If you are about to embark on a trip of a lifetime to Antarctica, you have probably already spent a considerable amount of time pondering upon the best photography gear to take to the frozen continent. But considering what to wear in Antarctica is just as important, especially if you want to feel comfortable and well-prepared to take great photos (you certainly don’t want your scarf flapping in the wind covering your camera lens just as you focus in on a penguin).
Antarctica is cold, it is windy and it is unpredictable! Choosing the right clothing is crucial to stay warm but there are specific things you should consider if your goal is to snap some amazing images that Antarctica has to offer!
It’s all about the layers
Dressing in layers is key to staying warm and comfortable in Antarctica. This gives you the flexibility to add and remove layers where needed depending on the conditions and your activity level.
Most expedition and cruise ships provide you with a waterproof and windproof jacket. Depending on the company, these can be thin and therefore you need your own jacket and baselayers to wear underneath.
Pockets are of utmost importance if you are not planning on taking a rucksack/ backpack on zodiacs/ landings. Therefore it’s important to become familiar with the pocket layout and sizes in your provided jacket. The Helly Hansen jackets provided to us by Hurtigruten had plenty of zipped / fleece-lined pockets.
There is usually a jacket fitting and the advice is typically to have the jacket a size or two larger than usual. This gives space for your layers underneath but also has the added bonus of giving space to tuck your camera under your jacket when on the zodiac. You can read more on how to protect your camera gear in Antarctica.
Jacket & mid layers
Underneath the provided waterproof/windproof outer shell jacket you will want another thin jacket. This could be either a down jacket or even a lightweight ski-type jacket. It doesn’t need to be fully waterproof. The thickness and provided insulation from this jacket will very much depend on how much you feel the cold.
Top tip. Make sure the jacket is not too long, you will need to fasten a strap under your life jacket and this could become a challenge with a long jacket.
Under this jacket, consider a mid-layer such as a fleece, which is typically the layer which will be removed or added depending on the conditions and your activity level.
Top tip. Even more, layers are required when you’re out on the deck, as you’re not moving but there can be a lot of wind. Being out on deck gives you many opportunities for photos. Bringing a big jacket or additional thick mid-layers is worth consideration.
To stay warm and comfortable in Antarctica, you need to layer up. Thermal base layers will help regulate your body temperature, wick away moisture, and provide insulation. Look for base layers made of high-quality, moisture-wicking materials, like merino wool.
Landings usually have a few different routes which can be explored, however, time can be limited. To get the most out of your landings in terms of photography opportunities you may choose to walk around at a brisk pace, or even jog! Given the landscape often has hills, you can soon work up a sweat. This is where the advantages of merino wool come into their own, especially the moisture-wicking capability.
Powering up the hill at Orne Harbour allowed us to get photos of the bay before the rest of the group made it to the top (see photo below). Wearing the correct clothing prevents you from getting too hot on the ascend and cold once you are at the top.
It is essential to have waterproof and comfortable trousers while in Antarctica. Look for trousers with zippered pockets to store your camera equipment, memory cards, and other accessories. This is particularly important if you are not planning on taking a rucksack with you on the landings. Also, make sure the trousers are fully waterproof, especially important for the zodiacs. You’re almost certain to get splashed at some point.
Over or under? When considering your waterproof trouser choice you can either tuck them in or put them outside your boots. My trousers were fairly well fitted and therefore couldn’t fit over the relatively bulky boots. This wasn’t a significant issue, however, there were two occasions when having them outside would have been preferred.
Wet feet! Firstly, the snow is deep, as soon as you venture one step off the side of the compacted paths your feet/legs and even knees can sink deep into the snow. With trousers inside your boots, this leads to snow going into your boots, leading to wet feet! My trousers wouldn’t fit over my boots and this happened to me a lot!
Snow & rain: The other consideration is snow/rain, with trousers inside your boots this can drip down inside your boots leading to wet feet, especially in heavy snow or rain.
For the above reasons it’s generally preferred to have them outside your boots, but this also depends on your personal preference.
Consider flexibility. When we visited kneeling or lying on the ground wasn’t allowed. To get down to eye level for the best shots of penguins being able to squat down is essential (placing yourself downhill of your subject can also help). For this reason, making sure your trousers offer enough flexibility is a key consideration.
NOTE: at the time we went to Antarctica, there were extra restrictions on what cannot be placed on the ground. Due to the spread of Avian flu, we were not allowed to place our bags on the floor, so having extra pockets, allowed us to take all the gear that we needed without having to fiddle with a backpack.
Accessories like hats, gloves, and snoods are important for protecting the face and extremities from the cold.
It’s all about the gloves
Warm gloves are essential, especially when our on deck where you may not be moving and there could be a lot of wind. I spent the most time deliberating about the right option for me regarding which gloves to wear for photography in Antarctica.
Warm gloves – Ranging from highly insulated ski gloves to waterproof winter gloves for cycling these are great at keeping your hands warm. However, these can create dexterity challenges when using your camera. I found using my camera was just about possible with my Selaskinz Waterproof All Weather Gloves, but if I knew I would be changing a lot of settings or my focus point I would remove them, see top tip below.
From experience, I prefer gloves without a liner, with slightly damp hands I find it near impossible to stop the liner coming out from the fingers in the gloves which can make getting your hand back in a real challenge.
Fold-back finger gloves – These solve the dexterity issue allowing you to access your fingertips, however, I wasn’t able to find a pair which would offer enough warmth.
Touchscreen-compatible gloves – These also typically allow for good dexterity, however, these are also typically not suited to colder weather
Thin gloves + mittens – Great option if you get cold hands, this gives you the benefit of warmer cloves on the outside but also the dexterity of thinner gloves once the mittens are removed.
Whichever gloves you decide to go with, practice using your camera with them and get used to taking them on or off. It was only when I did this myself that I realised a key challenge…
Top tip: When removing your gloves the last thing you want is to have to hold them or risk dropping them. Gloves are one of the most frequent items our expedition team would find left on the snow when leaving the landing site. A great solution is to ensure you either have elasticated loops built into your gloves to put around your wrists or purchase glove leashes to attach your gloves to your coat. This was one of the most useful things I had with me and meant I never had to worry about losing my gloves!
Glasses vs. sunglasses
If you wear prescription glasses, we would highly recommend getting prescription sunglasses, ideally polarised. We both found ourselves constantly switching between glasses (to see!) and sunglasses (to enable us to open our eyes in bright sunlight!).
However, with the correct “stacked glasses” approach it worked surprisingly well for Ieva, as shown below! We saw others with both flip and magnetic sunglasses over their glasses, these are alternatives for prescription sunglasses.
An additional consideration is whether you’re comfortable taking photos / using your camera viewfinder with glasses on.
Scarf vs. snood
This is really down to personal choice, although the last thing you want is a loose scarf flapping around while trying to take photos! That being said, if it’s tucked in that shouldn’t be an issue.
For us we preffered snoods. They also give you a couple of practical benefits:
- Snoods can be easily used to cover your face when it’s very cold/windy.
- It can be overlapped over the back of your hat to keep your neck warm and prevent your hat from riding up (as shown below).
Backpack for photography gear
When it comes to backpacks you may think bigger is better, however, you’re never usually that far from your room, and landings are typically 1-2 hours. Carrying a few lenses and cloths is usually sufficient.
- Size – As landings are usually less than a couple of hours there is no need to carry a lot of equipment. You also never know when an impressive iceberg, seal, whale or penguin will appear. Therefore, always having your camera (and a few additional lenses) with you is a good idea. For this reason, a small bag may be preferred.
- Weatherproofing – It’s sensible to either have a waterproof bag or a regular rucksack with a dry bag for landings and cruising. A waterproof cover may also work, as long as it’s securely attached to your bag. You can usually get away. You can generally get away with a regular bag around the ship/on deck unless the weather is wet.
- Accessibility – Easy access to your camera is critical. Opportunities can come and go quickly in Antarctica, and being always ready is essential.
- Additional features – Easily accessible pockets for sunglasses, hats, gloves and cloths can save opening up the full bag and digging around.
There were countless occasions when there would be an announcement and I would run out on the deck. Having my camera and a small bag with me at all times meant I was always prepared.
Believe it or not, things can happen very fast! too late and the opportunity is gone! For example, the shots of the Minke whale breaching in the distance were captured in a matter of seconds.
Whichever month you plan to go to Antarctica, you can count on it being cold, windy and unpredictable. If one of your aims is to come back with once-in-a-lifetime photos, it’s important to ensure you’re wearing the correct gear to ensure you’re comfortable and able to make the most of being out of the deck, zodiac cruises and of course landings!