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Photography

Expert Advice for Polar Bear Photography

Preparing for your Svalbard Photography Expedition

As with all types of photography, capturing Polar Bears in the Arctic can present some challenges. Ice and snow, unpredictable weather and wildlife that requires a lot of patience are all elements to keep in mind. To help you prepare for an exciting Polar Bear Photography Expedition, we’ve asked advice from our expert guide and wildlife photographer Szymon Niezabitowski:

Nowadays, camera manufacturers and the technology used in cameras have changed photography and made it easier. With a mirrorless cameras and a good lens, we can take spectacular pictures without even thinking about the perfect settings like ISO level, exposure and white balance. The camera can simply pick the best settings for us. Even though photography has become more of a ‘point and shoot’ with automatic mode, there is still space to make it more sophisticated and to take your photos to the next level.

What you choose to bring on these expeditions, mostly depends on your budget. Cameras can be crazy expensive, but you can find cheaper versions of high-end models, or go for a good quality used high-end DSLR at a nice price. Options for configurations are almost infinite and it also depends on how we want to use our camera and what we are expecting from our pictures. Sometimes a phone is enough to take photos of wildlife and then I am not even talking about landscape. In some areas, wildlife comes so close, it’s incredible that even experimental photography with instant camera like polaroid is possible. However, if you want to be flexible and not miss out on opportunities, you will need some different equipment.

My personal camera equipment

I will share what I always have with me when I’m photographing wildlife, and which are most important to have with you for Polar Bear photography. My personal photography equipment:

Body:

  • Sony A7II

Lenses:

  • Sony 200-600 zoom lens
  • Sigma 100-400 zoom lens
  • Phone and Polaroid

Zoom Lens

Essential in Polar Bear photography is a good zoom lens setup with a body which is either APS-C, Full Frame or even 4/3 sensor from Olympus. Quality will be very good in either of the cameras, but a high quality zoom lens is a must. This can be either fixed or tele-zoom. With a tele zoom you can play more when bears that are in the distance move towards us. Also, you can pair up your lens with a teleconverter from 1.2x up to 2x depending on the manufacturing company. However, you need to consider that using a teleconverter will reduce quality and how much light is getting into your sensor, which can be very important when photographing in low light conditions.

Adjusting to weather and daylight

Next, we need to be prepared for various weather conditions. During the Arctic summer, where we have 24 hours of daylight, light conditions can be tricky. Photos can turn out to be disappointing due overcast weather with clouds and fog. This low visibility plays a big role in Svalbard. But equally challenging are clear skies and full sun, especially when Polar Bears are against the sun, your pictures will be overexposed. Shooting a Polar Bear in these conditions, especially on sea ice or on land covered with snow we often need to adjust our cameras ISO and white balance and play with light direction.

Shutter Speed & Aperture

With the settings like shutter speed or aperture, you need to play according to the environment and your object. Some prefer shooting with aperture priority and some with shutter speed priority. I like to mix both, always changing my settings a little bit and playing with my camera. For Polar Bear photography, I’m usually shooting with aperture priority and let my camera adjust my shutter speed, but with birds, I want to capture the perfect sharp moment when they are flying. Then, shutter speed priority is very important, you want to be on very high speed and your drive mode set for continuous shooting so you can capture multiple frames and pick the perfect one.

Digital Storage

Together with your equipment, you need to bring extra storage for your pictures because you will take thousands of photos every day. I’m using three 256GB SD cards and extra batteries. They are always in my photography bag to change when one is full  and one for backup, the third one is inside my camera. After a day of shooting, I’m saving my daily photos on my SSD External Hard drives where I keep my whole library and work on the pictures I took. Later, when I have time for editing, I reject and pick pictures I like and work with postprocessing, cropping photos and adjusting them to my needs.

Personal advice for polar bear photography

Tips I can give you to capture frames that you will appreciate are to practice and have a lot of patience. Know your camera before coming to the Arctic as much as you can. On board, Rinie van Meurs and I are available for advice and photo reviews. It is very important to us that you are happy with your pictures. Another tip, use a UV filter to protect your lenses. We will be working in a cold, wet and unpredictable environment. In a zodiac, you sometimes have water splashes, and we never know when a Polar Bear might show up. We might wake you up in the middle of the night if we see a Polar Bear. You would need to get ready quickly, because the encounter might only last a few minutes. It happened to me that my filter saved my lens, when I was rushing and bumped my lens on the side of the ship.

Essential gear for Polar Bear Photography

Lastly, you will need something to keep your gear safe. A waterproof (camera) bag in which you can add camera inserts are ideal. There are plenty of options and you can always find something which will give you the easiest access, protection for your expensive gear and enough comfort while using it on a long day outside.

Summarizing the essential gear to always bring with you:

  • camera and lenses
  • extra batteries
  • storage for pictures
  • laptop
  • camera bag

Now, you are ready for your Polar Bear Photography Expedition of a life time!

Follow Szymon for more of his incredible Polar Bear photography:

Szymon on Instagram

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Exploring Svalbard on board Ocean Albatros

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