Monday, March 2, 2009

Photography Equipment

I've gotten some questions about the lenses I used in Antarctica so here's a quick breakdown:

*Note: the following does not apply if you only plan to bring a consumer-grade Point & Shoot camera. If you are, take a look at the Canon PowerShot series, which has always given me amazing results. Let me also preface by saying that I am a huge Canon fan and have always packed some form of Canon camera with me on my journeys across the 30 odd countries to date. So what follows would be a Canon-centric list. Nikon users kindly scroll down to the last part of this entry for more info. Alright, onwards with the list of Equipment That Made It All Possible...

1. Canon 350D (RebelXT)
2. Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS L (with hood)
3. Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 (with hood)
4. Canon 1.4x Extender
5. Lowepro Slingshot 300AW camera bag

Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS L

Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6

Canon 1.4x Extender

Camera & Lenses
When taking photos, remember the lens plays a bigger role than the camera itself. So splurge on a good lens, not on a camera. The trusty 350D did really well, and of course the Canon L lens was everything it was hyped up to be. Very easy to handle, has internal zoom, is weather-sealed (thank goodness), and was just light enough to carry even on long hikes during our daily landings. I also brought its non-IS version as a backup, though that one isn't weather-sealed and I was lucky I didn't have to use it.

I brought the Sigma at the recommendation of another traveller who'd taken it to Antarctica as well and I am so, so thankful I did. It does a tremendous job at wide angle shots, which is crucial given the sprawling scenery in Antarctica. You will be very happy that you have a top-notch wide angle lens when you find yourself too close to a stunning iceberg.

A quick note about the hoods that come with the lenses: the L lens' hood was indispensible because you will very likely run into brief spells of bad weather. If you don't want your photos to come out blurry because of water droplets/melted snow on your lens, bring it.

Camera Rental
The Canon and the Sigma lenses cost over $1,000 and $500 respectively, and if you're looking for a cheaper way to use them, I would strongly recommend that you look into . They rent lenses for a tiny fraction of the retail price, and always keep their photography equipment in spanking new condition. Faultless service and quick response time-- these are the guys I trusted to provide me with good lenses for the Antarctica trip, and I can happily say that I am a loyal customer now.

Camera Bag
I knew that a water-proof camera bag was crucial given the weather conditions in the Antarctic Peninsula. Proceeded to rent the Lowepro bag from as well, and was so pleased by it that I intend to buy one for myself! Very well designed and compact enough for long hikes.

Supporting cast on the trip included the all-important B+W polarizer (67mm for the 70-200) and the Nikon lens pen. I would not travel anywhere without these two items. The polarizer is particularly important in Antarctica because it helps take out the glare of the snow and creates a deeper blue sky.

It goes without saying that backups of key items such as memory cards and batteries are a must. Though I was tempted to bring a back-up camera body after reading a lot online about camera failures on Antarctica trips, I decided against this. As far as I know, none of the 15 or so DSLRs failed on this trip.

For Nikon users, Jerry Fiddler's site has a very extensive Antarctica lens and equipment list.

On Hindsight
If I could do it all over again I would probably bring the 24-105mm f/4 IS L, which has received stellar professional reviews. is my favourite Canon lens review site.

Alright, that's about it! For convenient referencing, the links are all provided on the menu bar to the right. Hope this helped!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Packing List

I am somewhat proud of the fact that I managed Antarctica with only carry-on luggage. Here's a list of the very bare essentials you'd want to pack and what you could leave at home.


Clothes/personal items
Here's the thing: it is not that cold. I travelled between Jan 5-Jan 15 and it was often just about 0°C, never unbearable. The key is to wear lots of layers, not to bring one gigantic duvet of a jacket. Aside from a beanie, I didn't need to buy anything new for this trip.
  • Water-proof down jacket
  • Water-proof trousers
  • Double-layered beanie/knit hat--Reebok makes a really good one
  • Several turtleneck jumpers or a neckgator-- protecting the neck is essential
  • Very thick socks
If you don't have a water-proof down jacket, a quick solution would be to go to a drugstore/department store to buy a small bottle of water-resistant spray. Spray a coating of that on your jacket and it is now water-proof! These sprays are usually found in the camping section of the store.

Also, a caveat that while I found these items sufficient for Antarctica in January. If you're visiting in March, I am not sure how much the weather would have changed by then so it's best to call your cruise operator and ask for their advice as well.

Toiletries/miscellaneous items
  • Sunblock (ideally SPF 45+)
  • Sunglasses
  • Seasick pills/ear patches (to this day, I have not met a traveller who did not need this for the Drake Passage. If you actually survived that sea without any help, please come forward.)
  • Pair of ordinary gloves, preferably of the waterproof/leather variety
  • Pair of glove liners or something thin enough for you to use your SLR camera
  • Swimsuit-- for the polar plunge that you may not intend to do but will end up doing anyway
Because going to such a remote location is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, we tend to overpack. Having concluded my own trip, this is what I've found to be surprisingly unnecessary for an Antarctic journey.

  • Tripod-- unless you happen to own the massive Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS L or a similar lens. We only had around 3 people bring a tripod on our ship
  • Wellingtons/rubber boots -- at least, Quark provided them. Check with your operator before you go
  • Hair dryer
  • Antarctica books -- the library onboard the Orlova has extremely well-stocked with Lonely Planet guides and books on the adventures of the great Antarctic explorers.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Upcoming topics

1. Packing list: what to pack and what to leave at home
2. Photography tricks for Antarctica

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


If it weren't for Sharrie's travel blog, I may have never gone to Antarctica at such an early point in my life. So it is only right that I repay her favour by passing on tips to future adventurers to the far end of the world. The following deals with most of the FAQs I've gotten from people, but if you have more questions, email me at leighwillbe (at) gmail (dot) com

1. How did you go about planning your trip?
2. Which cruise operator did you travel with?
3. How long was your trip?
4. How was the food? Are there provisions for vegetarians?
5. What factors should I consider when picking a ship?
6. Is it true that we can get last minute discounts for cruises?
7. Was it expensive?

1. How did you go about planning your trip?
Like most things in life-- one step at a time. There is only a narrow window for commerical travel to Antarctica. The season goes from November to early March. With the limited number of ships heading south, book your ship early. Same thing applies to booking flights down to Ushuaia. Also, remember that the more connecting flights you have, the higher the risk of missing connections and, worse yet, losing your checked-in luggage. This did indeed happen to a passenger on my trip, so pack light and be prepared for the very worst. I chose to stop over in Buenos Aires for a few days before heading to Ushuaia, just to give myself wriggle room should there be flight delays in getting to Argentina.

Once you've confirmed your cruise and flights, starting drawing up a list of things to pack. Refer to my other blog entry for a recommended packing list.

You may also want to buy an Antarctica travel guide to read beforehand. For a variety of reasons, you will probably not be in a mood to read all that much while on the ship. Lonely Planet has a great guide that coveres virtually all aspects of the trip. At least read the legendary expeditions of Scott and Shackleton before you go; your trip would be so much richer for it.

2. Which cruise operator did you travel with?
Quark Expeditions! They were simply fantastic and if I were to visit Antarctica again (no mere dream, that) I would go with them in a heartbeat. You can learn more about the multitude of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions they offer at

Quark has a very experienced and professional expedition team. Each ship would have an expedition leader, asst. expedition leader, glaciologist, marine biologist, ornithologist, and historian. Their lectures are engaging, and they are simply fun people to hang out with.

3. How long was your trip?
All told, the Classic Antarctica itinerary was 11 days (of which 10 were spent at sea/in Antarctica). I thought it was a reasonable length for a first timer down to Antarctica because we managed so many landings during those 4 days when we were actually in Antarctica that at the end I was actually feeling quite tired.

4. How was the food? Are there provisions for vegetarians?
Quark's hotel and catering team does a tremendous job with the dining experience. Loads of vegetarian options (some so delicious that I occasionally switched over from the Argentinian steaks to try the vegetarian dishes). Lunch and dinner were 4-course affairs with salad buffets, a la carte soups, entrees, and dessert. As another traveller said, one practically had to be rolled off the ship at the end of the trip.

A fun fact: the chefs never repeat a single meal throughout each travel season, never mind on a single cruise.

5. What factors should I consider when picking a ship?
For many people, price would be an immediate decision point. However, also take into consideration the size (capacity) of the ship. The Orlova could hold 110 people, and I felt that was just about the right size. Due to IAATO regulations, there can only be a maximum of 60 people at a landing site at any one point in time. The larger your ship, the longer you have to wait as everyone takes their turns. Certainly, there will be other things to keep you occupied (eg. zodiac cruises) but going beyond 120-people ships would be, in my opinion, cheating yourself of precious time on the Continent.

6. Is it true that we can get last minute discounts for cruises?
Here's the tricky thing about getting last minute cruises: you can get it but you may also not get the experience you had been hoping for. The reason is very simple: Antarctic cruises are highly popular and sell out well in advance. The only vacancies that are still available as a last minute discount are usually the "weak" travel months of November and March (the beginning and end of the cruise season).

The problem is that in November it is still too cold, and there have been reports that ships get stuck in fast ice, thereby missing many planned landings. Of course, the penguins don't hatch until December either, so a November cruise
is typically more ice-centric than wildlife-centric.

In March, many of the penguins have already left for sea or, at best, are moulting (not a pretty sight). So your chances of seeing them in action are signficantly diminished. It all depends on what you are looking to get. Personally, I was very thankful for an early January departure because the penguin chicks seemed to be at the prime of their cuteness. :0)

7. Was it expensive?
Well, I was heading to see the end of the world.

P.S. I saved up to pay for this with my entire summer internship's pay and the two part-time jobs as Teaching Assistant in university. You can't take it with you so might as well spend it on what you deem to be truly worthy, no?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Other Antarctica blogs and links

Here're some Antarctica blogs I enjoyed, all hilarious and entertaining in their own right.
Also found a VERY COOL website that tracks all ships running around the Antarctic. Go see if you can find your ship! Simply type in the ship name on the top left hand search bar. A very good remedy for those suffering from post-Antarctica withdrawl symptoms: Where is my ship now?

Thanks to my friend Ton, I also found out what happened on the trip right after mine onboard the Orlova: Chris Willis has some fantastic photos in his online gallery here.

Sneak peak preview of his wonderful work:
Antarctic fur seal pup

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Photography tricks for Antarctica

Antarctica is notoriously difficult to photograph. The stark contrasts of black and white of the snow and the penguins is said to give cameras a hard time. Here are a few tips I have from my trip that might be of use.

How to take better pictures when in Antarctica:
1. Take pictures at the animals' eye level
2. Follow the rule of thirds
3. Over-expose by one stop
4. Turn on the multiple-shot function
5. Use a tight frame for animal shots

1. Take pictures at the animals' eye level
Because penguins are so small compared to us, it is best to take a photo of them at their eye level so that they don't turn out looking tiny on photos. Squat/kneel/sit down and wait for a nice, clean penguin to come along. When you're sitting down the penguins are also less scared by you so would be more willing to come over to check you out.

2. Follow the rule of thirds
Follow the Golden Rule in photography -- apply the rule of thirds. Simply put, imagine that your photo is divided into one-thirds horizontally and vertically (just like on a tic-tac-toe grid). Where these horizontal and vertical lines intersect is where you should place important elements when taking photos (eg. penguin's eyes or mountain peaks). The exception is, of course, when you are taking photos of mountains and their reflections in the water. In this case, dividing the photo frame into equal halves to empasize the symmetry of the scenery may be best.

3. Over-expose by one stop
When photographing large amounts of snow, deliberately over-expose the photos a little so that they are a bit brighter. I have found that if you just use the camera's auto settings (even on SLRs) the photos come out with a grey-ish tone.

4. Turn on the multiple-shot function
Whales are difficult to shoot because they are often far away and because they move very quickly. Once a whale has breached, it's not going to do it again very soon so the best is to turn on the multiple-shot function on your camera. That allows you to basically hold down the shutter and it will take many photos in a rapid succession.

5. Use a tight frame for animal shots
Zoom in close with your camera so that the animal takes up most of the photo. It looks a lot better than a tiny penguin with lots of indiscriminate snow as a backdrop. (Not to mention this cuts out the guano from the photo)