For any avid photographer, a small-ship Arctic expedition cruise provides spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities. Pore over this thorough and detailed guide for some of the best techniques, settings, and gear recommendations to use to get the very best images on your next adventure.
It’s important to bring the right balance of gear to capture your whole experience, while only carrying the amount of weight you are comfortable with. As a professional photographer, I would bring at least three camera bodies and an assortment of lenses ranging from fisheye and 14mm wide-angle to at least 600mm, plus a few adventure cameras.
For most people, my kit would be way too much weight to bring. For those looking for something more compact, I recommend a camera like a Nikon Z6 II, which has high ISO capability, fast focusing, DX crop factor to extend the zoom of lenses, great video, and a lot more. Another more compact camera I would recommend is something like the COOLPIX P1000, which has a huge 3000mm zoom equivalent. Cameras like these can get some wonderful close-up shots of polar bears, whales, and birds.
When it comes to lenses, I would recommend taking a wider lens for shooting icebergs, villages, and interesting trips to shore, plus a long telephoto lens for capturing wildlife, birds, and ice up close. Whatever you choose for a main camera, make sure you are familiar with it and it feels good to you.
Some days on board can be filled with non-stop visual surprises, from polar bear or whale sightings to incredible icebergs, unique birds, and more. One of the most common issues I see photographers experience is running out of battery power or memory card space before the day is done, causing them to miss out on opportunities to capture some of the magic.
I highly recommend bringing an extra battery or two for your camera—and don’t forget your charger! I also advise bringing several memory cards of large capacity and good speed. Look for cards of at least 64GB or 128GB cards; the costs of high-capacity cards have come down a lot in price over the past few years. Cards with a fast write speed are less likely to experience a write error and allow you to shoot video on your camera without dropping frames.
I also recommend bringing a backup camera just in case. It can be a smaller, less expensive camera or even a good cell phone, but you’ll be happy to have a backup option if something happens to your main camera.
On any Zodiac excursion, I use a lightweight waterproof bag to store my camera and protect it from sea spray. You can buy these at outdoor gear shops or camera supply stores. You can also get splash-proof and rainproof lens and camera covers.
I also recommend a waterproof memory card case to protect any extra memory you might take on a day trip. At least bring a double zipper-locking bag to put your memory card case inside, just in case.
On longer expeditions, I recommend a bit of ongoing camera maintenance to ensure that your camera performs at full capability throughout your trip. First, bring several soft or microfibre lens cleaning cloths to wipe your camera lens and screen. Fingerprints, water droplets, and dirt on the lens can all degrade your images. I always bring several of these and put a few in individual zipper-locking bags just so they stay dry.
Next, I recommend packing an emergency sensor cleaning kit. When you’re out on deck in the elements, sometimes dust can get on your sensor during a lens change. If it’s a big piece of dust, it could end up on all your images, and having the ability to do a quick sensor cleaning in the field can be really useful.
Lastly, wipe down your cameras and lenses each night with a towel and fresh water, just in case it got some salty ocean spray on it during the day’s adventures.
There are a number of in-camera settings that can help you get better images.
Picture Control: One way to get better images right out of your camera is to adjust your picture control settings. Set sharpening to about 6 (out of 10) and saturation to nearly the max if you are shooting wildlife and nature. If you are photographing people, set saturation to +1 so their faces don’t get too red.
Image Preview: Having image preview come on after each picture you take uses a considerable amount more battery, so I recommend turning that off and just previewing every couple of images, or whenever you change your lighting or settings. I also recommend setting your preview to display highlights so you can see flashing highlights that are blown out or overexposed and compensate for that if necessary.
D-lighting: If you are shooting with a Nikon you will have a D-lighting option. This is a great feature to help fill in your subject in the mid-tone range. I recommend this setting at Medium to help balance the bright icebergs and darker water, along with many other high-contrast situations.
White Balance: Another important in-camera feature is your white balance. Changing your white balance manually is like adding a warming or cooling filter to your camera. Auto white balance is fine for many situations, but by changing your camera to shade or cloudy setting you can warm up the shot. Use tungsten or other settings to cool it down. This can make for some really interesting and creative effects.
Though there are exceptions to this rule, generally speaking, early morning and late evening provide the lowest, warmest, and most unique and pleasing lighting situations to photograph outdoors. Try waking up and getting out on deck in the early mornings to capture that blue light time and sunrise. Also do your best to be on deck before, during, and just after sunset.
Remember, the Arctic’s famous midnight sun means that the light conditions can last long into the evenings. If possible, take a quick nap during the day to stay caught up on sleep. If you find the schedule a bit too much, then just pick the early mornings or late evenings to shoot, and get on a routine that allows it.
I judge a lot of photo contests, and one of the things I love to see is nice, sharp focus on whatever the main subject or focal point of the image is meant to be. To get great focus, first make sure your camera is set to AF-C (continuous) instead of AF-S. This will ensure that when you sight that whale in your viewfinder and press the shutter, the camera will fire without delay, even if it thinks the subject isn't in focus.
Next, use a smaller selection of points and your joystick on the back of your camera to set where the camera is to focus. I personally use single point focus selection, but you may prefer a larger cluster of points or group point focus. For a razor-sharp focus when shooting wildlife, set the focus point in your image frame, pre-compose the image, then make sure that point is on the subject when it appears.
Getting crisp, steady imagery can be challenging at the best of times, but while you’re on a moving ship or Zodiac, this skill becomes even more of an artform. Here are some tips for getting clear images without camera shake:
Adjust and lock your camera grip by using dynamic pressure. Push with the butt of your trigger hand while you hold and pull back on the tip of the lens with your other hand.
Shoot with a fast shutter speed (think 1/2000sec) wherever possible, especially outdoors where there is lots of light and when you are using a longer lens. Even with a wider lens, I advise shooting with a speed of at least 1/500sec. To make this easy, set your camera to Shutter Speed Priority or to Auto-ISO. On Auto-ISO, you can dial in the aperture and shutter speed you want, and the camera will compensate to give the correct exposure. With either of these settings, you can adjust the Exposure Compensation if you find that your subject is over- or under-exposed.
Lens Vibration Reduction can help you shoot up to two f-stops slower while avoiding vibrations and camera shake. When using this feature aboard a moving vessel, I recommend switching it to the Active option, when available. But be warned: under some circumstances using Vibration Reduction can actually make the shake worse, such as when you are on a moving ship, your subject is moving in the water, and the waves are moving in a different direction. In these circumstances, be sure to take a few test shots and zoom in to ensure your images are sharp.
Sometimes you’ll be on deck for a considerable amount of time, and that’s where a monopod or a light tripod are great to rest your camera on, yet still have it ready to shoot if wildlife appears. These tools can also help steady your camera and reduce shake considerably.
Most newer Nikon cameras have a feature called Virtual Horizon, which shows you if the camera is level. Personally, I like to go into my custom button settings and set the extra function button on my camera to toggle between exposure metering and virtual horizon. That way, once my exposure is set, I can have the camera viewfinder show me if the camera is level and quickly adjust accordingly. If you opt not to do it directly in your camera, be sure to make this easy edit during your post-processing.
I encourage you to have a look at some of your images each evening when you are back in your cabin, either on computer or in your camera. See how you did and think about what you could improve on for the next day. Zoom in to your images, preferably to 100% zoom, and check if they are in focus, if there is any camera shake, and see what worked and what didn’t. This simple step can make a big difference and help you take your photography to the next level.
While you’re on board, attend any photo workshops that are being offered throughout the trip to get pro insights. If you notice any issues in your nightly evaluations, or if you want more tips for capturing unique subjects and situations you might encounter, ask the Adventure Canada photographers. They’re there to help you get your own spectacular images and will be happy to offer their expert advice.
A childlike enthusiasm wins every time! An Arctic expedition is truly a spectacular opportunity to photograph. Stay positive and bring your wonder and enthusiasm to your photography each new day. Let your passion for capturing the amazing nature around you be your guide and help inspire your next photograph.
About the Author
Nikon Ambassador, Expedition Photographer
Kristian is a third-generation professional photographer, speaker, and ambassador for Nikon Canada, Broncolor, Lowepro, and Manfrotto. His work has received numerous awards, including Commercial Photographer of the Year with the Professional Photographers of Canada and Master Photographers International Commercial Photographer of the Year.