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    Wondering what sort of photo equipment is used in the Antarctic! Given the extremes of temperature, I’d think most available consumer/professional hardware would get balky, to say the least. Do photogs generally modify existing stuff, or is there something hardy enough to withstand the rigors? Just imagining lenses frosting, micromotors freezing, LCDs going black, etc.

    Hmm, I bet I messed up the font color thing on there….or not.



    There’s a lot of photo sharing, so for casual photos digital pics are by far the most useful. Plus it’s hard to do developing here, so film has almost disappeared.

    Where you are in the Antarctic will greatly influence your choice of equipment. For most tourists visiting the Peninsula region, the problem is not so much cold as it is dampness and sea spray. During the summer months at McMurdo or Palmer the cold is also not that big of a deal; condensation, especially when you go inside a warm building with a cold camera, is the real problem. I used a zippered lunch cooler for my camera gear to insulate it — that worked great, but a normal camera case or bag would probably work fine.

    Anytime at the Pole, or during the winter at McMurdo, it’s a lot colder, and batteries often go dead in a matter of minutes. Some SLRs have external battery packs that you can keep in your parka, with a wire leading to the camera. Aurora photographers sometimes get the fully manual 35mm cameras, such as the Nikon FM or Pentax K, because they don’t rely on electronics (exposure meters wouldn’t work anyway for this sort of thing). The really dedicated winter photographers will get a manual camera and then have it cleaned for the cold before deployment; that is, they’ll have all the lubrications scrubbed from the camera mechanisms because they turn to glue at those temperatures.

    I’ve had film crack, even winding it slowly, so motor winders are a bad idea for winter photography. One good idea is to put gaffer’s tape on any metal parts on the back of your camera, that way it doesn’t freeze to your face when you look through the viewfinder.

    Some of the newer autofocus lenses (and possibly the cameras too) are designed to be light and fast. To do that, they have to use a variety of plastic and composite materials in the lens construction. The problem with this is that many of these materials have different coefficients of expansion, and at -40 the metal may have shrunk while the plastic didn’t, and the action gets sloppy. I had an autofocus 24mm Nikon lens, which I normally loved, but on cold winter nights I could feel the elements bonking around inside the barrel. It was practically impossible to focus under those conditions, and the only thing that saved the pictures was a huge depth of field.

    Mike in McMurdo has also done a lot of winter photos, and I’m hoping he’ll chime in with his experiences too. A while back I did a big analysis of my own photos, mostly film, including an expose (pun intended) of different films under polar conditions. My write-up can be found here:
    Since then some some better digital SLRs have come out, in the 8-12 megapixel range. If I were to buy another camera at this point I think I’d get one of those. Good luck!



    I gave up on film cameras a couple of years ago. In the winter once it hit 30 below zero, funny things would happen. I was using ectachrome and the film would get brittle. I would go to wind the film and the sprocket holes would crack and fall apart. The camera also had a problem in that i would hit the shutter release and the shutter would open. It would then stay open until the camera warmed up again. -20 and warmer no problem.
    So I’ve switched to digital, which for down here seems ideal. These days the big megapixel cameras are almost on par with the film cameras. What I find handy are the large data cards that are available. Now that I can put 100 pics on a 512mb card, I’m finally free to bracket to my hearts delight.
    For winter pics you need to be able to take long time exposures. Not all cameras do that. Shop well. Many will take a 15 second shot. That will do well most of the time, but not on dark nights with faint auroras. To take those you need a tripod. An external shutter release is handy as well.

    Another great accessory is an external battery pack and power cable. As Glenn said the batteries will go dead in minutes. A battery you can keep in your pocket means you never run out of power.

    I have a Nikon coolpix 5000. It’s been great for a couple of years, but is beginning to balk in the cold. It has a lens that comes out of the body when you turn it on and it sometimes gets stuck halfway out. I’m experimenting with bags and handwarmers but haven’t stumbled on a solution yet.

    Some big plastic bags help as well. Condensation will occur when you bring your cold camera back into a warm area. This will be especially true if you try to take photos in the greenhouse where it’s incredibly humid. The trick is to leave the camera in the plastic bag until it has warmed to room temperature, then take it out. If the camera is cold enough, ice actually forms on the lens. I’m also guessing ice and condensation form inside the camera as well, so take heed, bring some plastic bags.

    Bring a telephoto lens in the summer. The seals and penguins are on the ice and will look like dots in your photos without a long lens. The normal zoom will get some pics but won’t be spectacular.

    For wide angle bring a lens or try using a panoramic program to stitch multiple images together. The trick is to take the photos on Manual settings and use the same setting for all the pics. If you take them on automatic the sky will be different shades of light as you move toward the sun.

    enough for now.
    hope this helps
    mike in mcmurdo


    Thanks, guys, thorough and completely helpful! Have been on the fence about digital but this may tip the matter in favor of it. The digital SLRs do seem to be coming down in price — Nikon D70 seems to be around $1099 with lens, Canon SLR slightly less, and I see Olympus has an 8 mp SLR with 2 lenses (18-45mm and 28-300mm) for $999. Still, that Mamiya 7 MF makes my heart skip a couple of beats every time….!

    Glenn, outstanding article.



    I’m wintering at the pole,
    and i’ll be bringing a Canon Powershot Pro 1. (it’s not an SLR)

    i was originally planning on a Canon Rebel XT (digital SLR),
    but realized that i don’t want an SLR for two or three reasons:

    1. in an SLR, you have to look thru the viewfinder.
    this might not be so convenient with goggles on, say.

    2. SLRs don’t take movies !

    3. i hear rumors of the mechanisms in SLRs having trouble.

    I’m also bringing a 180-degree or so fisheye.

    Thanks for the tip on the external battery pack,
    i’ll see if i can get one.



    Now that you’ve brought it up the real thing to do is to bring a digital SLR. They are now cost competative, but on the high side. They should have both a viewfinder and a screen and will allow everything the regular digitals do, plus add in the lenses.

    Another tip on the camera if you are staying for the winter. You will want to take long time exposures. 15 seconds would be the minimum for auroras, but really that is too short. If you can get an external shutter release. Pushing the button to take a photo will move the camera enough to blur the photo. We have ways around this but a shutter release is nice.

    There is an up and coming techinique of making time lapse movies. The updated windows movie maker on the station computers will give ok results. Buy a good movie making program for better. Pinnicle Studio Nine is a good low to midrange priced program.If your camera will take interval photos that’s imperitive. A photo every two minutes is ok. One minute or less even better. Dont forget the tripod if you want to do this


    I wrote up some notes on photography in Antarctica on my web site at

    Summary is –
    in real cold film is the weakness

    condensation is a pain

    take spares


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