Before travelling to Antarctica I spent countless hours researching on the Internet looking for advice on what camera kit and accessories would be useful. There’s a lot of advice out there; some good, some not so good and much that is contradictory. Even after all the research I still arrived a little apprehensive about how my gear would cope. So hopefully this article, written with the benefit of hindsight, will help anyone thinking of going to Antarctica or a similar region arrive prepared.
Antarctica presents a number of challenges for photographic equipment. Of these the most obvious is perhaps the cold. Not that it is really that cold. On an average day out-and-about the temperature is likely going to be anywhere between -5C and +2C which is far warmer than people may have thought it would be. Checking manufacturer’s specifications is always worthwhile, and Canon rate the 5D MK2 body as having an operating temperature of 0C – 40C which means that in reality the conditions in Antarctica are not too far outside of this.
The problem is less to do with the cold and more to do with condensation. After several hours off the ship in the cold ambient air the camera body and lenses end up being the same temperature. And, much like taking a cold beer or bottle of wine from the fridge, as soon as you get back to the ship and the toasty warm interior, condensation is going to form pretty quickly. It is this that will be your real problem.
I tried a couple of ways to reduce the risk of condensation damage. First I had a number of large zip-loc bags that I purchased on eBay and a collection of those silica gel sachets you find in boxes containing electronic equipment. Before getting back on the zodiac, or when back on ship, but before going inside, I’d simply put the cameras in the bags, squeeze out as much air as possible and then seal them. The theory being that as the cameras warmed up, any condensation would form on the bags, not the camera and that the silica gel would cope with what air was still inside the bag.
After a few days, I largely abandoned this practice in favour of a simpler one. Not because it wasn’t working, but simply because it was such a pain. The simpler approach was to let the gear acclimatise in stages. The ship had a wet room where we put on the gumboots and lifejackets or wetsuits. Despite the room being unheated and the bulkhead door almost constantly open the surrounding warmth of the ship meant the room was never truly cold, and so represented a good halfway house between the cold of the outdoors and the warmth of the rest of the ship.
Additionally, most of the Antarctic expeditions aim to get you out-and-about twice a day. What I would do is after the morning trip, I’d simply leave the camera bag in the wet room unopened. The camera bag still had silica gel sachets in it, just not the zip-loc bags. When the second trip started a couple of hours later, the camera kit was already pretty much acclimatised and when returning at the end of the day, I just left the camera bag in the wet room until after dinner – giving the contents a good couple of hours to warm up slowly. It does mean that you need patience, but I used the downtime to review the previous day’s shooting and keyword the shots.
This approach also meant that the camera was in a good state for the inevitable shooting when on deck – there’s always something to see and it was easy to grab the camera and go on deck.
Antarctica is dusty. Surprisingly so in fact. Despite having the sensor on the Canon 1Ds3 fully cleaned just prior to the trip, it took less than a day for sensor dust to show up. The 1Ds3 seems very prone to sensor dust anyway but the conditions in Antarctica just meant it was a losing battle to keep it clean. The Canon 5D2 seemed to fare much better, but it too gained sensor dust over time. I tried to minimise the effects of dust in two ways: First I tried not to swap lenses. After all, if you don’t take the lens off then you’re far less likely to get dust inside the camera. Second, if I did have to swap lenses, then I turned the camera off first in an effort to reduce the static charge of the camera sensor.
I had the luxury of two camera bodies which meant I could have a wide angle lens on one body whilst a zoom lens on the other. This worked well and is something I would recommend, not least as, especially when in the zodiacs, events can happen so quickly that you do not have time to change lenses. However, if you can’t hire or borrow a second body for the trip and so have no choice but to swap lenses I do recommend turning the camera off and also making you that you can shield the camera from the wind, say inside a camera bag, when you do so. I would also strongly recommend a Giottos Rocket Air Blower or similar as dust WILL get in and on the mirror and sensor. My rocket air blower earned it’s keep!
Antarctica is, perhaps unsurprising, wet. Depending when you travel it’ll likely snow at least once per day and you have at least one zodiac cruise around icebergs. Snow and sea-spray will become part of your camera’s daily routine and trying to avoid these will mean you’ll end up missing a lot of good opportunities. I’m not suggesting that you throw all caution and good sense to the wind, but a few basic extras are worth having to hand.
I had a number of Op-Tech Rain Shields with me – essentially plastic bags that go over your camera and lens. For years I’ve kept one in the bag just in case and for Antarctica I purchased a few more. In the end I never used them. It’s a good product, but really better used in a less hectic environment. A lot of what you see in Antarctica happens fast – or rather you’ll be moving fast. Getting your hands inside the protective covering is a bit of a faff and they would soon become annoying. I’ve also read that keeping you hands inside them for any length of time in a cold environment can cause condensation to form on the inside and actually creates the problem you’re trying to avoid. I cannot attest to that so whether it is true or not I cannot say. I’m not saying the Op-Tech are bad; they very good. It’s just that they are perhaps better suited for more static shoots such as landscape.
Instead I decided to go naked. The Canon 1-series has renowned weather sealing and all my lenses are from Canon’s L-series, also known for their whether sealing. But after the horror stories on the Internet about how many Canon 5D MK2 camera have died in Antarctica, I feared the worst for my 5D MK2 and sealed the battery compartment, memory card slot and lens mount with gaffer tape. That stopped after a couple of days as water still got in and the tape simply appeared to be preventing it from leaving. In the end I decided that I was being over cautious and that the report from 2009 detailing the high failure rate of the Canon 5D MK2 was making me paranoid. Both the 5D MK2 and the 1Ds MK3 ended up being left lying on the snow and ice for extended periods, used whilst snowing on a moving zodiac and the 5D MK2 even survived a wave, although I did dry it off pretty quickly. In short, both camera bodies survived intact, although I would strongly suggest that you follow the recommendation regarding temperature above: Damp and condensation can both cause mould inside the camera body and lens.
I also has a copious supply of Pec Pad lens wipes and Eclipse cleaning fluid. The lenses got cleaned after every trip once back in the wet room and I and kept a stash of wipes in the camera bag. I needed them too – snow on the front element of the lens and sea spray when out zodiac cruising were constant challenges.
I also recommend three or four decent-sized microfibre clothes. I picked up a pack of four 50cm square clothes off eBay or Amazon for under £10. These were very useful in wiping excess moisture off the camera before it had a chance to seep into any seals. Remember, too, that sea water is corrosive.
It’s probably also worth mentioning the UV filter at this point. Despite whether you think they are a good idea or not, I would strongly recommend that you use one in Antarctica. As mentioned you’ll spend a lot of time close to the sea and spray is going to play a big part in your life. Cleaning the front of your lens is going to also massage salt crystals into the coatings on the front of your expensive lens. The UV filter acts as a convenient barrier that can be replaced cheaply. One of the crew had just bought herself a nice Canon 70-200mm F4 lens but had no protective filter on it. I do wonder what it will look like after four months of constant exposure.
Hopefully the above tips will help take some of the guesswork out of how to look after photographic gear in Antarctic, or other similar, environments. All the items mentioned can be purchased easily and cheaply and I would really recommend that you do so. You cannot help but get some wonderful shots – but only if the camera is clean and working!