Aurora Expeditions ship at the entrance of the Lemaire Channel.
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Essential camera gear for Antarctica photography

Antarctica is one of the most awe-inspiring destinations on the planet, and for photographers, it presents a unique and exciting challenge. Capturing the incredible beauty and raw power of this icy wilderness requires the right camera gear. From the best camera body to the best lens for Antarctica, there are a variety of factors to consider when photographing in Antarctica. In this article, we will guide you through the essential camera gear for photography in Antarctica, including recommendations for cameras, lenses, filters, batteries, storage and other accessories. Whether you are a seasoned professional or a hobbyist photographer, this guide will help you capture stunning photos of the world’s most remote and stunning wilderness.

Best camera body for Antarctica

The number one priority is to take a camera body and camera system which you’re comfortable using. The last thing you want is to not know how to use your camera. Or even worse, miss out on shots because you’re fumbling to find out how to turn it on!

During the tourist season in the Antarctic peninsula, it doesn’t get as cold as you may think. (Read about the Best time to visit Antarctica for amazing photos). However, the conditions can still be harsh for your camera equipment, especially with snow, rain and wind. For this reason, a weather-sealed camera is preferred, this should ideally be paired with a weather-sealed lens. This way you can worry less about wet conditions. That being said, it’s still important to keep your camera away from salt water. Read more about How to protect your camera gear in Antarctica?

Hurtigruten MS Fritjof Nansen framed by a rocky outcrop at Orne Harbour.
Hurtigruten’s MS Fritjof Nansen is framed by the rocks at the top of Orne Harbour.

If you’re reading this article you’re likely most interested in photography using a DSLR or Mirrorless crop/full-frame camera. Quite honestly, almost any camera body would be suitable for Antarctica, but if you’re looking for fast action or professional-quality photos you’re going to be looking at high-end if not professional camera bodies. Mainly for the low-light performance, fast focus/shutter speed, and high-resolution capabilities. However, this will only assist with fast-action wildlife if paired with the correct lens and experienced user!

Full frame vs. Crop sensor

Stick with what you know and what you’re used to. If you have both a full frame and crop sensor camera, a crop sensor camera can help get a bit of extra reach with smaller and cheaper lenses. This is very useful in Antarctica for wildlife and even icebergs and landscapes. More on How to capture the beauty of Antarctica’s icebergs in photographs? Even with the crop factor, you can find wide-angle lenses which give very attractive focal lengths, such as the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, available for Canon and Nikon.

Although full-frame sensor cameras typically give a better dynamic range and low-light performance, differences can be less significant than you may think. The light in Antarctica is also good, with almost 24hrs of light. However on heavily overcast days, you will need to bump up you’re ISO to hold fast shutter speeds, especially if you’re not using fast lenses. I didn’t find this to be a significant issue.

Spare or second body: It’s worth taking a second camera body. Even if this is as a spare, the last thing you want is to be without a working camera. For most this is a trip of a lifetime which costs a lot of money, if photography is an important part of your Antarctic adventure, make sure you either take an old camera or rent a spare. A second camera also can be kept in your bag set up with another camera lens, this removes the need to change lenses, great for during landings or on the zodiacs.

Overall, whether you’re a full frame or crop sensor user, both systems work well in Antarctica.

If you have a crop or full-frame Nikon DSLR you may be interested in the Best lenses for Nikon D7200 for travel photography.

Aurora Expeditions ship at the entrance of the Lemaire Channel.
Aurora Expeditions ship at the entrance of the Lemaire Channel.

Lens choice for Antarctica

Best focal lengths for Antarctica?

I used three lenses in Antarctica, paired with my Nikon D7200 crop sensor body. In total, I took 6143 photos (193 GB!) of which I’ve down-selected around 660 favourites, the split by lens used is shown below.

  • Tamron 16-300mm f/3.5-6.3 – 96% top rated photos
  • Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 – 3% top rated photos
  • Nikon 50mm f/1.8 – <1% top rated photos

As shown above, I had my Tamron 16-300mm on my camera for nearly the entire trip and used it for almost all of my favourite photos. For the majority of my travel photography, this is my go-to lens. I also took a second camera body (Old D3200), which I paired with my Tokina 11-16mm wide lens. Although an outdated camera, it still has great capabilities, just fewer buttons and features!

I’ve used Lightroom to sort my top 669 photos taken in Antarctica by focal length. I’ve then charted the number of photos taken at each focal length, see below. “Rated” refers to photos I’ve down-selected in Lightroom for editing.

Chart showing number of rated photos vs focal length used for antarctica photography.

I found I was mostly using my 16-300mm lens at its longest focal length of 300mm, on my crop sensor camera this is equivalent to a full frame 450mm focal length. This was mainly due to the significant distance of subjects such as icebergs and wildlife. It’s also worth mentioning many edits I’ve cropped in for better compositions.

If I was to go again, I would likely invest in a longer telephoto zoom lens, especially for on the ship, taking photos from out on deck. As the landings are not usually over 2hrs, the weight of a larger, longer focal length lens can be managed. Consider that if you’re shooting with a full-frame camera, a reach of at least 400 to 500mm would be what I would highly recommend. Even if you’re relatively close to a subject, such as a penguin, a long focal length is a great way to artificially make the background seem a lot closer to the subject, referred to as compression.

In general, I would suggest that it’s a good idea to take both wide-angle and telephoto lenses. However, if you own a long focal length prime, it would be a great addition, especially for wildlife. These prime lenses are the best way to get a shallow depth of field and creamy out-of-focus backgrounds.

Read about Photographing Antarctic birds (even without an expensive lens) where the importance of long focal lengths in reiterated.

Yalour islands Gentoo Colony with mountains in the background.

Best lenses for Antarctica

This is section is focused on lens choice for full frame or crop sensor DSLR cameras which allow for interchangeable lenses. Lenses suitable for full-frame cameras are larger as they need to cover the area of the larger sensor, they are also typically heavier and more expensive. In comparison, crop sensor lenses are typically cheaper, small and lighter, but also have their drawbacks in terms of speed (small apertures) and image quality.

I’ve included an indication of the price together with lens weights below for comparison purposes.

Wide angle

There are many opportunities for wide angle lens shots, I found the best time was as we passed through the narrow Lemaire Channel at sunset with steep walls on either side and many beautiful huge icebergs in the water which was like a mirror. Other opportunities are when you’re close up to icebergs on the zodiac, or even around the ship. Like on deck at the bow, shown in the photo below. It’s also a great way to a full bay into one photo, for example at Orne Harbour.

Wide angle lens recommendations:

Approaching port Lockroy, wide angle photo of people out on deck.
Wide angle shot of passengers out on deck before arriving at Port Lockroy.

Standard & super-telephoto zooms

Standard zooms are typically your “holy trinity” 24-70mm, 70-200mm focal lengths on full frame, available in f/2.8 and f/4. These are fantastic lenses and if you own them would be great to take to Antarctica.

There are a few options for crop sensor “equivalents” from 3rd parties, but Nikon/Canon/Sony don’t tend to offer such an extensive lens choice in terms of standard focal length zooms on crop sensor cameras. Crop sensor equivalents include the Sigma 18-35mm & 50-100mm, both f/1.8.

As described above, although my lens covered 16-300mm, I didn’t find myself using the lower end 24-70mm equivalent, even 70-200mm may be on the lower end in terms of focal lengths in Antarctica on full-frame. I spoke to others on the ship who found their 70-200mm didn’t have enough reach on a full frame.

Having conducted a significant amount of research before, and also observed the lens choice of others during our trip with Hurtigruten in December 2022. My top recommendation for a must-have for Antarctica would telephoto zoom lens, after all, the main reason to go I for the wildlife and icebergs, being able to fill the frame with these subjects takes your images to the next level.

Telephoto zoom recommendations:

Lens DescriptionApprox Cost (£)Weight (kg)Comment
Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR£2,2991.57 f5.6 @ 400mm ✔
Expensive ✘
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM£2,0591.64f5.6 @ 400mm ✔
Expensive ✘
Sony FE 100-400 mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS£2,0991.39f5.6 @ 400mm ✔
Expensive ✘
Sigma 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 DG OS C£6991.36Good value ✔
f/6.3 @ 400mm ✘
Tamron 100-400mm f/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD£7871.12Good value ✔
f/6.3 @ 400mm ✘
Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2£1,1492.1600mm reach ✔
Heavy/large ✘
Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR£1,2492.3 500mm reach ✔
Heavy/large ✘
Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS£1,5992.11600mm reach ✔
Heavy/large ✘

A 70-200mm f/2.8 o f/4 on a crop sensor camera, or full frame camera body with a teleconverter is also another great option. Nikon, Canon, Sony and most 3rd party manufacturers offer these lenses.

Long focal length prime lenses?

Also, if you’re lucky enough to have a long focal length prime lens such as the Nikon 300 f/4 PF or 500mm f/5.4 PF, for sure take it with you! These offer a lighter-weight alternative to the telephoto zoom lenses with fast apertures but come at a price!

On a budget?

If you’re on a tight budget and using a crop sensor camera then the Nikon AF-P DX Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-6.3G ED is a great option, small, lightweight and still with 300mm reach (450mm equivalent on full frame). Or for Canon crop sensor users the Canon EF 75-300mm f/4.0-5.6 III. These can be picked up for as little as £230. Bargain!

No budget constraints?

If you’re not budget constrained and also have a mirrorless Canon body, the ultimate lens for Antarctica is likely the Canon RF 100‑500mm f/4.5‑7.1L IS USM. I’ve not read or heard a bad word about it! Aside from it being almost £3000!

Final considerations

However, if you have a lens with a minimum focal distance of 100 or 200mm, you’re not going to have the flexibility to shoot wide-angle shots, or subjects close to you, unless you change lenses or have a second camera body ready. This is where the superzoom comes in!

Chinstrap penguin seen from the side.
Close-up portrait shot at 300mm using Tamron 16-300mm lens on D7200 crop sensor camera.

Super zooms

Being budget contained this is the type of lens I’ve grown to love. It gives the ultimate flexibility, this often means I can get the shot that others would miss with a lens with a shorter focal range. I used the Tamron 16-300mm, on a crop sensor body such as my Nikon D7200 this equates to a 24-450mm full frame equivalent! It almost eliminates the need to change lenses and has incredible 4-stop image stabilisation. This can help to offset the relatively small aperture of f/6.3 at 300mm.

The main disadvantage of superzooms is the relatively small aperture (Less Bokeh / wider depth of field) together with the lower image quality, in particular sharpness. That being said, the images are still excellent and certainly still saleable.

Person on a hill hiking at deception Island.
Unique perspective made possible at 300mm using Tamron 16-300mm from the ship’s deck.

Crop sensor super-zoom lens recommendations:

Lens DescriptionApprox Cost (£)Weight (kg)Comment
Tamron 16-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD£4990.54Great value ✔
Wide @ 16mm ✔
f/6.3 @300 ✘
Tamron 18 – 400 mm f3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD£6990.71Good value ✔
400mm ✔
f/6.3 @300 ✘
18mm vs. 16mm ✘
Nikon AF-S 18-300 mm f/3.5-6.3G DX ED VR£6250.55Nikon ✔
300 vs. 400mm ✘
f/6.3 @300 ✘
18mm vs. 16mm ✘

As you can see from the table below the focal length range for these lenses is extremely impressive. Couple that with the great value and low weight and these are a great option for a one lens fits all solution to all your photography in Antarctica.

Gentoo penguin moving rocks around nest.
Close-up shot of Gentoo penguin shot at 250mm using Tamron 16-300mm (Also heavily cropped!)

GEAR USED

For all the photography shown in this post, the following camera and lens combinations were used.

Camera: Nikon D7200 (crop sensor DSLR, around £580)

Lens: Tamron 16-300 mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II (around £400)

Lens: Tokina AT-X PRO 11-16mm F2.8 DXII (around £420)

Filters and polarisers to consider for Antarctica photography

Although I took a circular polariser with me, I didn’t find an opportunity to use it. If I would go again I would use it when taking photos from out on deck to cut the glare/reflections when taking photos of icebergs. It would also help to bring out the stunning blue colours. More on How to capture the beauty of Antarctica’s icebergs in photographs?

I probably wouldn’t recommend a polarizing filter for landings as it would reduce light into the lens/sensor, not ideal for wildlife photography. It could be a good option on zodiacs, however, taking it off would be a challenge and a bit risky.

Quite honestly I wouldn’t bother with ND filters unless you’re passionate about timelapse or long-exposure photography. On our landings, the time on shore wasn’t long enough to justify taking or setting up a tripod.

Icebergs at the Yalour Islands.

Batteries, extra batteries

It’s worth taking plenty of spare batteries. I found taking three to work well, one fully charged for in the camera, one spare in my coat/bag, and another on charge in the room. When back from a morning landing or cruise, you can swap out the camera battery for the charged battery in the room. With my Nikon D7200 I never needed to swap out my battery during landings or zodiac cruises, or even when out on the deck, but it’s always good to have a spare just in case.

Note, mirrorless cameras typically get through batteries quicker, so you may need a few more as spares, just in case.

During the tourist season, it’s not particularly cold, therefore there isn’t a significant impact on battery life. however, it’s a good practice to keep spare batteries close to your body as they work less efficiently when in cold temperatures.

You always want to be ready in Antarctica, if this means leaving your camera on or on standby it will be worth it. Be sure to avoid a situation where you have a dead battery in your camera and no spare!

Humpback whale tail with water dripping before it re-enters the water.

Storage

Memory cards

This is probably of the most crucial aspects, if you have a camera with two SD card slots make use of the second slot as a backup.

Taking more smaller memory cards is preferred over just a few large cards. Unfortunately, card issues do happen, and with extra memory cards, you have less chance of it having a significant impact on your available storage or existing photos.

Don’t be tempted to buy cheap memory cards, always look for the fastest possible cards.

TOP TIP: Memory cards often advertise the READ speeds, but always make sure the WRITE speed is as fast as possible, this ensures photos can be written to your memory card from the camera as fast as possible. This will enable your camera to operate at its maximum capability in terms of fast sequential shooting with a fast shutter speed.

Laptop & Backup

I’ve never been someone to take a laptop or hard drive with me on a trip, however, I’m very glad I made an exception for Antarctica. I took my Macbook Pro and a 4TB external hard drive. This allowed me to back up all the photos from my memory cards every night. I left copies on the cards, just in case the hard drive failed. Always make sure you have a minimum of two copies of every photo you take.

An added bonus of taking my laptop was I could use evenings and sea days crossing the Drake Passage to start reviewing and post-processing shots. The disadvantage is most definitely the added weight, a key consideration for hand luggage weight limit when travelling from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia.

Reflections at the entrance of the Lemaire Channel.
Reflections at the entrance to the Lemaire Channel.

Accessories

I took my tripod, however, it never came out of my bag!

As the ship is moving, unless you’re taking a timelapse a tripod is not much use for taking a steady shot. An exception to this rule is if you have a huge lens that needs support with a gimbal and or monopod, In this case, it may be useful to have one on deck. This being said, there are plenty of handrails to rest on, and a tripod may be a bit intrusive around your fellow passengers.

See more about recommendations on How to protect your camera gear in Antarctica? which includes tips for a camera bag for transporting your gear both around the ship and on zodiacs and landings.

Take your phone with you

Definitely take your phone! We both purchased lanyards which allowed us to use them worry-free on zodiacs and when out on deck. They’re a great way to capture a quick snap or videos. Conditions are not always suitable for DLSR cameras, especially on the zodiacs. See Tips for taking amazing photos with your phone in Antarctica for more information on this topic.

Conclusion

In summary, if you’re anything like me, you’ve spent hours researching whether the gear you have is going to be suitable for Antarctica and how you can get the most out of your photography. Although more expensive gear has the potential to get you better photos, this certainly isn’t always the case.

Cheaper crop sensor cameras come into their own in Antarctica where longer focal lengths as a result of the crop factor give you much-improved reach. The flexibility offered by superzooms is extremely valuable in harsh conditions where changing lenses is always an option, for example, while on a zodiac.

Often it’s being ready at the right time with the correct lens which is the most crucial aspect, therefore a degree of flexibility with your gear is an important consideration.

Travelling to Antarctica is a significant investment, and if photography is important to you make sure you’re backing up your photos and taking care of your gear.

Get more Antarctica photography tips

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