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Underwater Photography in the Polar Regions

by Göran Ehlmé

With more than two decades of experience as a professional underwater photographer and videographer in the Polar Regions, Göran Ehlmé, co-founder of Waterproof Expeditions, is passionate about sharing his insights. He offers valuable guidance to enhance your photography skills and optimise your equipment for expeditions to Antarctica or the Arctic.

The Polar Oceans are some of the most incredible, yet difficult environments in the world to photograph or capture in video. Conditions like low light, low temperatures, high particulate matter and surge are often combined. This creates a challenge for even the most experienced underwater photographers. The common perception is that the Polar waters are so cold, they are absent of life. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Antarctica and the Arctic have one of the richest marine environments in the world, full of surprises. The creatures found there are colorful and astonishing, offering many opportunities for stunning and unique images to take while polar diving or snorkeling.

Preparing for underwater photography

An expedition should not be taken as an introduction of how to shoot underwater in Antarctica or elsewhere. You should not spend your precious time in Antarctica, or the Arctic, learning. You should be comfortable and proficient with your gear before you start your journey. It is a common theme nowadays, especially with a busy work life, that we do not take the time to prepare as well as we should for our “vacations.” However, for many, this is a once in a lifetime vacation, and you should optimize every second of it. Whether you are on land or under water, you want everything to go as smooth as possible.
Often we treat ourselves to new gear before big expeditions, assuming we will have enough time to become comfortable with it once we are on location. Unfortunately, we grossly underestimate the time available, and the complexity of our gear. It is quite conceivable you may not even open your camera case before arrival at your final destination. This may leave only a few hours before your first dive to familiarize yourself, so do yourself the favor and learn your equipment, all of your equipment from diving regulators to cameras, before you leave home.

If you are not familiar with underwater shooting, we suggest you get a good beginners book or take an introductory course so you have the basics down before you embark.

Be familiar with your camera equipment

Getting to know your equipment and shooting with it is the most important thing, even if you can only spend time in a pool photographing tiles to do so. This practice will not only allow you to get used to your dry suit and other essential dive or snorkel equipment, but will also give you the building blocks needed to maximize your time underwater. You want the operation of your equipment to become like second nature. Write down your favorite camera settings on a plastic write card, and analyse your images, making notes of what works best in which situation.

Handling your camera in cold water

The first thing that will begin to get uncomfortable while under water, no matter what kind of gloves you wear, will be your hands. Although you may not be able to simulate the cold, get used to switching the small knobs and buttons on the underwater housing with large cumbersome gloves. You should be able to find your shutter release without having to look for it, you should know exactly where to go in the menu to change the speed of your camera, and all of this should be done relatively quickly (as quickly as you can move with 35 kilos of gear on your back). In all aspects, the polar regions are unpredictable, so you may have your camera set for shooting benthic animals, when a Leopard Seal appears. You’ll have to move fast in order to capture the image.

Equipment for under water photography

Since Göran started underwater photography in the polar regions, he had the great fortune to experience a revolution in the way images are taken. It has taken nearly twenty years for cameras and the quality of equipment to change, but suddenly with the advent of digital and HD, underwater photography/videography has gone to a new level. Instead of being confined to 36 frames a dive, where the mix of natural light, strobes, and particles in the water often made it difficult to predict outcomes, you now have options upon options.

Underwater photography is accessible to a wide public nowadays, and who doesn’t want to take some underwater pictures when they are on vacation? A simple waterproof action camera or a good underwater housing for your smartphone are both great options for those who are not familiar with handling a professional camera. Some have amazing features and allow a lot of freedom in terms of settings.

Underwater camera housing

Purchasing a housing for your camera can be a mind boggling experience, there are so many choices; some are made of aluminum, some are synthetic, some are negatively buoyant, and some are positive. If a suggestion can be made, it would be to make sure your camera and housing be slightly buoyant, but again this is a personal preference. Think of it as a safety precaution for yourself and your rig just in case it is dropped into the water. You would be surprised how many times your camera changes hands. It is handed down into the zodiac, then to you in the water, you will carry it with you throughout the dive, then hand it back up after the dive into the zodiac, and eventually back onto the ship. It only takes one person with cold to drop it. Even with the best intentions of keeping it positively buoyant, external items such as strobes may make the rig negative, so a safety cord is another good precaution to take.

Maintenence of your camera and gear

Yet with advanced technology, comes additional things to worry about: Electronics do not like water or moisture, so it is important to take the following into account: Once your camera has been set up and exposed to the cold outside, NEVER bring it inside the ship or cabin, or any other place that is warm. If you bring your camera into a warm area, and then open it up, all the moisture in the air will condensate onto the camera which will then be all wet. Antarctica may be the driest place on earth, but you can bet your camera will find any moisture there is in the air. Likewise if you open up the digital card compartment, it will also attract the moisture, and not only ruin your card but the pictures that are on it as well. Your best bet is to leave your camera, in the housing, outside for a while, so that it drips off, and later dry it with a towel. Then take it to a sheltered place, still in a colder environment, remove the card and the battery, placing them into a Ziplock bag, allowing them to heat up for an hour or two before opening the bag again. The best is if you keep the camera and housing outside (sheltered of course) so it is only the card and the battery you have to worry about changing.

Speaking of batteries, in cold water, the rule of thumb is battery power will be half of what it is normall. If you are using older batteries, make sure to buy new ones before you leave, preferable ones specifically for cold weather conditions, and always bring spares with you.

Another trade secret is to buy lots of silica gel bags to soak up moisture. Frequently change them in and out of your housing. This also applies to “topside” photography. At the very least ,make sure you bring a waterproof bag to protect your gear when in the zodiac.

Regardless of your precautions, sometimes a little patch of moisture will form at the center of the lens, especially with lenses that actually have contact with the water. This usually disappears in 30 – 60 minutes, just before you finish your dive. It is most often caused by direct sunlight heating up the lens of your camera, so whenever possible, keep the camera covered and out of the elements, especially when you’re in the zodiac.

Photography techniques

Shooting the intricate patterns found in ice under water is a dream for many. But these magnificent ice structures can break the light beams, and cause “bad” reflections that get overexposed. Almost all the picture worthy animals in Antarctica, from penguins to nudibranches, have some white on their body, yet are immersed in an external environment that can be extremely dark, again affecting the exposure. Likewise, when you are in shallow water shooting penguins or seals, while trying to compensate for the light reflection from the surface and progressively darker water, whiter body parts can get over exposed. To prevent these problems, make sure that you watch your exposure and adjust the F-stop accordingly.  Additionally, if you have seals or penguins in natural light, make sure you have the camera set on a higher shutter speed.

When shooting, always think as wide as possible, except when shooting macro. Forget your zoom, unless you have a wide angle zoom, as it is always better to be as panned out as possible, and then move closer to your subject (if you can). If you have a subject that is moving, or your auto focus has problems following, we suggest focusing on your fin and locking it. By doing this, you usually get a focus sharpness very close to the lens and eternity.

Usually, under water photography of Penguins, Seals, and Whales will be done while snorkeling instead of diving. When Göran worked with Paul Nicklen during his National Geographic Leopard Seal assignment, they almost always snorkeled. A snorkel gives you the quick and silent advantage, which is key to a good encounter. However, this type of photographic activity, usually leads to your camera rising out of and falling into the water, especially if you are attempting half and half shots. The problem with this is small air bubbles often collect on the front of the lens, even when wiped with rain-X. Get in the habit of wiping your lens as often as you can. There is nothing so disturbing as having a good image, obscured by bubbles.

When snorkeling with all animals in Antarctica, the ambient light is generally enough for pictures. However, even at shallow depths, a strobe may give that added “life’s light” into the animals eye.

The underwater World of Antarctica and the Arctic is a place where few in the world will ever personally venture. It has a bountiful benthic and pelagic community, and there are so many opportunities for images, while on the dive, it is sometimes difficult to concentrate on only one subject. The key to good underwater photography in the polar regions is to keep shooting, and then shoot some more. Whether you are a videographer or photographer, the cost and preparation you put into your polar expedition will all be worth the effort.

About Göran Ehlmé – Co-founder of Waterproof Cruises & Expeditions

Göran Ehlmé was the first to lead diving expeditions to the polar regions. As Head of the R&D departement and co-founder of Waterproof Diving International in Sweden, he tests his drysuits during his filming work in the Polar regions and has designed them with first hand experiences in mind.
As an underwater cameraman for BBC and National Geographic he frequently travelled with his friend Paul Nicklen filming Leopard Seals, Emperor Penguins and Orca’s. He has won several awards with his work and Görans footage is used in numerous series and films over the past twenty years.

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Polar Snorkeling in Antarctica

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