bags to put my cameras in when I returned to the ship each time – but I never used them.
Although the ship was warm, I rarely wanted to take photos immediately after returning from an excursion. They always make you pack your gear away on the zodiac so it’s protected from splashes and you have your hands free for boarding, so when I returned to the ship I would just leave my camera packed away in the insulated camera bag, and it was fine.
Don’t forget chargers and plug adapters
Obviously you need to make sure you remember chargers for your camera, phone and laptop as well as the relevant international plug adapter. Forgetting these will seriously put the brakes on your Antarctic photography dreams!
With so many devices, and especially if you’re sharing a cabin, socket space will be at a premium so make sure you also take a 4-way plug extender. One with USB as well as regular 3-pin plug sockets is ideal, like this Extension lead with USB.
How deep are your pockets?
It’s always handy to have instant access to the things you use a lot, like lens cloths, batteries, sunglasses, your phone and so on. Make sure your parka has lots of big pockets to put this stuff in, or bring a small bumbag or front-loading camera bag as well. When you’re carrying 1-2 cameras, wearing a puffy parka and a lifejacket, and standing on muddy ground, it’s really best to avoid having to keep taking your backpack off to get things out of it.
Bring a cleaning kit
Wind, dust, snow, salt spray… there are all sorts of things that can get in your camera, so it’s a good idea to take cleaning equipment with you like microfibre cleaning cloths and maybe a lens pen.
I always had one of these Eco Fused Microfibre cleaning cloths in my parka pocket and used it frequently to get rid of splashes and smears.
I also took a Lens pen DSLR cleaning kit and although I didn’t need to use it, it was good to have it with me just in case.
You’ll need a good pair of sunglasses
Remember you’ll be staring at ice and snow for hours, and there may be a lot of glare. Cheap sunglasses really aren’t the thing here – mine were pretty rubbish and they annoyed the hell out of me. If I ever get to go to Antarctica again I will definitely invest in a properly good pair of sunglasses. Some people even took ski goggles, which is great for the glare but may make looking through your viewfinder tricky.
What are the best photography gloves for Antarctica?
It’s really important to have good gloves in Antarctica! You’ll be walking around outside for several hours, and you’ll have no fun at all if your hands are cold and wet. For Antarctic photography you’ll need gloves that are warm but still allow you some dexterity – which are actually quite hard to find.
I shopped around for ages, trying to find gloves that were thin enough to allow me to control my camera while also being warm AND waterproof, but it wasn’t easy. In the end I bought these Vallerret Photography Gloves which have a removable flap on the forefinger and thumb so you can keep your hands warm while still having full dexterity and control of your camera. They’re quite expensive but I actually think they’re pretty good.
I also took a thinner pair of gloves like these North Face E-tip gloves which allow you to use your phone without having to take your gloves off. I mostly ended up wearing these as it wasn’t actually that cold when we were there – normally no colder than about 0 degrees C, so a thinner pair of gloves was fine.
BUT… while both these pairs of gloves were useful when we were on land, they weren’t great on the zodiac because neither was waterproof. A couple of times a big spray came over the bow and my hands got wet. So while I definitely recommend taking two pairs of gloves, I’d suggest you make them a waterproof pair for the zodiac and another pair which you can keep dry for when you’re on deck or on land.
If I go again I’d buy something like these waterproof cycling gloves which also have a touchscreen function so you can use your phone.
What video camera should I take to Antarctica?
Although I shoot video for work, when I travel I prefer to focus on photography. On this trip, however, I did wonder if I shouldn’t also try to shoot some moving footage too. Photos of penguins are beautiful, but nothing can really capture the noisy extravagance of a colony full of hundreds of thousands of penguins like video footage.
I also knew that there might be times on the zodiac where I couldn’t get my DSLR out, and I wanted something small and rugged that I could just grab and use if something unexpected suddenly happened.
After much dithering between a DJI Osmo Pocket and a GoPro Hero8 Black, I opted for the GoPro (because it’s waterproof) and got a really good package deal that also included a head strap, shortie stick, spare battery and memory card.
I used it on the zodiac and made sure to grab a few shots at each of the landing sites. I must confess I haven’t actually done anything with the footage I shot yet, and quite often I found it easier to just reach for my phone which was always in my pocket, so I’m not quite convinced that it was worth taking along. That said, I have seen other people’s videos and also kind of wish I’d shot more! So if you think you might want to shoot videos of Antarctica I’d definitely recommend taking one!
If you do, make sure you take a longer selfie stick than the shortie. Something like this Sandmarc waterproof pole will allow you to put your GoPro in the water and maybe get great shots of swimming seals or whales, or the underside of icebergs.
What was in my camera kit bag?
So after all that, here’s a complete list of all the gear I packed for my Antarctica photography trip:
- Canon 5D Mark IV body
- Canon 5D Mark II body – this is quite old now but it’s still a great camera. If you can’t afford a new one then I highly recommend getting one second hand from somewhere like Wex Photo Video.
- Canon EF 16-35mm f2.8 L MKII lens
- Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L lens
- Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8 L lens
- Canon EF 2x III Extender
- Mindshift Gear Backlight 26L backpack
- 77 mm and 82 mm UV filters for my lenses
- 77 mm and 82 mm circular polarisers
- Variable ND filter – but I didn’t use this
- Microfibre cleaning cloths
- Lens pen DSLR cleaning kit
- Vallerret Photography Gloves
- North Face E-tip gloves
- GoPro Hero8 Black with head strap, suction cup and shortie stick, spare battery and 2x 32 GB memory cards.
- 4 Canon batteries
- 4 Sandisk Extreme 32GB CF cards
- Charger, adapters, plug extender
- My Macbook pro laptop
- 2 x Maxtor 2TB portable hard drives
- Joby gorillapod – but I didn’t use it once
If there is a next time I will take all of this but I’ll leave the gorilla pod at home as well as the GoPro suction cup (I didn’t use it). I’d add in proper waterproof gloves and a 2-camera harness. If I can afford it, I’ll switch out the 5D II body for a cropped sensor camera and take either a Canon 100-400 or even something with a longer zoom instead of the 70-200.
And that, my friends, is everything I think you should take on your Antarctica photography trip! I hope you found it helpful; if you did (or didn’t), or if you think I’ve missed something, please let me know in the comments!
My 60+ Awesome Antarctica Photography Tips post contains loads more advice to help you improve your Antarctica photography.
If you want to know more about what it’s like on a cruise to Antarctica, have a read of South Georgia and Antarctica: What Is It Really Like?
Or to find out where we went and what we got up to, head over to The Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica: Our Itinerary
I travelled to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions in December 2019 – January 2020. I paid in full for the trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing.