Mastering Photography in the Polar Regions

Jay Dickman

When I was growing up, places like Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, and Baffin Island were all mysterious points at the top of a globe. Working with National Geographic on assignments and expeditions, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to visit these places not just once, but in some cases, two, three, or four times. As a kid, a thought like this was beyond comprehension.

While working in those “high” places, I often have access to photographic opportunities that could easily be described as “once in a lifetime.” One easily intimidating aspect: In the lower 48, the “golden hour” has an actual start and stop time, usually compressed into that hour. When working in points north, there’s the flatter parabola of the sun as it crosses the sky towards sunset instead of plummeting vertically down to night. Great, but this creates a golden hour that can go on and on...and on, with the photographer often looking frantically for more wonderful photo opps. Not a complaint, just reality. So, here are a few tips for photographing in what can be the pristine environment of the far north.

1.     Weather the storm. Be prepared for any and all weather conditions. The day starts out promising, with full sun and warm-ish temperatures—for a while. Being a maritime environment, those conditions do, and will, change by the hour, if not sooner. Also, you’ve got to be out there to capture a crazy-good moment. It can be cold, blustery, wet, snowing/hailing/sleeting, but all those conditions can provide a great moment.


2.     Protect your gear. In symphony with Tip 1, protect your gear, or make sure it’s weather resistant. I always carry a small chamois with me. Not a synthetic cloth, but a real leather chamois. Available from auto supply stores or your local Target or Walmart, these make awesome camera covers, camera wipes, and in a pinch, can be used (when really clean) to remove the water from your protective front filter.


3.     Less is more. What lenses should I carry? The answer to that is “yes.” I really like to minimize what I carry, as I feel this enhances the photographic possibilities (a lot of gear can get in the way, and less is more). I usually work with a 24-80mm and an 80-300mm, both f2.8, and I think with these two, one can really accomplish almost all things photographic, unless stepping into the world of wildlife and sports.


4.     Extend your reach. There’s a lot of wildlife potential in those high places, from polar bears to birdlife to walruses, and for these reasons you want that long and fast telephoto. Or for landscape when you want to “reach out” to capture a breaking wave in front of an iceberg.


5.     Widen your horizon. At the other end of that special lens need, I always carry in my bag a 14-28mm lens. I love these super-wide lenses and find quite a lot of use for them, especially in the barren islands which may have amazing tundra.


6.     Go on an expedition. A lot of photographic potential will be made available in these areas via watercraft. Here, I’ll spend your money for you: Look at some of the expedition companies that provide trips to this area. I work a lot with National Geographic Expeditions, and I think they do a stellar job—plus, on the NG Explorer you’ll always find a National Geographic Photographer accompanying the trip to provide expertise.



7.     Mind your shutter speed. If on a boat or ship, and if photographing some of the potential wildlife that may be swimming alongside the ship, remember the mantra of shutter speed: If shooting action, a good minimum starting point for minimum shutter speed will be a 1/500th of a second. Anything slower and you start to emphasize shutter drag. If in a Zodiac raft, moving towards or along with a subject, double that shutter speed to counteract movement of both subject and boat. If photographing birds in flight, and wanting to “freeze” the wing motion, ramp that shutter speed up to 1/2500th as a minimum...those wings move fast.


8.     Consider “portraits” of your subjects. Not only human, but shooting those very tight (close and filling the frame) portraits can really force an interaction of subject and viewer.


9.     Leverage the power of your equipment. I rely heavily on the power of my gear. With amazing technology in my camera, and a screaming-fast Lexar Professional 2000x SD card, I can shoot those many-multiple raw images of my subject to get the perfect shot. Always remember the famous Wayne Gretzky quote, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”